Along with Jack Shafer of Slate, Michael Massing was one of the first media critics to take on our imperial press for the shameful way it caved to the Bush administration in covering the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. He did so in two devastating critiques in the New York Review of Books. They added up to little short of an indictment of the work of the New York Times and the Washington Post in particular. The first of these pieces must be considered at least in part responsible for the fact that, last May 26, the editors of the Times finally felt called upon to publish a relatively weak mea culpa about the paper’s Iraq reporting that named no names and was tucked away on an inside page, and then for the far stronger piece published four days later by the paper’s forthright public editor Daniel Okrent. In Massing’s latest essay below, he considers how coverage of the war affected the election – or rather why the war didn’t prove as decisive as might have been expected in the voting booth.
There can be little question that the administration’s Iraq disaster chased the president to the polls on Nov. 2; that, put another way, a ragtag group of insurgents who, 18 months ago, weren’t even on the administration’s radar screen, actually threatened to deprive him of a second term in office. There can also be little question that the war in Iraq, along with the various administration lies and misdemeanors that got us there, was a significant factor in mobilizing an anti-Bush electoral movement of striking scope. Why exactly the costs of the war didn’t penetrate further into George Bush’s America and what role the media may have had in blunting the war’s significance are questions Massing now takes up. His piece represents perhaps the opening salvo in a longer-term discussion.
Massing’s previous critiques of pre-war and wartime coverage have been collected in a tiny paperback, Now They Tell Us, The American Press and Iraq. (A version of the book’s introduction by Orville Schell – "Why the Press Failed" – has already been posted at TomDispatch.) Massing’s latest piece appears below thanks to the kind permission of the editors of the New York Review of Books. (It will appear in the Dec. 2 issue of that magazine.) Tom
Iraq, the Press, and the Election
by Michael Massing
In the end, the war in Iraq did not have the decisive impact on the election that many had expected. In the weeks before the vote there were the massacre of 49 Iraqi police trainees; a deadly attack inside the previously impenetrable Green Zone in Baghdad; the refusal by an Army unit to carry out a supply mission on the grounds that it was too dangerous; the explosion of several car bombs at a ceremony where soldiers were handing out candy, killing dozens of children; the abduction of contractors, journalists, and aid workers, including the director of the CARE office in Baghdad; the release of a report holding the highest reaches of the Pentagon and the military responsible for the abuses at Abu Ghraib; a report by President Bush’s hand-picked investigator confirming that Iraq had long ago lost its ability to produce weapons of mass destruction; and the spread of the insurgency to every corner of the country, bringing reconstruction to a virtual halt. All of this, in the end, counted for less to voters (if the exit polls are to be believed) than such issues as whether homosexuals should be allowed to marry and whether discarded embryos should be used for stem-cell research.
How did this happen? In many ways, George Bush’s victory seems to have confirmed the fact that large numbers of voters in America today are very conservative, dominated by strong attachments to God, country, and the traditional family. At the same time, it’s not clear to what extent the public was aware of just how bad things had gotten in Iraq. For while there was much informative reporting on the war, a number of factors combined to shield Americans from its most brutal realities. A look at these factors can help to understand some neglected aspects of George Bush’s victory.
Toward the end of September, Farnaz Fassihi, a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal in Baghdad, sent an e-mail to 40 friends describing her working conditions in Iraq. Fassihi had been sending out such messages on a regular basis, but this one seethed with anger and frustration. “Being a foreign correspondent in Baghdad these days,” she wrote, “is like being under virtual house arrest…. I avoid going to people’s homes and never walk in the streets. I can’t go grocery shopping any more, can’t eat in restaurants, can’t strike a conversation with strangers, can’t look for stories, can’t drive in anything but a full armored car, can’t go to scenes of breaking news, can’t be stuck in traffic, can’t speak English outside, can’t take a road trip, can’t say I’m an American, can’t linger at checkpoints, can’t be curious about what people are saying, doing, feeling. And can’t and can’t.” Citing the fall of Fallujah, the revolt of Moqtada al-Sadr, and the spread of the insurgency to every part of the country, Fassihi declared that “despite President Bush’s rosy assessments, Iraq remains a disaster. If under Saddam it was a ‘potential’ threat, under the Americans it has been transformed to ‘imminent and active threat,’ a foreign policy failure bound to haunt the United States for decades to come…. The genie of terrorism, chaos and mayhem has been unleashed onto this country as a result of American mistakes and it can’t be put back into a bottle.”
Fassihi’s e-mail soon ended up on the Internet, where it quickly spread, giving readers a vivid and unvarnished look at what it was like to live in the world’s most dangerous capital. Somehow, Fassihi, in her informal message, had managed to capture the lurid nature of life in Iraq in a way that conventional reporting, with all its qualifiers and distancing, could not.
Other U.S. correspondents in Baghdad were startled at the attention her e-mail received. “All of us felt that we’d been writing that story,” one journalist told me. “Everyone was marveling and asking what were we doing wrong if that information came as a surprise to the American public.” Reporters rushed to file their own first-person accounts. Writing in the “Week in Review,” for instance, New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins observed that “in the writing of this essay, a three-hour affair, two rockets and three mortar shells have landed close enough to shake the walls of our house. The door to my balcony opens onto an Iraqi social club, and the roar from the blasts set the Iraqis into a panic, their screams audible above the Arabic music wafting from the speakers.”
Interestingly, no such account appeared in the Wall Street Journal. For Fassihi’s criticism of Bush administration policy outraged some readers, who insisted that she could no longer write about Iraq with the necessary objectivity. In response, the Journal announced that Fassihi was going to take a previously scheduled vacation from Iraq and that this would keep her from writing anything more about it until after the U.S. election.
Both Fassihi and her editors insisted that this decision was not a criticism of her, but some detected a pulling back by the Journal, and an examination of its coverage tends to bear this out. In the weeks before Fassihi’s departure, the paper ran a number of probing pieces on Iraq. On Sept. 15, for instance, Fassihi and Greg Jaffe, in a front-page story, described how the steady rise in violence in Baghdad reflected growing cooperation among Iraq’s once highly fragmented insurgent groups. After Fassihi’s e-mail was circulated, however, such stories almost entirely disappeared from the Journal‘s front page, and they were hard to find inside as well. The resulting vacuum was filled by the Journal‘s stridently conservative opinion pages, which every day featured one or more editorials or columns insisting that the war was going well and that anyone who felt otherwise was a defeatist liberal uninterested in bringing democracy to the Middle East.
In one column, Daniel Henninger mentioned several Web sites that readers interested in learning what was truly going on in Iraq could consult. I looked up one of them, HealingIraq .com. It was written by an Iraqi dentist. His most recent posting began with an apology for the long hiatus since his last filing. “The daily situation in Baghdad is sadly too depressing to live through, let alone write about,” he lamented. He told of one friend who had been shot in the stomach while working at an Internet café when an armed gang sprayed a nearby car belonging to a lawyer who was pursuing a case they wanted dropped. Another friend, a doctor, had been kidnapped along with a pharmacist by ten armed men storming a pharmacy that had supplied medications to the U.S. Army. Their decapitated bodies were later found outside Baghdad. Such grim reports were absent from the Journal‘s opinion pages, and, increasingly, its news pages. Thus, one of the nation’s top newspapers became effectively neutered as a source of reliable information about Iraq.
Meanwhile, pressure was building on other U.S. news organizations as a result of the visit to the United States of Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi in late September. In private, he was not optimistic. As Peter Boyer reported in the Nov. 1 New Yorker, Allawi told President Bush of the conundrum facing him and the coalition – that the insurgency required forceful action, but that any such action could further alienate the population, thus fueling the insurgency. In public, however, Allawi joined with Bush in insisting that Iraq was making progress and in blaming the press for making too much of the negative. Fourteen or 15 of Iraq’s 18 provinces, Allawi asserted, were “completely safe,” and the others had only “pockets of terrorism.” And this threw editors and reporters on the defensive. “At the moment, there’s real sensitivity about the perceived political nature of every story coming out of Iraq,” a Baghdad correspondent for a large U.S. paper told me in mid-October. “Every story from Iraq is by definition an assessment as to whether things are going well or badly.” In reality, he said, the situation in Iraq was a "catastrophe,” a view “almost unanimously” shared by his colleagues. But, he added, “Editors are hypersensitive about not wanting to appear to be coming down on one side or the other.”
Allawi’s visit to the United States was part of an intensive campaign by the Bush administration to manage the flow of news out of Iraq. As a matter of policy, any journalist wanting to visit the Green Zone, that vast swath of Baghdad that is home to U.S. officialdom, had to be escorted at all times; one could not simply wander around and chat with people in bars and cafés. The vast world of civilian contractors – of Halliburton’s Kellogg, Brown & Root, of Bechtel, and of all the other private companies responsible for rebuilding Iraq – was completely off-limits; employees of these companies were informed that they would be fired if they were caught talking to the press. During the days of the Coalition Provisional Authority, its administrator, L. Paul Bremer, and the top military commander, Ricardo Sanchez, gave very few interviews to U.S. correspondents in Baghdad. They did, however, speak, often via satellite, with small newspapers and local TV stations, which were seen as more open and sympathetic. “The administration has been extremely successful in going around the filters, of getting their message directly to the American people without giving interviews to the Baghdad press corps,” one correspondent said.
The insurgents have done their part as well. In no prior conflict – not in Vietnam, nor in Lebanon, nor in Bosnia – have journalists been singled out for such sustained and violent attack. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 36 journalists have been killed in Iraq since the start of the war – 19 at the hands of the insurgents. Two French journalists seized in August remain missing. Until this fall, many journalists at least felt safe while in their heavily guarded hotels. Then, in October, Paul Taggart, an American photographer, was seized by four gunmen after leaving the Hamra Hotel complex, one of the main residences for Western journalists. He was eventually released, but it was discovered that the captors had a floor plan of the hotel with the name of every journalist in every room. Facing such perils, many correspondents packed up and left.
A number stayed, however, and, at considerable risk, set out to describe the Iraqi maelstrom. Leading the way were three top U.S. newspapers – the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times – backed by, among others, NPR, Knight Ridder, and the Associated Press. The newspapers, in particular, seemed driven by a sense that they had somehow let down their readers during the run-up to the war, that they had not sufficiently scrutinized the administration’s case for war, and they now seemed determined to make up for it. The New York Times, for one, maintained a staff of 40 to 50 people in Baghdad, including four or five reporters plus assorted drivers, housekeepers, security guards, and “fixers,” those invaluable interpreters/journalists who help visiting reporters understand who’s who, arrange interviews, and make sense of it all. With more and more of the country off-limits to Western reporters, these fixers were increasingly sent out into the field to find out what was going on, and some emerged as enterprising reporters in their own right.
In early October, the New York Times’ Edward Wong, accompanied by a fixer and a photographer, spent a day being guided through the streets of Baghdad’s Sadr City by a mid-level aide to Moqtada al-Sadr. At the time, U.S. warplanes were pounding the district on a nightly basis, but Wong – whose itinerary included a kebab lunch at the aide’s home, a street that had recently been bombed, and a hospital where the wounded were being treated – found that the strikes were not having their intended effect. “Loyalty to [Sadr] burns fierce here” in Sadr City, “a vast slum of 2.2 million people, despite frequent American raids and almost nightly airstrikes,” he wrote on Oct. 3. “The American military has stepped up its campaign to rout the Mahdi Army, Mr. Sadr’s militia, on its home turf here, to drive him to the bargaining table. But it is often impossible here to distinguish between civilians and fighters.”
After Prime Minister Allawi asserted that most of Iraq was safe, the Washington Post‘s Rajiv Chandrasekaran – seeking a statistical measure – got hold of the daily security reports of Kroll, a private firm working for the U.S. government. These reports showed that Iraq was suffering an average of 70 attacks a day by insurgents, up from the 40 to 50 that had occurred before the handover of political authority in late June. What is more, the reports showed, the attacks were occurring not only in the Sunni Triangle but in every province of Iraq. “In number and scope,” Chandrasekaran wrote on the Post‘s front page, “the attacks compiled in the Kroll reports suggest a broad and intensifying campaign of insurgent violence that contrasts sharply with assessments by Bush administration officials and Iraq’s interim prime minister that the instability is contained [in] small pockets of the country.” (Since he wrote, the number of attacks has increased to more than 100 a day.)
In the face of Bush administration efforts to portray the Iraqi insurgency as made up exclusively of foreign fighters led by the Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, several U.S. news organizations offered a more nuanced look. The AP’s Jim Krane, for instance, reported in early October that the insurgents seemed to consist of four main groups, including not only “hardcore fighters” aligned with Zarqawi but also conservative Iraqis seeking to install an Islamic theocracy, Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, and “Iraqi nationalists fighting to reclaim secular power lost when Saddam Hussein was deposed in April 2003.” This last group, Krane wrote, was the largest. In other U.S. wars, he noted, “the enemy was clear.” In Iraq, “the disorganized insurgency has no single commander, no political wing and no dominant group.” As a result, “U.S. troops can’t settle on a single approach” to the fighting.
In Washington, too, the press uncovered many significant stories about U.S. policy in Iraq. In one five-day period (Oct. 22 to Oct. 26), the Washington Post‘s front page featured stories on:
* a poll showing that U.S.-backed political figures were losing ground to religious leaders;
* how the war in Iraq had diverted energy and attention from the fight against al-Qaeda;
* how the CIA was secretly moving detainees out of Iraq – a “serious breach” of the Geneva Conventions; and
* administration plans to ask for an additional $70 billion to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The biggest bombshell, though, came on Oct. 25, when the Times, in a two-column story on its front page, reported that nearly 380 tons of high-grade explosives had disappeared from a bunker south of Baghdad, and that this had likely occurred after the U.S. invasion. The story was quickly seized on by John Kerry, who for the remaining days of the campaign cited it as further evidence of the administration’s mishandling of Iraq. On the day before the election, CNN analyst William Schneider said that the missing-explosives story seemed to be an “important” factor in a last-minute turning of the polls away from Bush.
In the end, of course, the voters did not so turn. And leaving aside any possible problems with the polls themselves, it’s clear that all those stories in the Times and the Post, and the discussion they generated, did not have the impact on the public that Schneider and many others had predicted. Understanding why requires a look at some of the constraints under which reporters at even the most aggressive papers worked. Just as reporters confronted physical no-go zones into which they could not venture, they also faced journalistic ones posing many perils.
Civilian casualties was one. Getting at this posed a number of obstacles for journalists, the most obvious being the lack of reliable figures. The U.S. military does not offer information about civilian casualties, and the estimates by private groups vary wildly. At the conservative end, Iraq Body Count, which offers on its Web site a running total based on news reports, places the number of civilian dead from military combat at between 14,300 and 16,500. At the upper end, a team of public health researchers from Johns Hopkins University, using mortality estimates from both before and after the war, has estimated that 100,000 civilians have died either directly or indirectly as a result of the war. This finding, published by the British medical journal The Lancet in late October, was questioned by many other groups, including Human Rights Watch, which said that the real figure was probably much lower but still unacceptably high.
Amid such conflicting estimates, journalists – unable to visit most of the sites where civilian deaths occur – have been exceedingly cautious. A correspondent for a major U.S. paper described for me the dilemma he faced in a place like Fallujah (this was before the current U.S. offensive). His paper, he said, has an Iraqi staffer in the city, and after each US bombing he would go to the scene and report back that a certain number of civilians had died. “But,” the correspondent said, “I want to see it myself.” He elaborated: “If you get a press release from the U.S. military saying it dropped four 500-pound bombs on insurgents in Fallujah, and we know from our people that 12 people were killed, and they say it was Zarqawi’s men, we’ll print what they say – that it was Zarqawi. Al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya every night run interviews with hospital directors, who say a man, his wife, and their three children were killed. The U.S. military says that the director’s been threatened. I don’t know. It’s very frustrating because we can’t go in. You’re left with ‘he said/she said.'” Here, then, is another of those journalistic conventions – the need for “balance” – that deters papers from getting at one of the war’s most disturbing dimensions.
Needless to say, the insurgents themselves have ruthlessly killed many civilians, in attacks that often target them. An admirable bid to weigh all this was made by Nancy Youssef of Knight Ridder. Youssef learned that the Iraqi Health Ministry had since early April been gathering statistics on civilian casualties from hospitals in 15 of Iraq’s 18 provinces. Youssef obtained the numbers through Sept. 19 and totaled them up. The number of dead came to 3,487, of which 328 were women and children. Another 13,720 Iraqis had been injured. Hospital officials believed that most of the dead were civilians, and Youssef, analyzing the circumstances of their death, was able to see a pattern, which she described in her lead: “Operations by U.S. and multinational forces and Iraqi police are killing twice as many Iraqis – most of them civilians – as attacks by insurgents.” Iraqi officials, she added, “said the statistics proved that U.S. airstrikes intended for insurgents also were killing large numbers of innocent civilians. Some say these casualties are undermining popular acceptance of the American-backed interim government.”
After Youssef’s report appeared, other news organizations began clamoring for similar numbers. Within days, the interim government ordered the Health Ministry to stop issuing them. The silence again set in.
The gingerly approach to civilian casualties in the U.S. press is part of a much larger hole in the coverage, one concerning the day-to-day nature of the U.S. occupation. Most of the soldiers in Iraq are young men who can’t speak Arabic and who have rarely traveled outside the United States, and they have suddenly been set down in a hostile environment in which they face constant attack. They are equipped with powerful weapons and have authority over a dark-skinned people with alien customs. The result is constant friction, often leading to chronic abuses that, while not as glaring as those associated with Abu Ghraib, are no less corrosive in their effect on local sentiment.
One journalist who has seen this firsthand is Nir Rosen. A 27-year-old American freelance reporter, Rosen speaks Arabic (a rare skill among Western reporters in Iraq), has a dark complexion (allowing him to mix more easily with Iraqis), and prefers when in Iraq to hang out with locals rather than with other journalists. (In the late spring, he managed to get inside Fallujah at a time when it was a death trap for Western reporters; he described his chilling findings in the July 5 issue of The New Yorker.) Seeing Iraq from the perspective of the Iraqis, Rosen got a glimpse of how persistently and routinely American actions alienated them. “People have to wait three hours in a traffic jam because a U.S. army convoy is going by,” he notes. “Guns are pointed at you wherever you go. People are constantly shouting at you. Concrete walls are everywhere. Violence is everywhere.”
In October 2003, Rosen spent two weeks embedded with a U.S. Army unit near the Syrian border. In sweeps through neighborhoods, he said, the Americans used Israeli-style tactics – making mass arrests in the hope that one or two of those scooped up will have something useful for them. “They’ll hold them for 10 hours in a truck without food or water,” he told me. “And 90 percent of them are innocent.” Writing of his experience in Reason magazine, Rosen described how a unit he accompanied on a raid broke down the door of a house of a man they suspected of dealing in arms. When the man, named Ayoub, did not immediately respond to their orders, they shot him with non-lethal bullets. “The floor of the house was covered with his blood,” Rosen wrote. “He was dragged into a room and interrogated forcefully as his family was pushed back against their garden’s fence.” Ayoub’s frail mother, he continued, pleaded with the interrogating soldier to spare her son’s life, protesting his innocence: “He pushed her to the grass along with Ayoub’s four girls and two boys, all small, and his wife. They squatted barefoot, screaming, their eyes wide open in terror, clutching one another as soldiers emerged with bags full of documents, photo albums and two compact discs with Saddam Hussein and his cronies on the cover. These CDs, called The Crimes of Saddam, are common on every Iraqi street and, as their title suggests, they were not made by Saddam supporters. But the soldiers couldn’t read Arabic and saw only the picture of Saddam, which was proof enough of guilt. Ayoub was brought out and pushed on to the truck.” After holding Ayoub for several hours in a detention center, the soldiers determined that he was innocent, and they later let him go.
Rosen believes that such encounters are common. The American soldiers he saw “treat everybody as the enemy,” he said, adding that they can be very abusive and violent. “If you’re a boy and see soldiers beating the sh*t out of your father, how can you not hate the Americans?” He added: “Why doesn’t anybody write about this in the New York Times or the Washington Post? The AP always has people embedded – why don’t they write about it?”
One reason, he suggests, is that embedded journalists who write negatively about the U.S. military find themselves “blacklisted.” It happened to Rosen: a series of stories he wrote for Asia Times about his experience while embedded elicited an angry letter from the commander and the public affairs officer of the unit he accompanied, and he has not been allowed to become embedded since. Other correspondents told me of similar experiences.
Another reason why news organizations don’t write about such matters is suggested in the recently released DVD version of Michael Moore’s movie Fahrenheit 9/11. It contains as an added feature an interview with Urban Hamid, a Swedish journalist who in late 2003 accompanied an American platoon on a raid in Samarra. Hamid’s experience was similar to Nir Rosen’s, with the difference that he caught his on tape. In it, we see soldiers using an armored personnel carrier to break down the gates of a house. We see the soldiers rush in with their rifles pointed ahead, and terrified women rushing out. An elderly man on crutches is rousted up and a plastic bag is placed over his head. The soldiers go through the family documents, trying to determine if this man is connected with the insurgency, but because they don’t speak Arabic they can’t really tell. Nonetheless, they take him to a detention center, where he joins dozens of others, their heads all sheathed in plastic. Celebrating the arrests, the soldiers take pictures of one another with their “trophies.” One soldier admits that he’s surprised they didn’t find more weapons. “The sad thing for these guys is that we’ll probably let them go because their names don’t match up,” he says.
In the interview, Hamid says he asked many Iraqis if they’d heard of things like this, and they all told him “of course.” “It’s preposterous,” he says, “to think there is any way you win somebody’s hearts and minds by imposing such a criminal and horrible policy.” Hamid says that he tried to sell his tape to “mainstream media.” First he approached the “Swedish media” but got no response. He then approached the “American media,” with the same result. “It’s obvious,” he says, “that the mainstream media exercise some kind of self-censorship in which people know that this is a hot potato and don’t touch it, because you’re going to get burned.”
Is self-censorship among U.S. news organizations as widespread as Hamid says? The group he’s referring to, of course, is television news, and it’s here that most Americans get their news. For six weeks before the election I watched as much TV news as I could, constantly switching from one station to another.
Viewing the newscasts of the traditional networks – ABC, CBS, and NBC – I was surprised at how critical of Bush policy they could be. When Prime Minister Allawi claimed that 15 of Iraq’s 18 provinces were fit for elections, Charles Gibson on ABC’s World News Tonight asked Pentagon correspondent Martha Raddatz if this was true. “I can give you a two-word answer from a military commander I spoke to today,” Raddatz replied. “He said, ‘no way.’ And one other commander said, ‘Maybe nine, 10, of the 18, and that’s being generous.'” On many nights, the networks aired “mayhem reels” out of Iraq, two minutes’ worth of cars afire, blood stains on pavement, bodies being carried from rubble. In addition to relaying scoops from the daily press, the networks broke some stories of their own. On the Sunday before the election, for instance, 60 Minutes ran a hard-hitting segment about a unit of the Oregon National Guard in Iraq that lacked such basic equipment as the armored plating needed to protect soldiers in Humvees from roadside bombs. Such reports appeared often enough to reinforce long-standing conservative complaints that the networks are inherently “liberal.”
Yet even these “liberal” outlets had strict limits on what they would show. On Sept. 12, for instance, a group of American soldiers patrolling Haifa Street, a dangerous avenue in central Baghdad, came under fire. Another group of soldiers in two Bradley fighting vehicles came to rescue them. They did, but one of the vehicles had to be abandoned, and a jubilant crowd quickly gathered around it. A banner from a group associated with Zarqawi was produced and placed on the vehicle. Arab TV crews arrived to record the event. At one point, two U.S. helicopters showed up and made several passes over the vehicle. With the crowd fully visible, one of the helicopters launched a barrage of rockets and machine-gun rounds. The vehicle was destroyed, and 13 people were killed. Among them was Mazen al-Tumeizi, a Palestinian producer for the al-Arabiya network who was doing a TV report in front of the Bradley. Hit while on camera, his blood spattering the lens, Tumeizi doubled over and screamed that he was dying.
The video of Tumeizi’s death was shown repeatedly on al-Arabiya and other Arabic-language networks. On American TV, it aired very briefly on NBC and CNN, then disappeared. On most other networks, it appeared not at all. Here was a dramatic piece of footage depicting in raw fashion the human toll of the fighting in Iraq, yet American TV producers apparently feared that if they gave it too much time, they would, in Urban Hamid’s phrase, get burned. (I still have not heard of a single instance in which the killing of an American in Iraq has been shown on American TV.)
This fear seems especially apparent on cable news. Given the sheer number of hours CNN, MSNBC, and Fox have to fill, it’s remarkable how little of substance and imagination one sees here. CNN still bills itself as “the most trusted name in news,” but one wonders among whom. Its breakfast-time show, American Morning, offers a truly vapid mix of bromides and forced bonhomie. In mid-October, with a grinding war and bruising electoral campaign underway, the show spent a week in Chicago, providing one long, breathless promo for the city. Every hour or so, correspondent Brent Sadler would produce an update from Baghdad. For the most part, he offered rip-and-read versions of U.S. press releases, with constant references to “precision strikes” aimed at “terrorist targets” and “Zarqawi safehouses.” Not once did I see Sadler make even a stab at an independent assessment.
For analysis, CNN leaned heavily on safe, establishment-friendly voices, including many of the same retired military officers who appeared in the run-up to the war. On Oct. 15, for instance, former General George Joulwan discussed with Wolf Blitzer the need for Americans to do a better job of explaining to Muslims how much they’d done for them over the years. Blitzer agreed: “I don’t think a lot of Muslims understand that over the past 15 years, every time the U.S. has gone to war, whether in Kuwait, or Somalia, or Kosovo, or Bosnia, or Afghanistan or Iraq, it’s to help Muslims.” Joulwan: “We’ve saved tens of thousands of them. We need to understand that, and so do our Muslim friends.”
Thankfully, not everything on CNN descended to this level. The network’s reporting on the election in Afghanistan was crisp and informative, thanks largely to Christiane Amanpour’s sharp reports. Aaron Brown’s nightly show, while often slow-paced, offered a sober look at serious issues. And occasionally a truly stellar bit of reporting poked through, as when Jane Arraf, breaking loose from her embed with a U.S. unit laying siege to Samarra, found that many of the claims she’d been fed were untrue. “The U.S. said more than 100 insurgents were killed, but residents saw it differently,” Arraf reported. The signs of destruction all around her, she stated that “it was hard to find anyone who believes any of the people in hospitals are insurgents.”
Rare on CNN, such reports are almost entirely absent from Fox News. The channel continues to insist that it is “fair and balanced,” but hardly anyone takes this seriously anymore. Still, I was not prepared for just how blatant and pervasive its bias was. This was apparent throughout the presidential campaign, with George Bush forever portrayed as resolute, principled, and plainspoken, and John Kerry as equivocating, elitist, and French.
The slant was evident in the coverage of the war as well. Whenever news about Iraq came on, the urgent words “War on Terror” appeared on the screen, thus helping to frame the war exactly as the president did. “Did the president and his administration take their eye off the ball in the war on terror?” Brit Hume asked one night. For an answer, Hume spoke with Richard Miniter, the author of Shadow War: The Untold Story of How Bush Is Winning the War on Terror. No bias there. After the Washington Times reported the discovery in Iraq of a computer disk belonging to a Ba’ath Party official that contained data showing the layout of six schools in the United States, Fox asked, “Can your school be a potential terrorist target?” This time, Fox turned to Jeffrey Beatty, a former Delta Force commander who, it so happens, runs an antiterrorist consulting firm. In fact, Beatty said, schools are potential terrorist targets, and they had better take precautionary measures now. On The O’Reilly Factor, the central question for weeks was “Should CBS fire Dan Rather?” Bill O’Reilly spent far more time dissecting Rather’s mistakes at CBS than he did analyzing Bush’s deeds in Iraq.
And that’s how Fox wants it. The most striking feature of its coverage of the war in Iraq was, in fact, its lack of coverage. A good example occurred on the Saturday before the election. That morning, the U.S. military announced that eight Marines had been killed and nine others wounded in attacks in the Sunni Triangle. It was the highest U.S. death toll in nearly seven months. After reading the news on the Web, I tuned in to Fox’s 11 a.m. news summary. It made no mention of the dead Marines. The next hour was taken up by a feverish program on hot stock picks. Then came the noon newscast. After spending 10 minutes on the Osama bin Laden tape, the presidential campaign, and the tight race in Ohio, it finally got around to informing viewers of the Marines’ deaths. It then spent all of 20 seconds on them. As it turned out, that Saturday was a particularly bloody day in Iraq, with a series of bombings, mortar attacks, and ambushes throughout the country. Viewers of Fox, however, saw little of it.
This formula has proved very popular. The O’Reilly Factor is currently the top-rated cable news show, and Fox’s primetime audience is on average twice as large as CNN’s. That audience still trails far behind that of the traditional networks, but Fox has much more time to fill, and it does it with programming that is far more overtly ideological than anything else on TV. Its constant plugging of Bush, its persistent jabs at Kerry, its relentless insistence that Iraq is part of the war on terror and that both wars are going well – all have had their effect. According to election-day exit polls, 55 percent of voters regarded the Iraq war as part of the war on terrorism, as opposed to 42 percent who saw it as separate. And 81 percent of the former voted for George Bush.
In some ways, the coverage of the war featured a battle as fierce as the political one between Democrats and Republicans, with the “red” medium of Fox slugging it out with the “blue” outlets of the Times and the Post, CBS and ABC. CNN seemed somewhere in between, careening wildly between an adherence to traditional news values on the one hand and a surrender to the titillating, overheated, nationalistic fare of contemporary cable on the other. In the end, CNN – influenced by Fox’s success – seemed firmly in the latter camp. It offered the superficiality of Fox without any of its conviction. This hollowing out of CNN was, in a sense, an enormous victory for the Bush campaign. Overall, in analyzing the reasons for Bush’s triumph, the impact of Fox News should not be overlooked.
Now, with President Bush preparing for a second term, what can we expect from the press in Iraq? The initial signs, from Fallujah, are not encouraging. Even allowing for the constraints imposed by embedding, much of the press seemed unduly accepting of U.S. claims, uncritically repeating commanders’ assertions about the huge numbers of insurgents killed while underplaying the devastation in the city. And little attention was paid to the estimated 200,000 residents said to have fled Fallujah in anticipation of the fighting. Amid U.S. claims that the city had been “liberated,” these refugees seemed invisible. But, in light of the coverage in recent months, this should have come as no surprise.
Michael Massing, a contributing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, writes frequently on the press and foreign affairs. He is the author of Now They Tell Us, The American Press and Iraq, based on his articles on press coverage of the Iraq war in The New York Review of Books. This article will appear in the Dec. 16 issue of that magazine.