A litany of lies and omissions

Why did Buying the War, the 2007 documentary by Bill Moyers about journalism’s
failures in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, omit virtually all criticism
of PBS? Why didn’t U.S. public television broadcast something like it five
years ago? Is it simply the nature of “old media?” Won’t the Internet fix
everything anyway? Do we really need public broadcasting in the 21st century?

Broadcasting will soon lose its dominance over the Internet as our primary
media conduit, after which it will fade as a transmission method. But after
the last broadcast of the Star Spangled Banner, test pattern, and the static
that will then follow, after the last decrepit broadcast receiver is turned
off for the last time, we will continue to require portals to a neutral
Internet to access an expansive, commerce-free, public media commons. Regardless
of technology, citizens in a democracy require places where they can access
diverse cultures and live events and, in the process, become educated,
entertained, and engaged; a place where they can be assisted in finding
a full range of resources and ways to take action aimed at solving community
problems in the real world. 

In Al Gore’s new book Assault on Reason, the gist of his appraisal is succinct,
regardless of your predilection towards him: “We Americans must resolve
to repair the systemic decay of the public forum” and ensure that we all
are “well and fully connected” to an open, neutral and robust public Internet

And there’s this warning by media lecturer Graham Murdock of Loughborough
University, UK: “It’s now possible only to look at those things that you
know you will already like, and only to have contact with those people
you know you will already agree with. So that you have a radically segmented
polity emerging. That I think is incredibly dangerous. So, we need to rebuild
a common space…. Public broadcasting I think has been historically one
of those places where that has happened. But it needs to be addressed again
in the light of what’s happening now on the Internet.” 

The commercial enclosure and corrosion of the public commons started well
before George W. Bush. What has followed merely throws the problem into
far higher relief. Towards a solution of the problem of the public media
commons, let’s start with the March 2007 C-SPAN interview of PBS president
and CEO Paula Kerger. Kerger is an affable endowment builder who perpetuates
a dangerous myth: that public broadcasting in the U.S. is public. 

  • False assumption #1: Corporate money doesn’t talk. In the interview, Kerger
    stated, “(PBS) Corporate underwriting is about, I would say, it’s about
    25 percent of the revenue that comes in.” She went on to state that corporations
    do not affect PBS program content because of a “firewall.” 

  • False assumption #2: The public broadcasting system knows best what the
    community needs. Kerger also claimed that she understands the importance
    of the programming “needs…communities have.” 

Community programming needs? I helped organize meetings between programmers
at Chicago public TV outlet WTTW and area anti-war community groups and
citizens in the months before the invasion of Iraq. Together, we pleaded
for airings of live town hall broadcasts and independent documentaries
to enable the general public to more knowledgeably discuss the Iraq issue.
Such forums, if replicated elsewhere, could have slowed the drumbeat to
war. But the Chicago public TV station (which then had former Fox executives
in the three top news posts) informed us that our suggested forums “just
didn’t seem feasible…. We’re sorry. It’s not going to work out for us.
There are new ‘budget counts,’ and there is a freeze on new programming.”


Similarly turgid dramas played out at other media outlets, “public” and
private, across the U.S. We desperately needed public broadcasters to set
an example for mainstream media, but both failed us miserably. Public broadcasters
arguably led the way in the mass media’s assault on the public interest
during the run-up to war. 

“We Don’t Do News

or Public Affairs Here” 

I researched public TV’s programming in the run up to war, working my way
down the U.S. Census Department’s 2005 list of Metropolitan Statistical
Areas. The results are from the first eight primary public TV station services
responding. Each was asked if, on the topic of Iraq, during the period
June 2002 through March 2003, they had aired: 

(1) Live town halls 

(2) Live call-ins 

(3) Independent documentaries 

(4) Other specials 

 The documentaries sought for research  included: 

  • Paying the Price: Killing the Children of Iraq by award-winning John Pilger—“A
    profoundly unsettling programme” (Financial Times). Chris Award, Columbus
    Film & Video Festival 

  • Hidden Wars of Desert Storm (Brohy/Ungerman)—“Uncommonly sober, well-researched”
    (NY Times). Grand-prize, 2000 Cine Eco International Film Festival 

  • In Shifting Sands by former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter—excerpted
    briefly by “Frontline.” 

It was assumed that the stations’ local programming covered Iraq to some
extent before the invasion; the purpose rather is to examine the system’s
insularity. The stations queried included the most prestigious in the system—then
station manager Paula Kerger’s WNET (New York), KCET (Los Angeles), KQED
(San Francisco), KTCA (Twin Cities), WTVS (Detroit), WETA (Washington,
DC), WHYY (Philadelphia), and KAET (Phoenix). Each answered no to the four
questions, as did PBS, and WTTW (Chicago). Therefore, this pattern would
very likely hold true for almost all of the stations upon a closer look.
Pittsburgh’s WQED wasn’t interested in my questions, explaining to me,
“We don’t do news or public affairs here.” 

“The NewsHour” and “Frontline” 

A study by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), “In Iraq Crisis,
Networks Are Megaphones for Official Views,” examined broadcast news coverage
from 1/30/03 to 2/12/03. Of 393 on-camera sources appearing in nightly
news stories about Iraq on ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS’s “NewsHour,” only 3
were identified as anti-war. In a 2004 MSNBC interview, “NewsHour” anchor
and editor Jim Lehrer explained, “We weren’t smart enough.” In a recent
Australian Broadcasting Corporation interview, Lehrer strained credulity
again, saying, “There weren’t…enough people who had answers who were reliable,
believable, and credible.” 

Is Lehrer talking about three-time Nobel nominee Kathy Kelly? Or Noam Chomsky,
Gore Vidal, or Tariq Ali? Before the invasion, most Americans either opposed
it or wanted to give the inspectors more time. So did many in Congress.
Then came this interview’s clincher when Lehrer let slip a Bushism: “It’s
hard work.” Media critic Norman Solomon noted in the film War Made Easy:
How Presidents & Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death
, “When it comes to life
and death, the truth comes out too late.” 

What follows is an incomplete litany of the willful lies and misleading
and inaccurate claims and omissions in the seven “Frontline” episodes that
mentioned Iraq in the run-up to its illegal invasion by the U.S. Each was
broadcast and repeated throughout the U.S. 

Gunning for Saddam (2001) 

  • Perhaps the worst public affairs documentary ever broadcast in the U.S.
    Of 27 sources, the only war skeptic was reporter Helen Thomas, who was
    given 15 seconds 

  • Eerroneously claimed there was a terrorist training camp featuring a Boeing
    707 south of Baghdad  

  • It mentions the severely misquoted Hussein Kamel seven times and quotes

  • Iraqi National Congress (INC) founder, alleged spy for Iran, and bank fraudster
    Ahmad Chalabi is mentioned once and quoted three times, but is never questioned
    at all about any of the INC’s claims 

  • The discredited Khidir Hamza is mentioned once and quoted seven times 

  • It misrepresents why inspectors were withdrawn in 1998 

  • The statements, “We know he’s been developing weapons of mass destruction,”

    made by G.W. Bush, and reference to “(Saddam’s) nuclear program,” go unchallenged 

  • Though evidence of an operational relationship between Al Qaeda and Iraq
    never existed, and the “Prague meeting” was always doubted, these claims
    were allowed and unquestioned 

  • An attempt to tie Iraq to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing is unchallenged.
    The specter of an Iraqi connection to the anthrax attacks in the U.S. is
    raised and top neocon Richard Perle says, “I rather doubt that it’s Iraqi
    anthrax. But what the delivery of anthrax through the mail forces us to
    consider is a range of options available to Saddam Hussein that we didn’t
    consider before. Saddam Hussein has biological weapons” 

  • Columbia University should reconsider the duPont Gold Baton it awarded
    “Frontline” for Gunning for Saddam. The baton is inscribed with Edward
    R. Murrow’s famous observation about TV: “This instrument can teach, it
    can illuminate; yes, it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the
    extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it
    is merely wires and lights in a box.” 

“Inside the Terror Network” (2002)  

  • This show aired the discredited claim that 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta
    “traveled to Prague” (in 2001). Columbia University should reconsider the
    duPont “gold baton” awarded this “Frontline” episode also 

“Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero” (2002) 

  • One of those interviewed weaves a brief, subtle story about 9/11, Saddam,
    violence, and regime change. Bonus propaganda points 

“Campaign Against Terror” (2002)  

  • This covers the war in Afghanistan’s first year. But early in the hour,
    Colin Powell says, “We can look at those (i.e., Iraq) as problems later
    on.” Later on comes with the second and last mention of Iraq during the
    conclusion. The president’s axis of evil speech is excerpted, then a learned
    reporter focuses us on Iraq and we end with Bush saying, “We now press

“Missile Wars” (2002)  

  • Adds more unnecessary fearmongering concerning Iraq 

“The War Behind Closed Doors” (2003) 

  • Only 4 of 23 sources in this episode were skeptical of or opposed to an
    invasion of Iraq 

  • This episode misrepresents the inspections in the 1990s. Again 

  • It misrepresents the reason the inspectors were withdrawn in 1998. Again     

  • It minimizes the continual bombing campaign against Iraq. Again 

  • Only one source was a regular citizen—an audience member from the 1998
    town hall meeting also shown in “The Long Road to War” 

  • “Well, no, I don’t think anybody’s manufactured reasons (to go to war),”
    said Michael Kirk, director of “The War Behind Closed Doors,” on “Fox News:
    The Big Story With John Gibson” (2003) 

After abundant countervailing evidence was in, the unaccountable makers
and distributors of “Frontline” chose to repeat many lies of omission and
commission on the eve of the illegal and immoral U.S. invasion. Again.
The following persons, claims, and omissions in “The Long Road to War”
were in virtually every case left to stand unchallenged as “reality” by
other sources and by the deep-voiced, deliberate, and oh-so-serious “Frontline”


“The Long Road to War” (2003)  

  • The discredited INC-tied exile Khidir Hamza is mentioned and quoted 

  • Chalabi is quoted 

  • Hussein Kamel is misrepresented again and quoted five times, even after
    the February 2003 “revelation” that he had stated categorically to the
    UN inspectors in 1995 that, “All weapons—biological, chemical, missile,
    nuclear were destroyed” 

  • The regular U.S. bombing of Iraq between 1992 and 2003 was omitted, again 

  • The estimated half million child deaths in Iraq due to the U.S.-led sanctions
    was omitted, again 

  • The inspectors’ withdrawal in 1998 is misrepresented 

  • The narrator declares: “It was also clear that Saddam Hussein’s propaganda
    had actually had an impact inside the U.S.” 

  • It fails to mention that the U.S. facilitated Iraq’s acquisition of poison
    gas and biological warfare precursors, again. And so on 

Judicious Studying 

The “Frontline” website to date has made but one actual correction directly
on the transcripts studied here—and that was made after the invasion. The
sources used by “Frontline” in the three episodes that are primarily about
Iraq overwhelmingly represent a bundle of four groups: current and former
government officials, including military officials 48.3 percent, Iraqi
exiles 9.3 percent, conservative think tanks 1.7 percent, and U.S. corporate
news media 22 percent, for a total of 81.4 percent. The rest are split
among the Iraqi government and Kurds, academics, book authors, citizens,
and foreign journalists. The picture is bleak: pro-war sources versus sources
opposing the attack worked out to 27-1, 6-1, and 10-1 in “Gunning for Saddam,”
“The War Behind Closed Doors,” and “The Long Road to War,” respectively.

Even these statistics need to be qualified. Perhaps most tellingly, citizens
demonstrating against the threatened 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq are 100
percent absent from all 7 episodes. Not a single person who speaks on Iraq
in any of them is identified as a representative of an anti-war community
group or any community group. A few moments from a 1998 public forum doubles
as the only “town hall” on Iraq that PBS aired nationally during the ramp-up.
The screen time for the “town hall”? About one minute. 

The inescapable conclusion is that PBS’s “Frontline” repeatedly promoted,
in a “fair and balanced,” repugnant, and anti-democratic manner, the lies
and omissions that took Americans to war against Iraq, particularly examining
the two central calumnies: Iraq’s alleged 9/11 ties and its alleged weapons
of mass destruction. That Iraq did not attack the United States first and
posed no serious threat to it wasn’t mentioned. 

All things considered, the journalism in “Frontline” must be hard work,
just like “NewsHour.” In fact, hardworking “Frontline” filmmaker Michael
Kirk participated in a post-broadcast online discussion at wash- ingtonpost.com
for each of his three pieces of work discussed here. From the 11/09/01
“Gunning for Saddam” online discussion: 

  • Michael Kirk: “That’s the very heart of the question…. The nature of the
    proof, conclusive evidence versus strong indications…. Conclusive proof
    or indications? Can we go it alone based on indications?” 

  • Pittsburgh, PA: “The Commander in Chief will be able to point to ‘Frontline’
    when he wades in and say, ‘Look even ‘Frontline’ proved Saddam is implicated.’
    The CIA, etc., didn’t have the evidence, but ‘Frontline’ got it. You will
    have a lot of blood on your hands if and as the war is globalized by the

And from the 2/21/03 “The War Behind Closed Doors” online discussion: 

  • Helena, MT: “The program was absolutely frightening.” 

  • Tampa, FL: “Why did you make the PNAC (Project for a New American Century)
    look so warm and fuzzy? Their goal is world dominion, and it is a chilling
    prospect. I turned it off after 20 minutes. I felt it was a commercial
    for the neo-conservatives. Good use of public television, huh? You should
    be ashamed. You could have done a lot of good.” 

  • Michael Kirk: “Obviously, I disagree that we were doing a ‘commercial’

    for anyone. Explaining the positions of people who have for more than 20
    years been near the center of power in America is our obligation.” 

The same point came up in the Australian Lehrer interview. Lehrer said,
“In my opinion, the number one function of the media…is to watch the government
and report back on what the government is doing.” And, Lehrer again, from
the New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2004: “The (G.W. Bush) aide said
that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which
he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious
study of discernible reality…. That’s not the way the world really works
anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create
our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as
you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study
too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you,
all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’” 

PBS failed to stand up to the sort of brazen nonsense spouted by this anonymous
Bush aide. PBS’s “judicious studying” of and catering to corporate and
government power (not by coincidence also its two controlling funders)
comes at the expense of the perspectives of the public, civic organizations,
and the proper functioning of our democracy, our civil liberties, and world

U.S. public TV broadcasters failed to adequately educate and engage citizens
on a nation’s most important decision—whether or not to go to war. They
encouraged the for-profit media to beat its powerful war drums, and together
both impelled the U.S. towards an insane march to a catastrophic attack
based on lies. Iraq became “a tough story to challenge authoritatively,”

as PBS ombudsperson Getler tried to put it, when the one television outlet
charged by law to be that challenging, “noncommercial,” “alternative”—public
TV—wasn’t any of those things. 

And so came the “shock and awe” and the 654,965 excess deaths through the
end of June 2006, as estimated in the “robust” and “best practice” Lancet/Johns
Hopkins study, “Mortality after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: a cross-sectional
cluster sample survey.” Not much has changed: 

  • FAIR’s study “Amplifying Officials, Squelching Dissent” covered six network
    nightly news programs, including “NewsHour,” during the first three weeks
    of the war, revealing that only 3 percent of all U.S. sources of 1,617
    on-camera sources appearing in stories about Iraq expressed opposition
    to the war. “Not a single show in the study conducted a sit-down interview
    with a person identified as being against the war.” 

  • The FAIR study “Are You on the ‘NewsHour’s’ Guestlist?” found from October
    2005 to March 2006 that progressive and liberal public interest groups
    provided a total of just 4 percent of “NewsHour” guests (93 out of 2,433).
    The pro-war source imbalance was “more than 10-to-1.” However, Lehrer remains
    executive editor and anchor of “NewsHour,” Kirk still creates “documentaries”

    for “Frontline,” and Fanning remains executive producer for the series.

Out Damned Spot? 

In a 2007 interview, author Studs Terkel said about the invasion of Iraq,
“it destroyed one thing—this notion that we are an exceptional people,
that we can never do wrong.” Therefore, it is incumbent upon Americans
to build a sufficient levee against further media catastrophe; we have
little choice. In addition to attending to other important media reform
and media justice issues, we must make public media a 100 percent commerce-free
zone for ourselves, for our children, forever. We require an expansive,
vibrant commons including public media Internet portals that include citizen
participation and access, that combine, enhance, and fund collectively
run media including public TV, public radio, daily print, and other independent

The consensus necessary can be reached through a planned national series
of forums on public media reform. We need a clever, new arrangement for
the direct local and national control of public media by people of color,
women, youth, the economically disadvantaged, and other underserved groups.
The funding reform discussion should start with this: in January 2009,
our old analog TV channels are scheduled to be returned to us as broadcasting
goes fully over to digital broadcasting frequencies. The proceeds from
the licensing of that $20-30 billion worth of publicly owned analog broadcasting
spectrum is currently marked for deficit reduction. Freed up (perhaps through
tax increases on the rich), this revenue would permanently fund U.S. public
media at two to three times current levels—a start. 

A permanent, public media trust, directly controlled by the public, could
prevent imperial, trillion dollar, genocidal, end-times tragedies waiting
in the wings. It could involve alienated audiences and bring different
and diverse people together. It would pay for itself soon enough through
immeasurable human savings at home and abroad. More vibrant public media
systems than ours serve Scandinavia, the Netherlands, the UK, and Germany,
where some effort or appearance of effort is made to evolve beyond world-grasping,
plundering pasts. 

Adjusted for population, the BBC’s funding is around 40 times greater than
PBS/NPR. Yet both countries foolishly leapt into the debacle of Iraq—Britain
for the second time in 100 years. Of the many outlets studied by the nonpartisan
Media Tenor, the worst case was the vaunted BBC, which gave just 2 percent
of its coverage to opposition views on Iraq—views that represented those
of the majority of the British people. A 2003 study by Cardiff University
came to the same conclusion. The BBC, it said, had “displayed the most
pro-war agenda of any [British] broadcaster.” So it is not simply a question
of funding lots of public media. We also must examine and correct the fatal
deficits of accountability and democratic structure within the system.

The small Pacifica Radio, after much tumult, legal pressure, and discussion,
functions under a system of local and national boards determined mostly
by its membership. What are the other useful structural examples in community
radio, community TV, and other media? We’d better find out fast; most all
of public TV’s “fleet” and “flagships” have sunk or are listing severely,
its bosses and self-appointed trustees often busy managing investments
or perhaps playing polo. 

A public media trust is possible—activist infrastructure, timing, and events
seem to be aligning. But although large numbers of citizens have been mobilized
on media issues lately, it remains to be seen if such concern can be translated
into an offensive campaign aimed at a public takeover and wholecloth remake
of public media. In the previously mentioned C-SPAN interview, PBS head
Paula Kerger argued public TV’s funding and structure “works somehow through
a little alchemy.” Occasionally it does work, but neither magicians nor
all the perfumes of Arabia will likely ever be able to remove or mask the
sullying stains from the continuing hemorrhages spilling upon PBS. 


Scott Sanders is an independent documentarian and librarian. He’s also
helped organize public forums on media issues, media reform coalitions,
an unusual batch of FCC filings, and more, to help hold accountable corporate—
and especially public—media.