An Army of Propaganda
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Embedded reporters. Weapons of mass destruction. Surgical strikes.
It's no coincidence that Americans, and others around the world, are echoing the exact same phrases and news bites at the same times with near-military precision. It's the result of a slickly orchestrated public relations campaign on the part of the military and the U.S. government that is borrowing the best practices of the corporate PR world.
In an effort coordinated by the White House Office of Global Communication (which also coordinated press coverage of the war in Afghanistan), everyone connected to the government during the war on Iraq is echoing a pre-scripted message of the day.
According to PR Week, a trade publication of the PR industry: "The OGC, an office born out of post-September-11 efforts to combat anti-American news stories emerging from Arab countries, will be key in keeping all U.S. spokespeople on message. Each night, U.S. embassies around the world, along with all federal departments in DC, will receive a 'Global Messenger' e-mail containing talking points and ready-to-use quotes."
The PR industry, as many may know, was actually started by the military during World War I, when persuasive techniques were developed to recruit soldiers.
"After the war a lot of those people went to work for the private sector and are seen as the grandfathers of PR," says Laura Miller, associate editor of PR Watch ( www.prwatch.org), a corporate and media watchdog group. "They were very up front about the fact that [in their opinion] in a democracy, public opinion needs to be controlled by a small number of people who know what's best for the public."
In the case of the war against Iraq, that means that there should be no confusion or dissent about the aims and progress of the war. In what was apparently meant as a compliment to the OGC network, PR Week noted that, "The network is intended not only to disseminate, but also to dominate news of the conflict around the world."
Sanitizing the Conflict
One aspect to this kind of domination of the news is the control and manipulation of viewpoints and information coming directly from the government.
The Bush administration has also been hard at work on limiting and ideally silencing opposing or challenging viewpoints and factual narratives coming from other sources. The administration has attacked Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based and state-funded media outlet which is the primary news source for much of the Arab world.
On March 25 the New York Stock Exchange revoked Al-Jazeera's credentials. Meanwhile hackers have prevented either its Arab or English-language sites from being accessible in the U.S. And the administration has pressured Qatar amir, Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, to force Al-Jazeera to give more emphasis to their versions of events.
Far from being anti-U.S. or pro-Saddam Hussein, media critics note that Al-Jazeera is widely seen as a moderate, balanced outlet that offers plenty of airtime to U.S. officials. Al-Jazeera actually drew the ire of the Iraqi government for reporting on Hussein's lavish birthday celebration.
It has drawn intense fire from the U.S. for airing video of the interrogation of American POWs, which the U.S. says violates the Geneva Convention.
"The POW footage has been shown by numerous TV stations around the world, yet Al-Jazeera was singled out by the U.S. government and demonized," said Lamis Andoni, an independent journalist and analyst who has covered the Middle East for over two decades. "They [the U.S. administration] want one story line to be out there, but they cannot control the story line when there are other stories like Al-Jazeera's."
A sanitized view of the conflict serves an important political purpose for the U.S. administration, both in downplaying the vulnerability of U.S. troops and dehumanizing and de-emphasizing Iraqi casualties, especially of civilians. In keeping with this strategy not only is it unacceptable to show video of the American POWs, but also images of death in general.
Erich Marquardt, editor and publisher of YellowTimes.org, found this out when his site was shut down by its Internet provider after posting photos of U.S. prisoners of war and dead Iraqi civilians. Journalism professors and media experts note that while there has not yet been widespread blatant censorship, U.S. media outlets in step with the government have practiced their own form of carrot and stick self-censorship.
Stars and Stripes Forever
A few high-profile journalists with anti-war or anti-administration sentiments have suffered actual retribution for their views. Talk show host Phil Donahue had his show pulled by MSNBC because, according to inside memos leaked to the press, his anti-war and left-leaning views were contrary to the current patriotic fever. Meanwhile MSNBC recently awarded a show to right-wing shock jock Michael Savage, who among many other things has referred to young urban gunfire victims as "ghetto slime."
While actual demotions or firings like Donahue's are relatively rare, University of Texas journalism professor Robert Jensen notes that ambitious journalists are made all too aware of how their coverage of the war could affect their future careers.
"This is more a system that rewards those who comply than punishes those who don't," said Jensen, author of the book "Writing Dissent." "There are only a couple dramatic cases where people were punished, but then it doesn't take many demonstration cases to scare people away. And the rewards the system offers are quite tangible -- if you play the game you'll get this; if you don't play the game you might just get that."
Jensen says that overt displays of patriotism from journalists should be considered just as taboo as blatant anti-war sentiment. "Journalists make the claim of being neutral, but you have journalists saying we're neutral but we're also patriotic," he said. "Yet patriotism is a political position, it's not a neutral position. You can't be both."
Clear Channel, the largest owner of radio stations in the country, has scrapped even any pretense of objectivity with its sponsorship of pro-war rallies in major cities throughout the U.S.
Embedded in War
One reason patriotism seems to be running so high among journalists covering the war from Iraq is the "embedded reporter" system. This new strategy has roughly 500 journalists from different media outlets actually integrated with troops, traveling and living with them. While this offers a decent number of reporters first-hand views of the action, critics say the drawbacks are far worse than the benefits.
"It is unusual to have this many reporters with this much access to the battlefield, but that access has come at a high price," said Rachel Coen, an analyst for FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting).
The embedded reporters' work is highly regulated by government officials. They are not permitted to interview Iraqis without permission and they cannot interview soldiers off the record, drastically reducing the likelihood that troops will say anything negative about the U.S. effort. And it's only natural that reporters who are living and traveling with soldiers in such close quarters will quickly form strong bonds and camaraderie with the troops.
As with a journalist who gets too friendly with any source, this presents an ethical dilemma.
"Embedding is a way to kill the press with kindness," said NYU media studies professor Mark Crispin Miller. "You absorb reporters into the advancing military unit, and they're psychologically inclined to see themselves as part of the military operation. They even dress like soldiers."
During the Vietnam War, growing media skepticism and coverage of the conflict played a major role in turning public opinion against the war. But Robert Jensen said he sees two main types of stories coming from the embedded reporters and neither of them fills the need for big-picture accurate reporting.
"First are the human interest stories -- what are they eating, what are they doing for fun?" he said. "Those are valid stories, but they aren't very important in helping the public understand the nature of the conflict. The other kind are just narrating the movement of troops -- we're going down the road, we're going down the road some more, there are people shooting at us. Those are reports that are very dramatic, but what do they tell us about the war, about the politics of war, about the lies we're being told by the Bush administration?"
Casualties of Truth
Reports from FAIR document how truth has been one of the major casualties of the media's unquestioning reliance on government sources. On March 20, reporters from NBC, NPR, ABC and other outlets reported as fact the military's assertion that the Iraqis had used banned Scud missiles. However two days later the Joint Chiefs of Staff reported that in fact no Scud missiles had been fired. Similarly on March 23 various media trumpeted the government's claim that a chemical weapons factory had been found near the town of Najaf, though a day later that claim was totally debunked.
With increasing Iraqi civilian casualties and military setbacks, however, the press is slowly being forced to admit that things aren't all rosy.
"The recent reverses the U.S. has suffered have made some of the coverage better than it might otherwise have been," noted Mark Crispin Miller. "Over the last couple of days they've had to admit that the spin we're getting from people like Rumsfeld is just false."
Ideally, many say, journalists' skepticism and media outlets' willingness to criticize the administration will grow if the war drags on and casualties on either side mount.
"It's a really interesting gamble they've taken with this embedded reporter thing," said Laura Miller. "They are hoping the journalists will do their PR work for them, and so far they have been. But there are so many journalists there, and journalists do have this idealist streak in them. So if things go bad, and the journalists are at the right place at the right time, or the wrong place at the wrong time, depending how you look at it, they could be reporting some crazy stuff."
Kari Lydersen writes for the Washington Post and is an instructor for the Urban Youth International Journalism Program in Chicago.