Media Scandals Across the Arab Western Divide

Dubai, United Arab Emirates: Shock and awe has given way to a shocking media scandal of the week in Iraq.

The latest revelations of pay for play journalism, admitted now to some degree by the Pentagon, is that US government funds are going to pay off or otherwise subsidize journalists.

Blogger Tony Pierce notes that “this week the LA Times broke the story that the U.S. Military had hired several companies to carry out ‘strategic communications’ in foreign countries with heavy US Military presence, including a company once called Iraqex, but now called Lincoln Group. The Times discovered that it turned out that many of those communications involved paying Iraqi newspapers to run US propaganda, and yesterday the Pentagon admitted the Times was right, that the US was back in the propaganda biz.”

This Lincoln Group is just one part of the information warfare strategy that drives the Bush strategy in Iraq. Bullets and “bullet points,” in Paul Krugman’s phrase, have long been the twin towers of the Bush strategy to engineer perceptions and win support for the Iraq war and its political objectives.

Does anyone remember the ill-fated Office of Strategic Communications run by Iran Contra alumnus John Poindexter with its plan for planting stories favorable to US goals in the press overseas? When it was first announced, and exposed back in 2003, there was a media uproar followed by an announcement that the plan was being shelved and the office closed.

Except Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld made clear he was going to do it anyway – but under a different name. And he did.

Where was the press follow-up? Largely non-existent. Rummy and his cohorts simply moved a separate operation into the vast Information Operations bureaucracy and then outsourced or “privatized” some of its functions to specialized contractors like the Lincoln Group.

Under this careful strategy subsidies for individuals pales in comparison to ongoing foreign financing of media institutions. Take a look at the proliferation of media outlets in Iraq funded by governments and investors. They include radio and TV stations with large staffs of hired functionaries and propagandists.

Washington has its own media army in place alongside the troops and no one has yet demanded its withdrawal.

The Coalition Provisional Authority established the pattern with its own media division. Over the protests of legitimate journalists who quit in disgust, it quickly began to ape the old Baathist Ministry of Information. At one point, it was run by Bush media advisor and former ABC Nightline Executive Producer Dorrance Smith. In one publicized instance, a staff operative stepped in to re-interview US proconsul L Paul (“Jerry”) Bremer when they didn’t like how he came off in an interview with a legitimate journalist.

The US is not the only political “tribe” in Iraq to have its own media operation. Now many political parties have theirs. The media war there has gone from a foreign dominated one to a noisy domestically operated affair.

Saudia Arabia’s media savvy Prince Alwaleed, who says he is pro-American and manages the Kingdom’s billion dollar investments in foreign companies like News Corporation and Time Warner, now argues that there are so many competing media outlets that they are undermining stability in the very country the Pentagon wants to stabilize.

He told the Arab and World Media Conference that I attended here in the United Arab Emirates that the numerous TV channels now competing in Baghdad shows that the US does not understand Iraq. He said that more TV outlets and hundreds of quarreling new tabloid newspapers are actually undermining political stability. In short they are overdoing it – killing off democracy in the name of introducing it.

Another Saudi Prince, Khalid Al Faisal who heads the Arab Thought Foundation, goes further arguing that media “has become a weapon no less than the weapons of war” to conceal the truth for political reasons or for misinformation. He sees all these media interventions as sabotaging pluralism in the name of advancing it.

He asks “has this media boom enhanced Arab culture or has it become an intermediary for our young to adopt western models and values…. To what extent have our satellite TV’s and newspapers addressed our issues?”

These prominent Arab moderates see all these subsidies as being a channel, not just for political messages, but to advance U.S. consumer values.

These concerns are not stopping the media invasion. Not to be outdone, the British foreign office has announced it is taking money away from the BBC’s World Service for news in other parts of the world to launch a new Arabic language service. Its political purpose is clear – to try to undermine the independent Al Jazeera channel, which is itself subsidized although not micro-managed by the State of Qatar.

Add to this the impact of the overseas corporate media which is often every bit as political in its objectives and tied to its own agendas. Subsidies in the private sector have been common for years – and you don’t have to go to Iraq to see how it is done.

Consider the hard-right newspaper The New York Post, a financial failure kept alive by Rupert Murdoch, subsidized annually to the tune of millions as a channel of political influence and publicity for clear political reasons.

Corruption in the media and by the media is a global problem as common in the US as in the Arab world.

Lets face it: in political warfare in the US and abroad, as in the military conflict in Iraq, information is a tool with the truth often its last consideration. Many Arab journalists who live under systems of government control and managed reporting know media control when they see it. And many see it in the US media, which sees itself often as an objective and free press.

Many Arab journalists here think of our media more like a decentralized national security asset deployed to advance US objectives. They understand that its many outlets compete with each other even while sharing a worldview. In their worldview, ideology serves interests.

That type of blanket indictment may be too broad of course, but it’s a view that is deeply held on all sides. The media people who came together in Dubai to hear each other’s views and “get it right” have not basically changed their own.

– News Dissector Danny Schechter edits Mediachannel.org. His latest books are When News Lies: Media Complicity and the Iraq War and The Death of Media. See www.newsdissector.org/store.htm. Comments to dissector@mediachannel.org


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