NEW YORK, Mar 19, 2003 — If you watch American television, it feels like New Year’s eve with clocks counting down the minutes before the big ball drops in Times Square. Only this time, the big ball is likely to be a big bomb and the target is Baghdad, but the anticipation, even excitement is the same. That is especially so at the news networks that are planning to share footage from Baghdad and push their top shows onto cable outlets to clear time for wall-to-wall coverage.
With threat levels escalating in the U.S., journalists are also feeling threats in the field. The propaganda war has already moved into high gear. The Bush Administration strategy for managing news and spinning perception is well in place, with more than 500 reporters embedded in military units, with coverage restrictions to “guide” them. Their emphasis will be story telling, focusing on our soldiers. Human interest, not political interests, is the focus.
Andrew Tyndall studied network news in the week leading up the President’s Declaration of War. What did he find? ABC’s Peter Jennings, who anchored from the Gulf region on three days, told us that his network has “almost 30 reporters” up close and personal with U.S. troops.
“These young men know there is tremendous pressure on them to do well-and in a hurry. America expects them to win, even easily,” Jennings said. The big story there was sandstorm season, “the oldest enemy in the desert, blinding, disorienting, even painful,” according to CBS’ Lee Cowan, “enough to peel off paint, grinding its way into machinery and weapons.” The winds carry a mixture of chemicals, microbes and nutrients across oceans at a height of 10,000 feet, ABC’s Ned Potter explained: “If you see a very colorful sunset, thank the dust from a distant desert.”
There will be no dust in the Pentagon’s new million-dollar state-of-the-art high tech media center, built to Hollywood specifications in Qatar so that Supreme Commander Tommy Franks can be all that he can be. Trustworthy former military officers are in place inside the networks to offer the kind of analysis the Pentagon would approve of.
Elizabeth Jensen of the Los Angeles Times says these TV generals are shaping news coverage: “When a tip comes in, some of the ex-military men will get on the phone — in private, out of the open-desk chaos of a standard newsroom — to chase it down, calling sources, oftentimes old buddies, whom even the most-plugged in correspondents can’t reach. Gen. Barry McCaffrey likes his NBC job because it lets him “maintain influence on policy, being able to speak to these issues.”
Reporters have been warned to leave the Iraqi capital, guaranteeing there will be fewer eyes on the shock and awe to come. The BBC’s veteran war reporter Katie Aidie says she has been told that journalists operating on their own, the so-called “unilaterals,” are being warned that they will be targeted by the invading army.
And what about Arab news outlets with their own sources? They will be targeted, says media war expert and Harper’s Publisher John Macarthur. He told Editor and Publisher that he thinks Al -Jazeera, whose office was “accidentally” bombed in Kabul, Afghanistan, may face similar treatment. MacArthur predicts they will be “knocked out in the first 48 hours, like what happened in Kabul.”
Macarthur told Barbara Bedway: “The Pentagon is expecting a kind of Panama-style war, over in three days. Nobody has time to see or ask any questions. I think if embedded reporters see anything important — or bloody — the Pentagon will interfere. Same result, different tactic: The truth gets distorted.”
But that’s not all. Network news managers have effectively accepted the Administration’s rationale for war. Its pundits and experts tend to function as cheerleaders, with few dissenters given voice.
A study by FAIR, the media watchdog group, found that anti-war views were conspicuous by their absence:
“Looking at two weeks of coverage (January 30 to February 12), FAIR examined the 393 on-camera sources who appeared in nightly news stories about Iraq on ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News and PBS’ NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. The study began one week before and ended one week after Secretary of State Colin Powell’s February 5 presentation at the U.N., a time of particularly intense debate about the idea of a war against Iraq on the national and international level.
More than two-thirds (267 out of 393) of the guests featured were from the United States. Of the U.S. guests, a striking 75 percent (199) were either current or former government or military officials. Only one of the official U.S. sources– Sen. Edward Kennedy (D.-Mass.) — expressed skepticism or opposition to the war.
Even this was couched in vague terms: “Once we get in there, how are we going to get out, what’s the loss for American troops going to be, how long we’re going to be stationed there, what’s the cost is going to be?” Kennedy asked on NBC Nightly News on February 5.
Similarly, when both U.S. and non-U.S. “Such a predominance of official sources virtually assures that independent and grassroots perspectives will be underrepresented,” FAIR said.
The reporting will be closely managed. Robert Fisk of the Independent points to “a new CNN system of ‘script approval’ — the iniquitous instruction to reporters that they send all their copy to anonymous officials in Atlanta to ensure it is suitably sanitized. This suggests that the Pentagon and the Department of State have nothing to worry about. Nor do the Israelis.
“CNN, of course, is not alone in this paranoid form of reporting. Other U.S. networks operate equally anti-journalistic systems. And it’s not the fault of the reporters. CNN’s teams may use clichÃ©s and don military costumes — you will see them do this in the next war — but they try to get something of the truth out. Next time, though, they’re going to have even less chance. ”
That was Fisk before the Countdown to Combat was approved. More recently, Fisk has issued a language alert, now moving to an elevated level.
His clichÃ©s to counter theirs:
“Inevitable revenge” — the executions of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party officials, which no one actually said were inevitable.
“Stubborn” or “suicidal”– describes Iraqi forces fighting instead of retreating.
“Allegedly” — for all carnage caused by Western forces.
“At last, the damning evidence” — used when reporters enter old torture chambers.
“Officials here are not giving us much access” — a clear sign that reporters in Baghdad are confined to their hotels.
“Life goes on” — for any pictures of Iraq’s poor making tea.
“What went wrong?”– to accompany pictures illustrating the growing anarchy in Iraq, as if it were not predicted.
The War is with us. The reporting will fan its flames as surely as the fires of the oil wells.
Danny Schechter writes a daily media analysis or Mediachannel.org. His latest book is MEDIA WARS: News at a Time of Terror (Rowman & Littlefield)