The media will outnumber the diplomats at the UN today as the curtain rise on what may be the end game of the pre-war phase of the Iraq crisis. Colin Powell had been rehearsing all weekend as his aides and an army of speechwriters stitched together a well-calibrated presentation to spin raw intelligence into persuasive evidence.
In the best Hollywood tradition, his handlers speak of having crafted a “narrative” that will provoke public opinion enough to push the political “doubters” along. Powell was to use a wireless mike as he turns the Security Council chamber into a TV studio complete with audio excepts from NSA surveillance tapes, visual aids and other “enhancement” tools. The Oprah show is the role model.
An Administration that has openly adopted “shock and awe” as a military tactic will first field-test the same idea in the halls of diplomacy. Overkill on the East River may foreshadow the over-killed on the Euphrates. Before the real guns start smoking, Secretary of warmaking Runsfeld is putting down journalists who demand a ‘smoking gun” less skeptics rmain. Meanwhile if you don’t get the message by day, Condoleeza Rice will join CNN’s Larry King tonight at nine to drive home the message by night. It is a full court press via the press.
This has been orchestrated as a media show more than as diplomatic performance because the Bush Administration knows that until now, try as the President has, he has so far failed to create a consensus, much less an effective coalition. A day before this recreation of the old film, “Gunfight at the OK corral,” The LA Times reported: “Even after President Bush’s stern State of the Union address, most Americans remain reluctant to invade Iraq without explicit U.N. authorization, though a narrow majority would support acting with a smaller coalition of willing nations. The survey portrays a nation ambivalent about the prospect of a second Gulf War; it shows Americans to be unconvinced that the evidence thus far justifies an invasion, hesitant to act without more international support, yet convinced war is inevitable and narrowly inclined to trust Bush’s judgment about whether and when it should come”
The perception managers of Administration know that they have to undercut this ambivalence and neutralize the nay-sayers. There is an air of unreality about this full speed ahead scenario which could not be slowed even by the shuttle disaster. Michael Getler, The Washington Post’s ombudsman, spoke of an edge of disbelief within the media, “Whatever was proper, there now seems, to me at least, a sense of unreality about this moment” and, worse, “as a citizen, and a consumer of news, I don’t feel prepared.”
The Administration knows that military preparation is not enough. It has set out to prepare the public and the press. In Britain, the producer of a show on paedophiles will get special access according to News World: “The UK’s Ministry of Defense is negotiating a deal to allow BBC cameras unprecedented access to the armed forces in the event of war in Iraq. The fly-on-the-wall documentary following the British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force is said to be the first time cameras have been allowed such intimate access.”
Oddly, despite the access, many in the press say they are suspicious of the military’s desire to massage them. At the same time, many still tend to echo Administration claims. Editor and Publisher surveyed some leading lights in the U.S. media world;
“‘It is much tougher these days because the desire to control is greater,” observes David Halberstam, who first came to fame covering the Vietnam War for The New York Times. ‘I think the press has done well asking questions. But most people who have Vietnam in their bones are uneasy about this war’
“Phil Bronstein, who covered the Persian Gulf War for the San Francisco Examiner and now edits the San Francisco Chronicle, says: ‘News is managed more than ever by very smart and shrewd people. We’ve done a relatively good job of getting through that, but there is a lot we don’t know and a lot we are not finding out. A lot of questions are being asked, but they are not being answered.’”
“Still, press coverage overall has been ‘as aggressive as you can be on a subject that is complicated and closely held,’ says Bill Keller, columnist for The New York Times. ‘I think newspapers have learned their lesson from the Gulf War: not to let yourself be too dependent on the military handlers.’ Howell Raines, the Times’ executive editor, explains, ‘We approach this story with the full knowledge that the military is not always forthcoming’
As usual the Times, which usually takes refuge in a safe toned-down middle of the road course has its critics. The one-time liberal New Republic which wants war so bad it can taste it, has been scathing in its criticisms, writing: “The editorials of The New York Times are a good showcase of the intellectual incoherence of the liberal war critics. The Times is worth dwelling on not only because of its great influence but also because its opposition to war is carefully calibrated, closely matching the views of mainstream Democrats rather than those of angry street demonstrators”.”
Those “angry demonstrators” frequently direct their anger at the Times too. Many feel they only way to get their arguments heard is to buy ads or create costly TV commercials. Writes Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post: “Some papers by their own admission haven’t devoted as much attention as they should to the antiwar voices out there that are forming a significant minority against invading Iraq. Journalists are sometimes lulled by political consensus when both the White House and Congress have signed on to a potential war. It is harder to judge the antiwar movement than in the Vietnam days when it cut such a wide swath across society, but that isn’t much of an excuse. The press needs to be careful about reflecting all sides.”
If the press was once seen as a watchdog or fourth estate, critics on all sides now see it as having taken a side if it is not their own. They are often as angry at media personalities-for a variety of reasons– as they are with politicians. Increasingly media outlets are seen as politicized outlets with agendas of their own. Perhaps that’s why CBS once revered as “the Tiffany network” for its classy professionalism was shocked when a caller, pretending to be an eyewitness to the shuttle disaster, had to be abruptly cut off the air when he lambasted anchor Dan Rather with these words: “You’re a real idiot, you know that?”
These are polarized times.
News Dissector Danny Schechter writes a daily weblog on press coverage for Mediachannel.org. His latest book is “Media Wars: News at a Time of Terror.” (Forthcoming from Roman and Littlefield)
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