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Our Media Have Been So Wrong for So Long

In his new book, E&P editor Greg Mitchell offers a stinging indictment of the media's complicity with Washington's war-marketing machine.
 
 
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So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed on Iraq , by Greg Mitchell, a collection of essays that date back from the lead-up to the Iraq war, in 2003, through this fall, is a compelling antidote to the cult of misinformation written by the editor of Editor & Publisher, a journal of the newspaper industry, and one of the oldest magazines in the country. The book features a preface by Bruce Springsteen, and foreword by Joseph L. Galloway.

As one who has been on the cutting edge of exposing the Bush administration's pre-emptive war on the media, Mitchell, the author of nine other nonfiction works, is among the first to broach, and critically analyze, the issue of "non-hostile combat deaths," as well as suggest the long term costs of this war not merely to our veterans, but to our national ethos.

We're treated to a first rate account not merely of a media complicit in the debacle that is Iraq, but one equally responsible for our continued presence in the region.

AlterNet recently caught up with Greg Mitchell to talk about his latest book...

Jayne Stahl: You quote one of your reporters writing that the "highest calling of journalism is not reporting. It's finding the story that would help prevent a war." Tell how this relates to your decision to publish an anthology of your essays about the Iraq war now.

Greg Mitchell: This is the first book to look at five full years in the life of the war, from the "run-up" to the "surge" debate last fall. But its aim is to serve as a warning and, in part, a lesson for future journalists. When I was back in j-school, which came just before Woodward and Bernstein emerged, we were taught that the first rule for reporters is to be "skeptical." Not necessarily critical or negative, but skeptical. This rule applies whether you are probing a local school board scandal, or the preparation for an invasion of another country.

You might be looking behind what a housing department staffer said, or maybe examining the facts as put forward by, say, a U.S. secretary of state before the United Nations. Same thing.

Of course, reporters and editors don't have it within their full power to "prevent" a war, but they can sure try to put all the facts out there so that those who are backing an attack at least have to face full public questioning and the wrath of the poll numbers, not to mention, confront their own conscience. I hope the book encourages more skepticism, at least.

Stahl: To paraphrase Daniel Ellsberg, who you interviewed (the very prescient piece appears early in your book), have the media learned the lessons of Iraq, or are we poised for another prefab invasion?

Mitchell: I've charted some improvement in the "skepticism" since the WMD and other Saddam threats turned up empty. Surely you would hope that many in the media would be outright embarrassed and vow not to let it happen again. Indeed, as each succeeding "crisis" has emerged, involving Iran or Syria or North Korea, for example, at least more in the media have raised questions, although not universally.

But there's still far too much "report the military or White House view and worry about the rest later" kind of reporting. And, as we saw after the Watergate/Vietnam era, the fervor for really hard-nosed, skeptical coverage can die quickly.

Stahl: In the spring of 2003, one of the questions you say you wished the press had asked President Bush at his last press conference before the war had to do with how many Iraqi civilians did he expect to die as a result of the war. Do you think we are closer to knowing that, and do you think we can expect less obstruction with respect to the flow of information from the next chain of command in Washington?

Mitchell: It's impossible to know the true civilian toll in Iraq, but we know that it is horrible enough, no matter what the number. It is certainly higher than the minimal "tens of thousands" cited by the White House and many in the press, but how far it goes into the hundreds of thousands no one can say. It's almost as if the surveys that have produced much higher numbers have been attacked as a way to cut off all discussion -- you know, we can't know, so why try? But we have to keep trying.

Beyond the deaths, you have the wounded and the psychologically damaged, as we have seen with our own veterans. Imagine the mental toll on young people and kids there, with bombs exploding all the time, almost every family touched by death, no normal childhood at all. Then you have the tragedy of the massive migration from the country. It's a catastrophe no matter how you slice it.

The next administration almost has to be looser with info, but funny things happen to well-meaning politicos when they have their own missteps to defend or cover up.

Stahl: At E&P, you have been keeping track of the extraordinary rise in "noncombat deaths" among our troops in Iraq, and there are several chapters on this in your book. What do you attribute the sudden rise in suicides, accidents, and nonhostile mortality to? Why do you think we have seen the greatest percentage of suicides in the Iraq war, more than any other, since the military started keeping records?

Mitchell: I'm proud to say that I started covering this area just weeks into the war and have kept at it ever since -- for many years, it was a very lonely crusade. That has changed only in recent months. The cases have ranged from Col. Ted Westhusing, to an Army interpreter who killed herself after refusing to go along with torture techniques, to just average Joes who couldn't handle the war zone anymore.

The reason for the suicide surge has a lot to do with the multiple tours, of course. Then you have the lack of progress in Iraq for such a long period. Plus, with standards lowered, you have more people entering the military with mental or even criminal issues. Finally, the military appeared to not take this issue seriously for a long time, so I doubt that proper counseling was in place.

Then you have the high number of suicides here at home due to posttraumatic stress and other pressures. Just this past few week, we have witnessed revelations about a Veterans Administration "coverup" of the enormous numbers.

Stahl: What is your position on news blackouts during times of war? Are they ever justified and, if so, under what conditions?

Mitchell: There are a number of chapters in my book on the embedding program -- pro and con -- and lack of images of the true costs of the war appearing in our media. This latter deserves more attention.

The "coverup" has stretched from not showing the coffins of dead soldiers returning from the war to the media refusing to air graphic images of the dead and wounded. In some cases, the military has put up roadblocks, but in other cases the media, maybe a couple of days later than they had wished, still had the option of showing what happened. You can find the images on the Web and in the foreign press but rarely here at home. This is self-censorship in most cases.

Americans, at this late date, really don't have a strong handle on what the death and destruction really looks and feels like.

Stahl: In a survey three years ago of more than 200 journalists who covered Iraq, conducted by American University, many spoke about how their stories were routinely edited to have broader appeal to "Middle America." One reporter commented that this failure of media "will no doubt be repeated." Your response was: "Only if we allow it." Who are we, and how do we stop it?

Mitchell: Well, of course, I hope my book plays at least a small role, but the criticism of coverage that appears throughout much of the Web and blogosphere certainly needs to keep editors and reporters on their toes. There has been such a dramatic change in the past few years -- before that, almost all this scrutiny and pressure came from the right. I hate the growing partisanship in America, but this is one case where strong measures were needed and, thankfully, taken. Now we do see many more facts corrected and apologies offered, at least.

And certainly there has been plenty of tough-minded reporting from Iraq, and out of Washington -- just not nearly enough.

Stahl: What responsibility, if any, do newspaper editors and publishers bear for misreporting facts that take us into the battlefield?

Mitchell: Of course, they bear responsibility, but most have not even taken blame for their complicity in the war from the start. Everyone cites the so-called "apologies" from the New York Times and the Washington Post for their WMD reporting but, as my book shows, there were no such things.

It was quite telling that on the recent fifth anniversary of the start of the war, the media reassessed everything and pointed fingers everywhere, except at themselves. There was extremely little reviewing of the media's performance and little blame accepted. It was so blatant I found it shocking, which says a lot after all this time.

Stahl: In what you've called a "bombshell," the reported in late April that many military analysts who appeared on cable and network news shows were, in fact, scripted by the Pentagon, and further tainted by having business links to potentially huge profits from war contracts. You were ahead of your time in your coverage of this collusion between media and government in the past. Is the Pentagon now permanently embedded in the mainstream media?

Mitchell: It certainly seems to be embedded at Fox, in any case, and will probably remain so despite the Pentagon's recent announcement that the formal "media generals" propaganda plan had been put on hold. Too many in the media assume that someone who served in a high position in the military necessarily is an "expert" on war, or even the state of our military today.

But, just as importantly was the absence of countering "anti-war" voices on TV in the run-up to the war, and for years afterward, as my book shows. You see a little more of that voice now, but then again, 65 percent of all Americans want us out, so how could you not? But you still do not see two out of three pundits on TV, or in print, expressing that "anti-war" view -- it is still one-sided in the other direction, amazingly.

Stahl: There are a staggering 300,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Rand Corp., who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome and depression. And, in a recent letter to the New York Times , former Democratic presidential candidate, John Edwards, accused the mainstream media of vastly underreporting the numbers of vets who return from war injured or hurt. Your book ends with the grim reality of what you call "the surge in nonhostile deaths" of soldiers in Iraq, as well as what happens when veterans come home. Why the reluctance on the media's part to cover this story?

Mitchell: Simply, it's hard to cover and a "downer," but not that hard to cover and the kind of honest "bad news" that we need to give the public a true picture of continuing this war, both in human terms and the trillion-dollar price tag yet to come.

Stahl: One has the sense that "So Wrong for So Long" could be the first of a series of anthologies of your essays dealing with the folly of war. Bill Moyers, in an interview with you in the early days of the war, asked if you "have a sense that when the battle is over, this story's only begun?" How would you answer that question now?

Mitchell: Funny you should ask, I am just now contemplating a "sequel." Unfortunately, there is no chance that the war will end before it is published, though I will be happy to cancel the book if I am wrong.

Jayne Lyn Stahl is a widely published poet, essayist, playwright screenwriter, and Huffington Post blogger. She is a member of PEN American Center, her nomination having been recommended by Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee.

 
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