The Gulf War and the Media

Alexander Cockburn, 1991


Becoming a Critical Consumer of News

Erwin Knoll, 1991

excerpted from the book

Stenographers to Power

media and propaganda

David Barsamian interviews

Common Courage Press, 1992, paper


The Gulf War and the Media
Alexander Cockburn
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 crucial balance.

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 states.

The more you watch TV, the more rubbish you tend to believe.



Becoming a Critical Consumer of News
Erwin Knoll
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 of support.

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.

Stenographers to Power

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