The Media in a Time of War

by Dina Roy

International Socialist Review, May-June 2003


The justification for imperialist wars waged by the U.S. has often hinged on one or two big lies. In 1898, the explosion of the U.S.S. Maine, whose cause still remains a point of debate, was used to make a case for war with Spain. Many newspapers, particularly those owned by William Randolph Hearst, accused Spain without proof and beat the drums of war.' In a replay of history, the Johnson administration concocted the "Gulf of Tonkin" incident in 1964. It claimed that the Maddox, an American destroyer, was fired at by the North Vietnamese in an unprovoked incident while it was on routine patrol in international waters. This turned out to be a lie, but it gave President Johnson the congressional resolution he needed to prosecute the Vietnam War. Prior to the Gulf War of 1991, the Bush administration rallied behind the fabricated story of Iraqi troops pulling babies out of incubators in Kuwaiti hospitals. So, it should come as no surprise that Bush Jr. would resort to similar mechanisms to win support for the invasion of Iraq. This time around, instead of one or two lies, the American public was barraged with a whole slew of lies and deceptions.

The propaganda war began shortly after 9-11. For the hawks in the Bush administration, 9-11 was a blessing in disguise which gave them an excuse to declare a blanket "war on terror" that would justify the U.S. waging war on any country it deemed an enemy. However, tying Iraq to 9-11 and to al Qaeda posed somewhat of a challenge. James Woolsey, former director of the CIA, was assigned to come up with the evidence. Woolsey traveled to Europe where he "discovered" that Czech intelligence had information that Mohammed Atta, the alleged leader of the September 11 attacks, had met with an Iraqi agent in Prague in April, 2001. The report was dismissed as not credible by U.S., British, French and Israeli intelligence agencies. However, this did not stop Woolsey from appearing on several talk shows and writing op-ed pieces in major newspapers, repeating the lie. Woolsey even argued that Saddam Hussein was behind the World Trade Center bombing of 1993 and the anthrax scare. Even though these allegations were discredited, the job was done. Polls taken at the end of 2002 and in early 2003 found that almost half of all Americans believed that there was a connection between Iraq and 9-11. Polls also showed that many Americans believed that several of the hijackers were Iraqi, though none were.

If the first part of the propaganda campaign involved tying Iraq to 9-11, the second was to show that it was a threat to the U.S. The Iynchpin of this argument was that Iraq had "weapons of mass destruction" (WMDs) and was willing to use them. In a joint press conference on September 7, 2002, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and George W. Bush declared that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had issued a new report stating that Iraq had revived its nuclear weapons project. Bush claimed, with his usual rhetorical eloquence, "I would remind you that when the inspectors first went into Iraq and were denied-finally denied access [in 1998], a report came out of the Atomic-the IAEA that they were six months away from developing a weapon." "I don't know what more evidence we need," he added. Three weeks after this press conference, Mark Gwozdecky, the chief spokesperson of the IAEA, stated that no such report exists.

Not to be outdone, Blair provided his own brand of proof supporting the claim that Iraq had WMDs. On September 24, 2002 Blair released a 50-page "dossier" on Iraq's weapons program. This was reinforced by the hawks with at least two other pieces of "evidence." The first was that Iraq had purchased aluminum tubes to build, in a matter of "six months," the dreaded nuclear bombs that would wreak havoc upon the world. And the second was that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from the African country, Niger. The proof for this was based on a series of letters that administration hawks claimed was the "smoking gun." It was in this context that Bush was able to win a congressional resolution on October 11, 2002 giving him a blank check for war on Iraq. Shortly after this resolution the truth began to surface.

On December 6, 2002, 60 Minutes broadcast an interview with former UN weapons inspector David Albright, who stated that the aluminum tubes were most likely meant for conventional weapons. One month later, Mohammed El Baradei, head of the IAEA, confirmed this report and declared the tubes had no relation to a nuclear program. In February 2003, the British Channel 4 News revealed that large chunks of the Blair dossier were plagiarized-simply cut and pasted- from a University of California graduate student's thesis. In early March, nuclear weapons experts revealed that the letters demonstrating that Iraq had bought uranium from Niger were hoaxes. These forged letters were even disowned by the CIA; the agency also stated that they had communicated this information to the administration as far back as 2001.

Yet, the Bush administration saw no problem with presenting these forgeries as evidence that Iraq has WMDs. Neither did the problems with the aluminum tubes story deter Secretary of State Colin Powell, who went before the UN Security Council on March 7, 2003 singing the same tune. Going into the second week of March, Bush and Blair had not really made a case for war even within the framework of their own twisted premises. Far be it for the truth to get in the way of a propaganda campaign-especially if the warmongers can rely on the mainstream media to amplify the lies and hush the truth.

Media and war propaganda

George Bush is the president, he makes the decisions, and, you know, as just one American, whenever he wants me to line up, just tell me where. -- Dan Rather

With few exceptions, the bulk of media coverage on the front pages of major newspapers and headline news on television simply parroted the administration's line before and during the war. As Tom Wicker, a 30-year veteran journalist observed, "Bush administration spokesmen have made several cases for waging war against Iraq, and the U.S. press has tended to present all those cases to the public as if they were gospel."" Even though all the information discussed above was readily available, not to mention countless interviews with former weapons inspector Scott Ritter who had stated repeatedly that Iraq was 90-95 percent disarmed, the media chose to present certain "facts" and ignore others, lest they contradict the administration's propaganda.

Two examples are worth noting. When the British newspaper, the Observer, broke the story about the U.S. spying on UN Security Council representatives in early March, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post did their best to play down the significance of the matter, while other media, including the networks, didn't even bother to cover the story. In the weeks leading up to the crucial Security Council vote on the war on Iraq, U.S. officials listened in on phone conversations and read the emails of UN Security Council representatives from Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Bulgaria, Guinea and Pakistan who were stationed in New York. Yet for the lapdog media, the practice of spying on other nations is not newsworthy. Perhaps more damning is the attitude towards the exclusive Newsweek story featuring an Iraqi defector run on March 3, 2003. The article stated that Hussein Kamel, the highest-ranking Iraqi official ever to defect from Saddam Hussein's inner circle, had told CIA and British intelligence officers in 1995 that after the Gulf War Iraq had destroyed all its chemical and biological weapons. Bush, Powell and other administration officials, however, had repeatedly cited "Kamel's evidence that 1) Iraq has not disarmed; 2) inspections cannot disarm it; and 3) defectors such as Kamel are the most reliable source of information on Iraq's weapons." Here was information that could blow major holes in the Bush argument, but the mainstream media chose to ignore the story and it was buried.

In addition to downplaying facts that would refute the administration's case for war, the media also went out of their way to create a climate supportive of the war. They did so in two ways-first, by stacking the deck with pro-war guests and "experts" and second, by firing reporters and talk show hosts who upset this scenario. A study of the three networks' evening news shows and PBS conducted over a two-week period in February found that 76 percent of the guests were either current or former government or military officials. Ninety-eight percent of them advocated a pro-war stance. On the other hand, less than 1 percent of the guests were associated with the antiwar movement, even though large demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands had already taken place in the U.S.

Phil Donahue's show was cancelled by MSNBC in February because, according to a leaked internal report, the show presented "a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war." The report went on to add that Donahue "seems to delight in presenting guests who are antiwar, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration's motives." While the official excuses for dropping the show had to do with ratings and profits, in reality Donahue's show averaged more than 446,000 viewers and was the top-rated show on MSNBC, outperforming Hardball with Chris Matthews.

The message was clear: If you want to keep your job, fall in line. This message came not only from media bosses, but also from the White House. As journalists Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman note, White House press passes are hard to come by if you are known to be a reporter who asks tough questions. A vivid display of the results of these tactics was to be found at Bush's prime time news conference on March 6, 2003. The press conference was so tightly controlled that even compliant White House journalists were irate. Bush called on only those reporters he wanted from a predetermined list, while he followed a tight script repeating the same points again and again and emphasizing 9-11. Bush had gone too far in exposing the degree of media subservience and some journalists were annoyed. But not much would change. In fact, if media complicity with the Bush administration's pre-war propaganda was nauseating, the worst was yet to come.

Reporting the war on Iraq

I don't think. . . there has ever been the degree of press coverage as you have seen in this instance. -- Donald Rumsfeld

Reporters love troops. Put us with these 18-year-old kids...we just turn to jelly. -- Parnela Hess, United Press International


Under the guise of giving journalists unprecedented access to the war on the ground, Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon came up with a novel way of restricting press freedom- the "embedded" journalist. Unlike the 1991 Gulf War, this time journalists were going to be allowed to witness the war first hand. However, in order to be where the action was reporters had to sign a contract with the military agreeing to a 50-point program about what they could and could not report. A close reading of this program shows that it had inbuilt mechanisms of scrutiny, which would reveal themselves as the war progressed.

There were about 900 reporters, mainly U.S. and British, embedded with the troops. Those who were not embedded, were termed "unilateral" journalists (few reporters seem to have caught the irony) and they didn't have access to transportation and other facilities. Perhaps most important, "embeds" (a telling joke circulated during the war calling them "in-beds") were protected by the military while unilaterals were on their own. Given that the main threat was U.S. and British forces, this was less about protection and more a threat-a threat that the military would soon act upon.

While reporting from the scene of battle is not new, what was new about this war was the live footage from the actual battles. Far from making the war more realistic, it positioned viewers, quite literally, to witness the skirmishes from the point of view of the military. If you are shooting the action from the side of the U.S. and British forces, it becomes very clear who the "good guys" and "bad guys" are and whom to root for. Far from objective reporting, the reporters were telling the story both physically and ideologically from the vantage point of the U.S. and British troops. Ideologically, the journalists seemed to identify with the soldiers. This would seem natural; after all they ate with them, they slept together and they even wore the same clothes. When setting this system up it must have been clear to the war planners that this situation would surely create identification with the soldiers and lead to voluntary self-censorship by the journalists. Had the war progressed longer this system could have backfired. Already at the start of the war a number of soldiers had expressed their antipathy towards the war on Iraq and Bush's agenda. Had the war dragged on and the guerrilla fighting persisted, leading to more U.S. casualties and fatalities, this sentiment would likely have spread as it did in Vietnam after 1968. In such a context, the journalists would have been positioned to report on the discontent among those being asked to sacrifice their lives for oil and empire, and it would have been a powerful message for the antiwar side. But as it worked out in this war, footage of the actual battlefield had a human interest angle to it and served to get the home front to identify with "our young men and women in harms way" thereby bolstering the "support the troops" argument.

To add to this, reporters saw only what the troops did and lacked the mobility to travel elsewhere or to witness the havoc created in the aftermath of an attack. The result was images of sophisticated machinery, bombs and wreckage-and play-by-play descriptions of troop tactics-but little of the human consequences. We didn't see the horrific pictures of Iraqi casualties, the dead and the destruction of their homes and cities. This was a deliberate decision by network executives-the footage was available to them but they declined to air it. This is not new. Even during the first Gulf War, the military and the White House ensured uniformly antiseptic and clean war coverage. Then too, most of the grisly pictures of the real impact of the war were the work of independent journalists.

Media shock and awe

This time, however, the embeds did show real images of the action and the superior fire power and artillery of the U.S. and British troops, unlike the military simulations of the 1991 war or the fireworks-like display in the night sky. This was not because Bush administration hawks had suddenly recognized the importance of press freedom. Rather, this was part of a plan of psychological warfare. As CNN's Bob Franken noted as he passed through Kuwait, "One of the reasons we have been allowed to show all this noise, all the chaos, all the intensity is that it is so close to Iraq." Michael Ryan, a former editor for Time, noted that the "American media, essentially, have become an extension of the military psychological operations, with Rumsfeld hoping they can help to scare the daylights out of Iraq." The media were enlisted in the U.S. "shock and awe" operation.

A large part of the psychological operations was the spread of misinformation. The constant demand for new information on the 24-hour news channels meant that often military claims would be relayed without taking the time to check the facts. An update from a military official would receive wide publicity, only to be retracted or modified later. The British newspaper, the Guardian, and the BBC tracked these claims and counter-claims. The extent of the deception and lies is stunning. As one senior BBC news source commented, "We're absolutely sick and tired of putting things out and finding out they're not true. The misinformation in this war is far and away worse than any conflict I've covered, including the first Gulf War and Kosovo."

On the first day of war, military spokespersons claimed that Iraq had fired Scud missiles into Kuwait. This story received much play in the media. Three days later, U.S. General Stanley McChrystal stated that no scuds had been fired. On March 21, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce and Donald Rumsfeld reported that Umm Qasr has fallen to "coalition" forces. This was not true. In fact Umm Qasr was officially reported "taken" nine times before it was actually taken. On March 25, British military sources claimed that there had been a popular uprising in Basra against Saddam Hussein's troops. Embedded journalist Richard Gaisford reported that the troops were trying to aid in this effort by bombarding mortar positions. Again, there was widespread media coverage of the uprising despite reports by the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera network that there was no evidence of an uprising. The next day, a British spokesperson claimed that he did not "have a dear indication of [the] scale and scope" of the uprising. An NPR interview on April 24 revealed that there was no evidence of such an uprising.

On March 27, Tony Blair in a joint press conference with Bush declared that two British soldiers had been executed by the Iraqis and that this was proof of Saddam Hussein's "depravity." The next day the prime minister's spokesperson stated that there was no "absolute evidence" that the soldiers were executed. A relative of one of the British soldiers reported that she was told by British military officials that her brother had been killed in action, not executed. On March 29 an explosion in a market in Baghdad killed at least 50 civilians. The official spokespersons for the U.S. and Britain claimed that they had nothing to do with the incident. The media ran this story without question. A few days later Robert Fisk, of the British Independent newspaper, found shrapnel that identified the cause of the explosion as a U.S. missile. Over the course of the war, there were a series of claims that troops had found evidence of chemical and biological weapons, only to declare shortly after that there were no such weapons.

Some have argued that these claims and counter-claims were genuine mistakes made in the heat of war. As one BBC official stated, "I don't know whether they [the Pentagon] are putting out flyers in the hope that we'll run them first and ask questions later or whether they genuinely don't know what's going on-I rather suspect the latter." This was disingenuous. The history of using the mainstream media in psychological operations is both long and well-documented. As Lieutenant Commander Arthur A. Humphries, an advocate of press control, argued over two decades ago, "The news media can be a useful tool, or even a weapon, in prosecuting a war psychologically, so that the operators don't have to use their more severe weapons." In fact, military officials spread lies. This is a calculated plan whose rationale was explained in another context by Peter Teeley, George Bush, Sr.'s press secretary when he was vice president: "You can say anything you want during a debate, and 80 million people hear it." If it happens to be untrue, "so what. Maybe 200 people read [the correction] or 2,000 or 20,000."

Cynically, some in the military tried to blame the misinformation on reporters. Gaisford, the BBC embedded reporter mentioned earlier replied, "We have to check each story we have with [the military]. And the captain, who's our media liaison officer, will check with the colonel, and they will check with the Brigade headquarters as well." So much for the embedded system being free from military censorship! What this reveals is not only the extent of control and censorship imposed by the military, but the willingness of reporters to be part of such a system.

But the censorship and control did not stop at this level. The White House set up an agency known as the Office of Global Communication in January 2003 which has played a key role in the war propaganda. This office has acted as a public relations agency for the Bush administration. Its tasks included issuing daily talking points to U.S. spokespersons around the world. Its role has been to coordinate the messages from the Pentagon, the State Department and the military officials in the Middle East, so that the comments from these sources are approved in advance by the White House and are consistent with the official line. The Office also trains and provides former military personnel to be interviewed by the media. Chicago Tribune reporter Bob Kemper notes that so "controlled is the administration's message that officials from Bush on down often use identical anecdotes to make their points." Even the choice of words was thought out. For instance, the office sent directives to the military briefers not to refer to Iraqi troops loyal to Saddam Hussein as the "Fedayeen" since this term held a positive association. Instead, spokespersons were asked to refer to these troops as "terrorists," "death squads" or "thugs."

Even the best designed public relations campaign, however, can fail if other sources of information that contradict the official line are allowed to flourish. Thus, when the war on Iraq proved not to be a cakewalk in its first several days, journalists who pointed that out had to be disciplined. Peter Arnett, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, was fired from MSNBC for admitting on Iraqi television that things weren't going as planned for the U.S.

The Iraqi television station in Baghdad, which had contradicted many of the claims made by U.S. and British officials was bombed. Rather than express horror at this bombing, many reporters at Fox, CNN, the New York Times, MSNBC and other media outlets supported the bombing. Fox News's John Gibson wondered: "Should we take Iraqi TV off the air?

Should we put one down the stove pipe there?" Fox's Bill O'Reilly agreed: "I think they should have taken out the television, the Iraqi television.... Why haven't they taken out the Iraqi television towers?" MSNBC correspondent David Shuster offered: "A lot of questions about why state-run television is allowed to continue broadcasting. After all, the coalition forces know where those broadcast towers are located." On CNBC, Forrest Sawyer offered tactical alternatives to bombing: "There are operatives in there. You could go in with sabotage, take out the building, you could take out the tower."

Journalists also became targets in this war. On April 1, the radio show Democracy Now revealed that four unilateral foreign journalists had been detained, beaten and threatened by the U.S. military. The biggest assault on reporters who did not toe the U.S. Iine began on April ~ when a U.S. missile hit the Baghdad office of Al-Jazeera, which had devoted considerable coverage to the deaths of Iraqi civilians. The attack killed Tareq Ayub, a 34-year-old Jordanian journalist. The same day, the U.S. fired at the Palestine Hotel where most foreign journalists not embedded with the military were staying. The attack killed two more journalists. Even the New York Times was forced to admit that these events raise "concerns" and "bring accusations" that the military was deliberately targeting journalists. Arguably, this was part of the plan. Weeks before this incident, veteran BBC reporter Kate Adie was told by a senior Pentagon official that if unilateral broadcast satellite links were detected they would be targeted, even if the journalists were still at the intercepted location.

It appears that the overall media strategy of the war makers had several fronts: the use of embedded journalists; the spread of misinformation; threats, bombings or even death for journalists and media outlets hostile to the U.S., and a central propaganda coordinating mechanism, i.e. the Office of Global Communication. Again, such a level of planning and strategizing is not new. Governments have always tried to control their respective media, both in times of peace and war.

History of media control

After the Vietnam War, sections of the American right came to believe that media coverage of the war led to the U.S. defeat. They argued that television distorted the war by showing graphic images of the dead, turning Americans against the war. While television did show some images of casualties it was nowhere near the volume that the right claimed. One study shows that between 1965 and 1970, only about 3 percent of all evening news reports from Vietnam showed heavy fighting with dead or wounded. Another study found that TV war stories featuring images of casualties were brief-such as a soldier being lifted onto a helicopter-and were a minority of all reports filed. Right up to 196S, media coverage of war was as propagandistic and jingoistic as one might expect. This changed after 1968, mainly because of the Tet offensive, which showed quite clearly that the U.S. could not win the war, the growth of the antiwar movement and the fact that several prominent congressmen publicly criticized the war.

Regardless of the reality, the myth that the media cost the U.S. the war gained ground. Future war planners decided that they could never again risk uncensored media coverage of wars. Britain showed the way with the Falklands war against Argentina 1 9S2. A handful of reporters were placed in various "pools" on Navy ships and were subject to strict censorship. Drawing the lessons from that experience, Lieutenant Commander Humphries argued that the formula should be "[c]ontrol access to the fighting, invoke censorship and rally aid in the form of patriotism at home and in the battle zone." He added that it was not enough merely to censor the media but also to provide pictures that supported the government's case.

The first test of this policy would be the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983. There was an almost complete news blackout because the press was kept in the dark about the invasion until an hour after it began. Over the next few days the Reagan administration did everything it could to keep journalists from getting to Grenada. As a result, little is know about the casualties and social cost of that invasion. Shortly after Grenada, in response to media protests, the National Media Pool was created to allow for better coverage of wars. The rationale was to create a small pool of trusted and knowledgeable reporters who could be taken to the scene of war at short notice.

However, that was not how it worked in the next major U.S. invasion, Panama in 1989. Then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney insisted on a Washington-based pool, which meant that the most knowledgeable reporters-those with some experience and knowledge of Panama-would not be in the region. Then he decided not to inform the press of the invasion until a few hours before it began. As a result, as with Grenada, journalists could not reach Panama on time. Once they arrived they were held captive by the military for another five hours. Ultimately, journalists found that they had little information and no pictures other than what the Pentagon had provided them. This was perfect for the war makers-it was a tightly controlled propaganda campaign, with little or no coverage of the thousands of civilians killed by the military. Lacking any real information, the media faithfully reported the Pentagon's estimated casualty count, which was in the low hundreds, while human rights organizations put the figure close to 4,000. Conveniently, no reporters were on hand to tell the story of how the U.S. had completely destroyed the impoverished El Chorillo district of Panama City.

By the time of the Gulf War of 1991, the system of media censorship had been all but perfected. Dick Cheney, expressing his thoughts on the media, would say after the war: "Frankly, I looked on it as a problem to be managed. The information function was extraordinarily important. I did not have a lot of confidence that I could leave it to the press." Cheney was drawing from his own experiences at skillfully managing the press, i.e. restricting access and then providing images that aided the war effort.

The pool system allowed the military to control the movement of journalists and to restrict where they went and what they saw. Journalists were taken to selected sites and not allowed to interview soldiers without a military minder present. Additionally, reporters were not allowed to pass on stories until they were inspected by the military. In the absence of direct access to the war, reporters were treated to press briefings with images of precision bombing and laser guided missiles hitting their target. Media scholar Douglas Kellner notes that such "control of press coverage was unprecedented in the history of U.S. warfare."

The military presented the war as a new form of warfare in which civilians would not be harmed because "smart" technology allowed for "surgical strikes." This was a lie. Only 7 percent of the ordnance was "smart." And the smart technology wasn't all that smart, as 70 percent missed its targets. Both smart and dumb bombs killed civilians and destroyed the infrastructure including electrical power, water, sanitation and communication facilities. This was not an accident, but an avowed goal of the campaign. Over 200,000 people died as result of that war. Yet very little of this made it into the mainstream media. After the war, one reporter commented,

[The Pentagon] figured out a way to control every facet of our coverage. They restricted access to a point where we couldn't do any of our own reporting. They fed us a steady diet of press conferences in which they decided what the news would be. And if somehow, after all that, we managed to report on something they didn't like, they would censor it out... It amounted to recruiting the press into the military.

But this was not the only form of censorship that reporters who wanted to tell the truth would face. Award-winning journalists Jon Alpert and Maryann DeLeo had video footage of the actual destruction that had taken place and the civilian casualties. NBC and CBS refused to air their videotapes. The media also squelched reports of "friendly fire" casualties.

In the current war on Iraq, the media have been equally cooperative in spinning the Washington line. They accepted the embedded system and paraded a string of generals and ex-generals on television. The overall framing was completely present-centered and focused on the war as it played out; there was no space to question the war itself, let alone bring up the history of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. This outcome is not surprising. In the aftermath of 9-11, Bush advisers Karl Rove and Mark McKinnon met with the heads of Viacom, Disney, MGM and others to discuss how the media could "help" the government's efforts. Before the start of the war, CNN set up a system of "script approval" where reporters had to send their stories to unnamed officials in Atlanta before they could be run. In case the military missed anything, CNN monitors would be sure to catch it. Rupert Murdoch, who owns the multibillion dollar conglomerate News Corporation, has been a staunch supporter of the war. Coincidentally, so have all 175 editors of his worldwide newspaper empire. Fox, which is owned by News Corporation, has taken a rabid pro-war stance even going so far as to ridicule the antiwar protesters.

Why the media spread war propaganda

We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective. -- Michael Eisner, CEO of Disney

The media line up with the government on fundamental matters not because of any conspiracy or backroom deals- though backroom deals do happen-but because the media themselves are huge corporations that share the same economic and political interests with the tiny elite that runs the U.S. government. The bulk of mass media in the United States and around the world are owned by a handful of large corporations-AOL-Time Warner, Disney, Sony, News Corporation, Viacom, Vivendi and Bertelsmann. These multibillion dollar conglomerates are all global in reach and scope. In order to succeed and to make a profit the owners of these corporations look to the governments of their own countries to protect their interests domestically and internationally. With the conquest of Iraq, U.S.-based media conglomerates and telecommunications giants are better positioned to dominate Middle East markets.

This happens domestically as well. In radio, Clear Channel, which owns 1,225 radio stations, dominates the audience share in 100 out of 112 major markets. This level of concentration of ownership has been facilitated by laws, such as the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which removed many of

the regulations on media ownership. Prior to 1996, a media corporation could not own more than 40 stations. Since then, companies like Clear Channel have been able to take advantage of the atmosphere of deregulation to increase their holdings. Recently, when Natalie Maines, the lead singer of the band Dixie Chicks, criticized Bush, Clear Channel led the attack on the band. Clear Channel, which has close ties to Bush, organized a number of pro-war rallies and pulled Dixie Chicks songs from some of their stations. These examples illustrate the interconnections between large corporations and the government and their shared interests and goals. It is therefore not surprising that these media corporations have little incentive to be the watchdogs of the government.

NBC, for instance, is owned by General Electric, a major military contractor. But even news media that aren't directly tied to the military-industrial complex have a stake in the system. They are businesses that make profits from selling advertising. Newspapers, television and radio all make their money by selling audiences to advertisers-and they know that their bottom line will suffer if they pursue stories that might damage advertisers. General circulation magazines obtain about 50 percent of their revenues from advertising, newspapers 75 percent, and broadcasting nearly 100 percent. Advertising is thus the backbone of the media industry, and it is estimated that about a quarter of a trillion dollars a year is spent on advertising in the United States. Because of its dependence on advertising, the media industry tailors its content and structure to suit the needs of advertisers. When the Tribune Company bought the Times-Mirror Corporation, the logic was to "create a network of regional media hubs where advertisers are matched with audiences through newspapers, television broadcasts and Internet sites." It follows that the news media rarely print or broadcast anything that might be offensive to advertisers.

A for-profit media industry is geared around increasing revenues and decreasing costs, which leads to a situation where profits trump journalistic ethics. The "Fox effect" shows how this works. The Fox news channel has emerged, over the course of the war on Iraq, as the most watched source of news on cable. Fox's approach to the war is blatantly biased, patriotic and pro-war. They have chided antiwar voices and abandoned any pretense of neutrality and objectivity. Even though this goes against the core of what journalism is supposed to stand for, Fox has received high ratings, so other channels have taken steps to emulate Fox.

If advertising increases revenues and profits, then laying off workers is a way of cutting costs. As a result, over the last few decades large numbers of reporters have been laid off. Those that remain, with the exception of celebrity journalists, make fairly paltry wages. The impact that this has had on news media organizations is that they have now become more reliant on cheap or free sources of information. The two main sources of such information are corporate public relations departments, and the state, with its various departments from the Pentagon to the White House. Vast amounts of information reach the news media through these two sources. The Pentagon alone employs thousands of people, and spends millions of dollars on its public relations every year. The amount of resources allotted by the Pentagon to public information not only exceeds those of the average individuals or groups who dare to resist but the resources of all such groups in this country. Additionally, not only does information from these sources inundate the news media but reporters are also stationed in locations where news is known to happen through what is known as the "beat" system. In this system, reporters are assigned beats, that is, they are sent to established locations such as the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department and so on to routinely cover events. All this gives these sources enormous power to manipulate the news. This is especially true of foreign affairs and national security issues, where the Pentagon exercises considerable control and where much of what happens is kept secret.

Information from corporate public relations departments also saturates news media organizations. It is estimated that anywhere between 40-70 percent of the news is based on press releases and PR-generated information. In addition to expanded public relations departments, corporations have cultivated experts on various issues who are routinely contacted by the media for their expertise. Corporations have co-opted experts by putting them on their payroll as consultants, funding their research and organizing think tanks that will hire them to help spread their message. This was part of a media strategy developed by corporate America during the 1970s and 1980s to ensure the dominance of corporate ideology and to overturn the movements of the previous decades. It included setting up think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute and the Olin and Scaife Foundations. But business-related individuals aren't the only experts one finds in the news. So are current and ex-government officials. During times of war, military officials dominate the news.

In addition to think tanks, corporate America also sponsored the creation of media watch groups such as Accuracy in the Media, the Media Institute, the Center for Media in Public Affairs, the American Legal Foundation and Capital Legal Foundation. These media watch groups were created for the explicit purpose of harassing the media if they strayed from the corporate agenda. This harassment or "flak" can range from letters and phone calls to lawsuits and speeches before Congress. Think tanks and flak organizations have been successful in reaching the goals of their corporate sponsors. One study found that of all the think tanks that were cited in the media in 1999, conservative or right-leaning think tanks were cited 51 percent of the time, centrist think tanks 35 percent of the time and progressive or left-leaning ones 13 percent of the time. So much for the liberal bias in the media.

Reporters are trained in journalism school to accept this system as the natural order of things. They are trained through the logic of professional journalism to trust those in positions of authority, such as government officials or CEOs. As media scholar Robert McChesney explains,

To avoid controversy associated with determining what is a legitimate news story, professional journalism relies upon official sources as the basis for stories. This gives those in positions of power (and the public relations industry, which developed at the exact same time as professional journalism [in the early part of the 20th century]) considerable ability to influence what is covered in the news. Moreover, professional journalism tends to demand "news hooks"-some sort of news event-to justify publication. This means that long-term public issues, like racism or suburban sprawl, tend to fall by the way side, and there is little emphasis on providing the historical and ideological context necessary to bring public issues to life for readers. Finally, professional journalism internalizes the notion that business is the proper steward of society, so that the stunning combination of ample flattering attention to the affairs of business in the news with a virtual blackout of labor coverage is taken as "natural."

While practicing the journalistic code of conduct, reporters rarely recognize that far from "objective" they in fact perpetuate the status quo. While they are taught to be skeptical and critical of the world around them, in practice this applies only to sources that aren't in official positions of power. For example, when the group Voices in the Wilderness, an anti-Iraq sanctions group based in Chicago, approached the American news media to cover a visit by American antiwar teachers to an Iraqi school, they declined. As media critic Norman Solomon, who was present when this took place observes,

I was there when Kysia [a member of Voices in the Wilderness] handed the press release to a TV crew. As soon as he left, the crew didn't even bother to read the entire press release before declaring that it was propaganda. They considered Voices to be outside the reign of legitimate sources, and therefore it could be safely ignored.

Also, journalists are no different than other people in our society. They accept, to a greater or lesser extent, the dominant ideas of society. And the higher up you go in the ladder, the greater the identification with ruling-class interests. Celebrity journalists, such as Tom Brokaw, aspire to be part of the class of people who wage wars and therefore identify with them. Norman Solomon notes that most "journalists who get plum foreign assignments already accept the assumptions of empire. I didn't meet a single foreign reporter in Iraq who disagreed with the notion that the U.S. and Britain have the right to overthrow the Iraqi government by force."

If reporters cross the line and challenge those in power the, are inevitably disciplined. Sydney Schanberg, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, was forced to leave the New York Times when he refused to back down from writing about corporate power and corruption. Schanberg was one of the journalists involved in filing the lawsuit against the Pentagon in 1991. Gary Webb was fired from the San Jose Mercury News after he exposed the connections between the CIA, the U.S.-backed Contras in Nicaragua and the import of cocaine into the U.S. When producers April Oliver and Jack Smith ran a story that suggested that the U.S. army might have used the nerve gas Sarin on deserters during the Vietnam War, CNN fired them after retracting the story. In May 1998, the Cincinnati Enquirer ran a story that exposed criminal practices in the Chiquita Banana Company in its South American operations. Chiquita then successfully pressured the paper to fire the reporter, Mike Gallagher, and print a front-page apology and pull all copies of the story, on the grounds that the reporter had illegally obtained company voice mails. Though Chiquita admitted that the voicemails on which the story was based were authentic, the Enquirer agreed to announce that the report was "false and untrue" and pay $10 million to the company.

Thus, the rational choice for a journalist is to report favorably on those in positions of power and wait to be rewarded through the occasional "leak" which leads to his or her story being given importance. Additionally, these sorts of cases have a chilling effect and most regular journalists recognize that they have to play by the rules if they want to keep their jobs.

Dennis Mazzocco, who worked for 20 years at ABC and NBC, observes that media workers

learn to adopt the owners' views in order to succeed, even when their paychecks or political and social connections may be those of ordinary citizens. No media worker who wants to keep his or her job will ever admit this publicly. Nor will anyone who wants to succeed in U.S. broadcasting publicly confirm that management investment decisions are made to protect the firm's political-economic power and inevitably affect the company's on-air programming.

The result is self-censorship. Helen Thomas, a long-time White House reporter, told an audience at MIT recently: "I censored myself for 50 years when I was a reporter." Even celebrity journalists like Dan "tell-me-where-to-line-up" Rather have to admit this. In a BBC interview in 2002 he stated: "What we are talking about here-whether one wants to recognize it or not, or call it by its proper name or not-is a form of self-censorship. I worry that patriotism run amok will trample the very values that the country seeks to defend." The end result is a media system that easily becomes the propaganda wing of a war effort.

Limits of the media and war propaganda

It is important to note that the media are not all powerful. Despite its ubiquitous nature, people can and do see through the media's propaganda. Also, when ordinary people organize and start to protest this can have an affect on the media; they can be pressured to be less subservient to the interests of the ruling class. There is a long history of grassroots movements and struggle impacting the mainstream media, not to mention the flourishing of alternative media outlets in these periods. A recent example is the UPS strike of 1997. When 185,000 workers around the country went out on strike, the initial coverage of the strike was predictably biased in favor of corporations. However, as the strike progressed a majority of Americans came out in support of the striking workers - 55 percent of the public sympathized with the issues raised by the workers, despite pro-corporate coverage in the media, and thousands joined the picket lines in a show of solidarity. This put tremendous pressure on the news media to be fair in their representation of the strike. After all, the media claim to be objective and to tell both sides of the story. With increased public attention on the strike and the issues surrounding the strike, the media felt obliged to give labor's side a hearing. The result was that during the second week of the strike, some media outlets like the New York Times, The Washington Post and ABC were forced to switch the tone of their coverage to one that was sympathetic to working-class issues. Thus, even though the news generally has a pro-corporate bias, it can be shaped and influenced during periods of struggle.

This is important for antiwar activists to keep in mind. Media coverage of the Vietnam War improved dramatically after 1968 because of the strong, organized and loud antiwar movement, coupled with the setbacks faced by U.S. forces in Vietnam. The three networks shifted the tone of their coverage to include an equal number of pro- and antiwar guests. After 1970, antiwar guests outnumbered the pro-war guests. Editorials went from four to one in support of the war, to two to one against. The media weren't only reflecting the pressure of popular opinion. By the 1970s, whole sections of the ruling class had come to the conclusion it was time for the U.S. to cut its losses in Vietnam. A New York Times editor explained the shift in media coverage as follows,

As protest moved from the left groups, the antiwar groups, into the pulpits, into the Senate-with Fulbright, Gruening, and others-as it became majority opinion, it naturally picked up coverage. And then naturally the tone of coverage changed. Because we're an establishment institution, and whenever your natural constituency changes, then naturally you will too.

In the present war there were few establishment figures who took a bold anti-war stance. While several Democratic presidential candidates did come out against war with Iraq, their opposition was somewhat muted and marginal. We did, however, see debate in the media on a few issues. Last summer when separate wings of the ruling class were trying to determine if the war on Iraq should be conducted "unilaterally" or "multilaterally," this disagreement was reflected in the media. Also, during the early stages of the war when things weren't going as planned (i.e. the take over of Iraq proved not to be a "cakewalk") there was debate among the ruling elite about tactics and strategies, and again this was represented in the media. However, these sorts of "debates" should not be mistaken for genuine debate. In both cases, the right of the U.S. to go to war with other countries and pulverize them was not in doubt.

Yet, despite the lack of genuine debate and the intense pro-war media barrage, public skepticism of the current war on Iraq was high, much higher than before the start of the Vietnam War. Additionally, demonstrations before the war began drew far greater numbers than at the same point before the Vietnam War. What is significant is that even though Americans were led to believe that Iraq had something to do with 9-11, polls showed that a majority preferred a diplomatic solution and did not want to see a rush to war. Significant numbers of Americans also wanted the government to focus on domestic issues, such as the economy and unemployment. The patriotic hype served to deflect attention away from these issues during the war. However, the level of support for war was, arguably, nowhere close to the jingoism and flag waving during the war on Afghanistan. A Zogby poll taken a month before the outbreak of war found that just over half of the population supported war, while a substantial 41 percent opposed it. That figure dropped to 35 percent once the war began, but that's still millions of people. In New York, fewer than half the population supported the war before it began, and this figure did not change even after the start of the war. According to an early-April poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, 44 percent of African-Americans considered it a mistake to go to war against Iraq.

We can understand this level of skepticism if we look at what life is like for the vast majority of Americans. Unlike the 1960s when the policy was one of "guns and butter," today there is no butter for us. Instead, not only are we seeing increased attacks on wages, benefits and social programs, minorities, women, and gays and lesbians have also been targeted by the Bush administration. Many people see and recognize this state of affairs. We can rejuvenate the antiwar movement and build opposition to the occupation of Iraq by drawing the connections between the wars that the U.S. plans to wage abroad and the war at home. A well organized antiwar movement can force the corporate media to give our side more of a hearing to a certain degree, but corporate media cannot completely change its character. It will always reflect the interests of the status-quo-of profit and patriotism. Hence there is the need for our movement to create alternative press that not only can tell the truth, but can provide the analysis and lessons of struggle to help propel our struggles to success.


Hermann Goering, Hitler's right-hand man, once remarked about war propaganda: "Why, of course, the people don't want war.... Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders.... All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country."

War propaganda has a habit of repeating itself. Ships like the U.S.S. Maine and the Maddox, become justifications for war. If "remember the Maine," was the cry of the war makers over a century ago, today it is "remember 9-11." Then, as now, the mainstream media could be relied upon to be the official propaganda arm of the war effort. Yesterday, there was William Randolph Hearst, today there is Rupert Murdoch. But while their side has plenty of money, PR agencies and pliant media outlets, our side has something greater-our numbers, our grassroots democratic organizations and, not least of all, the truth.


Dina Roy is a member of the International Socialist Organization in Greensboro, N. C.

Corporate Media's Threat to Democracy

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