The media bubble

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I caught a fair amount of CNN and MSNBC this afternoon, and NBC Prime Time news followed by the Lehrer News Hour tonight. What struck me was how much of our periodic 24/7 war extravaganzas is taken up with official and semi-official events. I caught, for instance, an extended performance by Gen. Tommy Franks and various supporting actors and supporting screens at the elaborate Centcom set (sorry, headquarters) in Qatar. I also caught a performance (sorry, news conference) by Ari Fleischer (with a few tough questions from reporters, reflecting perhaps a slight shift in mood) and then a glimpse of Tariq Aziz defiant in Baghdad.

Each of these four channels also had its semi-official events involving military consultants whose expertise usually lies largely in having directed some aspect of America’s last wars. (No former Somalian warlords to offer some vaunted “balance,” no less a French or Russian general. Only former American military men or intelligence officers are considered expert enough to comment on an American war.) General Wesley Clark, former supreme allied commander in Europe for the Kosovo campaign, with all his “we” did this or that today on I-forget-which-channel sounded distinctly like he was actively engaged in fighting this war as well. (To give him his due, he did write a modestly interesting piece on why an occupation of Iraq would bear no relation to the post World War II occupation of Japan in this Sunday’s Washington Post Outlook section.)

As with the Centcom media set (which evidently cost a quarter of a million dollars to build), each channel has its own elaborate set with every more elaborate maps and symbols, elaborate logos and graphics (all well developed in previous wars and only embellished here), and then there are those hundreds of “embedded” journalists or “embeds” – it’s a word which has now entered the media as descriptive of a proud reality – each with his own few yards of sand to cover on an otherwise largely blacked out battlefield, all deeply embedded thus far in the Pentagon’s version of this war.

Of the channels I watched today – most riveted on American casualties and prisoners (and whether or not, or how, or when to show pictures of POWs or dead Americans) – only PBS showed significant footage of Iraqi casualties. Given all those Washington officials, active generals, retired generals, former officials, and anchors and journalists used to negotiating such heady crowds, American television tends to chew over mainly issues of concern to the Bush administration and the Pentagon. (It goes without saying that, though there are stories on antiwar demonstrations, there are no antiwar “experts” in sight.) To give but a single example, I’ve heard no one (but Helen Thomas at the Ari Fleischer performance today) question the strangeness of Donald Rumsfeld’s sudden invocation of the Geneva Convention. There is little sense that, however stiff Iraqi resistance may be in places, the fighting has to be unequal (as in Somalia) and casualties very heavy on the Iraqi side. There has been little note of the smart bombs that went dumb and landed in Iran or hit that bus with fleeing Syrians. In fact, there’s little mention of countries around Iraq other than Turkey, a country still very much on the Pentagon’s angry mind.

You would not know – since Al-Jazeera and its competitors are given attention here, nor is much European coverage of the war — that this war looks exceedingly different when shown on networks “embedded” in different worlds and outlooks. Deep in its “A Nation at War” freestanding section today, on page B 13, to be exact, the New York Times had a brief but interesting piece by Craig Smith, “Saudi Arabia Seems Calm But, Many Say, Is Seething,” with the following paragraph: “The anger is increasingly evident in the country’s newspapers, currently the only available forum for frank public debate. The front page of Saudi Gazette today carried a photo of two British soldiers staring down at the crumpled bodies of two dead Iraqis with a white flag of surrender by their side. Another photo showed the face of a crying, wounded Iraqi child.”

It’s hard, while watching TV, to realize how narrow is the slice of “reality” that is repeated on our screens day and night at this point, or how much of what is reported is basically Pentagon disinformation, misinformation, or distorted information. Below I offer as exhibit A, a fine piece in today’s Guardian by Brian Whitacker who points out that, once the bombast and rhetoric is removed, the Iraqi press conferences in Baghdad have actually proved more accurate and reliable than the Pentagon ones. That should kind of take one’s breath away. He also points to the incompetence that lies behind the Pentagon’s capture of the American media — another example of winning the war but losing the world.

Even the staid British Financial Times today in a piece accurately entitled, The media get conscripted to the fight, commented,

“Print journalists have found it difficult to avoid being co-opted by the Pentagon’s seductive embrace. This is especially true when reporting on the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein. Donald Rumsfeld, US defence secretary, has deliberately kept alive rumours that the Iraqi leader is either missing, injured or dead. These comments have been dutifully reported daily, with less attention paid to the underlying goal: sowing confusion in enemy ranks and splitting Mr Hussein from his high command

“In the last resort, much will depend on a short campaign. Pollsters such as John Zogby estimate that public support for the war will remain solid for at least the first three weeks. After that, everything becomes more fluid. This explains why winning the battle for hearts and minds is as important as defeating the Iraqi Republican Guard – not just in Iraq but also in the US and in the rest of the world.”

Zogby, I believe, has a point – and it goes beyond opinion polls. We’ve existed until yesterday inside a little bubble of good war news. Yesterday it looked to burst – and that other brief bubble, the ebullient stock market of the last week, suddenly looked ready to collapse. The Pentagon strategy similarly is a bubble – one dependent on speedy success. All those embeds, glowing with their “access” or hanging from military vehicles on specially constructed frames of some sort, looking for all the world like extras from a Mad Max film, will sound a lot less peppy and a lot less to the military’s liking if things continue to go wrong, if, as the U.S. military command has always feared, they have to fight their way through the resistant streets of Baghdad with all the attendant and deeply imprecise carnage. As I said in a previous dispatch, this is a war on fast-forward and there’s no reason the media should be exempt. I won’t be surprised if the arc from supportive to critical to oppositional, which took years to travel in Vietnam, is covered at the speed of light as events develop. Don’t assume that what you see today will be what you’ll see two weeks from today. This is not only a very unsettling, but a very unsettled situation. Tom

Flags in the dust
By Brian Whitaker
March 24, 2003
The Guardian

One of the finest war photographs ever taken shows the raising of the American flag over Iwo Jima in February, 1945. The battle for this tiny island in the Pacific, just five miles long and two miles wide, lasted 31 days and cost 6,821 American lives.

In the picture, six helmeted figures grapple with a pole, attempting to plant it on a rock-strewn mountain top. At the end of the pole, the Stars and Stripes flutters in the wind against a vast open sky.

The symbolism of this picture, taken by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal, was clear to everyone at the time. The huddle of human figures represented heroic endeavour, while the flag and the sky signalled hope and freedom.

To read more Whitaker click here