When President Bush declared America's "war on terrorism" the first war of the 21st century, I wondered what role the corporate media would play. Would there be a repeat of the impoverished coverage of the Persian Gulf War? Would any independent or critical voices be heard? Perhaps something in between?
Now, more than four weeks into the bombing of Afghanistan, the corporate media, with occasional exceptions, are water carriers for the Bush administration. Realizing that they are losing the propaganda wars, the administration is turning more and more to the media with the same expectations it had during the Persian Gulf War. They have enlisted the networks and cable news in an effort to shore up public support.
In the 1980s, author and journalist Mark Hertsgaard characterized the quiescent press covering the Reagan administration as being "on bended knee." Hertsgaard, in his 1988 book On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency, wrote: "Even with all that eventually went wrong -- the Iran-contra scandal, the stock-market crash, the seemingly endless series of criminal investigations of former top White House officials -- the overall press coverage of the Reagan administration was extraordinarily positive."
These days, the sardonic tag line of the Media Whores Online website more appropriately describes the situation: "The site that set out to bring the media to their knees -- but found out they were already there."
The other afternoon while multitasking -- riding my exercise bike and watching television -- a report by a CNN front-line correspondent containing footage of damage caused by US bombing raids in Afghanistan was immediately followed by what I thought were odd comments at the time by anchor Judy Woodruff. She said something like "we must remember that it was the terrorists who started the whole thing by killing 5,000 innocent people." I'm paraphrasing her here, because unfortunately I can't ride and write at the same time.
In his Washington Post column, media critic Howard Kurtz, who also co-hosts CNN's "Reliable Sources," reported that chairman Walter Isaacson sent a memo to its international correspondents, "order[ing] his staff to balance images of civilian devastation in Afghan cities with reminders that the Taliban harbors murderous terrorists, saying it 'seems perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardship in Afghanistan.'"
Kurtz also quoted from a memo by Rick Davis, CNN's head of standards and practices. Davis suggested that news anchors use one of the three following messages after broadcasting a report from the front:
* "We must keep in mind, after seeing reports like this from Taliban-controlled areas, that these US military actions are in response to a terrorist attack that killed close to 5,000 innocent people in the US."
* "We must keep in mind, after seeing reports like this, that the Taliban regime in Afghanistan continues to harbor terrorists who have praised the September 11 attacks that killed close to 5,000 innocent people in the US."
* "The Pentagon has repeatedly stressed that it is trying to minimize civilian casualties in Afghanistan, even as the Taliban regime continues to harbor terrorists who are connected to the September 11 attacks that claimed thousands of innocent lives in the US."
The news media, particularly television, believes that Americans have an incredibly short attention span. And, in most cases that's true. But do the media moguls really think we will forget Sept. 11? Given shots of the still-smoldering ground zero, televised mass memorial services, funerals of police and firefighters killed during the terrorist attacks, continuous reports on new anthrax cases and buildings being shut down, Pentagon and other government briefing sessions and terrorism alerts, Americans will not forget "who started this whole thing."
So why the reminders? During the past ten days or so there has been a steadily building criticism of the war effort. Strategic military blunders coupled with a mounting civilian death toll in Afghanistan are becoming items that Americans are being forced to digest. Add reports of the dropping of indiscriminate cluster bombs, the second bombing of a Red Cross food distribution center, the minuscule amounts of food distributed in light of the hundreds of thousands facing a starvation winter and the growing voices of dissent around the globe and the Pentagon has some serious downsides to be concerned about.
To mitigate against potential slippage in support for the war, the administration has hired a public relations firm. The major networks and the 24/7-cable news channels are also doing their part to rally support for a long drawn-out engagement. Against this background, the CNN memo becomes part of a crude and blatant effort to manage the news.
Early on in the bombing campaign, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and Pentagon spokespersons either denied or cast doubt on reports of civilian casualties. Now that reporters are getting closer to the front lines and beaming back pictures of death and destruction, the new message appears to lay the blame for any civilian casualties squarely at the feet of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Government statements such as, "we didn't mean to kill those seven children in Kabul while they were eating breakfast with their father," or "we didn't really want to bomb the Red Cross food warehouse again but we heard that the Taliban were stealing the food," or "the deaths of the women and children of the village of Ghanikhel was regrettable" sound hollow when they are followed by the "all this is happening because the Taliban refused to give up Osama bin Laden" mantra. And Rumsfeld's statements sound an awful lot like what CNN is instructing its anchors to say.
Recently, the German magazine Der Spiegel interviewed John MacArthur, an editor with Harper's Magazine and the author of the excellent book, The Battle of Lies, a critique of the role the media played during the Gulf War. Here are a few excerpts from the interview. The longer transcript, which was translated by Marc Batko, is posted at the SF Indymedia website.
Spiegel: "In your book The Battle of Lies, you sharply criticized the reporting on the Gulf War. How are the American media handling the current conflict?"
MacArthur: "The reporting about the attacks themselves was very good and very professional. Now we experience a completely overheated patriotism. Well-known journalists have declared in public they will not criticize the government and the president in this situation. Even serious papers describe divergent voices and criticism of the actions of our government as 'immoral.' Dan Rather, one of our best-known newscasters, said: "George Bush is the president. If he calls me to duty, I am ready..."
Spiegel: "You are also in a special situation. Unlike the Iraq situation with its attack on Kuwait eleven years ago, the terror attacks have struck America's heart."
MacArthur: "Therefore we need nothing more now than clear analyses, different voices and a broad discussion about what should be done. Instead our journalists outdo one another in loudly acclaiming every average speech of our president..."
Spiegel: "... you describe how the US government 'sold' the Gulf war with PR-methods. Is this being repeated?"
MacArthur: "... From the beginning, the crisis was described as a "war" by the Bush administration and the media. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were immediately termed warlike or belligerent acts, not crimes. The Bush administration has driven the expectations of the American public so high that they now urgently need corroborating pictures."
Spiegel: "Where should the pictures come from?..."
MacArthur: "The military wants to do journalism. As at the Gulf, the Pentagon seeks pictures and disseminates success reports of precisely destroyed buildings and killed or captured terrorists. No one can check whether this information is correct or not."
Spiegel: "After the Gulf war, the Pentagon and the media agreed on new rules for reporting, the so-called ground rules. The military must grant access to journalists according to these ground rules."
MacArthur: "... According to everything we know in the past, access will be more difficult than at the Gulf. At that time selected media representatives from the so-called pool were allowed to report ... President Bush said that many of our victories will remain invisible. This obviously means conversely that no one learns anything about our defeats and mistakes."
Spiegel: "In your book you claim the media gives a 'careful styling' and an aestheticizing design to the war reporting. Do you see something similar now?"
MacArthur: "Absolutely. This is a war of the logos and symbols. The television stations outdo one another with slogans like 'War on Terrorism', 'America at War', 'America Strikes Back,' etc. ..."
Spiegel: "How are your objections received in the US?"
MacArthur: "Questioning the choice of words 'war against terrorism' is presently not allowed. This questioning is already regarded as unpatriotic. I recently criticized Fox and CNN for constantly showing an American flag on the screen since the terror attacks ... The next day I received at least 100 e-mails to the effect: 'What a shame you were not in the World Trade Center on September 11.'"
Unfortunately, as MacArthur's comments confirm, we've seen all of this before. In 1991, as a staff member of the DataCenter, an Oakland-based nonprofit research organization, I edited a series of three press collections on the Persian Gulf War. I recently dusted off Volume 3, "The Media and Our Right to Know." Section Three, titled "The Mainstream Media -- Acquiescent Voices," contains a series of articles detailing how the press rolled over while the first Bush administration and the Pentagon pursued the war. The headlines, "Censoring for Political Security," "The Press of Business: Persistent Pro-War Propaganda," "US military gags acquiescent press," and "Who does the American press take orders from?" tells the story of a largely cowed and coerced mainstream media. It's now ten years later. Regrettably, the corporate media is reading from the same script.
Contact Bill Berkowitz at firstname.lastname@example.org. This originally appeared at workingforchange.com.