Un-Embed the Media

This originally appeared in the Baltimore Sun on April 7.

Recent revelations that the Bush administration has been fabricating news stories, secretly hiring journalists to write puff pieces and credentialing fake reporters at White House news conferences has infuriated the news media.

Editorials profess to being shocked -- shocked! -- by the government's covert propaganda campaign in which, as The New York Times revealed March 13, at least 20 federal agencies have spent $250 million creating and sending fake news segments to local TV stations.

But the media have only themselves to blame for most people -- including TV news managers -- not being able to distinguish journalism from propaganda. The line between news and propaganda was trampled not only by the public relations agencies hired by the government but also by reporters in the deserts of Iraq.

The Pentagon deployed a weapon more powerful than any bomb: the U.S. media. Embedded journalists were transformed into efficient conduits of Pentagon spin. Before and during the invasion of Iraq, the networks conveniently provided the flag-draped backdrop for fawning reports from the field.

As if literally adopting the Pentagon's propagandistic slogan -- "Operation Iraqi Freedom" -- for their coverage weren't enough, the networks bombarded viewers with an unending parade of generals and colonels paid to offer on-air analysis. It gave new meaning to the term "general news."

If we had state-run media in the United States, how would it be any different?

The media have a responsibility to show the true face of war. But many corporate journalists, so accustomed by now to trading truth for access (the "access of evil"), can no longer grasp what's missing from their coverage. As CBS' Jim Axelrod, who was embedded with -- we would say in bed with -- the 3rd Infantry Division, gushed: "This will sound like I've drunk the Kool-Aid, but I found embedding to be an extremely positive experience. ... We got great stories and they got very positive coverage."

It should come as no surprise that the Bush administration, having found the media so helpful and compliant with their coverage of the Iraq war, would seek to orchestrate similarly uncritical coverage of other issues that they hold dear.

TV viewers nationwide have watched and heard about how the "top-notch work force" of the often-criticized Transportation Security Administration has led "one of the most remarkable campaigns in aviation history," how President Bush's controversial Medicare plan will offer "new benefits, more choices, more opportunities," how the United States is "putting needy women back in business" in Afghanistan, and how Army prison guards, accused of torturing and murdering inmates in Iraq and Afghanistan, "treat prisoners strictly, but fairly."

Such crude government-supplied propaganda would be laughable were it not being passed off as news on America's TV stations. Even sadder, nothing about the sycophantic reports seems out of the ordinary.
The first casualty of this taxpayer-financed misinformation campaign is the truth.

Mr. Bush must have been delighted to learn from a March 16 Washington Post-ABC News poll that 56 percent of Americans still thought Iraq had weapons of mass destruction before the start of the war, while six in 10 said they believed Iraq provided direct support to al Qaeda.

Americans believe these lies not because they are stupid but because they are good media consumers. The explosive effect of this propaganda is amplified as a few pro-war, pro-government media moguls consolidate their grip over the majority of news outlets. Media monopoly and militarism go hand in hand.

It's time for the American media to un-embed themselves from the U.S. government. We need media that are fiercely independent, that ask the hard questions and hold those in power accountable. Only then will government propaganda be seen for what it is and citizens be able to make choices informed by reality, not self-serving misinformation. Anything less is a disservice to the servicemen and women of this country and a disservice to a democratic society.

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