Blogging the War Away




F

ew
of us escaped seeing the non-stop reports from Iraq from journalists—embedded
and otherwise—on what have been described as the front lines
of the fight for “Iraqi freedom.” Throughout the American
media world, and beyond, there has been a hearty sense of a job
well done, except of course, for regrets over those colleagues and
soldiers who never made it home. We all watched the war as if it
was only a military conflict. It wasn’t. There was also a carefully
planned, tightly controlled and brilliantly executed media war that
was fought alongside it. For the most part, that other media war
was not covered or fully explained, even though it was right in
front of us. 



War as Propaganda 



T

he
Baghdad-based reporters who worked under limitations imposed by
the now defunct Iraqi Ministry of Information were not shy about
telling us what they had to put up with. When that ministry and
the TV station it managed were “taken out” in bombing
attacks that flouted international laws, American newscasters cheered.
Its propaganda function was crude and obvious. However, there was
also propaganda flowing from other regional media aimed at the “Arab
street,” which also was crude and distorted. While outlets
like


Al-Jazeera

and Abu Dhabi TV strived to offer professional reporting, which
in some instances out-scooped Western networks, other commentary
reflected longstanding cultural biases— anti-Americanism, inflammatory
anti-Semitism—with loads of violence and no attention paid
to Saddam Hussein’s human rights abuses or to women’s
rights. Kurdish journalists, who lived under the impact of Saddam’s
ethnic cleansing in the north, criticized Arab satellite stations
for these serious shortcomings. 


Many
U.S. newscasts pointed to these flaws and biases in part to project
their own work as being free of similar problems. “They”—the
“other”—practiced propaganda common to backward societies.
We, of the developed world, practiced world-class, bias-free journalism—or
so we wanted the world to believe.  


The
truth is that there were pervasive Western propaganda techniques
built into American media presentation formats and many were highly
sophisticated. Others obvious. They were rarely commented on or
critiqued, except by war critics. Few journalists reported fully
on their own government’s propaganda campaign and its interface
with their own products. Washington’s anti-Iraqi propaganda
was multidimensional and a key component of the “coalition”
war plan. (Deceptive words like “coalition” were themselves
part of it.) Aimed at the Iraqis was a well-crafted arsenal of psychological
operations, or Psy-Ops, carried out by an IO (Information Operations)
directorate that simultaneously targeted and destroyed the country’s
communication system and replaced it with its own. A second front—and
perhaps a more important one—was the Western public. Iraqis
were targeted by bombs and information warfare while Western audiences
had a well executed propaganda campaign often posing as news directed
their way. British-based propaganda expert Paul de Rooij explains
in several well-sourced assessments, “One generally doesn’t
think of psychological warfare as something waged against the home
population; but this is perhaps the best way to appreciate the U.S.
experience during the past few months. The objective of such a campaign
was to stifle dissent, garner unquestioning support, and rally people
around a common symbol. Americans, and to a lesser extent Europeans,
have been subjected to a propaganda barrage in an effort to neutralize
opposition to the war, and this fits directly into a psy-ops framework.”
All the networks had platoons of retired generals and pro-war military
experts interpreting war news. U.S. TV quickly resembled Chilean
TV after the coup. One Canadian critic called U.S. network, “the
Pentagon’s bitch.” CNN’s news chief Eason Jordan
revealed that he had sought approval from the Pentagon for his network’s
key war advisors. At war’s end, critic Michael Moore rightly
demanded the “unilateral withdrawal of the Pentagon from America’s
TV studios.”



War
As A Political Campaign 



P

entagon
media chief Tori Clarke, who worked with PR firms and political
campaigns before bringing a corporate approach and politically oriented
spin operation into the Pentagon, admitted that she was running
her shop the way she used to run campaigns. This approach was coordinated
throughout the Administration with “messages of the day”
and orchestrated appearances by the president and members of his
cabinet. They were not just selling a message, but “managing
the perceptions” of those who received them. In political outage,
they used “stagecraft,” a term that once was used to refer
to covert operations. 


On
May 16, 2003, the

New York Times

detailed how the Bush administration
relies on TV entertaiment techniques to sell the president and his
policies. Elisabeth Bumiller wrote: “Officials of past Democratic
and Republican administrations marvel at how the White House does
not seem to miss an opportunity to showcase Mr. Bush in dramatic
and perfectly lighted settings. It is all by design: the White House
has stocked its communications operation with people from network
television who have expertise in lighting, camera angles, and the
importance of backdrops. “TV news people have been tapped in
this aspect of the media war. First among equals is Scott Sforza,
a former ABC producer who was hired by the Bush campaign in Austin,
Texas, and who now works for Dan Bartlett, the White House communications
director. Sforza created the White House message of the day backdrops
and helped design the $250,000 set at the United States Central
Command forward headquarters in Doha, Qatar, during the Iraq war.
Sforza works closely with Bob DeServi, a former NBC cameraperson
whom the Bush White House hired after seeing his work in the 2000
campaign. DeServi, whose title is associate director of communications
for production, is considered a master at lighting.” 


A
third crucial player is Greg Jenkins, a former Fox News television
producer in Washington, Bumiller revealed. These smartly polished
sales techniques worked and typified the way the war was sold—and
covered. It all underscores once again that we no longer live in
a traditional democracy but, rather, a media-ocracy, a land in which
media, the military, and politics fuse.

New York Times

columnist
Paul Krugman, who has written about how media coverage shapes public
opinion, makes another point about the way TV coverage distorts
reality. “The administration’s anti-terror campaign makes
me think of the way television studios really look. The fancy set
usually sits in the middle of a shabby room full of cardboard and
duct tape. Networks take great care with what viewers see on their
TV screens; they spend as little as possible on anything off camera.
And so it has been with the campaign against terrorism. Bush strikes
heroic poses on TV, but his administration neglects anything that
isn’t photogenic,” Krugman wrote. No wonder we had newscasts
in which images trumped information. 



War
As a TV show 



T

his
war was a TV show on a new scale with as many “events”
as a televised Olympics. Media outlets were willing, even enthusiastic
participants in a made-for-television spectacle. It would be wrong
and overly deterministic to conclude that these TV news operations
were taken over, duped, or manipulated by the kind of crude force
that prevails in some other countries between government agencies
and the media. The Pentagon was not faxing instructions to the newsrooms,
nor would they have to. Media companies had their own reasons for
playing the role they did, as did “yellow press” publisher
William Randolph Hearst who used—and, many say, started—war
as a way to sell papers. He is reported to have said, “You
furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war” at the
beginning of the Spanish-American War. Today the relationship between
government and media is more symbiotic, even synergistic. Wars like
the one in Iraq are staged to project American power to the world.
The pictures advertise that power (and market weapons systems at
the same time). The news business is more than happy to oblige because
war attracts viewers in large numbers. Journalists quickly become
intoxicated by the ether of war and all the excitement and danger
that awaits on the front line. For many reporters, war is where
the action is. It is also a career builder. Covering war has always
been a way for journalists to prove their bona fides, win bragging
rights, and, of course, move up the ladder in the corporate news
world. War represents the highest form of professional calling and
appeals to their sense of patriotism and pride. Many promote the
mission of those they cover as their own, just as many beat reporters
are often co-opted by the officials and the agencies on which they
report. The seduction is subtle. Some may be bought as intelligence
assets, but most would resent any suggestion that they have sold
out—or sold in. 


Networks
love war. It offers riveting reality programming. They see it as
“militainment,” to borrow a term from

Time


Magazine

.
Its life and death drama brings in viewers and holds attention.
The spectacle builds ratings and revenues. It also imbues news organizations
with a sense of importance. It allows executives to demonstrate
how valuable they are to the national interest. Executives at MSNBC
boasted of how their war coverage brought Americans together and
“emphasized the positive, not the negative.” Positive
coverage also helps networks gain more access to the powerful, satisfying
their advertisers in an industry where three out of every 4 commercials
are bought by the 50 most powerful companies. In 2003, pleasing
the Bush administration also promised an economic benefit, since
while the war was being waged, media companies were lobbying for
regulatory changes that would benefit their bottom lines. FCC chairperson
Michael Powell, son of the Secretary of State, who was promoting
the war policy, rationalized the need for more media consolidation,
in part, on grounds that only big media companies could afford to
cover future wars the way this one was being covered. 


Clearly,
there was a campaign in this war, as in others, that involved co-opting
and orchestrating the news media. The most visible center of this
strategy was the effort to embed reporters. Their work was subsidized
by the Pentagon, overseen by “public affairs” specialists,
and linked to TV news networks dominated by military experts approved
by the Pentagon. When the war was over, Rem Rieder, the editor of
the

American Journalism Review

(

AJR

), gushed, “It
is clear that the great embedding experiment was a home run as far
as the news media and the American people are concerned.” General
Tommy Franks agreed and pledged that embedding would be used in
future conflicts.

AJR

writer Sherry Ricchiardi amplified
the view most favored by the mainstream media organizations that
participated in the embedding experiment, “…despite initial
skepticism about how well the system would work and some dead-on
criticism of overly enthusiastic reporting in the war’s early
stages, the net result was a far more complete mosaic of the fighting—replete
with heroism, tragedy and human error—than would have been
possible without it.” She quotes Sandy Johnson, the Associated
Press’ Washington bureau chief, who directed coverage of the
1991 Persian Gulf War. “Compared with the scant access allowed
then,” Johnson says, “This system has worked incredibly
well. The naysayers,” she adds, “will be eating their
words.”


Will
we? Most embedded reporters claimed that they were not really restrained,
but rather assisted in their work by Pentagon press flacks. This
is probably true—and the reason the system worked so well.
Manipulation in a carefully calibrated media spin operation is always
more insidious when the manipulated do not fully recognize how they
are being used. 


Many
of the “embeds” acknowledged that they came to identify
with and sometimes befriend the soldiers in the units they tagged
along with, usually with the caveat that it was no different from
covering any beat. Former TV reporter Michael Burton offered a different
view of embedding: “The idea originated with the Pentagon,
where military and political strategists pitched the idea to editors
last year as a compromise. The Pentagon strategists, already planning
for the Iraqi war, wanted proud, positive, and patriotic coverage
over the national airwaves. If the editors agreed to all their provisions
for security reviews, flagging of sensitive information, limitations
on filming dead bodies, and other restrictions, then journalists
would be welcome. The editors went along and accepted the ground
rules without a fight. Now, the story of war is seen through the
eyes of the American battalions, but without the real violence.
American children see more images of violence on nightly television
than they do in this war, because of the deliberate editing at home.
Instead, they see a fascination with high tech weapons, battle tactics,
and military strategy reporting,” Burton says. He claims this
leads to bias, although he acknowledges that many of his former
colleagues demur. “Some reporters disagree, saying that eating,
sleeping, and living with the U.S. troops does not make them biased
(in spite of the constant descriptions of “we” and “us”
when reporters talk about the military units). They say they are
revealing more human-interest stories in real-time. 


But,
while embedded journalism provides more opportunity for human interest,
it only does so from the American military’s perspective. Veteran

New


York Times

war reporter Chris Hedges seems to
agree with this view. He told

Editor & Publisher

magazine
that he preferred print reporting to the TV coverage, but said that
both were deeply flawed. “Print is doing a better job than
TV,” he observes. “The broadcast media display all these
retired generals and charts and graphs, it looks like a giant game
of Risk [the board game]. I find it nauseating.” But even the
print embeds have little choice, but to “look at Iraq totally
through the eyes of the U.S. military,” Hedges points out.
“That’s a very distorted and self-serving view.” 


The
Project on Excellence in Journalism studied the early coverage and
found that half the embedded journalists showed combat action, but
not a single story depicted people hit by weapons. There were no
reporters embedded with Iraqi families. None stationed with humanitarian
agencies or the anti-war groups that had brought more than 15 million
people on the streets before the war in a historically unprecedented
display of global public opinion. The cumulative impact of the embedded
reporters’ work prompted former Pentagon press chief Kenneth
Bacon to tell the

Wall Street Journal

, “They couldn’t
hire actors to do as good a job as they have done for the military.” 



War As Sport 



T

hey
were actors in a news drama that had all the earmarks of a sporting
event. In fact it seems to be designed as one. The main advantage
of this approach is that Americans are very comfortable with the
sport show—it is part of their daily diet, it is intelligible
to them, and it gives them a passive “entertained” role.
When one watches a sports game, there is no need to think about
the why of anything; it is only an issue of supporting our team.
The play-by-play military analysts incorporated the sports analogy
completely—with maps/diagrams, advice to players, and by making
the audience think about the strategy. 


Many
of the cable news networks pictured Iraq as if it was the property
of, and indistinguishable from, one mad person. Accordingly, attention
was focused endlessly on where Saddam was, was he alive or dead,
etc. Few references were made to U.S. dealings with his government
in the l980s or the covert role the CIA played in his rise to power.
Saddam was as demonized in 2003 as Osama bin Laden had been in 2001,
with news being structured as a patriotically correct morality soap
opera with disinterested good guys (us) battling the forces of evil
(them/him) in a political conflict constructed by the White House
along “you are either with us or against us” lines. Few
explained that there had been an undeclared war in effect for more
than a decade against Iraq before the hot war of 2003 was launched.
 


There
were many stories in this war but most followed a story line that
reduced the terms of coverage to two sides, the forces of light
versus the forces of darkness. This is typical of all war propaganda.
This war was presented on one side, the “good side,” by
endless CENTCOM military briefings, Pentagon press conferences,
Ari Fleischer White House Q&As, Administration domination of
the Sunday TV talk shows, and occasional presidential utterances
riddled with religious references. Counter-posed on the other side—
the “bad side”—were the crude press conferences of
Iraq’s hapless minister of misinformation, a cartoon figure
whom no one took seriously. The two armies were spoken of as if
there was some parity between their capacities. There was endless
focus on the anticipated chemical or biological weapons attacks
that never came and on the weapons of mass destruction that have
yet to be found (at this writing). 


Omitted
from the picture and the reportage were views that offered any persuasive
counternarrative. There were few interviews with Iraqis or experts
not affiliated with pro-Administration think tanks. Or with military
people, other than high-ranking retired military officials who quibbled
over tactics not policy. Or with peace activists, European journalists,
and, until late in the day, Arab journalists. We saw images from
Al-Jazeera, but rarely heard its analysis. This list of what was
left out is endless. Footage was sanitized, “breaking news”
was often inaccurate, and critical voices were omitted as “Fox
News” played up martial music and MSNBC ran promos urging “God
Bless America.” The role of “Fox News,” an unabashed
24-hour booster of the war, probably deserves a book of its own.
Its aggressive coverage pandered to the audience, simplified the
issues, and attacked competing media outlets and correspondents
who deviated in any way from the “script” they were promoting.
Fox’s apparent success in attracting viewers with its non-stop
hawkish narrative led to a “Fox Effect” that caused many
competitors to try to emulate its approach. MSNBC was accused of
trying to “outfox Fox.” Its coverage polarized the media
war and bullied war critics. 


Not
everyone who watched bought into its terms or was persuaded by its
story-line. The war and its coverage also turned off and tuned out
tens of millions who took to the streets, rejecting the pro-war
media frame in the largest global protests in history. Relying on
independent media, international newspapers, and websites for their
information, they criticized both the policy and the press. In the
aftermath of the giant February 15, 2003 protests, the

New York
Times

commented that there were then two opposing global superpowers—the
military might of the United States and world public opinion. 


As
the war erupted, the critics were “disappeared” from media
view just as Saddam disposed of his critics. He used violence; our
media used inattention. Even as those protests were often badly—and
in some cases barely—covered, they nevertheless spoke for millions
who rejected the media war aimed at their minds and spirits. One
can only hope that, as the claims and “evidence” used
to stoke up the war are unmasked, the media role will also be seen
for what it is. As Paul Krugman commented on the

Times

Op-ed
page: “Over the last two years we’ve become accustomed
to the pattern. Each time the administration comes up with another
whopper, partisan supporters (a group that includes a large segment
of the news media) obediently insist that black is white and up
is down. Meanwhile, the liberal media report only that some people
say that black is black and up is up. Some Democratic politicians
offer the Administration invaluable cover by making excuses and
playing down the extent of their lies.” 


Most
of us were not on the battlefield. Our understanding of what happened,
our perceptions, points of view, and prejudices were forged and
framed by our media choices. We need to see that as a problem that
demands to be addressed. Just as we consider politicians lying to
us a problem.







 







Danny
Schechter is the author of

The More You Watch the Less You Know,
News Dissector, Mediaocracy,

and

Falun Gong’s Challenge to
China

. He writes regularly for newspapers and magazines. A longer
version of this article is published online at www.coldtype.net.