By Lila Rajiva
08 February, 2007
may sell newspapers, but it is War that buys newsmen and publishers.
For every Eros, there is
The newsman who until now
was agonizing over what might possibly have happened to two four year
olds in the lunch room of their preschool, is suddenly breezily indifferent
to the starvation, burning, and bombing of hundreds of thousands of
For, now he is off on another
tack. He has become a steely eyed pupil of Machiavelli. He talks casually
about Realpolitik and Geostrategy, as though they he had found them
on sale at the local supermarket. He narrows his eyes keenly when he
hears the words, National Interest; he can point out Kandahar on a map.
He knows the difference between Ayman al-Zawahiri and and Abu Musab
al-Zarqawi without Googling.
Now, he is no longer a part
of the fourth estate; he is no longer interested in being a watchdog
of the people. He has a better paying job. He is an attack dog for the
Thus, an MIT security studies maven, writing in a column in the Outlook
section of the Washington Post, that the new U.S. strategy of paying
Iraqi journalists to place stories favorable to the U.S. in the media
is perfectly kosher. A reporter, says Michael Schrage, should be helping
the military along, not just chattering about it. Even Christopher Hitchens,
the latest unlikely adornment to the Potomac militerati, has condemned
“story boarding” as a breach of journalistic faith. But
Schrage isn’t having any.
he writes in his piece. “Securing positive coverage for our troops
in Iraq can be as important to their safety as "up-armoring"
vehicles and providing state-of-the-art body armor. The failure to wage
the media war is a failure to command.”
Ah – the media war.
Until now we thought the war meant those cluster bombs going off in
Baghdad. But we realize we were mistaken. It must have been the blood
that got us confused! The real war we now see is on the front pages.
The pen pushers are no longer
making obscure marks on paper as before. No, they have joined Rommel
and Patton. Left and right, they load up their muzzles with dangling
modifiers and prepositional clauses and go in like gangbusters. With
every well-turned phrase and pithy bon mot, the borders of the empire
are pushed further along. In the old days, you at least had to have
an arm or leg shot out from under you to corner such glory. But no more.
That is the monumental conceit of it all. The fact is, the average reporter
today knows less than ever about what happens on the battle-field. He
knows only what he is told by some gas-bag general or reads in some
other fellow’s article. His stories are vetted, his questions
at press conferences are scripted, his private emails get him censored
and thrown out from his assignment. That’s what happened to Farnaz
Fassihi, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal who happened to voice
her opinions about the war to friends.
We even read of one reporter
Jeff Gannon, who managed to join the White House Press Corps on the
strength of having been a male escort. That is the sort of experience
that really counts these days, we imagine.
But resigning himself to
being as much in the dark as anyone else would puncture the self-importance
of the modern journalist. It simply won’t do. So what does he
do? He lets you know that yes, he is simply parroting the military’s
line, but so what? That’s what he is supposed to do. If he can’t
beat them, he will join them. True, he has been turned into a presstitute,
as one wag remarked. But he is a willing one. He revels in it. He is
waging war, you see. And so, off he goes, squirting black ink in every
direction like a wounded octopus. And the sorry fact is he probably
will do more damage this way than at the head of a battalion of Abrams
Now, if the pundits would
only stick to arguing that massaging the news is not a recent development
for the military and leave it at that, he would be on strong ground.
Fake news is not new. It’s been part of military offensives since
Neanderthal man first tricked his neighbor and clubbed him over the
The classics are full of
such swindles. In the Indian epic, Mahabharatha, Yudhishthira - the
eldest of the five Pandava brothers - is a legend for always telling
the truth. Then things come to a head during the battle between the
Pandavas and their cousins, the Kauravas, who want to usurp their kingdom.
The Kauravas have an unstoppable warrior-guru, Drona. But the Pandavas
get the bright idea of demoralizing Drona by spreading the lie that
his son, Ashvathama, is dead. Ashvathama, it happens, is also the name
of an elephant - which really is dead. Until then Yudhishthira had always
been so truthful that his chariot wheels never touched the ground; they
hovered just above it. Now, he succumbs and allows himself to whisper
hoarsely - “Ashvathama, the elephant (sottovoce), is dead.”
Drona believes the rumor and dies of a broken heart. The tide turns
for the Pandavas, but Yudhishthira’s wheels start hitting the
ground like everyone else’s.
So fake news is not new at
all. It’s old news. Story-boarding does to the news what water
boarding does to prisoners – it persuades them to say what you
want to hear. Hoodwinking the enemy on a classical battle-field - which
follows its own rules of engagement - is one thing. Bamboozling civilians
in modern total warfare is rather different. And swindling the crowd
cheering at home is something else altogether.
By that standard, American
chariot wheels have not just hit the ground. They have gone through
it and are burrowing down into Hades. Story-boarding was directed not
at the population in Iraq, which is supposed to be a born-again democracy
now anyway. It was aimed at the population back home in the U.S. Journalists
who fake new stories are firing on this pathetic home crowd, making
it impossible for the lumps to get even the tiniest scrap of real information
about the war, even though they were being asked to give up their children
for it. They thought they were volunteering to fight for the republic;
they didn’t know they were signing up for Aztec child sacrifice.
There are the people who
argue that you need to put out spin to counter the other fellow. They
did it first, they say. This is a bit thick. America, after all, went
jack-booting into Iraq. Iraqis can hardly be expected to keep still
about it. If a quarter of a million Arabs flooded Washington D.C and
set up camp in the White House, we expect American would not remain
mute either. And the Iraqi insurgents, by definition, did not come into
existence until after the Second Gulf War in 2003. The U.S., government,
on the other hand, had been brewing disinformation in Iraq, well before
the first Gulf War.
Still, there’s no denying
that the press can do damage. Lots of it. Back in 1990, the fellows
in charge of the PR game came from the D.C. firm, Hill & Knowlton,
which hatched the first of many fables that took the country down the
road to war. Iraqi soldiers in Kuwait were tossing babies out of incubators,
they claimed, taking the line from old fibs about the Germans from the
World War I. Then they roped in the Kuwaiti ambassador’s daughter,
Nayira, who was at the time was no where in the vicinity. It was her
tear-jerking I-was-there account of the baby-toss on the floor of the
U.S. Congress that got the war started. The psy-op was directed not
against Iraqis but mainly against the American public and Congress.
And as atrocity stories go, it is the gold standard of them all.
Another firm, Rendon, was
hired by the CIA in 1990 to help "create the conditions for the
removal of Hussein from power" Rendon went on to earn a hundred
million dollars in government contracts in just the five years following.
It got together a rabble of militants, gave them a “brand”
as though they were home made pot-pies -- the Iraqi National Congress
-- and advised them on PR strategy. It also hand-picked Ahmad Chalabi
– an ex- bank con turned peddler of pro-war propaganda - and primed
a fly-specked assortment of defectors in the fine art of bluffing polygraph
tests. All for a Five-Year Plan for “creative destruction”
in the Middle East that a bunch of hacks and apparatchiks in D.C. had
Even bungled lie-detector
tests didn’t stop Rendon. They planted fake stories about where
exactly Saddam had stashed his Weapons of Mass Destruction. They used
a paid operative, who masqueraded as a free-lancer for the Australian
Broadcasting Corporation. What made them pick Australia? Because, under
U.S. law, the government is not supposed to be directing its propaganda
at the American public. That’s supposed to be the job of American
And how well they did it.
There was Judith Miller - the Madame Roland of the New York Times -
giving heads up to the Iraq flim-flam right on the front pages of the
gray lady. Liberty itself was at stake, she assured us. Mushroom clouds
were going to pop up over Manhattan like a Japanese umbrella if we didn’t
get rid of Saddam. From there the faux-news spread like avian flu to
every chicken-hawk in the West.
But wait, maybe this extravaganza
was performed outside the decorous sight of the military? Wrong again.
Rendon was patted down, sniffed and approved by the military. “We've
worked in ninety-one countries," boasts the firm’s boss,
John Rendon. "Going all the way back to Panama, we've been involved
in every war, with the exception of Somalia."
Rendon didn’t work
alone, either. It coordinated its work with a whole bevy of whole-salers
of disinformation. In 2001, the Office of Strategic Information (OSI)
was created, with its very own express line for junk news. Even the
military is supposed to have found the OSI “scary.” Then
there was the Office of Global Communications, run out of the White
House "Information War Room." The OGC monitored breaking news
reports all over the globe - English and Arabic internet chat-rooms,
web-sites in at least four more languages, e-mail lists, and planted
false stories abroad. The Global Communications office was tasked with
punishing journalists who broke ranks all over the world, in Jakarta,
Islamabad, Riyadh, Cairo, Ankara, and Tashkent. Propaganda, psy-ops,
and espionage - they were all part of the Imperial Carnival.
Private contractors - like Rendon - who now perform half of the CIA’s
work - run half the nation’s most secret military operations and
they don’t have to say a word about what they do to the people
who foot the bill and face the fire. There you have your free and fair
press. As one wag remarked - freedom of the press is limited to those
who own one.
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