The Tragedy of a Complicit Media

Standing before a German cameraman in Biloxi, Miss., Christine Adelhardt, spoke to her countrymen:

“Two minutes ago, the president drove past in his convoy. But what has happened in Biloxi all day long is truly unbelievable. Suddenly recovery units appeared, suddenly bulldozers were there, those hadn’t been seen here all the days before, and this in an area, in which it really wouldn’t be necessary to do a big clean-up, because far and wide nobody lives here anymore, the people are more inland in the city. The president travels with a press baggage [big crew]. This press baggage got very beautiful pictures, which are supposed to say that the president was here and help is on the way, too. The extent of the natural disaster shocked me, but the extent of the staging is shocking me at least the same way. With that, back to Hamburg.”

But this German report contrasts sharply with press coverage in America, where a complicit media routinely assesses such image manipulation to be less than newsworthy. It is, as Yogi Berra would say, “déjà vu all over again.”

Flashback to April 9, 2003: Saddam’s statue topples in Fardus Square, Baghdad. Hours of American television time are devoted to showing purportedly spontaneous celebrations by masses of jubilant and enthusiastic Iraqis. Donald Rumsfeld pronounces the scene “breathtaking.” The press agrees. CNN labels a highly cropped photograph, “Crowds cheer as statue of Saddam Hussein falls.”

What is not shown by mainstream media is the uncropped photograph of Fardus Square, which reveals the notably dissimilar scene of a stage-managed media event. It remains for alternative media both to release the photo and to report that the staged event features, instead of indigenous Baghdad residents (as the mainstream media reports), members of Ahmed Chalabi’s Free Iraqi Forces Militia who have been flown into Iraq by the Pentagon. (Chalabi was the scandal-plagued London banker favored by Washington to head the new Iraqi government until he was discredited as both a major source of false WMD “intelligence” and a spy for Iran.)

Day in and day out, as in both of these staged photo-ops, members of the allegedly liberal media establishment in America dutifully dispense manipulated and misleading images to a believing public. At Fardus Square, this occurred despite the fact that most American journalists were staying in the Palestine Hotel, directly across the square from Saddam’s statue, with a clear view of the proceedings. If the average American is to see these exploited events for what they are, he must rely on information sources other than the mainstream American media.

Notwithstanding incessant protestations of “liberal media bias” by Bush supporters, the American media has been an indispensable ally in disseminating the administration’s public relations narrative. The reality of the (much maligned) New York Times and Washington Post faithfully propagating administration prewar claims of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and the detested "liberal media" dutifully beating the drums of war and mocking valiant congressional efforts to expose the “fixing” of prewar “intelligence" have yet to register with the Bush faithful.

The remarkable aspect of the misleading photo-ops described above is not, in fact, the administration’s duplicity. Rather, it is the casual, business-as-usual state of acquiescence and indisputable collaboration with the powers that be to which the "liberal media" has descended. It is no coincidence that we only know of the events in Biloxi because of the serendipitous presence of an incredulous German TV crew.

Of what consequence is such an unquestioning and complicit American media?

One could, of course, complain of the diversion of scarce resources to public relations purposes during a time of crisis, but the damage to our republic is much more fundamental than the inefficient utilization of a few bulldozers in Mississippi.

Media complicity is a necessary daily component of the Karl Rove/Frank Luntz spin machine. This most effective of modern political hegemonies does not control the framing of public discourse only through the efforts of unabashed administration partisans in talk radio, Fox News, and the endless stream of commentators and wannabe empire-builders hatched at incestuous neoconservative think tanks.

Control of the framing of the issues of public discourse is only possible if aided by the silence and the active complicity of an intimidated and fearful media.

In Iraq, misrepresentation by the media of the staged celebrations at the toppling of Saddam’s statue reinforced the unrealistic prewar “they’ll welcome us with flowers” mindset. This in turn reinforced a misinformed American bullishness that was oblivious to the extent of Iraqi ambivalence about a foreign military presence. Unquestionably, most Iraqis were delighted to be rid of Saddam. But this gratitude was, in fact, tempered by the fear that America coveted her resources, desired a controlling presence in the Middle East, and that American forces would be in Iraq permanently.

With America thus disconnected from Iraqi sentiments, the opportunity for the Bush administration to allay Iraqi fears was squandered in subsequent months. By not moving quickly to transfer power to Iraqis, and by not disclaiming the intent for a permanent military presence in Iraq, administration actions unfortunately confirmed rather than calmed Iraqi fears.

Iraqi public opinion polls give clear confirmation of this squandered opportunity. Gallup reports that while 43 percent of Iraqis said they had viewed Americans as “liberators” at the time of the invasion, one year later this number had declined to 19 percent. Polls commissioned by the U.S.-backed Coalition Provisional Authority were even more grim: by May 2004, only 2 percent of Iraqis identified Americans as “liberators." Forty-one percent favored immediate withdrawal, 45 percent wanted withdrawal after the election of a permanent government, and 6 percent favored our staying as long as coalition forces thought necessary for stability.

Despite the president’s repeated promises of “no occupation," “no territorial ambitions," “no desire to dominate," statements that “the occupation will end," and beguiling talk of “bringing home our troops," the undeniable reality of the unabated construction of untold millions of dollars worth of permanent bases is the proverbial “elephant in the living room.”

With the overwhelming majority of both Sunnis and Shi’ites opposed to a permanent American military presence, and with the fear of an unending occupation fueling an intractable insurgency, W. Andrew Terrill, professor at the Army War College’s strategic studies institute – and the top Iraq expert there – summarizes our plight:

“I don’t think that you can kill the insurgency. … We have a growing, maturing insurgency group. … We see larger and more coordinated military attacks. They are getting better and they can self-regenerate. The idea there are x number of insurgents, and that when they’re all dead we can get out is wrong. The insurgency has shown an ability to regenerate itself because there are people willing to fill the ranks of those who are killed. The political culture is more hostile to the U.S. presence. The longer we stay, the more they are confirmed in that view.”

In the face of the dissonance between the president’s “no occupation” rhetoric and the reality of continued construction of permanent bases, burdened with an intractable insurgency with no discernible end, we must progress with the additional encumbrance of an intimidated and compliant press that will not challenge these presidential contradictions.

A press that collaborates in routine image manipulation and disingenuous photo-ops is not a press that will demand answers to grave discrepancies between rhetoric and actions.

Our second president, John Adams, warned,

“Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people.”

And our fourth, James Madison, advised,

“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

An American public detached from reality is not a public that will compel a necessary correction of our national course.

And an American public detached from reality is the most damaging consequence of our servile and complicit media.