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Fog of War Still Hasn't Lifted
Published on Thursday, March 25, 2004 by the Toronto Star
Fog of War Still Hasn't Lifted
by Antonia Zerbisias
 

"If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about the answers."
- Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow

The truth is, in a manner of speaking, U.S. President George W. Bush gassed his own people.

He, and his administration, did it with hot air about how Iraq posed "a threat of unique urgency'' and how Saddam Hussein had "reconstituted nuclear weapons."

One year after the bombing of Baghdad, we know that the White House and the Pentagon prevaricated their way into Iraq. This while the media waved them on in a flag-flying frenzy that CBS's Dan Rather called "patriotism run amok."

"What we are talking about here — whether one wants to recognize it or not, or call it by its proper name or not — is a form of self-censorship," he told the BBC in 2002. "I worry that patriotism run amok will trample the very values that the country seeks to defend."

And it did, at least according to University of Toronto history professor Paul Rutherford.

"For a brief time the United States ceased to be a democracy and became a propaganda state," he says. "Effectively, democracy was overwhelmed by managed discourse, by managed speech."

A report released March 8 by the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland confirms that view.

"Many stories stenographically reported the incumbent administration's perspective on WMD, giving too little critical examination of the way officials framed the events, issues, threats, and policy options," it states, adding that the "media did not play the role of checking and balancing the exercise of power that the standard theory of democracy requires."

In his newly published book Weapons of Mass Persuasion: Marketing The War Against Iraq, Rutherford demonstrates how the Bush administration manipulated public opinion. The media were the grease that helped move a nation initially against striking Iraq without U.N. approval, to one intent on invasion — wrongly convinced that Iraqis had a hand in hijacking the 9/11 planes.

It was information warfare, and it included "embedding" more than 500 journalists who traveled with the troops. Although many reporters were prevented, both by their Pentagon minders and their own editors, from depicting casualties, civilian or military, the media complied because "embedding" guaranteed gripping stories from the front.

"Embedding was a disaster," Rutherford says. "It weaponized the media, making them part of the public relations staff of the Pentagon."

But Pulitzer prize-winning war correspondent David Zucchino of the Los Angeles Times is among a number of embeds who disagrees. "I wrote about a friendly-fire incident, and civilian casualties and things that were not very pleasant," he says. "I don't think I was co-opted. I was a reporter and I reported on what they did."

Still, others insist the media were outmaneuvered in other ways."This is an administration that's very conscious of message, of being on message, of planning," asserts http://www.mediachannel.org's Danny Schechter, author of Embedded: Weapons of Mass Deception.

That media awareness resulted in the Pentagon's hiring of Victoria Clarke from Hill & Knowlton, the global public relations firm which promoted the first Persian Gulf War, and its construction of a $2 million Hollywood set in Doha, Qatar.

Time magazine would dub it all "mili-tainment" — the perfect made-for-TV war, complete with an American hero (Bush) and a nasty villain (Saddam). It boasted dramatic titles ("America At War," "Target Iraq," etc.), whooshing graphics and suspenseful theme music. Most important, it promised a clean, quick and happy-ever-after ending. "A lot of it was the repetition of the top echelon of the foreign policy team. Doing the Sunday talk shows. Flooding the TV," recalls the Institute for Public Accuracy's Norman Solomon, co-author of Target Iraq: What The News Media Didn't Tell You.

"It was really the cacophony of official voices saying continuously that this man is a threat and then you just fill in the blanks. Gassed his own people. Danger to the region. Nuclear weapons, chemical and biological. This is what they can do to us. These themes that were just played constantly."

And unchallenged.

As CNN's Christiane Amanpour would confess last fall, everybody followed the Pentagon's grand plan and the right-wing Fox News' playbook.

"I'm sorry to say, but certainly television and, perhaps, to a certain extent, my station was intimidated by the administration and its foot soldiers at Fox News," she told CNBC. "It did, in fact, put a climate of fear and self-censorship, in my view, in terms of the kind of broadcast work we did."

That climate was perfect for squelching dissent.

Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (http://www.fair.org) shows that, during the first three weeks of the invasion, a mere 3 per cent of on-air sources "represented or expressed opposition to the war."

Those who managed the rare opportunity to question the administration's claims were vilified, as was former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter, whom CNN attacked as having "drunk Saddam Hussein's Kool-Aid." Why did so many network journalists, to whom most Americans turned for coverage, hold their fire?

Schechter suggests they feared retribution from media owners who were seeking favorable regulatory decisions from the Federal Communications Commission.

"Here you have a kind of quid pro quo: You, the FCC, waive the rules and we'll wave the flag," he says.

On-air people got the message as ABC dumped Bill Maher for being patriotically incorrect on his Politically Incorrect, and MSNBC cancelled Phil Donahue's anti-war prime-time talk show. Even print reporters were targeted by the might-is-right crowd.

Veteran White House columnist Helen Thomas, who had the brass to call Bush "the worst president in all of American history," was flamed by an apparently organized e-mail, fax and complaint deluge.

In some cases, reporters actively suppressed information that contradicted the White House.

No journalist is more criticized for this than the New York Times' Judith Miller, who reported, without verification from U.S. intelligence or independent sources, that Saddam's WMDs not only existed but had been located. She repeated faulty stories from Iraqi defectors, including Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi National Congress leader eager to return to run his native country. (He recently crowed to Britain's Daily Telegraph that his disinformation was "successful'' in getting the U.S. to topple Saddam.)

To date, neither the Times nor Miller have recanted.

Last month in the New York Review of Books, Miller told interviewer Michael Massing that her job "isn't to assess the government's information and be an independent intelligence analyst" but "to tell readers of the New York Times what the government thought of Iraq's arsenal."

In other words, to take dictation.

One year later, little has changed.Last week, a 36-page report compiled by Democratic staff of the House Government Reform Committee listed 237 "misleading statements" made by Bush, Vice-President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice about WMDs and Saddam's supposed connections to Al Qaeda.

Most mainstream media ignored the report.

Just two weeks ago, Powell, Rice and Rumsfeld redid the Sunday morning talk-show tour they did last year, virtually unchallenged ... again.

The sole exception was CBS' Face The Nation, on which Rumsfeld was questioned by host Bob Schieffer and New York Times' columnist Tom Friedman. When they asked why the administration had said Iraq posed "an immediate threat," Rumsfeld claimed that nobody had ever said that, dismissing the charge as "folklore." But they nailed him, citing his own statements about Iraq posing an "immediate threat to the security of (Americans) and the stability of the world."

Sputtered Rumsfeld: "It — my view of — of the situation was that he — he had — we — we believe, the best intelligence that we had and other countries had and that — that we believed and we still do not know — we will know."

It was a stunning, all too rare moment. (View it at http://www.moveon.org.)

"There's no effort on the part of the media to begin to investigate its failures," laments Schechter. "There's no `Like maybe we were wrong in our coverage. Maybe we were cheerleading too much. Maybe we were not critical enough. Maybe we were not giving the whole story.'"No, because that would mean owning up to being the White House's snake-oil sales force.

And that's not going to happen.

Which explains why the fog of war lingers still.

© Copyright Toronto Star Newspapers Limited

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