The War in the Media

by , October 27, 2007

The debate over the Iraq war has become a spectacle of dueling narratives. You’ll recall, however, that in the beginning there was only one narrative, and that was the War Party’s.

We were told that Iraq possessed “weapons of mass destruction,” a war machine that included nuclear, chemical, and biological components. Hardly anyone disputed this. Oh, there were a few, to be sure, such as former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter, but he was not listened to: the mainstream media didn’t consider him credible enough to quote. After all, what did a former UN weapons inspector know? Instead, they featured the sensational “revelations” of various Iraqi “defectors,” notably one “Curveball” who wound up throwing us a real curveball when his story was exposed as an elaborate fabrication. This didn’t happen until after the war – when US officials finally interviewed him in person, and determined he was a fraud – but by that time it no longer mattered: “Curveball” and his fellow Iraqi exiles associated with Ahmed Chalabi‘s Iraqi National Congress had done their part in writing the narrative that sent us marching off to war. Mission accomplished.

In a piece for the New York Times magazine, published in October 2004, writer Ron Suskind related an incident that underscores the methods and madness of the mindset behind our forced march to war – and the administration’s rationalization of the disastrous aftermath. Having written an article for Esquire that displeased the White House, Suskind was privy to a rare moment of candor during a meeting with a senior White House aide, who, after letting him know that he wasn’t exactly the administration’s favorite journalist, got down to brass tacks:

“The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’”

At the time, Suskind didn’t fully understand what the aide was talking about. However, as the events leading up to what General William E. Odom describes as the biggest strategic disaster in American military history unfolded, he began to see that the aide’s remarks “get to the very heart of the Bush presidency.”

In creating new realities, these Great Men of History are basically telling us a story that is mostly about themselves: about their role in history, and their will to shape it. They are weaving a narrative in which they are the heroes, and the rest of us are just spear-carriers, waiting for direction. As they cavort about on the world stage – invading countries on various pretexts, and changing regimes at will – they mesmerize their audience and draw them into a shared illusion. Their last performance was quite a success, at least for a while, one that so dazzled the media that hardly anyone who mattered dared challenge the administration’s imaginative narrative – until it was too late….

Instead of stepping outside the box, reporters preferred to stay inside the echo chamber so skillfully constructed by the War Party, where it was warm, and safe, rather than go outside and face the scorn of what former CNN chief executive Walter Isaacson calls the “patriotism police.” The efforts of the media vigilantes had an effect: even a hint that news anchors didn’t share in the Bushian belligerence that swept the nation after 9/11 provoked a storm of outraged emails and phone calls. Isaacson sent out a memo soon after the invasion of Afghanistan telling his staff to “balance” reporting of civilian casualties with reminders of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As the administration began ginning up the invasion of Iraq, not a lot of intimidation was required to make the media malleable. As Howard Kurtz puts it in his recent book, Reality Show: Inside the Last Great Television News War,

“For [Brian] Williams, it all went back to 9/11. As a citizen, he had thought on that fateful day, thank God that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell were on this team. How together we all seemed. In Williams’s view, there was something about the murderous attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that, in the eyes of the White House press corps, gave Bush a stature that could not be violated.”

No wonder Williams does “not enjoy looking back on the run-up to war,” as Kurtz puts it. And when he did look back, in an interview with the President in late summer of last year, the President’s stature, at least in his eyes, was apparently still inviolate. When Bush stubbornly insisted that pre-war Iraq had “the capacity” to build WMD, Williams failed to challenge him. When Bush denied making a direct connection between Iraq and 9/11, Williams sat there similarly dumbstruck – although he might have cited the President’s March 18, 2003 letter to Congress in which he contended that war with Iraq constituted “continuing to take the necessary actions against international terrorists and terrorist organizations, including those nations, organizations, or persons who planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.”

Williams’s deference to the President and his policies persists, as Kurtz shows: ” Every day, Williams asked the question: Did Baghdad correspondent Richard Engel have any news other than another twenty Iraqi civilians killed when an IED detonated, leaving the same smoking carcasses and pathetic scenes of loved ones crying?” Kurtz also reports that “No one in their right mind, [Williams] believed, would want America to pull out tomorrow. He did not want America to withdraw from Iraq,” although he did recognize “how deeply the war had divided the country.”

Over at CBS, the same sorts of questions are being asked: is there any “good news” to report? Kurtz relates the story of Lara Logan, “a stunning thirty-five-year-old South African” who had worked as a radio stringer in Afghanistan and braved the perils of Iraq, working in the frontlines alongside the troops. “Logan,” Kurtz reports, “was accustomed to hearing demands for good-news stories from her bosses. They were tired of gloom and doom all the time.” Her editors and producers wanted her to do “a reconstruction piece” – one of those “we’re-building-schoolhouses-and-walking-little-old-ladies- across-the-street” stories about all the “progress” we’re making. CBS president Sean McManus told her: “It doesn’t have to be all serious hard news. You could do other things.” His own suggestion: a piece on the Baghdad soccer team. The next day, the Los Angles Times reported that a member of the Baghdad team had been heading the ball and was struck with a stray bullet before he hit the ground. So much for that particular “good-news” story.

Ms. Logan, a reporter who risked her life several times in Iraq getting frontline footage, had to deal with a network that was determined to keep some of her most important reportage off the air – on the grounds, as Kurtz puts it, that it was “too raw for a television audience.” The American people may be paying for this war, with the lives of their best youth and their tax dollars, but, according to CBS executives, that didn’t mean they had a right to see what was really going on in Iraq. When Logan filed a report containing some pretty graphic footage, including an account of what the Iraqi “army” was doing to its own people – murdering and torturing Sunnis – producer Rome Hartman kept it off the air, in part because of “editorial concerns.” There was “no room” for Logan’s report, Kurtz tells us: so Logan had it posted on the CBS website, and sent out an email to friends and associates asking them to make sure it got some circulation. It was posted on a website, Mediachannel.org – and was immediately denounced by neocon bloggers, such as professional witch-hunter Michelle Malkin, who claimed CBS had gotten the video from … al-Qaeda! “If it’s not off the Al-Qaeda video, then how did she get footage identical to the one used by Al-Qaeda? This needs to be explained,” insisted Nibras Kazimi. “Was Logan a willing tool or an ignorant fool?” brayed Malkin. CBS spokesperson Sandy Genelius explained the obvious: “Occasionally, identifying a video source could put someone’s life in danger. In that case, we do not identify the source. Such was the case with this video.” Iraqis peddling the same video to al-Qaeda and CBS, which is why, as Genelius put it, “the same video from Iraq often shows up in multiple places.”

Why is this so hard for Ms. Malkin to understand? Because it gets in the way of her attempt to smear as “anti-American” and “pro-terrorist” anyone who tells the truth about what is happening on the ground in Iraq.

In the midst of her report, Logan and crew were told that they were about to be targeted, and, on their way out of the area, a civilian was shot dead in front of them as they ran. What gets Logan – and this author – about the unconscionable charges thrown around by Malkin and her fellow bloggers is that Malkin & Co. have no credibility or standing in this matter. As Logan put it to Kurtz: “Why am I accountable to these f*cking idiots whose lives aren’t at risk?”

The laptop bombardiers of the blogosphere, of which Malkin is among the most obnoxious, are constantly demanding that the media show the “good news” from Iraq, and pressure from the neoconservative regions of cyberspace has been constant. Yet the allegedly “antiwar” media is a myth that exists largely in the minds of the neocons, who see any deviation from their preconceived notions as the equivalent of treason. Logan, as Kurtz relates, was constantly hectored by superiors to do “softer” features: at one point, she was asked to do “a story on female soldiers who were distracting themselves by keeping cyber-pets online.” Logan emailed back: “I would rather stick needles in my eyes than spend one second of my time on that story.” Malkin and her pro-war comrades may see this as evidence of antiwar bias, rather than anti-trivial, and yet, given the imbalance of power between reporters and higher-ups, including the corporate suits, it’s clear who is setting the agenda.

When news of the Haditha massacre hit the headlines, pro-war conservative media critics accused the media of blowing the story out of proportion and deliberately focusing on an “isolated incident,” but, as Kurtz reveals, “the truth was that the media, especially television, had largely shied away from the story for two and a half months. Accusing American soldiers of atrocities was a risky business.”

Newsmen risk their careers if they go up against the official narrative and fail to “balance” their reporting of Iraqi realities with the administration’s make-believe “good news,” as Chris Matthews revealed at the tenth anniversary party for “Hardball,” where he told the assembled guests that White House officials – and he singled out some in Dick Cheney’s office – had attempted to “silence” him by pressuring MSNBC executives. In an interview with TV Guide, Matthews elaborated, averring that there was a “concerted effort” to choke off discussion on his show about the key role played by the Cheneyites in hyping the alleged nuclear threat posed by Iraq: “It came,” charged Matthews, “in the form of three different people calling trying to quiet me.”

There is, by Matthews’s account, a concerted effort to exclude alternative voices, especially when it comes to the war issue: “There’s a lot going on among our producers, our young bookers, now that I never noticed before. There is an almost menacing call that you get whenever someone hears something they don’t like – their people call up and threaten, or challenge, and get very nasty. That’s now become the norm.”

“We’re history’s actors, and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” Such conceit is typical of the neoconservatives who have dominated this White House lo these many years, but that exemplar of hubris in the White House left one essential element out of his equation: the reality-based community will study, and also report, the tragedy in which we are all actors – and history’s actors live in mortal fear of bad reviews. As the brazen wrongness of this war, in every sense, continues to grate on the American public, a change in policy is inevitable – unless the neocons can pull off a last minute “surge” that will enable them to stay the course.

In order to maintain even minimal support, the War Party must create an alternate reality, a Bizarro World where failure is success, civil war is civil society, and a theocracy is, in Bush’s phrase, a “free Iraq.” If they can project that impression to the American people, via the media, History’s Actors can continue their bloody drama, “creating other new realities” in a looming confrontation with Iran.

However, the poll numbers are looking dismal for the War Party, with a substantial majority – 65 percent, according to a CNN/Opinion Research survey taken mid-October – flat-out opposing the war. A majority – 51 percent – say that, in retrospect, we should’ve stayed out. The failure to find even a hint of “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq has led the American public, which once supported the war fervently, to believe that the Bush administration deliberately misled them – 60 percent, according to a September CBS/New York Times poll. As Mark Danner put it in a New York Times Magazine piece two and a half years into the occupation of Iraq, “the war has lost its narrative.”

In understanding how the administration is trying to regain control of the narrative, it is useful to turn to the annals of imaginative literature, to see how the pros did it. It was Samuel Coleridge, in 1817, who referred to an inclination in the reader to “transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”

Poetic faith – now there’s a phrase that neatly sums up the essence of the War Party’s spirit and outlook. A poet, after all, is an artist, who has no use for facts that don’t fit into his artistic vision. In telling his story, he selectively recreates reality according to his own value judgements. This, of course, is precisely the opposite of what happens in a news operation.

In a free society, it is the media’s duty to expose the deceptions routinely practiced by government officials, especially when the lives of American soldiers and innocent civilians are at stake. In the run-up to the Iraq war, when mainstream “news” outlets became nothing more than transmission belts for government propaganda, American journalists went AWOL. Whether they will redeem themselves in the precis to the next war remains to be seen.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

I am speaking at a San Francisco march and rally sponsored by the October 27 Coalition to End the War. in San Francisco on Saturday, October 27th. We’ll start at the Civic Center at 11am – where, I understand, I’ll be speaking – and later march to Dolores Park. It’s a grand coalition, including over 170 political, religious, labor and community groups: other speakers include Cindy Sheehan, San Francisco supervisor Tom Ammiano, the Right Reverend Marc Andrus, the Episcopal bishop of California, and Dr. Ann Roelser, of Military Families Speak Out.

There will be a libertarian contingent, which is meeting in front of the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, 99 Grove Street before the rally. Stop by and say hello.

You might also want to check out my blogging at Taki’s Top Drawer, the latest being a snark on Rudy Giuliani’s love-hate relationship with the Mafia, and in defense of Ayn Rand against proto-neocon Whittaker Chambers.

Read more by Justin Raimondo