Calling for a Media Crimes Tribunal

In the best of all possible worlds, there would be a war crimes investigation into this dreadful war. And a media crimes tribunal should accompany it, investigating the sins of commission, omission and blinkered patriotism.

NEW YORK -- By late May, no one in Washington wanted to talk about Iraq any more. Iran had become the enemy du jour as all the familiar tools of media demonization were trotted out as if they were in some playbook of well-worked but successful scenarios for orchestrating crises. The same neo-conservative cast of strategists that gave us the Iraq War seemed to be cranking up a new confrontation with Teheran.

Oddly, some of the Terror War advocates here recommend assisting (i.e., arming) opposition movements that the Iranians brand as terrorists. A Pentagon warning that it will seek to "destabilize" the Teheran government has given that country's right-wing mullahs new arguments to label reformists traitors. Another country is on the verge of imploding.

Meanwhile, Iraq is still coming apart at the seams. More U.S. soldiers are dying in incidents that lead the Independent's Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk to say that an armed resistance is emerging as complaints about a lack of services and self rule spread. Politically, demography appears to be destiny. Reports William O. Beeman in the Los Angeles Times: "The war in Iraq has produced an unintended consequence -- a formidable Shiite Muslim geographical bloc that will dominate politics in the Middle East for many years. This development is also creating political and spiritual leaders of unparalleled international influence."

British media outlets seem ahead of their American counterparts in following up on stories of civilian casualties and the lack of discoveries of weapons of mass destruction. The Guardian's Jonathan Steele says Iraqis don't make distinctions between those killed defending their country and innocent victims.

He writes: "All over Baghdad on walls of mosques or outside private homes, pieces of black cloth inscribed with yellow lettering bear witness to the thousands of Iraqis killed in the American-led war. Only if they were officers do these notices make clear whether the victims were soldiers or civilians. As far as Iraqis are concerned all the dead are "martyrs," whether they fell defending their country or were struck when missiles or cluster bombs hit their homes."

On the very day that Tony Blair was staging a triumphant visit to see his "boys in Basra," the British press was revealing that Downing Street had doctored a dossier on Iraq's weapons program to make it "sexier." This is according to a senior British official who claims intelligence services were unhappy with the assertion that Saddam's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were ready for use within 45 minutes, The Guardian reports. New information about the war itself is emerging. Pacific News Service reports that the seeming successful invasion of Baghdad may have been staged. It reports on a story "making headlines around the world -- but not in U.S. media" and goes on to say: "European newspapers are reporting that a notorious Republican Guard commander mysteriously left off the U.S. card deck of 55 most-wanted Iraqis was bribed by the United States to ensure the quick fall of Baghdad.

Pacific News Service also says: A San Francisco Chronicle interview with Iraqi soldiers suggests that Saddam himself may have double-crossed his soldiers and made a deal. Saddam refused to follow a military plan established before the war to launch the street war to defend Baghdad, despite the repeated statements of the leadership that the Iraqi army would fight from one house to another to defend the capital."

The London-based, Saudi-owned newspaper Al-Hayat says:

"For the first time, Iraqi soldiers have revealed the details of the fall of the Iraqi capital Baghdad, explaining why the American troops entered it without meeting any resistance. One of the main reasons is that Qusay, the youngest son of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, issued a number of orders during the last days of the war, which resulted in the death of the Iraqi Republican Guards' elite outside the city. This enraged the military leaders, who decided to return home calmly, and let the city fall at the hands of the invading troops."

Slowly but surely, new information like this is trickling out, calling into question the rationale for the war and the coverage of its most celebrated moments. The International Press Institute says that an estimated 3,000 journalists covered the war, making it one of the most reported events in history. Many of their stories seem to confirm the institute's finding that "propaganda, bias and disinformation were more prevalent than accurate and relevant information."

This propaganda offensive was all too successful in the way it influenced media coverage and permitted the Bush Administration and its perception managers to dominate the media and drive all other voices to the margins. Stories came so fast and furious that there often wasn't time for follow-up, clarifications and diverse interpretation. Breaking News broke up our attention spans, lurching from one new development to another.

In its postmortem, the International Press Institute concludes: "At least 15 journalists died in the conflict. Two are still missing. Journalists and media outlets were targeted and attacked; journalists were beaten, harassed, jailed and censored. The battle over the airwaves and public opinion was seemingly as important to the belligerents as the battles over territory and air superiority."

And yet if you were watching the news on TV, rare were the admissions that the news was managed, manicured, sanitized and spun. It all seemed so authoritative even when it wasn't. It was produced to be believable even when it wasn't.

As Linda McQuaig wrote in the Toronto Star: "Accordingly, a terrified American public was kept under the mistaken illusion that Saddam Hussein had 'weapons of mass destruction' and would soon strike America if America didn't strike first."

She indicts the administration for its deception -- but also the media for marching in lockstep. "This media docility has allowed the Bush Administration to go largely unchallenged as it adopts the mantle of an imperial presidency," she writes.

An environment of patriotic correctness in the media led to more selling than telling on the part of many journalists. When historians began to construct the real story of this war, it is safe to predict that they will indict the media along with the administration.

In the best of all possible worlds, there would be a war crimes investigation into this dreadful war. A media crimes tribunal should accompany it.

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