We have all been reading and seeing reports from Iraq, from journalists embedded and not, reports from what have been described as the frontlines of the fight for “Iraqi freedom.” Throughout the American media world and beyond, there has been a hearty sense of a job well done and regrets for colleagues who never made it home.
The Iraq war coverage inundated us as if there were no other news in the world. It was blow-by-blow and wall-to-wall, with the focus on the United States military campaign as it rolled across the desert and fought its way into Baghdad, stronghold of Saddam, capital of the regime, whose overthrow was demanded and accomplished. We’ve also seen the images and heard first-person accounts of journalists about their adventures, difficulties, scoops and disappointments.
Reporters who worked under limits imposed by the deposed Ministry of Information in Iraq were not shy about explaining what they’d had to put up with. Embedded reporters were less forthcoming about their restrictions, although nearly all claimed they were not really restrained but rather assisted in their work by Pentagon press flacks. Many of them talked about how they came to identify with and sometimes befriended soldiers in units they tagged along with, usually with the caveat that it was no different from covering any other beat. The cumulative impact of their work prompted former Pentagon press chief Kenneth Bacon to tell The Wall Street Journal, “They couldn’t hire actors to do as good a job as they have done for the military.”
Covering the War Coverage
“Using a Weblog to Track War Coverage”
– Danny SchechterI have been covering the war, too, but from another vantage point. I was embedded in my small office in New York’s Times Square where I work as editor of the nonprofit Mediachannel.org, a global media monitoring Web site with more than 1,060 affiliates worldwide. I focused on covering the war coverage on a global basis and disseminating my findings, ruminations and dissections (I’m known as “the news dissector”) on a daily Weblog. Many of these Weblog entries run 3,000-4,000 words each day; during the war, they sometimes appeared seven days each week, which speaks to my obsession with the issue.
Someone had to keep track of the media war. I say this because I’ve become ashamed by how much of what I’ve read, heard and seen has been used not to inform, illuminate and explain—what journalists once considered important—but to rationalize (a political agenda), mesmerize (the public), and create a consensus (for more preemptive unilateral action). This forces me to conclude that much of what passes for journalism here is seen as nothing but propaganda by people in other countries and by an increasing number of Americans, who are turning to international Web sites to find the kind of news they can no longer get here.
There is a mission to my madness, as well as a method. From years of covering conflicts on radio in Boston and on television at CNN, ABC News, and Globalvision (the company I co-founded), I have come to see the inadequacies in journalism’s “first draft of history.” There are the ways it excludes so much more than it includes; how it narrows issues in “framing” them; how it tends to mirror and reflect the view of decision-makers while pandering to the patriotism of the audience. And, most interestingly, now that the Web provides instantaneous access to comparable news stories from different countries, we can see how ideology and cultural outlook shapes what gets reported and what doesn’t.
Comparing Reports From Different Countries
Web technology made it possible for me to monitor and review, with the help of readers and other editors in our shop, war coverage from around the world. Clearly some of the reporting from other countries brought biases as strong as our own. But being able to read these reports also offered information, context and background missing in U.S. media accounts. Most of our news outlets, for example, covered a war in Iraq; others wrote of this conflict as a war on Iraq. Often, no line was visible between jingoism and journalism.
Many of the U.S. cable news networks portrayed Iraq as if it was the property of, and indistinguishable from, one mad man. Accordingly, attention was focused endlessly on where Saddam was. Was he alive or dead? Injured or in hiding? Few references were made to U.S. dealings with his government in the 1980’s or the covert role the CIA played in his rise to power. He was as demonized in 2003 as Osama bin Laden had been in 2001, with news being structured as a patriotically correct morality soap opera with disinterested good guys (us) battling the forces of evil (them/him) in a political conflict constructed by the White House with its “you are either with us or against us” approach.
At times, it seemed as if there were only two sides to the story. The U.S. side was represented by endless Centcom briefings, Pentagon press conferences, Ari Fleischer and the White House press corps, administration domination of the Sunday TV talk shows, and occasional presidential utterances riddled with religious references. On the other side were crude press conferences of Iraq’s hapless minister of misinformation, a cartoon figure whom no one took seriously. The two armies were spoken of as if some military parity existed. And there was continual focus on anticipated chemical or biological weapon attacks that never happened and weapons of mass destruction that have yet to be found.
Omitted from the picture—and from the reporting—were views offering any persuasive counternarrative. There were few interviews with ordinary Iraqis—no reporters were embedded with them, experts not affiliated with pro-administration think tanks, military people other than retired officers who quarreled over tactics not policy, peace activists, European journalists and, until late in the day, Arab journalists. We saw images from Al Jazeera but rarely heard their analysis. This list of what was left out is endless. Footage was sanitized. “Breaking news” was often an inaccurate headline, and critical voices were omitted as Fox News played up martial music and MSNBC ran promos urging “God Bless America.”
While much of my focus was on the TV packaging and presentation, I did keep an eye on the more diverse but not necessarily more skeptical print coverage. Print reporters can spend more time and be more thoughtful. They are not performers, although many print journalists were called upon as interview subjects by the cable networks. I was blown away most of all by the photographers, whose work for the first time ended up on TV as well as in print because it was, in many ways, more striking and made more of an impact than the hyperkinetic TV pictures. (All too often, however, the networks ran archival shots over and over again without always disclosing when they were taken.) In this war, the picture could be worth more than a thousand words if only because they seemed to capture better the agony of the war and its impact on civilians.
At the same time, if you compared the reporting in The New York Times, for example, with the far punchier reportage in the Guardian, it was clear which was steering a safe middle course, except when Times’s news analysts like R.W. Apple antagonized war boosters by daring to report suggestions by military men that there was a quagmire. In contrast, much of the print journalism in Europe and the Middle East was so different that many thought they were covering a different war.
From the U.S. press, we never heard voices like England’s John Pilger, who wrote: “There is something deeply corrupt consuming this craft of mine. It is not a recent phenomenon; look back on the ‘coverage’ of the First World War by journalists who were subsequently knighted for their services to the concealment of the truth of that great slaughter. What makes the difference today is the technology that produces an avalanche of repetitive information, which in the United States has been the source of arguably the most vociferous brainwashing in that country’s history.” Journalists such as Israel’s Uri Avnery condemned what he termed “prestitution.”
In the United States, many newspapers played the story big, then downplayed it along with their TV counterparts. Explained Ned Warwick, foreign editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer: “While the Inquirer ran 20 stories a day during the war—about a third more than usual for foreign news—when that statue [of Hussein] came down, the space began to contract pretty rapidly. Given the brutal nature of the combat, people are wanting to hunker down and get as far away from it as they can. I was hearing readers say, ‘Enough! Enough!’”
Quotes and information like this appeared in my daily media analyses, cobbled together from articles from the world press, independent sources, international agencies, and my own observations of the U.S. cable coverage, network shows, BBC and CBC News. I relied on the 350 worldwide news partners of the Globalvision News Network to offer far more diverse accounts of the facts on the ground, as well as their interpretation.
Weblogs: The Work and the Benefits
I began at six each morning, watching television at home with a remote in one hand and a notebook at my side. I read The New York Times and the New York Post, New York’s weeklies as well as news magazines and opinion journals, clipping away with a fury. I was in the office by seven and was soon hopscotching among Web sites and email that was bulging with stories I’d missed. I’d cut and paste and then start writing, squeezing in as much as I thought relevant. By nine o’clock, my writing was posted, and an editor was looking over the copy and correcting its many typos. Within an hour, we tried to send the Weblog out to the many Mediachannel readers who subscribed. After the workday ended, I’d be locked back on the TV, go to sleep, and do it again the next day.
Writing on a Weblog gave me the space and the freedom to have a rather extended say and, when I could, to link readers directly to the sources of what I wrote about. (At times, I was moving too fast to do it all.) Could my logs have been shorter? Probably. Would it have been as comprehensive? No.
I deluge. You decide.
It may sound crazy, and admittedly idiosyncratic, but at least I know I am not alone in my responses to much of the U.S. coverage. On April 25th, I led my Weblog with comments by the head of the BBC, Greg Dyke, as reported in the Guardian: “BBC Director General Greg Dyke has delivered a stinging rebuke to the U.S. [broadcast] media over its ‘unquestioning’ coverage of the war in Iraq and warned the government against allowing the U.K. media to become ‘Americanized.’”
While I agree with his general point, what bothers me about his remarks is the all-too-common view that “unquestioning coverage” is what all of American journalism has become. It has not. My hope is that U.S. journalists will find ways to demonstrate that this one-note war coverage is not their finest hour and that they, along with many in the public who are already relying on alternate and more diverse online news sources, will become more self-critical and willing to embrace other approaches.
Danny Schechter, a 1978 Nieman Fellow, is editor of Mediachannel.org and writes the daily “news dissector’s” Weblog. He writes regularly on media issues for Globalvision News Network and for other news outlets in Berlin, Brazil, Frankfurt and Teheran. His book, “Media Wars: News at a Time of Terror” (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003), contains some of his writings, and an original “soundtrack CD” (with the same name) features a collage of criticism of TV coverage with comments from him and other critics. To download “Media Wars” sound track visit: www.polarity1.com/fcfree.html