Iraq: How The Corporate Media Promotes War
By Rohan Pearce
15 February, 2006
Green Left Weekly
On January 24, Iraqi reporter Mahmoud Zaal was killed during a shoot-out between US occupation forces and Iraqi rebels in the city of Ramadi. He was the second Iraqi journalist to have been killed this year; 35 reporters and other media workers died in Iraq in 2005.
Given the grisly toll that post-9/11 reporting has taken on journalists like Zaal, it's ironic that the greatest threat to providing accurate news coverage of the different fronts of Washington's “war on terror” has not come from without, in the form of bullets and bombs, but from within the corporate media, in the form of the slavish accommodation to the disinformation programs of the White House and its allies.
When, for example, media magnate Rupert Murdoch came out in favour of “regime change” in Iraq, his vast empire of media outlets predictably parroted him. “You have got to admit that Rupert Murdoch is one canny press tycoon because he has an unerring ability to choose editors across the world who think just like him”, Roy Greenslade wryly noted in a February 17, 2003, op-ed for the British Guardian. “How else can we explain the extraordinary unity of thought in his newspaper empire about the need to make war on Iraq?”
However, this was not just true of the Murdoch media. Nearly all of the corporate media in the “coalition of the willing” countries — Australia, Britain and the US — acted as propaganda outlets for their governments, uncritically reporting these governmenta’ claims that Iraq had an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction that threatened “international peace and security”.
The gaping holes in these claims were papered over with shoddy journalism. When, for example, Hans Blix, head of UN weapons inspections in Iraq, gave a report to a January 27, 2003, meeting of the UN Security Council, Murdoch’s Australian editorialised that Blix had provided “ample evidence that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein remains committed to weapons of mass destruction”. Murdoch’s Australian “flagship” argued that the “case to disarm Iraq, by military force if necessary, is now made”.
Little attention was paid to central features of Blix's report: That UN weapons inspectors had found no evidence that Iraq possessed WMD stockpiles or manufacturing facilities and that, despite hollow anti-Iraq rhetoric by Blix, an extraordinary degree of cooperation had been provided by Iraqi authorities.
Blix did claim that “Iraq appears not to have come to a genuine acceptance ... of the disarmament which was demanded of it and which it needs to carry out to win the confidence of the world and to live in peace.” But this nod to the frenzied anti-Iraqi tirade coming from the White House was contradicted later in his report: “The most important point to make is that access has been provided to all sites we have wanted to inspect and with one exception it has been prompt.”
The exception had been detailed by Blix the previous year — “Some sites were inspected last Friday — the Muslim day of rest. In one of them, the Iraqi staff were absent and a number of doors inside locked, with no keys available. The Iraqi side offered to break the doors open — while videotaping the event. However, they agreed with a suggestion that the doors in question could be [sealed] overnight and the offices inspected the next morning.”
Of course details like this, if reported at all, rarely made a dent in the overall impression given by pro-war reporting: That Iraq had massive (hidden) stockpiles of WMDs just waiting to be unleashed.
Embedded with the Pentagon
Imperial cheerleading-as-reporting continued once the “coalition of the willing” launched their invasion.
The Pentagon's program of “embedding” journalists in military units took the quality of war reporting to a new low. “Embedding” gave the impression of a new level of immediacy in reporting on the war, while it really took the military's manipulation of journalists to a new high, making the much-vaunted “free press” of the West look like a bad joke.
Editor and Publisher reported on January 27 that the Pentagon's Institute for Defense Analyses had conducted an analysis of the program and found that it was “an almost unqualified success”. A workshop held by the US Army's War College on September 3-5, 2003, involving military personnel, academics and journalists who had been “embedded” with military units during the invasion of Iraq, also hailed the “success” of the embed program.
A panel at the War College workshop was “almost in universal agreement that the embedded reporter model is the way to cover future conflicts”. Despite this, a paper produced by the Center for Strategic Leadership summarising the workshop's conclusions noted that “the military and media participants failed to come to a consensus as to whether an embedded reporter can report about a unit with complete objectivity”.
The CSL summary of discussion reported that “Military leaders were very candid in detailing how they used the media present to help dominate the information battle. A number of media players accepted this as a reality in modern warfare.” Similarly, E&P reported: “One of the surprises in the report is that it reveals that commanders were 'often asked' by embeds to review a story or look at a video before it was transmitted, to guarantee 'accuracy.' But no claims of censorship were raised.” When journalists self-censor, overt censorship is rendered redundant.
A study by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes, released on October 2, 2003, based on a series of US-wide polls, revealed just how “successful” reporting of the war had been. It concluded that “a majority of Americans have had significant misperceptions [about the Iraq war] and these are highly related to support for the war with Iraq”.
According to PIPA, 57% of poll participants believed that Iraq was either directly involved in the 9/11 attacks or “gave substantial support to al Qaeda”. Twenty-two per cent believed weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq and 25% thought that world public opinion had favoured the US going to war with Iraq. Sixty per cent had at least one of these three misconceptions.
The PIPA poll found a correlation between participants' primary source of news and their ignorance about the war. Viewers of Murdoch's high-rating and hysterically pro-invasion Fox News were the most likely to have been sucked in by the White House's propaganda campaign.
History is now in the process of being repeated, with Iran being successfully presented as an imminent “threat” to Western “democracies”. An Opinion Dynamics poll conducted in late October 2003 revealed that 57% of people in the US believed that Iran “currently [had] a nuclear weapons program”. By the time of a January 24-25 poll this year, the percentage had jumped to 68%.
Predictably the corporate media has barely bothered to question Washington's claims about Iran's nuclear programs and has been all too ready to overlook the hypocrisy of the US, the only nation to have used an atomic bomb in war, threatening war against Iran for allegedly developing nuclear weapons.
A woeful example of what passes for “analysis” was printed in the February 8 Australian (reprinted from the London Times; also a Murdoch-owned paper). Richard Beeston wrote that “with diplomacy nearly exhausted, the use of military force to destroy Iran's nuclear program is being actively considered by those grappling with one of the world's most pressing security problems.
“For five years, the West has used every diplomatic device at its disposal to entice Iran into complying with strict conditions that would prevent its nuclear program being diverted to produce an atomic bomb. Those efforts, however, are now faltering.”
It's clear what a reader is supposed to take away from Beeston's article: Iran is unquestionably engaged in developing nuclear weapons, that this is “one of the world's most pressing security problems”, and that “diplomacy” has been unable to stop diverting its “nuclear program to produce an atomic bomb”.
One would scarcely suspect from reading Beeston’s article that in a March 31, 2005, letter to US President George Bush, the White House-established “WMD commission” admitted that US intelligence knew “disturbingly little about the weapons programs and even less about the intentions of many of our most dangerous adversaries”, a reference widely acknowledged to refer at least in part to Iran.
Nor would a reader suspect that a November 15, 2004, report by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency revealed that, “All the declared nuclear material in Iran has been accounted for, and therefore such material is not diverted to prohibited activities”.
Beeston also ignored a report in the August 2 Washington Post that revealed that the latest US National Intelligence Estimate “projected that Iran is at least a decade away from manufacturing the key ingredient for a nuclear weapon” — highly enriched uranium.
Of course this hasn't stopped the Washington Post publishing belligerent and misleading anti-Iran articles. For example an article in the paper's February 8 edition reported: “In the three years since Iran acknowledged having a secret uranium enrichment program, Western governments and the International Atomic Energy Agency, have gathered evidence to test the Tehran government's assertion that it plans to build nothing more than peaceful nuclear power plants.”
In reality, three years ago, in accordance with its decision to voluntarily abide by an IAEA-recommended additional protocol to its nuclear safeguards agreement with the IAEA, Iran disclosed that it had conducted lab research into enriching uranium. It was not required to do so under its normal safeguards agreement, so claiming that not revealing this research was a violation of Iran's legal obligations is completely disingenuous.
In repeatedly peddling this sort of disinformation, the corporate media is only taking its cue from US imperialism’s commander-in-chief. In a May 24, 2005, speech, George Bush explained: “See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda.”