Jayne Lyn Stahl

Our Media Have Been So Wrong for So Long

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.

Women as Weapons of War

In her book Women as Weapons of War: Iraq, Sex, and the Media, published recently by Columbia University Press, Kelly Oliver vividly depicts, and correlates, the perverse behavior of a female suicide bomber in Iraq with that of a female Army private, Pfc. Lynndie England, whose sadomasochistic behavior towards her captors at Abu Ghraib drew international scorn.

This Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy, at Vanderbilt University, draws important parallels between empire building and the "free market," as well as the deployment of women as both purveyors and pariahs of battle, thereby exposing the vulnerable to be both wounded and wounder. And, by extension, she shows how global occupation by a country that increasingly emulates the behavior of some back-alley dominatrix can only be linked to ongoing sexual repression.

In her interview with AlterNet, Oliver describes how, in the name of imperial expansionism, we, in the West, are quickly becoming victims of our own sexualized consumerism:

Jayne Lyn Stahl: How are women being used as weapons of war, figuratively and literally?

Kelly Oliver: News media repeatedly describe women soldiers as "weapons." Women warriors are not referred to as women with weapons or women carrying bombs, but their very bodies are imagined as dangerous. For example, a columnist for the New York Times said, "An example of the most astounding modern weapon in the Western arsenal" was named Claire, with a machine gun in her arms and a flower in her helmet. After news broke about female interrogators at Guantánamo Bay prison, a Time magazine headline read "female sexuality used as a weapon," and the London Times described Palestinian women suicide bombers as "secret weapons" and "human precision bombs," "more deadly than the male."

Even Pfc. Jessica Lynch (the U.S. solider who was captured and rescued early in the Iraq invasion) was labeled a "human shield" and a weapon in the propaganda war. Media and public reactions to the more recent capture and release of British Seaman Faye Turney display some of the same tendencies. The British media accused the Iranian president of using Turney as a weapon in a propaganda war at the same time that conservatives used this image of a mother prisoner of war to argue against women warriors.

The metaphor of weapon in public media discloses the association between women, female sexuality and danger in the popular imagination. This imaginary association appears to have become part of military interrogation strategy at Guantánamo prison and Abu Ghraib, where women's participation was reportedly used to "soften-up" recalcitrant Muslim men. And just this month, Al Qaeda allegedly used two mentally impaired women to detonate bombs in crowded markets in Iraq. Reports indicate that the use of women suicide bombers is on the rise in Iraq because they can more easily get through checkpoints without arousing suspicions. For this reason, media coverage imagines them as more dangerous than their male-counterparts.

Explain the "virgin-whore" motif with respect to female suicide bombers and women soldiers.

Within the rhetoric of mainstream media, what female suicide bombers, recovered heroes like Jessica Lynch and Faye Turney, and the bad girls of Abu Ghraib have in common is that they are figured on one side or the other of the classic virgin-whore dichotomy that has been a mainstay of Western culture -- think of the new fragrance for women called "Angel or Demon." On the demon side, what some reporters have called "equal opportunity killers" need to be interpreted in light of older images of violent women from Hollywood films, literature and religious traditions. These latest examples of women figured as weapons are a continuation of stereotypes of dangerous women who use their sexuality as a deadly weapon to deceive and trap men. Some soldiers still name their fighter-jets and bombs after Hollywood bombshells and "buxom babes" from magazines. The atom bomb that ended WWII was named after Hollywood "bombshell" Rita Hayworth's most famous femme fatale character, Gilda.

In the wake of the photographs from Abu Ghraib, some commentators said that what they called the "whorehouse" behavior at the prison was the result of the presence of women, who trigger the natural sexual impulses of men. Several of these types of reports blamed the abuse on the very presence of women in the military. Underlying this thinking is the association between women and sex, and more to the point, the connections between women, sex and violence that permeate our culture.

If, on the one side, we have the so-called "whorehouse" activities of women at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay prisons, on the other we have the images of helpless women in distress or of mothers whose place is at home with their children. Lynch was described in the press with wildly varying characterizations from a "female teenage Rambo" to a "princess" and "damsel in distress."

While the young women at Abu Ghraib are portrayed as whores, Lynch is portrayed as an innocent virginal blond "country girl" and Faye Turney was figured as an emblem of British motherhood. Female suicide bombers have also been variously figured as virginal heroines in the Muslim world and as "more dangerous than the male" by the Western press.

Has what you perceive as the commoditization of women changed in recent years, and what role do the media and technology play in terms of what you call the objectification of women?

Yes, there are at least two very noticeable trends in recent years: First, in films and on television, we see not only continued objectification of the female body -- now with less clothes on than ever before in prime time -- but also a glorification of violence toward women. In other words, we see women's bodies being blown up, shot, falling out of planes, thrown through windows and beaten. Of course, we also see more violence toward men and violence, in general. But often the violence toward women in contemporary films is accompanied by showing off the scantily clad body, which gives the violence a marked sexual overtone. In addition, this violence is often packaged in the genre of the feminist avenger-type film, where the female protagonist is constantly attacked by men but still comes out on top, so to speak.

Throughout the book you refer to what you call the "pornography of looking." What do you mean by that?

The pornographic way of looking or seeing takes the object of its gaze for its own pleasure or as a spectacle for its own enjoyment without regard for the subjectivity of those looked at. It reinforces the power and agency of the looker while erasing or debasing the power and agency of the looked at.

This way of looking operates on both literal and figural levels: Sex and violence literally have become spectacles to be looked at, and sex and violence figuratively have become linked within our cultural imagination, evidenced by the fact that the phrase "sex and violence" has become part of our everyday vocabulary. In terms of Hollywood films, it is difficult to think one without the other.

In a general sense, my book is about the connection between sex and violence in contemporary culture. More specifically, it is about how this imagined connection plays itself out in the theater of war currently staged in the Middle East. Furthermore, it is about how this pornographic way of looking plays an essential role in waging war and how historically it has been used, even developed, within the context of colonial and imperialist violence. In this regard, the American occupation of Iraq follows in a long line of colonial and imperialist ventures executed by the "West" in the "East."

How is the violence that is happening overseas, often in support of patriarchy, connected to women's lives here in the U.S.?

By pointing to the lack of women's freedom elsewhere, we ignore the ways in which women are coerced at home, where ideals of femininity lead young girls to eating disorders; religious conservatives try to prevent young women from using birth control and limit their access to abortions; women continue to have the lioness's share of childcare; soccer moms resort to caffeine, Prozac and sleeping pills to maintain their busy schedules; and most of the people living in poverty in the U.S. are women and children.

It is telling that conservative politicians employ feminist rhetoric to justify war even as they cut programs that help women at home, including welfare, state-sponsored childcare, planned parenthood and affirmative action. They can simultaneously blame feminism for the abusive women at Abu Ghraib and invade Afghanistan to liberate women. The irony is that conservatives will use feminism when it suits their purposes and defame it when it doesn't.

Has technology enhanced the ability to exploit women while at the same time engendering the illusion of empowering them?

Yes. In the book, I discuss some of the ways that technology allows more women to work from home. So, in addition to domestic work, they use computer technology to work from home. Of course, this makes their schedules more flexible and gives them more power over time. But, like the other "time-saving" technologies, it also brings with it new demands to be available 24/7. Moreover, it can leave women "trapped" in their homes in a way that they aren't when they work outside the home. This is just one example; there are many more.

"As the Eye, so the Object," so said poet William Blake. How does this concept relate to embedded reporting technologies?

The effect of this new style of reporting on journalists and on their news reports is multifaceted. First, insofar as the journalist's safety depends upon the troops with whom s/he moves, and insofar as s/he is in close quarters with them, the journalist's objectivity is compromised. The journalist begins to take on the perspective of the military. More than that, "embedded" reports are as much about the emotions of the journalist and the troops involved at that moment in military action. Rather than step back and give the viewer the larger perspective or context of the situation, embedded reporting encourages human interest stories and snippets of action that appear more like war movies than journalism. The live action effect of digital technologies increases the sense of intimacy and gives the viewer the feeling of being there.

The viewer is not just put in the place of the photographer as subject looking at the "native" other as object. With moving images and real-time Internet and television broadcasts, the viewer assumes the dynamic agency of the looking subject, along with his apparent right to look at and even manipulate the bodies of "native" others. These images not only record but also reproduce relations of domination. By comparing the images coming in from Iraq to images from the history of colonial enterprises in Europe, we see that they are just the latest visual technologies of oppression and occupation.

The Government Wants to Tap Your Internet Calls

Over the past several months, the FCC and Justice Department have been working overtime, and fighting hard to tap not only your land line phone and cell phone, but to tap Internet calls, as well.

Effective in May, those who provide "voice transmission" and broadband services will have to ensure that their equipment that is wiretap-ready, and accessible to your local police force and the FBI. The new legislation is modeled after the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement, or CALEA, which was designed primarily to facilitate wiretapping of mobile phones. This new legislation is intended to expand governmental surveillance powers to cover companies like Vonage, so the progression evolves thus: First we can tap Ma Bell, then Cingular Wireless, then Yahoo emails, then Vonage.

The rules set to go into effect in a couple of months were challenged by a U.S. appeals panel back in July, and U.S. District Judge Harry T. Edwards called courtroom arguments made by the FCC "goobledygook." He was, in my opinion, being kind. Civil liberties groups have expressed outrage over the FCC expansionism, claiming that this legislation doesn't take into account the fundamental difference between the telephone, a vehicle for conversation, and the Internet, a tool by which information is acquired and conveyed. Lawyers for the government argued only that the 1994 legislation intended to be applied to future technology; the Judge wasn't buying that, and neither should we.

Moreover, sophistic claims by the Justice Department that not increasing wiretapping capability to encompass the rapidly proliferating Internet phone industry will transform the Web into a refuge for "criminals and terrorists" are not only hackneyed, they're transparent enough for a 6-year-old to see through.

Alarmingly, with all the discourse about theoretical differences between online, and real time telephonics, what seems to have been lost in arguments for and against the FCC's new rules to require ISPs to ensure that their equipment can be hacked by law enforcement is that this is yet another pernicious step on the part of this administration to use technology that is so advanced that it can sidestep FISA and cut right to the chase -- the chase, of course being, access to your personal conversations and mine.

Those judges on the panel who attempted to justify court-ordered wiretaps of Voice Over Internet Protocols, like Vonage, using the flawed logic that they are essentially no different from traditional telephones are myopic in their inability to acknowledge inevitable future technological inroads, and the potential threat to the First Amendment that inheres in laying the groundwork for this kind of Internet eavesdropping by the government on unsuspecting, and undeserving citizens.

If we consumers stand by and allow the expansion of federal eavesdropping from basic phone calls to cell phones to emails, and now to Skype, or Internet calls, then we have only ourselves to blame. It's time that not only civil libertarians, but Internet Service Providers, stand up to this administration's ongoing assault on privacy, and the First Amendment. We must consider a boycott of those companies, and service providers, who comply with these new rules that are scheduled to go into effect in May.

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