SOLOMON: Keeping Us Posted on Our Worst Enemy

Throughout this decade, the American news media have done an excellent job of keeping us informed about who's on the official Most Hated List. Still at the top: Saddam Hussein. Today, if Rip Van Winkle woke from a seven-year snooze and picked up Time magazine, Hussein's villainous eyes would seem to have never left the cover. Meanwhile, Rip could find a photo of the same wicked face, in triplicate, on the cover of Newsweek, with a recycled headline: "Can We Stop Saddam?" Saddam Hussein has been a bloody dictator in Iraq for a long time. But during the Iran-Iraq war, which spanned most of the 1980s, he was A-OK with the U.S. government -- and negative press notices were sparse in the United States. Later, when Iraq's August 1990 invasion of Kuwait caused Washington and Baghdad to have a falling out, suddenly our mainstream media discovered that Hussein was a tyrant with a Hitler-like mustache. Now, as the leaves fall again, many of the old media songs about Hussein are playing at high volume. The chorus drowns out the fact that Uncle Sam is friendly toward many governments with human rights records no better than Iraq's. Just a few weeks ago, Chinese President Jiang Zemin paid a pleasant state visit to Washington.During the Gulf War in early 1991, the U.S. press reported the Pentagon's massive bombardment of Iraq as an antiseptic barrage of missiles. Now, the history of that bombing has nearly disappeared down an Orwellian vacuum tube. For some reporters and pundits, only the four-day ground war of 1991 is worth mentioning -- not the five-week air assault on Iraq that preceded it. In recent weeks, readers of Washington Post commentaries may have gotten the impression that the bombing never happened at all.With almost incredible use of mediaspeak, columnist Jim Hoagland wrote: "Except for the 100 hours of Desert Storm in 1991, the U.S. and its allies have treated Saddam's regime as an acceptable evil." Likewise, on the very next day, fellow Post columnist Richard Cohen chimed in: "The war lasted, you will recall, just 100 hours."Millions of Iraqi civilians, who lived through more than a month of intensive bombing, recall differently. So does the Pentagon, which has quietly acknowledged that the bombing killed 200,000 people in Iraq.As was the case seven years ago, the sinister images of Saddam Hussein are looming so large in the U.S. media picture that there's no room for the Iraqi people. Now, as then, the coverage fits right in with White House zeal to personalize the battle: the U.S. government vs. "Saddam." Iraqis remain virtually non-persons as far as American media are concerned. Among them are 4,500 children dying every month, mostly due to sanctions against Iraq, according to the International Children's Education Fund of the United Nations. In American news coverage, "Iraqi civilians are almost totally invisible," notes Sam Husseini of the American-Arab Anti- Discrimination Committee.While boilerplate stories whiz down the conveyor belt from official Washington sources into the mass media, any fact that might impede the angel-vs.-devil view of the latest U.S.-Iraq confrontation gets short shrift. So, as the righteous thunder continues to rumble from American leaders, the issue of weapons inspections is habitually skewed.Last May, the U.S. Senate passed a chemical-weapons inspection act with support ranging from conservative Republicans to the White House. The measure allows the president to block international inspections of chemical facilities inside the United States.In other words, at the same time that top U.S. diplomats -- and American news media -- are lecturing the Iraqi government about the need to accept international inspection of chemical plants, Washington is retaining the right to prevent such inspection in this country whenever it pleases. In the long run, hypocrisy could turn out to be our own worst enemy.

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