War Coverage Rewrites History


The non-stop news cycle turns breaking events into history with an unprecedented rapidity. Soon we will be flooded with books, videocassettes and documentaries about Operation Iraqi Freedom through a media recycling operation already in high gear.

New media products offer one way of amortizing the investment in so much news coverage. But it is also a way of reinforcing the U.S. view that good has triumphed over evil, that the invasion was welcomed and worth it. Soon, the news industry will start handing out awards for best coverage by an embedded journalist under fire and, later, memorial plaques for those who died covering the war. Our heroism and valor cannot be forgotten.

What is needed, however, is not self-congratulation but real introspection and a critical reassessment. Were some media outlets acting more like publicists and promoters of the war than journalists with a duty to remain neutral, balanced and fair? Were the warriors given an expensively produced free media ride? There are many issues that remain unresolved, unexplored, un-investigated, unreported and underplayed in the U.S. press. And some involve the role of the "embedded" journalists who had a rare front-row seat to the war, but ended up giving us only part of the story.

The Pentagon seems pleased as punch at the positive spin it received despite the carping of the thin-skinned Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who has never read a critical comment he could agree with. "Gee," "Gosh" and "No" were his three favorite words when confronted with critical questions from reporters. C-SPAN spent a day following Pentagon media chief Tori Clark who did a good job of disguising any hint of self-congratulation. Her predecessor Kenneth Baker, praising her management of the war coverage in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, gushed, "You couldn't hire actors to do as good a job as the press has done" from the Pentagon's point of view.

Wars transform media coverage: Some outlets become winners, others losers. In the U.S., the Fox News Channel with its patriotic posturing, martial music and pro-war boosterism has used the conflict to build a right-wing base and polarize the media environment. Fox won the cable news ratings war, even as most critics complained that they degraded journalism in the process. The so-called "Fox effect" has moved its competitors, like CNN and MSNBC, to the right.

In global terms, Al Jazeera has emerged with new respect and a bigger audience. Here is Michael Wolff writing in the New York Magazine:

"The network is being transformed the way Gulf War I transformed CNN -- but then CNN's audience has never exceeded more than a few million, whereas Al Jazeera already speaks to a good 35 million people every day.

"'By the time this whole thing is over,' I said to the three correspondents, 'You'll be far and away the dominant media organization in the region -- one of the largest in the world! ... You could end up being Time Warner Al Jazeera.'

"The Al Jazeera man responded: 'No, al Jazeera Time Warner.'"

Clearly, they understand branding.

The real war may have ended but the media war grinds on and heats up. While most of the world had its eye on Baghdad, Rupert Murdoch had his on Direct TV satellite, which he has since added to his arsenal of media weaponry. In Washington, the FCC, under the leadership of Colin Powell's son Michael, announced plans to lift media rules that limit concentration of media in the hands of a few companies on June 2. Michael Powell has already cited the war coverage as the reason America needs media Goliaths. Only they, he claims, can afford to cover wars like the one in Iraq.

While this story has been barely covered in the American press, it is receiving extensive coverage in the British press. The Guardian's Annie Lawson reported that U.S. broadcasters' war stance was under scrutiny. Unfortunately, only non-profit groups, not the government are calling for such scrutiny. The Center for Digital Democracy, which promotes diversity in digital media, believes that news organizations in the U.S. have a serious conflict of interest when it comes to reporting on the policies of the Bush administration. "It is likely that decisions about how to cover the war on Iraq -- especially on television -- may be tempered by a concern to not alienate the White House," said Jeffrey Chester, the Center's executive director, in a recent article. "These media giants stand to make untold billions if the FCC safeguards are eliminated or weakened."

The controversy over embedding is only one aspect of an emerging deeper debate over what did and didn't really happen in the war. Every narrative tends to produce counter narratives, especially when new documents and other sources emerge. Revisionism is now part of the craft most historians pursue. Just as the first Gulf War was originally proclaimed to be a big win until it wasn't, so this war has also given rise to as many unanswered questions as it has left unexploded bombs littering the streets of Iraq's cities.

Here is a quick list of issues that still need to be looked at:

  1. How was the Weapons of Mass Destruction argument constructed and why did it succeed despite solid evidence to the contrary? Ditto for the link between 9/11 and Iraq.

  2. Was the circumvention of the U.N. planned in advance? What political forces were involved in the pre-emptive war strategy?

  3. How did the looting begin in Baghdad? Was it unexpected? Was some of the looting an inside job by criminals with keys to the vaults? Were U.S. troops encouraging it?

  4. Was the toppling of the Saddam statue a staged event? Why were no other statues, many of them larger, brought down earlier by Iraqis?

  5. Did Baghdad fall or was it handed over? Was there a deal with Saddam, members of his regime, or the Russians?

  6. Why were journalists fired on? Was it an accident or part of the war plan?

  7. How did U.S. companies like Bechtel lobby for a profitable role in the reconstruction? Were military targets selected with lucrative benefits of reconstruction in mind?

  8. What was the extent of civilian casualties? What was the extent of damage to the country?

  9. What behind-the-scenes role did Israel play?

  10. What was the relationship between the uncritical coverage we saw and the lobbying underway at the same time by media companies seeking FCC rule changes that will benefit their bottom lines?

News Dissector Danny Schechter writes a daily weblog on Mediachannel.org. He is the author of the just published "Media Wars: News at a Time of Terror."

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