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The War for Public Opinion

By clamping down on information like never before, the Bush administration has sold America the Terror War. Will critical journalism from the Internet and abroad break the deal?
 
 
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In 1922, social critic Walter Lippmann wrote, "Decisions in modern states tend to be made by the interaction, not of Congress and the executive, but of public opinion and the executive." Never has this been truer than in the war on terrorism. The Bush administration has justified its bombing campaign against Afghanistan not with a congressional declaration of war, but with polls indicating that close to 90 percent of Americans want military action.

In American politics today, public opinion polls have become a kind of Fifth Estate. As soon as they are released, poll results become fodder to justify policies, attack opponents or wage wars. When the numbers hover around 90 percent, as do Bush's current approval ratings, they are political gospel. After all, when nine out of 10 Americans agree, the country's resolve must be strong as steel. Or is it?

Therein lies the rub. Public opinion is a fickle thing, sometimes turning on as little as one horrific image or triumphant speech. A few well-placed media messages can cause sea changes in national opinion: Think of Southern cops turning dogs and fire hoses loose on desegregation marches; or the videotape of Rodney King; or napalmed villagers in Vietnam.

The Bush administration knows this media truism all too well. They also know its corollary -- that with the right pressure, public opinion can be manipulated. And so, as bombs began to fall on Kabul, the administration launched an equally aggressive front at home: the war for America's approval of war.

Back in 1922, Lippmann noted that public opinion tends to solidify during times of war and that the media, becoming more patriotic, aids in this solidification. That was the case during World Wars I and II, when news items smelled heavily of government propaganda and Hollywood's most talented filmmakers were hired to make inspirational war movies.

That was also the case during the Persian Gulf War. Had the U.S. government allowed reporters to file from the front lines, showing the effect of the war on civilians and the region, public opinion might have been different. Instead, the Gulf War came into American living rooms as a series of fuzzy Defense Department abstractions. From the couch, what happened in Iraq looked like a video game. Unlike the images that poured into the tube during Vietnam, there was very little to get upset about. The campaign seemed clean, technologically efficient. The majority of the public came away with a favorable impression, even if they failed to feel the war was a moral victory, as was the case during World War II.

That was the media success story of George I. Now along comes George II, waging a more complicated war that is a descendant of his father's. Since the first shots were fired, the Bush administration has successfully squelched negative news reports from Afghanistan. Asked at an October press conference how he would handle the media's war coverage, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld quoted Winston Churchill's statement about disinformation around the D-day invasion. "Sometimes the truth is so precious it must be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies," he said. "They plan to fight the war and then tell the press and the public how it turned out afterwards," said CNN Correspondent Jamie McIntyre, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

The Pentagon's tactics in the media war have been less than subtle. For starters, they bought up access to all commercial satellite photographs of the region, preventing any news outlets from obtaining them. They also have prevented journalists from accompanying soldiers or airmen on most missions, or even from interviewing them afterward.

Meanwhile, television news has been behaving more like a wing of the military than an objective Fourth Estate, with anchors like CBS’s Dan Rather pledging his allegiance on air: "Wherever [Bush] wants me to line up, just tell me where." CNN Chairman Walter Isaacson ordered news staff to limit reports of Afghan war casualties and use World Trade Center deaths to justify the killings. Newspaper editors have admitted to taking dead civilian Afghans off their front pages for fear of appearing unpatriotic.

In other words, so far, so good. Bush, far from being a brilliant statesman, has certainly proved himself an adept one, for he has never strayed from framing the war on terrorism as a fight of good against evil. Thus the further destruction of Afghanistan is just retribution against "evil doers," whether a majority of the Al Qaeda are in Afghanistan or not, whether military retaliation will quell terrorism or not. It's a message that domestic media outlets seem to like far more than reports of civilian casualties.

However, the Bush administration has had to contend with a new set of media forces arising from the "Information Revolution." The war on terrorism is the world's first war for the Internet and foreign news outlets. Never before have so many people ostensibly had access to so much news and opinion from so many sources. Never before has it been possible to gauge so many views, not only in the U.S., but from Europe and the Middle East. That is the quandary the Bush administration faces in "winning the war on ideas," as Bush phrased it. Public opinion is now vulnerable to what is reported outside the U.S.'s news borders.

In fact, of the 10 percent who don't approve of Phase I of the war on terrorism, many have probably taken to surfing the Internet for their information, reading critical reports on the progress and logic of the campaign from sites like the UK's Guardian, Dawn (Pakistan's English daily) and AlterNet.org (whose readership soared 500 percent in the days after Sept. 11). London's BBC has reported a record number of Americans tuning in to their Web site, radio and television broadcasts.

There is plenty of stomach-turning information out there to be found. In a Dec. 3 New York Times story, an Afghan man named Khalil, who survived U.S. bombs in the Tora Bora area, was quoted as saying, "The village is no more. All my family, 12 people were killed. I am the only one left in this family. I have lost my children, my wife. They are no more." According to AlterNet.org's David Corn, other Afghan refugees have reported similar slaughters: one said she had lost 38 relatives in a U.S. attack, another estimated up to 200 were dead in her village.

So what will Phase II of the war hold? According to a December Harris poll, more than eight of 10 Americans said the U.S. government's actions should be assisted by many countries, and that it is important to get support from the U.N. Security Council to expand the war. If this is true -- if multilateralism becomes increasingly important to Americans -- then views from Europe and the Middle East may suddenly become relevant.

In Europe, public approval of America's war in Afghanistan waned significantly in the month of November. In England, from a peak on par with U.S. public opinion right after the Sept. 11 attacks, support for the bombing campaign fell to two-thirds. In France, support dropped from two-thirds to half, and, in Germany and Italy, well over half the population wanted the attacks on Afghanistan to stop, according to the European press.

The reason for this wane in European support was fairly clear: The Europeans saw disturbing images of civilian casualties from the bombing campaign that Americans did not. "The public sees continuous bombing of buildings, and they see pictures from Al Jazeera of small villages that have made things immensely difficult," Helmut Lippelt, a German Green Party legislator, told the New York Times. This kind of negative opinion could come to haunt Americans if the war is widened or American troops get bogged down in civil unrest in Afghanistan.

Harder still to ignore will be views from the Middle East, where negative opinion about the war on terrorism has been of huge concern to the U.S. government. Never before in wartime has the U.S. had to work so hard to contain the views of its enemies. And that has everything to do with telecommunication advances as well as the growth of Middle Eastern news media. Back in August 1990, in the prelude to the Gulf War, news of Iraq's conquest of Kuwait did not hit the Arab world through official media for three entire days. There were no 24-hour Arab news networks, and Middle Eastern media were tightly controlled by government. Today, there are five pan-Arab news networks, including Al Jazeera, the 24-hour Qatar-based news station, which is watched by 35 million viewers in 20 Arab countries and airs sharp critiques of American policy in the region.

The Bush administration is well aware of the powers these news outlets possess, and has gone into high gear to convince Middle East citizens that the war on terrorism is aimed not at them, but at terrorists in their midst. As part of this effort, the Pentagon has hired the Rendon Group, a public relations firm in Washington, D.C., to help explain the U.S. military strikes to global audiences. The administration also has established a "coalition of information centers" in Washington, London and Islamabad to disseminate war news to Middle Eastern reporters -- a hard task since those in the region are 10 hours ahead of Washington.

Yet even with these recent moves, U.S. government officials have been quick to admit that, so far, they have lost the battle for Middle Eastern public opinion. The U.S. has almost no cultural organizations in the Middle East. As of Sept. 11 its main broadcasting arm, Voice of America, had an audience share of 2 percent in the region.

The chief problem is that the U.S. has low credibility in the Arab world -- in Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan and Iran, and especially in Iraq and Palestine. In order to explain the Afghan bombing campaign, officials of the Bush administration, such as Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell, have appeared on Al Jazeera. But, according to many news critics, the effect has not been positive. "Every time I see an American official speaking on Al Jazeera, I think of how much that person is inciting sentiment against America by promoting the American view," said Lamis Andoni, a Jordanian journalist who has covered the Middle East for 20 years. "It backfires. What does the U.S. have to say? That in order to get bin Laden it has to bomb all of Afghanistan and cause more misery in Afghanistan? This doesn't sell in the Arab world."

What does seem to sell is bin Laden's message -- not necessarily that a jihad should be waged against America, but that the U.S. is at fault for the economic, political and social problems of the Arab world. On Arab TV, bin Laden has listed the very issues that the U.S. government refuses to address: support of repressive regimes like Saudi Arabia, which permit the stationing of U.S. troops; the economic sanctions against Iraq, which have stifled Middle Eastern trade; and globalization, which has weakened the cultural traditions of Islam and caused a stark awareness of the haves and the have-nots.

Indeed, bin Laden has proved to be the U.S.'s chief foe, not only because he presents a terrorist threat but because he is the savviest of media manipulators, the fiercest of propagandists. His chief weapon on Sept. 11 was not so much the bodily damage that can be achieved with jetliners but the psychological impact of watching those jetliners take out America's most important economic and military symbols. Bin Laden understood well in advance that the destruction would be watched over and over again on American television.

The question now remains: What is the level of support for bin Laden in the Arab world? If he is captured and executed by the U.S. military, will there be blowback? Will bin Laden's death unleash a new wave of terrorism in the U.S. and abroad? And if that happens, will the U.S. media hew as closely to government propaganda as it has thus far? Or will the media widen its net and focus more on what is being said in Europe and the Middle East as well as by critics of the war in the U.S.? The answers to those questions will shape the public opinion war to come.

Tamara Straus is senior editor of AlterNet.org.