Iraq: defeat for American freedom of the press

July 9, 2003 • Public Relations • by

Azione, July 9, 2003

Saddam is not the only one who has been defeated by the war to liberate Iraq. Three months later, the conflict has begun to be seen in a different light and one that is less triumphalist. The guerrilla uprising continues; the Iraqis are more and more distrustful; Saddam is still at large and the prospects for stabilizing the country are increasingly pessimistic. The Anglo-American troops will in fact have to stay in Iraq for at least another four to five years.

The conflict, however, has resulted in another casualty which is symbolic and surprising, but no less important: the American press. Yes, the U.S. media that has always been regarded as the most free and independent in the world has not stood the test during the long period in which the war in Iraq has dominated the front pages of newspapers in every corner of the world. Before the conflict, i.e. during the long debate that took place at the United Nations, during the military campaign, and, partially, afterwards, the American media did not do its duty well. The role of the press in a democratic country consists of telling the facts as they actually happen with the sole purpose of seeking the truth.

Well, what should be the number one commandment was obviously broken by the American press. The tragedy is that this took place in good and bad faith. Without wanting it, the media was conditioned, and told only those few aspects of the war that were more convenient for the White House.

The reason for this is quickly identified: it is called patriotism. For us Europeans, it is difficult to understand the atmosphere in the United States after September 11. In our history, nationalism has too often been responsible for horrors and tragedies. Having made so many mistakes, we are vaccinated today, and despite a few identities that remain very strong (let us think of the French, British and even the Swiss), the love for our own country is never unlimited. An amount of sound scepticism always comes in, and induces public opinion to control its instincts.

In the United States, it is not the same: nationalism is not imposed from above, but arises from the people, and is authentically interracial. Caucasians, Africans, Hispanics and Asians are all proud of being American. The people’s extraordinary solidity enabled the United States to react in the proper manner against the September 11 atrocity. As always happens in these cases, the people followed its leader, in this case, George W. Bush who, during the first months, was up to the challenge: the war in Afghanistan was in fact accepted by everybody, in America and abroad.

But when the target was shifted to Iraq, the picture changed: the world concluded that the reasons given by the White House were not sufficient to justify war. For the United States, however, the decision to invade Iraq was perfectly legitimate. How was it possible to have such a wide divergence of opinions?

Here two factors come into play: patriotism and the media. Yet without a third and decisive one, that is the Democrats’ capitulation, the emergence of so much support for the conflict would have been unlikely.

American newspapers rely a great deal upon credibility. In order to avoid the risk of adopting positions that are excessively inopportune, they prefer to have their ideas backed up by at least a part of the political world. Usually there is no problem: the United States is a country where politicians are happy to be frank, and are not afraid to put their own ideas forward. But after September 11, the Democratic party also stood behind Bush. Last fall, when it was necessary to take a position on the war in Iraq, rather than reflecting and buying time, the Democrats promptly expressed their support for the Republican Administration. The country continued to be more than compact: monolithic. The few brave people like Senator Graham (today, a candidate in the primaries for the Presidential elections) who had the courage to reveal their doubts were immediately silenced with the infamous accusation of being anti-patriotic.

What could the U.S. media do? Two options were available. Firstly, to pay no attention to the patriotic feeling in the country, and just to do its job. Secondly, to comply with this dominant feeling and, therefore, to be patriotic. The latter option prevailed, also for publishing reasons: to stress criticism against the White House would have been counterproductive in terms of sales. As a result, during the last six months, the American media organizations, particularly the TV stations, not only were extremely compliant and submissive in covering the Iraq story, but also competed to be the most patriotic. In this regard, Fox news, a right-wing TV station, had an ominous effect.

Rupert Murdoch’s TV station applied two techniques to the TV coverage that are foreign to the Anglo-Saxon tradition of journalism. The first was Hollywood dramatization with considerable use of special effects and soundtracks from war movies. The second was the use of commentators analysing the news on the war who behaved like football fans supporting their team at the stadium. The tragedy was that their ratings increased, with the result that it forced other TV stations, among which the formerly austere CNN, to adapt to the new standards. Today, even CNN is much less impartial and more scenographic in its news.

The press kept up appearances in the sense that its tones did not change. In contrast, with the total absence of critical thought, the substance radically changed. Today, many newspapers have started confessing their sins, and specialized magazines have issued severe reprimands. The list of mistakes and naiveties is long. Here are a few: Vice President Cheney and a top adviser on defence, Richard Perle, were caught “red-handed”. Cheney favoured a firm in which he had been a stockholder and a top executive with rebuilding and restructuring contracts in the aftermath of the invasion in Iraq, while Perle chaired secret meetings with big American companies in order to explain how Saddam’s fall could be exploited. The press reported on these two episodes, but it refrained from consistent follow up; incredibly, just a few articles and that was it.

Another example of press failure regarded the weapons of mass destruction whose existence had been announced but which still need to be found today. At the beginning of January, during his State of the Union speech, President Bush said that Saddam Hussein “had recently purchased significant amounts of uranium from Africa”. The news caused a sensation. But a few days later, during his speech to the United Nations, among the evidence against Saddam, Colin Powell did not mention this piece at all. A good journalist should have asked the reason for such a blatant omission. No U.S. commentator had the elementary good sense to ask why. Were all American journalists stupid? No, everyone was unwittingly conditioned and hypnotised by the White House that could contradict itself without fearing the consequences, at least on the domestic level (as is well known, the world press was much less compliant).

There are many episodes like this one. Here is another that is hard to believe: the liberation of the heroine Jessica Lynch, the injured soldier who resisted and defied her Iraqi capturers. Everyone will remember the spectacular images of the night blitz carried out by the marines in order to free her from the hands of Saddam’s soldiers at the hospital. A BBC journalist went to the hospital, and interviewed the doctors and nurses. He discovered an upsetting truth: Jessica was not injured in combat, but in a car accident. She was always kept in a hospital that was guarded by only a few policemen who had already gone when the U.S. operation started. Thus, the hospital was a wide-open facility. The blitz was pure cinema to show the American people and the world the skills and courage of the U.S. troops who were boldly risking their own lives to rescue Jessica. A lie about the war with special effects from Hollywood. Well, for one and a half months, no American newspaper touched this news: the silence was only broken by the Washington Post at the end of June.

In the last few days, the American press has been regaining its lost autonomy and courage: the articles denouncing the White House for alleged lying to justify the war in Iraq are more and more numerous. This is a good sign. However, the impression is that, even during ordinary times, the mechanisms regulating U.S. information are no longer adequate. In other words, it seems that it is too easy for whoever is in power to manipulate public opinion. This is an unusual and unpleasant feeling in the country that touts freedom and liberty as its greatest treasure.

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