The Gulf War and the Media
Alexander Cockburn, 1991
Becoming a Critical Consumer
Erwin Knoll, 1991
excerpted from the book
Stenographers to Power
media and propaganda
David Barsamian interviews
Common Courage Press, 1992,
The Gulf War and the Media
June 4, 1991
DB: Given the political economy of the media, could one expect
anything else in terms of the quality of the coverage?
AC: Not really. The startling difference,
as usual, was from country to country. I spent a lot of the war
reading the International Herald Tribune, which is a mixture of
the New York Times and the Washington Post mostly, and the English
and Irish papers. I have to say that the Irish papers were probably
the best, because the Irish, having been through many centuries
of being on the receiving end of colonial exploitation, simply
have a different attitude. Of all the journalism-and I say this
with a certain amount of subjective interest-probably the best
reporting, not editorializing, was done by The Independent, the
British paper, by my brother Patrick, who was in Baghdad, and
Bob Fisk, who was in Saudi Arabia, both of whom have been in the
Middle East for a very long time.
DB: A number of people were very critical
of the BBC coverage of the Gulf crisis and war. Did you have an
opportunity to listen to any of the BBC reports?
AC: Yes. It wasn't very good. I listened
to the World Service every day. In the Thatcher years there had
been an attack on the BBC, particularly the World Service. At
the beginning of this war there was a tremendous onslaught against
the BBC. I think it did have an effect. The reporting just simply
wasn't particularly good. By and large, the censorship and fear
of censorship were pretty effective around the world among the
U.S.-led coalition countries. Take Australia. I did quite a lot
of phone interviews with ABC [Australian Broadcasting Corporation].
They have a late night program there. They told me it was the
only program that had any critical commentary on the war. They
had Noam Chomsky, me, Fisk from Saudi Arabia, Christopher Hitchens.
They came under onslaught in the Australian parliament, also a
direct attack on their funding. I don't know about the Canadian
Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) coverage. It's usually better than
most of the U.S. stuff. And there are areas that I think have
not received as much attention as they should. One of the major
extraordinary things was the fact that at the onset of the bombing,
with the exception of CNN and NBC, almost all of the U.S. press
corps in Baghdad ran away. No one's made much of this, but in
my view it's an extraordinary scandal. You had a very large U.S.
press corp in Baghdad, and in the days immediately preceding the
bombing, which began on the 17th, they all left. They left partly
at the urging of their publishers and editors, partly on their
own initiative, generally under the pressure of the U.S. administration,
claiming that they thought Baghdad was going to be leveled in
the bombing. Of course, if everyone had followed suit, this would
have left no one to witness what happened. This, to me, is a scandal
which very little has been made of.
AC: ... It was good that Arnett remained. think the famous first
broadcast on the first night showed all the limitations of TV
"live" coverage, which really showed nothing. But the
fact that Arnett came under this pressure from Senator Simpson,
obviously at the instigation of the administration, showed how
resentful the administration was of the fact that CNN had stayed.
DB: Grenada, Libya, Panama, Iraq. Over
all of these bombings, invasions and wars looms the specter of
Vietnam and the notion that somehow the media were responsible
for the loss of that war.
AC: This obviously has been encouraged
by one administration after another, by the Right and by the media
themselves. Anyone studying the press coverage of the Vietnam
War would have found out instantly that they weren't particularly
critical. The first editorial attacking the war didn't come until
late 1967, from the Boston Globe. For most of the war, up until
its very end, the media were generally extremely supportive. But,
of course, successive administrations and the Right have used
the charge of treachery to cow the press and kick it towards total
submission. To go back to this business about it being inevitable:
when Bush began to claim that sanctions had , failed, long before
the sanctions conceivably could have really worked, there was
no real scrutiny.
DB: I was recently in New Orleans, where
there was a conference of National Public Radio broadcasters.
I had an opportunity to challenge a panel. I have to tell you
that these people got standing ovations for NPR's coverage of
the war. I stood up and suggested to them that they were indeed
following the administration agenda about the Gulf in terms of
whether the United States had great concerns for human rights,
fidelity to international law, devotion to the U.N., etc. and
that they didn't cover the real issues of the war, like the politics
of oil. One of the panelists said, "Didn't you hear that
one program that John Idste did in October about oil?" as
if that one five or ten minute story was enough to provide that
AC: This is always true. MacNeil-Lehrer
can say they had Chomsky on for ten minutes in September, or had
Edward Said on briefly. Or with newspapers: you can't say they
never did this or never did that. There's always a little piece
or five minutes on TV tucked away somewhere. After the beginning
of the actual bombing war, even that tiny corrective amount of
information or commentary was immediately cut off. That's how
they get away with it. You allow this one tiny "cheep"
in a torrent of rubbish. Then he NPR people will point, saying:
We did that, we did this.
DB: There are now a plethora of books critiquing the mainstream
media: by Parenti, Bagdikian, Chomsky and Herman, Hertsgaard,
Schiller, Lee and Solomon, your book Corruptions of Empire, but
so what? Has there been any change in terms of impact now that
there's this body of literature?
AC: I don't think there's been much of
a change at all. I speak for myself, but when I write my stuff
and attack coverage of, say, Central America, the Middle East,
the absence of comment on labor, I don't expect the objects of
my criticism to mend their ways at all. It's more political education
for people. At least that's how I see it, and I imagine that's
how most people who do it see it. I can't imagine that Noam Chomsky
and Ed Herman think that the editor of the New York Times will
wake up one day and say, "My God, I've read Chomsky and Herman
and now I realize that I've been running the ship wrong!"
It's a way to disclose to people how facts are manipulated or
invented and how the political agenda of the ruling elites is
established. I think that's good. Obviously, the vacuum is the
absence of political formations. The effort always is to change,
to alter consciousness. But there's got to be a correlative in
the form of political formations. That's obviously where the gap
is, although I think there are some encouraging signs. Press criticism
in the absence of a political party is ultimately only one hand
clapping. In formations such as Central American and solidarity
movements a lot of people read my stuff, and it was for them that
a lot of my work is done. This was a continuing service just to
keep people up to date on the lies. It's useful for them, for
people organizing for Central America and elsewhere, if they can
take an article I've done in the Wall Street Journal or wherever
it happens to be, and hand it to someone and say, "Look,
here are the lies." It's useful in that way.
DB: But when you're writing for that audience,
in The Nation and In These Times and the Los Angeles Times Weekly,
etc., aren't you preaching to the converted to some extent?
AC: Yes, you are to a certain extent.
But the converted need information on an ongoing basis. There's
no question about it. And, one hopes, you're attracting more people
with your persuasive words as you do it. But the converted are
very important. If you leave the converted alone long enough,
or bore them with stupid or casual journalism, maybe they'll stop
being converted and relapse into indifference or other undesirable
The more you watch TV, the more rubbish you tend to believe.
Becoming a Critical Consumer of News
April 15, 1991
EK: I've gone through towns where every single mailbox and every
single lamppost had a yellow ribbon fluttering from it. That constitutes
tremendous pressure to conform. Who wants to encounter the wrath
of his or her neighbors? And yet, amazingly enough, some people
do and some people think things out for themselves and find alternate
sources of information and engage in dialogue with fellow citizens
on these issues.
EK: ... As bad as the corporate media are when it comes to matters
of domestic policy-and they're pretty bad-that's nothing compared
to the role they play in building this consensus, so-called, for
foreign policy. That goes back to the years after World War II,
the beginning of the Cold War, when a concerted effort was made
in this country to put all criticism of U.S. foreign policy beyond
the pale, make it intolerable for anyone to criticize U.S. foreign
policy. That's when we began to hear clichés like "a
bipartisan foreign policy," or "politics stops at the
water's edge." It's absurd to say that. Why should these
matters of life and death-and literally they are, not just for
us, but for the whole world-not be part of the political discourse
in America? Why shouldn't they be part of the public dialogue?
But with the overt collusion of the Democrats and the Republicans
and the mass media, we've built this notion of a broad national
consensus where, whenever the government starts waving the flag
or sending in the troops, all criticism is supposed to stop. Those
of us who insist on continuing -with criticism nonetheless are
marginalized for the most part, pushed out there to the fringes,
and told that our comments don't count, even that they're "un-American,"
and every effort is made to sustain that myth of a seamless web
EK: I think the most important thing I would urge people to do
is to be critical in their consumption of news from the media.
Don't just let the news wash over you as if you're some sort of
passive recipient of it. You don't have to subscribe to 30 esoteric
foreign publications to find out what's really happening in the
world. You don't have to have your own independent news sources.
All you really need to do is start reading and watching and listening
critically, intelligently, if you like, where you say to yourself
every time: "Who's telling me this and why? What have they
got to gain by saying it? How does it connect to what I was told
yesterday? How does it connect with what I saw or heard or read
somewhere else?" Once you start applying that process to
the news, you'll be amazed at how much more insight you have.
You asked what we can do about the media.
I'm not sure, besides improving our skills as consumers of an
inadequate product. The media are not public institutions. They're
not quasi-public institutions. They're private businesses. They
exist to turn a buck. The simple fact is that they're not answerable
to us in any way except to the extent that they need us as statistics
when they go and sell advertising. So if you can figure out away
to hurt them in the pocketbook, which is where they live, then
you can have some say. But if you're thinking that by writing
in an intelligent and persuasive letter to the editor you're going
to reform the media, no. In that sense they're unreformable.
My favorite analogy is shopping for groceries.
You don't think of that supermarket as an institution for the
advancement of human nutrition. You know what it is. It's a store,
and it's there to turn a buck. So you read the labels and try
to see what the ingredients are and what the prices are and you
try to shop prudently. In exactly the same way, the morning newspaper,
the evening newscast, they're not institutions for the advancement
of human knowledge. They too are stores that are there to turn
a buck. So you use them in the same prudent way. You try to analyze
the contents and derive some nourishing information from what
is inherently an unnourishing and .perhaps even toxic product.