Media

Spin vs. Truth in Iraq

As the three-year milestone passes in Iraq, poor media coverage marches on.
The third anniversary of the war came, and the third anniversary went, and an opportunity for media outlets to offer hard-nosed assessments on the state of the conflict or reflect on their own coverage flashed by as quickly as one of those network logos.

It was news business as usual with a few minor exceptions and little deviation from the template of a pro-war media-frame, even as more critical comments percolated through -- usually from people wearying of the story and upset because the invasion has not been more effective. USA Today even reported that one out of four Americans admitted the war had, at one point or another, made them cry.

If the outcome had been different with a clear-cut victory, a real "mission accomplished" or a decisive bad-guys-gone, good-guys-win formulation, we would be seeing parades and we told-you-sos all over the media. Reality forced media outlets to tone down the celebratory tones we saw when the war was originally being described as a "cakewalk."

At the advice of his media managers, President Bush remained upbeat, jumping out in public early to reinforce his policy with a series of political campaign-like speeches and the promulgation of a "new" strategy document based entirely on an old one. It was a PR maneuver straight out of the information war-info dominance play book in which positioning is everything, ie., the person who defines the issue first shapes the news.

In his case, the president was mindful of the erosion of public support and so careful not to even use the word "war." Democracy is now his buzzword du jour. His rhetoric sought to do what his Pentagon couldn't -- convert defeat into a victory. This media strategy is designed as a proactive way to manage perceptions because everyone else is then forced to react to you. After several sound-alike speeches, he appealed to the public to leave the war behind as in "lets not talk about it anymore."

Not everyone in the press played along. The AP carried an analysis showing how the president's speechwriters cited quotes from "straw men" to concoct phony arguments that he then verbally knocked down. I saw that story on Yahoo, not on the air.

Operation Swarmer

With a $2 billion media budget, the Pentagon staged its own media anniversary war game with a special military maneuver tantalizingly titled "Operation Swarmer." They know that the TV cameras need pictures, so we were treated to images of an armada of helicopters out to "smoke out" some terrorists instead of the nightly display of dead bodies. Like film producers they "deployed" Hollywood narrative technique to create a visual storyline infused with the "bang-bang" that networks love, along with an animation showing how their gung-ho tactics are "making progress."

It was this made-for-TV media story that spun the anniversary on the ground, until a few days later when Time came out to report that the whole staged spectacle "fizzled."

Time's man on the spot writes: "But contrary to what many many television networks erroneously reported, the operation was by no means the largest use of airpower since the start of the war. ('Air assault' is a military term that refers specifically to transporting troops into an area.) In fact, there were no air strikes, and no leading insurgents were nabbed in an operation that some skeptical military analysts described as little more than a photo op. What's more, there were no shots fired at all, and the units had met no resistance, said the U.S. and Iraqi commanders."

Downplayed stories:

1. Escalating costs

The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service reported that funding for the war we are supposedly winning will go up. U.S. military spending in Iraq and Afghanistan will average 44 percent more in the current fiscal year. Spending will rise to $9.8 billion a month from the $6.8 billion a month the Pentagon said it spent last year, the research service said.

2. The role of oil

Greg Palast is one of the few journalists to suggest that President Bush's upbeat assessment is less about the war -- which is seen as a means to an end, not and end itself -- but about oil. Palast writes: "A 323-page plan for Iraq's oil secretly drafted by the State Department … What's inside this thick Bush diktat: a directive to Iraqis to maintain a state oil company that will 'enhance its relationship with OPEC.'"

Enhance its relationship with OPEC? How strange: the government of the United States ordering Iraq to support the very OPEC oil cartel that is strangling our nation with outrageously high prices for crude. Specifically, the system ordered up by the Bush cabal would keep a lid on Iraq's oil production -- limiting Iraq's oil pumping to the tight quota set by Saudi Arabia and the OPEC cartel.

There you have it. Yes, Bush went in for the oil -- not to get MORE of Iraq's oil, but to prevent Iraq producing TOO MUCH of it." True? Maybe, but who in the media is even looking into this? Iraq's leading resource is barely covered.

3. The morale of Iraqis

We rarely hear from Iraqis in the media, so the anniversary was not an exception. Why is it, as Harper's reports, nearly 47 percent of the Iraqis cheer when their American "liberators" are shot? (Only 7 percent approve of attacks on Iraqi security forces.)

Voices that oppose occupation, such as that of blogger Riverbend, are largely invisible in our media. She writes in her Baghdad Burning Blog: "In many ways, this year is like 2003 prior to the war, when we were stocking up on fuel, water, food and first aid supplies and medications. We're doing it again this year, but now we don't discuss what we're stocking up for. Bombs and B-52's are so much easier to face than other possibilities. … Three years and the electricity is worse than ever. The security situation has gone from bad to worse. The country feels like it's on the brink of chaos once more, but a preplanned, prefabricated chaos being led by religious militias and zealots."

True? Quite possibly, but who is looking into the forces behind this developing conflict?

4. The media coverage

MediaChannel.org, with the support of media reform groups and United For Peace and Justice (UFPJ), held a march on the media last week. Press releases went to all media outlets. Efforts to meet with media executives of most major media outlets failed as newsrooms largely ignored it.

A Spanish language newspaper covered a protest at CBS in L.A., not the Los Angeles Times. People in Toronto read more about it the Globe and Mail than people in New York. Their reporter Simon Houpt was the only one in the media capital of the world to show up. He wrote: "The thinking was that the networks and major newspapers have helped to create a repressive climate in which dissonant and dissident voices aren't welcome. Some people on the fringes feel news executives are as responsible for the war as the White House.

"The plan for the Manhattan protest was to trace a path through the corridors of power -- or, rather, along the perimeter of that power, since the group's request to meet with media executives had been universally ignored."

Forget the phrase "people on the fringes" -- a predictable putdown, probably inserted by his editor -- and reflect on the totally unreported fact that 157,000 emails were sent by supporters to network news programs demanding better coverage as part of this call for truth. As for other protests around the world, they were covered, but their size was given more prominence than their message.

The issue may have failed to grasp the media's attention, probably because it is too close to home, but the context has not. All media analysts know that the mighty mainstream media (MSM) machine is losing readers and viewers in part because of the group-think manner in which it sanitized the war and remains largely unwilling to challenge it, even on this third anniversary. No doubt, the public is ahead of the press.
Danny Schechter writes a daily blog for MediaChannel.org. He is the author of "Embedded: Weapons of Mass Deception -- How the Media Filed to Cover the War on Iraq" (Prometheus).
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