The Media, the War and Our Right to Know

By now, we all realize that there is a high powered media campaign aimed at promoting the war on Iraq and shaping the views of the American people, relying on a media-savvy political strategy to sell the administration's priorities and policies.

There is an intimate link between the media, the war, and the Bush administration that even many activists are unaware of.

Few administrations in history have been as adept at using polling, focus groups, "perception managers," spinners, and I.O. or "information operations" specialists to sell slogans to further a "patriotically correct" climate. Orchestrating media coverage is one of their most well-honed skills, and they are aided and abetted by professional PR firms, corporate consultants, and media outlets.

Our Republican Guard relies on Murdoch-owned media assets like the Fox News Channel, supportive newspapers, aggressive talk radio hosts, conservative columnists, and an arsenal of on-air pundits adept at polarizing opinion and devaluing independent journalism.

They benefit from a media environment shaped by a wave of media consolidation that has seen the number of companies controlling our media drop from fifty to between five and seven in just ten years. Then there is the merger of news biz and show biz. Entertainment-oriented reality shows help depoliticize viewers while sensation-driven cable news limits analytical journalism and in-depth issue-oriented coverage.

Is it any wonder that most Americans admit to being uninformed about many of the key issues we confront? Is it surprising that many blindly follow feel-good slogans or appeals to national unity and conformity? This media problem is at the heart of all the issues that we face. And it is getting worse, not better.

If we want to save our democracy, we have to press the media to do its constitutionally protected job as a watchdog on people in power. We must insist that all views be given access, and that concerns of critics of this administration be heard and debated.

We live in a climate where even journalists are being intimidated for stepping out of line. In Iraq, the hotel assigned to journalists was fired on by soldiers, who killed two media workers. In the U.S., Pulitzer Prize winner Seymour Hersh was baited as a "media terrorist" by Pentagon advisor Richard Perle. Hundreds of journalists were "embedded" to sanitize war coverage. Independent journalists were harassed or ignored. Antiwar commercials have been suppressed and censored, while conservative talking-heads outnumber all others by several hundred percent.

Last week MSNBC's Ashleigh Banfield spoke at a college about the coverage of the Iraq war. She was honest and critical. "There were horrors that were completely left out of this war. So was this journalism? Or was this coverage?" she asked. "As a journalist, I have been ostracized just from going on television and saying, 'Here's what the leaders of Hizbollah, a radical Moslem group, are telling me about what is needed to bring peace to Israel,'" she said. "And, 'Here's what the Lebanese are saying.' Like it or lump it, don't shoot the messenger, but that's what they do."

The "they" undoubtedly were her bosses at the GE- and Microsoft-owned channel, the same men who fired top-rated talk show host Phil Donahue and then used the war to try and out-fox Fox's jingoism with promos proclaiming "God Bless America."

They quickly sought to silence Banfield. "NBC News president Neal Shapiro has taken correspondent Ashleigh Banfield to the woodshed for a speech in which she criticized the networks for portraying the Iraqi war as 'glorious and wonderful,'" reported the Hollywood Reporter. An official NBC spokesperson later told the press, "She and we both agreed that she didn't intend to demean the work of her colleagues, and she will choose her words more carefully in the future."

It was the kind of patronizing statement you would expect in Pravda or Baghdad's old Ministry of misinformation. In Saddam's Iraq, she would have been done for. Let's see what happens at NBC. Already, Rush Limbaugh is calling on her to move to Al Jazeera. Michael Savage, the new rightwing host on MSNBC who replaced Donahue, has branded his own colleague a "slut" ... on the air!

Even mainsteam media monitor Howard Kurtz is now looking back on the war coverage in anguish. "Despite the investment of tens of millions of dollars and deployment of hundreds of journalists, the collective picture they produced was often blurry," he wrote in his column. He raises a number of questions: "Were readers and viewers well-served or deluged with confusing information? And what does all of this portend for coverage of future wars?"

There are other questions that need asking. What is the connection between the war and pro-Bush coverage we have been seeing, and the upcoming June 2 FCC decision that is expected to relax broadcast regulations? Is it unthinkable to suggest that big media companies, (who stand to make windfall profits once Colin Powell's son, FCC chief Michael Powell, engineers rules that permit more media mergers and concentration) might want to appease and please an administration that often bullies its opponents?

According to experts cited by the Los Angeles Times, if the media moguls get what they want, only a dozen or so companies will own most U.S. stations, giving them even more control over the marketplace of ideas than they already have. Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy explains, "The ownership rules on the FCC chopping block have been developed over the last 50 years. They have been an important safeguard ensuring the public's basic First Amendment rights. The rationale for these policies is that they help provide for a diverse media marketplace of ideas, essential for a democracy. They have not been perfect. But the rules have helped constrain the power of the corporate media giants."

The FCC is, in effect, holding out the possibility of freeing the networks from restrictions on owning more stations. At a time when the industry is hurting financially, big bucks are once again being dangled in front of media moguls. No wonder none will challenge the government on the current war effort. Would you be surprised if the conservative news service gave its award for best Iraq war coverage of the war to Dan Rather instead of Fox because of Geraldo's antics? This is the same CBS that was once admired for the reporting of Edward R, Murrow and Walter Cronkite.

Powell makes the connection between the war and his agenda. He says that bigger media companies are needed more than ever because only they can cover the war the way the Iraq war was covered. Need he say any more?

At first glance, the relationship between media concentration and what we see on TV seems tenuous. But is it? The cutbacks in coverage of world news that left so many American uninformed and unprepared for what happened on 9/11 took place amidst this greatest wave of media consolidation in history. It has already had an effect.

And yes, it can get worse, unless and until Americans of conscience who care about their country make the media issue their own.

"News Dissector" Danny Schechter writes a daily column on news coverage for Mediachannel.org. He is the author of the just published "Media Wars: News at a Time of Terror," ( Rowman & Littlefield) and offers a free download of a "companion soundtrack" to the book.

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