The Iraq War exposed the news media’s strengths and weaknesses. At gathering and transmitting visual images throughout the world, reporting what’s being said by White House officials and showing human-interest stories about Americans caught up in the flow of momentous events, they have excelled. Less to be applauded, however, has been the U.S. news media’s presentation of alternative opinions and perspectives at a time when there were few areas of disagreement among government officials, including Democratic lawmakers who were largely silent during the buildup to and early execution of the war with Iraq. Deprived of such prominent dissenters, journalists’ work revolved largely within this echo chamber, as the White House maintained firm control of the news agenda with its disciplined communication apparatus.
As in the past when journalists have not fully fed the public’s appetite, a demand for alternative media has arisen. In the early 20th century, when major U.S. newspapers were mired in yellow journalism and beholden to corporate advertisers, the muckrakers took on these business trusts, writing in magazines like McClure’s and, in doing so, they found an eager audience. During the early years of protests against the Vietnam War, dissenting young Americans expressed themselves through folk and rock songs, and their concerns received coverage in alternative outlets such as The Village Voice and I.F. Stone’s Weekly.
This pattern—with new twists in the type of alternative media being used—is now being followed during the Iraq War. A sizeable minority of Americans grew upset with the plans for war and then were joined by more dissenters once the war began. As this happened, their anger surfaced on the Internet and then documentary films became popular vehicles for its expression.
Last spring, Michael Moore produced the blockbuster hit, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” and others have followed his lead. At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the Grand Jury Prize for documentary went to “Why We Fight,” a film that frames the conflict in Iraq through policies devised by America’s postwar military-industrial complex. Two other prominent documentaries have also recently tackled this theme. They are “WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception,” produced by Danny Schechter, and “Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear & the Selling of American Empire,” produced by the Media Education Foundation. Like Moore’s film, in the process of attacking Bush’s policies these documentaries point to the mainstream media’s complicity with the administration as seen in their war coverage.
Examining the Press
Armed with digital cameras and sound equipment, and using computer-based editing, these savvy filmmakers have become a source of alternative explanations for the war in Iraq and the news coverage of it, as well as critics of the administration’s policies. It is somewhat ironic that these films benefit from the news media’s strengths, while their content speaks to their faults. In this era of digital images, nearly everything that’s been said on the air or off can be captured on camera and become grist for documentary filmmakers to use.
In “WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception,” independent producer and veteran media critic Danny Schechter “embedded” himself in front of his TV, watching and comparing American and foreign coverage. Online he wrote thousands of words about the coverage, as he filed daily reports for Mediachannel. org and eventually transformed them into his book, “Embedded: Weapons of Mass Deception: How the Media Failed to Cover the War on Iraq.” This film provides his response to what he saw while preparing the book.
Schechter’s film features footage from Iraq and video from various news conferences held after the war’s initial combat phase was completed. He interviews a wide range of journalists, from veteran Peter Arnett, who reported for NBC News until he was fired after granting an interview to Iraqi TV, to Gwendolyn Cates, an embedded reporter who reports for People. The film asserts that the major U.S. network news divisions allowed the government not only to unduly influence their coverage but also to control it through its planned use of embedded reporters. In “WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception,” General Tommy Franks, then the Iraq War’s commander, refers to the news media in his “top secret” war plan not as the “fourth estate” but as the “fourth front.”
“Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear & the Selling of American Empire,” produced by the Media Education Foundation, a watchdog media think tank, is also critical of the press for its willingness to become part of the White House’s “propaganda machine.” Narrated by Julian Bond, the film shares the views of 20 interviewees, including a Pentagon whistleblower, Lt. Colonel Karen Kwiatkowski. Interviewed in her kitchen, this high-ranking insider tells how the Bush administration manipulated post-9/11 fear to fit its foreign policy goals. Others who appear in this film are more familiar critics of the Bush administration—including author Noam Chomsky, the Pentagon Papers’ whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, and United Nations weapons inspector Scott Ritter. It’s a tired offering compared with Schechter’s, in that nearly everything said in this film has now been said many times over, much of it even in the mainstream press.
Nevertheless, the criticisms of the press in both films are compelling. In these portrayals, journalists were not simply silent sentinels while preemptive war was waged: They were eager participants. Hundreds clamored to be an “embed” and the television networks, broadcast and cable, festooned their screens with war-making graphics. America’s press went to war along with the Bush administration. “I felt that we had moved into a post-journalism era where packaging and ‘militainment’ prevailed,” says Schechter, who narrates his film, “WMD.”
Journalists, these documentaries contend, should have been wary of the consequences of embedded assignments. It was not simply because in such a position they’d be inclined—almost required—to say good things about the war effort. By embedding its reporters, news organizations would consume much of their news time and space with reports from the front. And this would push out other important stories, such as how the war was being received on the Arab streets, in European capitals, and in the destroyed neighborhoods of Iraq’s cities and towns. According to Schechter, “Even as large numbers of Americans and people around the world dissented, their views were rarely seen and heard …. There was a patriotic correctness on the airwaves and a uniformity of viewpoint that did more selling than telling about the war.”
Once the combat phase ended, and things started to spin out of control in Iraq, journalists backed away from their patriotic exuberance. In Schechter’s documentary, “Nightline” anchor Ted Koppel, who was embedded in Iraq for ABC News, is heard to say at a seminar months later that “live coverage of war is not journalism.” At another post rewar conference, three network news presidents agreed that their news coverage should have more aggressively challenged the Bush administration’s reasons for going to war. ABC’s David Westin said, “… we let the American people down on the weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and I sincerely regret that.”
But as the popular appeal of these documentaries seems to illustrate, the news media are not blamed so much for their inability to disprove the prewar WMD allegations, which after all would have been all but impossible to do. Rather the fault lies more with their unwillingness to work hard at playing their essential role as a government watchdog.
In earlier eras, U.S. journalists learned from their mistakes and then guarded against repeating them. After caving in to corporate sponsors in the early 20th century, news organizations created a wall to separate the news and advertising divisions. After propagating Johnson and Nixon’s lies about the Vietnam War, journalists launched an era of dedicated watchdog reporting. This time, it’s not clear what journalists could do to fix the difficulties these documentaries point out. Competitive pressures are unabated, as are pressures on journalists to maintain access with newsmakers. But until the news media find some way to provide a more inclusive telling of the news, it is likely that bloggers and documentary filmmakers will continue to fill the vacuum.
Lorie Conway, a 1994 Nieman Fellow, is a Boston-based producer and documentary filmmaker. Since 2001, Conway has received two National Endowment for the Humanities grants for the development and scripting of her film, “Hope & Healing: The Untold Story of the Ellis Island Hospital.”