An American Journalist and Filmmaker Indicts Iraq Media Coverage

Danny Schechter, "News Dissector", Media Channel, ILCA Associate Member


It is complicated and problematic for a journalist to offer testimony at an international tribunal in another country. Most us tend to stay away the appearance of advocacy or even activism. Testifying overseas -- even to a citizen's panel like this, could be construed by some as presumptuous or even unpatriotic.

Yet I have come because I believe that our media like other institutions have a responsibility to be accountable, audit their own practices and acknowledge their errors and omissions.

We are living in an age of a profound global media crisis that goes beyond borders and boundaries.

Journalists who are closest to our media system-really 'embedded' in it -- are often in the best position to understand media practices and recount experiences. We know how the industry works and are most aware of the pressures journalists face from government interference and corporate control. It is time we woke up and spoke up. It is time we told the truth about our own institutions. We need higher standards and deeper values.I have been in journalism since my High School years.

I have been an investigative magazine reporter, a radio news director, and worked in television at the local and national levels with a long stint at ABC News and a shorter one at CNN. I have reported from 49 countries.

I am a media critic with six books in print and a columnist/blogger with MediaChannel.org, the world's largest online media issues network. As an independent filmmaker with my company Globalvision, I have made fifteen social issue documentaries. The latest, WMD (Weapons of Mass Deception) is about the media coverage of the Iraq War and is based in part on a book called EMBEDDED that I wrote on the subject.

I have come wearing all of these hats to discuss my findings in the belief that if we could agree on the existence of "Media crimes,' we would agree that many have been committed during the Iraq war. Some through insensitivity and indifference; others with a more conscious intent.

This is not a partisan issue. It raises deeper issues about the integrity of our democracies.

In point of fact, in earlier wars, media outlets and personalities have been indicted for their role in instigating conflict and contributing to it. The special International tribunal on Rwanda has pointed to the role of hate radio stations in inflaming a genocide. In the former Yugoslavia, TV stations in Serbia and Croatia became propaganda organs that incited ethnic cleansing and mass murder.

The Post World War 2 Nuremberg Trial established a precedent in this regard. I quote one article on what happened there:

"The prosecution case, argued by Drexel Sprecher, an American, placed considerable stress on the role of media propaganda in enabling the Hitler regime to prepare and carry out aggressive wars.

"The use made by the Nazi conspirators of psychological warfare is well known. Before each major aggression, with some few exceptions based on expediency, they initiated a press campaign calculated to weaken their victims and to prepare the German people psychologically for the attack. They used the press, after their earlier conquests, as a means for further influencing foreign politics and in maneuvering for the following aggression.

""Thus, the presentation of an illegal invasion of a foreign country as a "preventative" or pre-emptive war did not originate with Bush, Cheney or Rumsfeld.

"The prosecution raised an issue that is of the greatest relevance today: the role of Nazi media propaganda in inuring the German population to the sufferings of other peoples and, indeed, urging Germans to commit war crimes.

Historical parallels are never exact and I am not here to argue that because the Nazis distorted their media, the US or British media are Nazis. That is specious reasoning. But a broader point also argued at Nuremberg does have resonance today:

"The basic method of the Nazi propagandistic activity lay in the false presentation of facts. -- The dissemination of provocative lies and the systematic deception of public opinion were as necessary to the Hitlerites for the realization of their plans as were the production of armaments and the drafting of military plans. "


There were two wars going on in Iraq -- one was fought with armies of soldiers, bombs and a fearsome military force. The other was fought alongside it with cameras, satellites, armies of journalists and propaganda techniques. One war was rationalized as an effort to find and disarm WMDs -- Weapons of Mass Destruction; the other was carried out by even more powerful WMDs, Weapons of Mass Deception.

The TV networks in America considered their non-stop coverage their finest hour, pointing to the use of embedded journalists and new technologies that permitted viewers to see a war up close for the first time. But different countries saw different wars.


For those of us watching the coverage, the war was more of a spectacle, an around the clock global media marathon, pitting media outlets against each other in ways that distorted truth and raised as many questions about the methods of TV news, as the armed intervention it was covering-and it some cases-promoting.

This is not just traditional censorship.

Censorship, self-censorship and spinning seems common in every war as governments try to limit negative coverage and maximize reporting that will galvanize support on the home front. Every war inspires jingoism in sections of the media and deceptive coverage.

Sun Tsu the great Chinese analyst of war said that deception is a tool in every war, by definition. Wars happen because of deception. They are fought with deception. But what was often discussed in the past as a tactic or a tool has become a well deployed strategy with sophisticated high-tech information warfare doctrines guiding attempts to achieve strategic influence based on policies built on deception. This concept is deeply grounded in neo-conservative ideologies based on the work of the late University of Chicago philosopher Leo Strauss.

It is not accidental. It is deliberate.

Many in the Pentagon believe to this day that it was the media coverage that was responsible the loss of the Vietnam War. We saw a media war within that war too as former Washington Post reporter William Prochna remembers that before Vietnam:

"We had already endured a century full of wars. Heavily censored wars. So total was the government manipulation of public opinion in World War I that the chief U.S. propagandist charged with getting us into the fray later described his efforts as "the world's greatest adventure in advertising." Censorship was so uniformly accepted in World War II that Life magazine did not run a photograph of a dead American until 1943, and the director of the Office of Censorship was given a special Pulitzer Prize citation. The Cold War, with its threat of nuclear extinction, brought self-censorship to a new level.

"In Vietnam, At first, Kennedy actually believed he could fight it as the communists fought theirs - in secret. How could you censor a war you weren't fighting-- So Vietnam began uncensored and stayed uncensored. But Kennedy could not keep the war small and surely not secret

"Inevitably, Kennedy ran head-on into the beginning of the so-called "generation gap" that would haunt the '60s and -- or did Vietnam start both-- -- a massive sea change in American journalism. Wars are fought by the young. They are also reported by the young. And the young Vietnam reporters of the early '60s were neither constrained by censorship nor total-war certainties.

"Shockingly, they began to report that the emperor wore no clothes. Americans were dying. The government was lying. Perhaps the unkindest of cuts, the United States was losing despite the rosy optimism of inflated body counts and politicized "victories" in nonbattles fought by its South Vietnamese clients.

"Some of the early correspondents - David Halberstam of the New York Times, Neil Sheehan of UPI, Malcolm Browne, Arnett and Faas of AP - became legends and worked their way into history as surely as the policymakers. Sheehan, standing in an airport knot of reporters, once welcomed Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara to Saigon with a loud, mocking stage whisper, "Ah, another foolish Westerner come to lose reputation to Ho Chi Minh." The sea change was not without its bruises among the reporters. Most of them still in their 20s, the reporters were attacked as too young and inexperienced by Kennedy's government and chased down as communist sympathizers by the South Vietnamese secret police. They also were assaulted, their patriotism questioned, by the old guard in the press corps, veterans of the "last good war" against the Germans and Japanese.

"With Vietnam over, the study groups, seminars and lectures at the War College began the preparation for handling the media in the inevitable wars to come. If censorship couldn't be the rule, outflanking would_Time has not narrowed the gulf. "


So what we have had is large amounts of money and manpower invested in controlling the media. At the same time, with mounting media consolidation, with the corporatization of the news biz and its integration into show biz, there was a sea change inside the media business. This is the context that is often missed with all the Bush bashing. One man did not organize this war.

It took powerful institutions: A military industrial MEDIA complex.

We have to put it in the context not just of US foreign policy but of the way our modern media system works. Viewers in Italy have watched how your TV system -- from RAI to private channels -- has been Berlusconized. You know what I am talking about. Here you have an unholy alliance of media and government power In the US, corporate media has become a handmaiden of special interests.

News managers who were not journalists took over and bottom line pressures begat infotainment and more and more celebrity coverage. Pundits soon outnumbered journalists. Journalism schools started producing more PR experts than reporters.

The government took PR to a new level: It is called Perception Management and it treats war as a product to be "rolled out" and promoted. It is serious and systematic.

24 hour cable news channels offered more news, not better news. They soon degenerated into a headline hit parade. Investigative reporting had long since given way to "breaking news" free of context and background, In-depth documentaries disappeared from the prime time environment. Reality-based programming replaced reports anchored in reality.

Anchormen complained that the media had gone from being a watchdog to a lap dog but did nothing about it..

It was this transformation of the media system -- implemented over twenty years with an assist by deregulation of public interest laws -- that made the media a willing accomplice -- especially in the post 911 environment of fear and patriotic correctness. When news anchors started emulating politicians by wearing American flags in their lapels, it became clear that the news media was being integrated into what amounted to a state run media system.

Soon there were embedded reporters narrowly focusing their reports on the ground campaign while the air attacks, use of prohibited weapons, special covert operations teams and civilian casualties went uncovered. It was deliberate but occasioned little comment with news networks seeking Pentagon approval for their on-camera experts and former generals to offer sports-like play by play assessments, Reporters in the field began to identify with the soldiers often saying "WE" when they began their reports as if their news organizations were part of the war -- as they were. Hollywood story telling techniques replaced fact based journalism with a master narrative and "message points" influencing media coverage. Hollywood producers and graphic artists were recruited to give war coverage high production values. It was like a movie shoot. Time Magazine called it "militainment.

"The US military commander Tommy Franks created a "Secret Plan" which was quietly leaked to friendly journalists like those at Fox News. He spoke of the media as "the fourth front" of the war, not a separate and autonomous fourth estate. No wonder CNN's Christianne Amanpour would later admit: "It looks like this was disinformation at the highest levels.

"It didn't just look that way. It was that way.

She charged th tat her own network was "muzzled" and blamed not just the government but the "bully boys" at Rupert Murdoch';s Fox Network. In a hyper competitive environment, no journalists or networks want to be accused of backing terrorists. When the President says repeatedly you are "either with us or the terrorists" a clear signal is sought. Media companies that need favors, access to power,and regulatory rule changes are unlikely to become a critical platform, It is not in their interest. In this environment, you get along by going along. That's what most did.

One result: out of 800 experts on all the US channels from the run -up to the war until April 9 2003 when the statues were brought down by the US military and a carefully assembled crowd of US supporters, only six opposed the war.

Only six!

The media environment was soon charged with a mix of seductive co-optation that gave selected journalists access to the front lines and military protection and intimation, attacks on critical reporting, denunciations of journalists who stepped out of line and even, some charge the deliberate targeting and killing of journalists in incidents such as the one at the Palestine Hotel.

My film WMD -- Weapons of Mass Deception -- reports in these incidents and quotes the distinguished historian of the media and war, Phillip Knightly as saying that he now believes that the firing on media sites was deliberate. CNN's Eason Jordan told a panel; at the World Economic Forum in January 2005 that journalists were targeted. When challenged, he seems to have backed away from his initial claim that 12 journalists had been killed by the US military. There has yet to be an independent investigation.

Please understand, this does not add up to a critique of a few lapses or media mistakes. It is not a catalogue of errors or flaws. It was planned and formatted, pre-produced and aired with high production values and designed to persuade, not just informed.

Yes, some news organizations including the Washington Post and NY Times did limited media-culpas and admitted they were not critical enough especially on the WMD issue which turned out to be total hoax despite repeated assurances over months that they were there, had to be there, would be found etc. etc. Once this fraud was unmasked the Administration and the media shifted message points, and asserted that the WMD's that were pictured as threat to the world were no longer terribly important. They were counting on the public's short attention span.

More recently we saw that the Iraqi election in which voters came out to demand an end to occupation was spun as vindication of the Administration's war policy. The focus was on their bravery, not their motivation. President Bush was clearly the winner with a rise in public opinion approval.

The template and routines of pro-war coverage continue even as the public turns against the war. Critics still have to fight for airtime while Administration officials and pro-war Democrats are constantly on the air.What does all this mean--

That we live in a mediaocracy, not a democracy.

That our media which enjoys constitutional protections to act as a guardian of democracy is actively undermining it. Media intimidation made it impossible for our opposition party to even make the war an issue. John Kerry was viciously demonized for his opposition to the Vietnam War and his service record was distorted -- for weeks. This is a pattern that has not changed.

That is why this issue is so relevant and timely.

What we are seeing is a crime against democracy and the public's right to know.

It is a crime against the people of Iraq who have suffered and died in large numbers in this war even though the extent of it is not reported. We have had coverage of torture incidents but no real investigation of the responsibility of decision makers. Only a handful of journalists follow that story closely including Seymour Hersh who exposed the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. He publishes in a smaller magazine, not a big newspaper.

This is a crime against our soldiers whose grueling experience goes largely unreported as do their casualties and psychological traumas.

It is a crime against the profession of journalism that has been shamelessly distorted even as many conscientious reporters soldier on, often in an alternative media that reaches smaller audience. Crimes demand exposure and punishment.

That's why I have come all this way to Rome, to add the voice of an American journalist to the call for consequences for these crimes and more debate about them in the anti-war movement. This kind of media complicity has to be challenged, refuted, condemned and opposed.

This World Tribunal is doing it. That's why I am here.

Will this Tribunal be covered -- or covered up--

The fight for a free and independent media is a global fight. We need to show solidarity with each other. Journalists in other countries need to appreciate the fact that many Americans are speaking out and to understand the pressures we are under.

We need to dialogue with each other and support media freedom.

I have come in hope that our MediaChannel.org will attract more help and support worldwide. While the media watches the world. We have to watch the media. I have come to offer my film WMD Weapons of Mass Deception for worldwide screenings.

I have come to stand up and be counted, to offer myself. That's all I can do. Grazie.


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