Canadians are not being served as well as they should be, even by their own public media. We have spent the past two weeks monitoring CBC’s coverage of the US-UK war on Iraq. We have found that, while the CBC does better than the UK’s BBC, US networks, and even other Canadian channels, it still falls short of journalistic objectivity in many cases. This means that even the best, most open media adopt implicit assumptions, and hence ask questions, that are more helpful to powerful, pro-war interests than they are to the public interest. Viewers have the right to demand better.
On the range of opinion
The widest range of opinion on the CBC is presented on CBC’s ‘Counterspin’, a program that airs on CBC Newsworld on Wednesday evenings at 8pm. On April 2, ‘Counterspin’ had Tariq Ali, a dissident from the UK, debating Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Tariq Ali is a very visible member of the antiwar movement, and he is one of many dissidents and community activists who regularly appear on ‘Counterspin’. The impact of these dissidents’ message, however, is diluted by the format of the show and the questions asked. The show’s declared objective was to discuss the ‘broad sweep of history and the broad objectives of Bush administration’ as opposed to the mere ‘minutiae of war’. ‘What does the Bush doctrine hope to achieve? Will it achieve a new democratic era, or war and fanaticism?’ The questions asked by the host, Adrian Harewood, of Ali and Clawson during the April 2 program, for example, were the following:
1) ‘In wake of 9/11 and subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, people have used the term, ‘root causes’. What are the root causes of the conflict in Iraq?’
2) Question for Ali: ‘Is it right to solely blame the US?’
3) Question for Clawson: ‘the US has followed a policy of supporting so called moderate regimes-Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt. What are the consequences of this policy?’
4) ‘But surely there are many in Saudi, Egypt who might disagree with you?’
5) Question for Ali: ‘One of the key features of the ‘Bush Doctrine’ is notion of pre-emptive strikes. The Bush regime has put this into force in Iraq. What do you see as the implications of this policy?’
6) ‘But Mr. Clawson, some would argue that the US has indeed undermined the UN.’
7) ‘Mr Clawson, does this policy of pre-emption not set a dangerous precedent? We see other conflicts in the world, we see India-Pakistan, we see Chechnya-Russia. This policy, if adopted by other nations, could it not lead to chaos?’
8) ‘Tariq Ali, I wanted to ask you about the National Security Strategy. In that document there’s a lot of language about human rights, dignity, and democracy. Are those really the ideals that drive American foreign policy?’
9) ‘Tariq, you’ve talked of importance of empowering the people. What is your prescription to bring democracy to this region? What is your proposal?’
These questions did make it possible for Tariq Ali to present historical context and a dissident view. In most of the questions, however, there were considerable implicit assumptions. Question #7, for example, suggests that the policy of ‘pre-emption’ is a dangerous precedent if adopted by ‘other nations’, like India, Pakistan, or Russia, implicitly accepting that it isn’t dangerous in the hands of the US. Question #8 begins by insinuating that US policy is about human rights and democracy, even though it allowed the guests of the show to respond. Question #2, to Ali, ‘is it right to solely blame the US’, is the sort of question that detracts from serious discussion. Question #9 accepts the idea that the Iraq’s lack of democracy is ‘the problem’.
The host would have been on solid factual grounds if he had, instead of calling Egypt, Jordan, and Saudia Arabia ‘so-called moderate regimes’, quoted Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch figures on repression and support for these countries and framed question #3 as ‘Why does the US support some human rights violators and not others?’ The host could have asked Tariq Ali, as a member of the UK’s anti-war movement, what citizens could do to help stop the war, and what experiences the UK has offered in that regard.
Even at its best, the most open show on Canada’s public broadcasting frames debates with an implicit acceptance that the ‘Iraq problem’ is a problem in Iraq and not in the United States, that the US is most dangerous not in itself, but because it might be setting a ‘dangerous precedent’ for other nations, and that the US’s declared intentions of ‘human rights and democracy’ are credible, if questionable.
More on implicit assumptions
These implicit assumptions become more insidious in the framing of other stories, however. On April 3, CBC Newsworld held a long interview with Retired US Lt. Colonel James Carafano, discussing the upcoming attack on Baghdad. In that interview, Carafano referred to the ‘terrific pounding’ the US would give Iraqis. He described the way in which US forces would draw a ‘red line around Baghdad’. The reporter asked if the Iraqis would use weapons of mass destruction, to which Carafano replied that this would be a ‘propaganda loss for Iraq’, ‘validating’ the ‘coalition’s’ argument, and besides that Iraq has ‘no delivery mechanism’. Carafano described how the US would likely move into doing ‘raids’, to ‘target the leadership’ and ‘take them out’. The reporter’s final question was about what the fighting in Baghdad would mean ‘for the soldiers’. Carafano answered that it would depend on the organization of ‘fanatical elements’ and ‘how hard they fight’.
This interview was subjective in many ways. Lt. Colonel James Carafano would have been just as qualified to answer questions about whether or not the US would use cluster bombs or depleted uranium munitions, both of which have severe civilian toll, as he was to answer about the Iraqis’ potential for using weapons of mass destruction. The reporter could easily have asked, if Iraq had ‘no delivery mechanism’ to deliver chemical weapons, would that not invalidate the entire expedition against that country? The reporter could have asked about what the fighting in Baghdad would mean for civilians, rather than for only the soldiers.
Another issue in the CBC’s reporting of the war has been the way it has picked up ‘stories’ from the US media that are essentially empty and artificial. On April 6, 2003, CBC News with Evan Solomon and Carole MacNeil interviewed Grant Fredericks of the Avid Research Team about whether or not it was Saddam or a body double in recent footage. Fredericks discussed the moles around Saddam’s eyes, the people surrounding him and other characteristics that can be used as tools to identify him. Biometrics, which is the measurement of physical characteristics such as ear size measurement as identification tools were discussed. FBI training to learn to recognize the real Saddam using biometrics was discussed.
Robert Fisk, a journalist from the UK Independent who is actually in Baghdad, discussed this ‘story’ in an interview with Amy Goodman and Jeremy Scahill:
‘â€¦the speech that Saddam made 24 hours ago, less than 24 hours ago, a speech that was very important if you read the text carefully and understand what he was trying to do, it has been totally warped in the United States by a concentration not on what he was saying, but whether it was actually him that was saying it. The American correspondent was saying to me yesterday morning, “This is ridiculous, we simply can’t report the story, because every time we have to deal with something Saddam says, the Pentagon claims it’s not him or it’s his double or it was recorded 2 weeks ago”. So, the story ceases to be about what the man says, the story starts to be this totally mythical, fictional idea that it really isn’t Saddam or it’s his double, etcetera. I watched this recording on television, all his television broadcasts are recordings because he’s not so stupid as to do a live broadcast and get bombed by the Americans while he’s doing it. The one thing you learn if you’re a target is not to do live television broadcasts, or radio for that matter, or, indeed telephone. But if you listen and read the text of what Saddam said, it has clearly been recorded in the previous few hours, and I can tell you, having once actually met the man, it absolutely was Saddam Hussein. But that’s the strange thing, you see, that in the US, the Pentagon only has to say it’s not Saddam, that it’s a fake, it was recorded years ago, or that it’s a double, and the Hollywood side of the story, which is quite rubbish, it’s not true – it is him, then takes over from the real story, which is ‘What the hell is this guy actually saying?’.
Edging Canada closer to war?
The CBC has also adopted, to a large extent, the parameters of the debate on whether or not Canada should ‘support’ the US in its war on Iraq. In its coverage on the debate in the House of Commons on April 8, CBC News discussed the Canadian Alliance Party’s submission of a motion to apologize to the US for not participating in the war, and the Liberal Party’s hope that the US ‘accomplish its mission quickly’, with ‘minimum casualties’. The CBC also quoted from US ambassador Celucci, calling his stance more ‘sympathetic’ than it was. NDP leader Jack Layton was also quoted from, stating that Canada should not support war.
There are other players in this drama, however. No Iraqi opinion was heard on Canada’s stance, for example. Canadians who don’t want war, like the NDP leader quoted, say we don’t want to join our friends in a mistake. Canadians who do want war, like provincial premiers Ralph Klein and Ernie Eves, or Canadian Alliance Party members, say we should support the US because not supporting the US will be costly. The story is one in which all characters agree that the US and Canada are ‘friends’. What about Iraq? Is Iraq a ‘friend’ to Canada? Everyone on all sides of the debate would probably agree that the Iraqi people are ‘friends’, but not its regime. So why is the distinction between people and regime allowed to be blurred, even in the CBC, for the United States? The effect of framing the discussion this way, in terms of ‘pro-’ and ‘anti-American’, in terms of the strictly practical issues of jobs and the US’s ability to punish Canada, rather than the moral issues of aggression and attacks on civilians, has the effect of moving Canadian public opinion towards support for war.
There are many things the CBC could do to improve its coverage of the war, and what is now the occupation, of Iraq. It has correspondents in Iraq, like Patrick Brown, but these do not report from the point of view of the victims the way the UK Independent’s Robert Fisk does. It has interviews and debates with dissidents, including Tariq Ali and Noam Chomsky, but it too often publishes the claims and stories of the US government and media uncritically (as in the ‘is Saddam alive?’ stories).
The idea for these media alert came from the UK’s ‘Media Lens’ (www.medialens.org) Like them, our goal ‘is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.’
Write to the CBC expressing your views:
Write to ‘En Camino’
Visit ‘En Camino’ at www.tools4change.org/encamino
*with files from Brad Macintosh