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The Media & War

Eric Laursen
Date Published: 
February 14, 2003

"I did not look on the press as an asset. Frankly, I looked on it as a problem to be managed.”
—Then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, on how he managed press coverage during the 1991 Gulf War.

Was Dick Cheney the father of modern warfare? If not, he at least helped birth the postmodern art of wartime press management as Defense Secretary during the first Gulf War in 1991. Now, along with his old White House mentor Don Rumsfeld and sidekicks Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice, Cheney is no doubt looking forward to another lightning campaign against Saddam Hussein and another free pass from an obliging press corps.

Only this time, he’s likely to have an even easier job getting the media to toe the second Bush Administration’s official line.

Much has changed since Timothy McVeigh and 300,000 other US service people first rolled into Iraq. Most crucial is the change in ownership of the media itself. Venerable organizations like Times-Mirror Company and the Boston Globe have lost their independence. ABC, CBS, and CNN are now part of vast multimedia conglomerates. The consolidation can be expected to continue, as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) appears headed to dismantle long-standing rules designed to frustrate media monopolists. Soon, newspaper owners will be completely free to control TV or radio stations in the same market, and broadcast owners will no longer be barred from controlling 35% of total viewers nationwide.

The result, already unfolding in New York City and other markets, will be a media vertically controlled by organizations that give their employees little incentive to cover the news in anything other than a comfortably middle-of-the-road way. Says media critic Mark Crispin Miller, author of The Bush Dyslexicon: Observations of a National Disorder, “The bigger these organizations get, the closer they get to the state. Then they need a certain kind of regulation in order to keep making out like bandits.” Coverage that’s disagreeable to the current Administration doesn’t guarantee the kind of regulation they want.

The Bush White House has been unafraid to wield the power afforded it by the increasing concentration of media ownership. Even among mainstream, corporate journalists, Rumsfeld’s Pentagon press briefings have become notorious for the deft way the Defense Secretary avoids telling reporters anything important. Over at the White House, Bush himself has given only 36 press conferences as of the end of November – despite the fact that he declared the US at war over a year ago and in contrast to both his father and Bill Clinton, who had given 73 and 61 press conferences, respectively, by the same point in their presidencies.

“In this Administration, the controls on information are tighter than in any other one I have covered,” veteran CBS White House correspondent Bill Plante told the New York Times in December. To which press secretary Ari Fleischer replied, in a word to the wise, “Reporters who are polite, who gather their information with honey instead of vinegar, are going to get farther. I think the days of the shouting, the screaming, cynical approach have really ended.”

Collective amnesia

Whether those days ever existed or not, the net result is likely to be a public even less informed about the conduct of its military in Iraq than the one that watched Wolf Blitzer repeat the Pentagon’s descriptions of the first Gulf War. We’re already seeing evidence that the corporate media have lost interest in questioning what the Washington warlords tell them. Sometimes they even forget when their own previous reports have undermined the Administration’s lies.

For example, when the news appeared in November that UN weapons inspectors would be returning to Iraq, the press featured numerous stories noting the last time inspectors were there in 1998. Commonly, these stories alleged that Saddam “kicked out” or “expelled” the UN team. In fact, they made their own decision to leave because the US was about to begin a new bombing campaign – which was exactly how the media reported it at the time.

The same collective amnesia has accompanied stories referring back to revelations that American spies had worked undercover on some of the inspection teams. Major papers like the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and the Washington Post reported the story in 1999, citing sources including US and UN officials. But in November, after the UN announced the return of the inspectors, some US papers turned the espionage story into mere “Iraqi allegations.”

Any fact that might suggest the US has not been blameless in its dealings with Iraq tends to receive the same treatment. Widely reported estimates that economic sanctions have contributed to some 500,000 Iraqi childrens’ deaths, for example, come originally from a UNICEF paper published three years ago, notes media watchdog Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). Nowadays, however, major publications like Time frequently source these findings as “Baghdad claims.”

More disturbingly, the corporate media are failing to pick up even on the few revealing statements the Administration throws out about its plans and methods. One of this fall’s most sinister stories was the “Office of Strategic Influence,” the agency Rumsfeld proposed to set up in the Pentagon to plant disinformation in the foreign media. An outcry quickly rose.

Rumsfeld apologized, deleted the new agency from his plans, and the story quickly died. It shouldn’t have, because Rumsfeld had not really changed course at all – and if they had been listening carefully, the media would have known so.

At a November 18 media briefing, according to FAIR, Rumsfeld said in his now-familiar, folksy style, “Fine, if you want to savage this thing, fine, I’ll give you the corpse. There’s the name. You can have the name, but I’m gonna keep doing every single thing that needs to be done and I have.”

In fact, Rumsfeld had already begun implementing a disinformation infrastructure in other parts of the Pentagon. So his remarks on November 18 should have triggered a spate of stories from the reporters who were present to hear him. But a search by FAIR turned up none. Which raises another issue for journalists with access to think about: whether the Bush Administration now believes that they have effectively become their own censor.

Access denied

“The media are already making excuses for why their coverage can’t be better this time,” notes Miller. “But the truth is they don’t have the courage or the corporate support to take a harder line. They’re afraid of losing access [to sources in the Administration]. And that’s fatal to these people.” Rolling over for Administration lies and obfuscation is one result of the constant competition for “access.” Another is that “objective” reporters will effectively put their sources on trial for questioning the White House’s version of the truth.

That happened on October 7, when Connie Chung interviewed US Rep. Mike Thompson, who had visited Iraq with other House members. Thompson told Chung he did not believe Iraq posed an immediate danger to the US. She then played a tape of a statement by Bush claiming that Iraq has trained al-Qaeda in “bomb-making, in poisons and deadly gases.”

Thompson replied that he hadn’t seen any proof of Bush’s allegations. Chung: “It sounds almost as if you’re asking the American public, ‘Believe Saddam Hussein, don’t believe President Bush.’"

Why would Chung take such an attitude – especially at a time when polls showed public support for an Iraq invasion was slipping? The media today is slow to catch on to such trends, says Miller, because increasingly the Washington policymaking elite and the corporate media “all tend to inhabit the same bubble, the same cocoon of spin. So while the fervent support for Bush has dissipated, the press is still daunted by his status post-9/11. The country is hurtling along an avenue that the people have rejected.”

The Pentagon helps its cause by treating the press to a skillful job of indoctrination. While few details about the actual fighting have emerged from America’s wars since the first Gulf adventure, the military brass have compensated by dazzling journalists with details about hardware and futuristic weapons systems. The result, especially in Afghanistan, is reporting that often reads like a cross between Popular Mechanics and Soldier of Fortune. The reader learns a great deal about how daisy-cutter bombs work, but not how many civilian casualties they have caused.

How the Pentagon achieves this was on display at the same moment Rumsfeld was defying the press to write about his plans for disinformation warfare, when 56 journalists decked out in battle fatigues were hiking around Quantico, Virginia as part of a battlefield training course. The training was billed as giving them the skills to not get in trouble during an action against some putative enemy. In reality it was a photo op for the Pentagon to demonstrate its openness, and for a chosen group of reporters to bond with the military they might otherwise be inclined to criticize.

At least in a few cases, it had the desired effect. After one exercise in a helicopter, Ross Simpson, a radio reporter for Associated Press, marveled, “He gave us all the Afghanistan moves in the chopper, ducking and weaving. Your stomach is churning. Your adrenaline is pumping.” That gung-ho quote appeared in a story by the AP itself.

How does this play out when big-media reporters don Banana Republic khakis and take off for Central Asia? Cartoonist/journalist Ted Rall published a scathing critique of US war correspondents’ work during the Afghan campaign last June on Common Dreams News Center. He relates the story of a journalist with a US newspaper chain who reported as fact the Northern Alliance’s claim that its victory had “liberated” Afghan women, even though he had never seen one without a burqa during his time in the country.

“Maybe it’s different in other provinces,” he said.

Another, more savvy war reporter for another newspaper chain vainly tried to report on incidents that cast a less than flattering light on the US forces’ conduct, Rall writes, only to see them “neatly excised. One day, as a test, he fired off a thousand words about a 15,000-pound daisy-cutter bomb that had taken out an entire neighborhood in southeastern Kunduz. Hundreds of civilians lay scattered in bits of protoplasm amid the rubble. His editors killed the piece, calling it ‘redundant.’”

Images, of course, are the most important form of information in wartime – even a completely clueless media outlet can foul Washington’s agenda if it insists on publishing an especially graphic photo. Perhaps the biggest innovation of Dick Cheney’s Pentagon during the Persian Gulf blitz was the press pool – select cargos of “acceptable” journalists who the commanders authorized to take guided tours of the battlefield after the fighting was well over. Thanks to the press pools, very few images of the war’s actual carnage ever made their way into American homes.

Pool system

The multiplicity of commercial sources for satellite photos and video footage since the Gulf War theoretically means the Pentagon has less control today. But it already seems to have figured out how to deal with this in Afghanistan: buy up all the images before the fighting even starts.

Intelligent and critical journalists can always find their way around the lies, misinformation and flattery if they bother to go beyond official sources. A few reporters who chose to work outside the press pool system during the Gulf War uncovered some remarkable stories, such as the “Highway of Death” – the shooting gallery-like B-52 carpet bombings of Iraqi troops fleeing Kuwait. But the US corporate media has become so wedded to access, and so reluctant to question its government’s motives, that it no longer shows much interest in this kind of reporting.

Instead, with ultra-hawkish Fox News in the ascendancy, much of the reporting can be expected to echo the ravings of Geraldo Rivera, whose reporting from Afghanistan extolled the Northern Alliance (“truly the enemy of our enemy, so they’re our friends”) and emphasized America’s “awesome and precise” airstrikes, “with very little collateral damage.”

“Itching for justice,” he said memorably that if he found Osama bin Laden, “I’ll kick his head in, then bring it home and bronze it.”

Fox is not the only game in town, and Geraldo is a media personality, not a reporter. But as Washington prepares for war, even some of the most proudly independent mainstream journalists seem overanxious not to be unhelpful – or maybe just frozen by the access imperative. In a panel at the Libel Defense Center in New York in November, reported in the Village Voice’s “Press Clips,” ABC’s sanctified Ted Koppel proposed that if real-time TV coverage of a war in Iraq could give “the folks who are sitting in Baghdad” some knowledge of what US troops are doing on the battlefield, “it would be criminal to permit that.”

The suggestion is fanciful: What “Baghdad” would like to know in such a situation is not where the troops are now but where their commanders plan to send them next – something TV images are unlikely to reveal. But a serious discussion followed, during which one journalist – Seymour Hersh, who covered the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War – argued that “access” should be something the press insist on, not something handed down to a favored few by the state. “We’re so cowardly in our profession,” he lamented.

What should the press be doing instead as the US prepares for war? Providing a sense of history would be a good start, says Miller – reexamining such stories as the spy infiltration of the previous inspection teams, and the responsibility of the US and the UK for Saddam’s acquisition of weapons materials. Reporters would also do a better job if they developed more sources further down the chain of command, instead of relying on what’s spoon-fed to them in press pools. “Soldiers, unless they’re Special Forces, are pretty reliable and they like to talk,” Miller notes.

With mainstream coverage of the war likely to be dominated by a handful of conglomerates currying favor with Bush’s FCC in order to win further relaxation of its anti-monopoly rules, however, don’t expect the media bigfeet to suddenly grow backbones. Fortunately, there are still alternatives: be prepared to spend a lot of time online, especially on foreign-press Web sites.