War on Terror Mainstream Media and Propaganda
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The September 11 atrocity sent shockwaves around the world. The reactions were understandably a mixture of emotions and rage. The media had the challenging task to help people understand the events, and in the on-going war on terror that resulted, had an important role to help provide wide perspectives and understandings of the aftermath of those attacks.
On this page:
- All Sides can have Propaganda
- International Crime or Act of War?
- Rise of terrorism in the Middle East, beyond
they hate our freedoms
- Subtle Propaganda
- The Guantanamo Prisoners
- Creation of an Official Propaganda Office
- Pentagon plans to place pro-American messages in foreign media outlets without disclosing the US government as the source
- Redefining Torture So Claim Can Be Made of No Torture
- Range of Discourse is Narrow
- Media articles
All Sides can have Propaganda
In the Elements of Propaganda1 section on this web site, it was noted how as well as
enemies having propaganda mechanisms, we also have our own propaganda mechanisms. This is an important point to bear in mind. This is in some ways an obvious enough point and it is partially realized by the mainstream media. Yet, perhaps not completely.
For example, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in USA, September 11, 2001, as the U.S.-led retaliation was building up, various news media were reporting the
propaganda battle, on both sides, even using those words. (For example, in UK, there was the Channel 4 news that mentioned it at least once on October 8, 2001 in their 7pm broadcast, while Sky News said similar things on October 9, 2001 in their 10:30pm broadcast.)
Yet, I say partially, because the effect was to suggest that the while Bin Laden's propaganda was to incite hatred, convince the Muslim world of his views and give his perspectives to the West, the western propaganda was to retaliate and correct those misleading aspects. Sure enough, Bin Laden's views were misleading, inciting hatred etc, but the assumption that the west's propaganda was in response only and in a way honest is misleading to the public in general. Throughout history all sides have used propaganda to gain support from the masses. Even if the west is right to address the acts of terrorism, the propaganda that is also used by the west should remain in one's mind so as to be aware of whether or not appropriate policies are being carried out.
Many journalists in the mainstream would not admit or claim to practise self-censorship and may insist that the coverage is broad. However, one of the most famous media personalities in American news, Dan Rather of CBS has admitted that there has been a lot of self-censorship and that the U.S. media in general has been cowed by patriotic fever2.
Some examples of propaganda used resulting from the September 11 atrocity include the following:
International Crime or Act of War?
Immediately after the ghastly attacks, the act of terrorism was declared by George Bush and others as
war as opposed to a mass crime against humanity. While emotionally one can describe it as being under attack and use the analogy of an act of war, politically, this has significant ramifications because this allows one to change the possible means of retaliation. It also allows claims to be made that because this is war then Article 51 of the United Nations Charter of the right to self-defence can be invoked. From there an entire military build up and action has resulted. The media in general didn't really question the semantics or the point that Article 51 doesn't allow for indeterminate amount of time to ellapse to carry out
self defence. For more on this, also see the following:
- International Crime, Not War3, by Tom Barry and Martha Honey, Foreign Policy In Focus, Progressive Response, Volume 5, Number 30, September 12, 2001
- The Empire wants war, not justice4 by Sean Healy, ZNet, October 28, 2001
- A UN mandate does not make war on Iraq right!5 by Jorgen Johansen and Jan Oberg, Press Info #168, Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research (TFF), December 28, 2002. While mostly commenting on the build up to possible war against Iraq at the end of 2002, they comment on the use of international law, and not criminal law as the basis for the reaction to the terrorist attacks:
In addition, it should not necessarily be thought that the Bush Administration had to react so quickly and at the time it felt like an act of war, and so it was ok.
- This might be reasonable for many citizen's to individually react this way to some extent, but for a massive state apparatus such as the American state, with the most advanced military and intelligence services, it is unlikely that the Bush Administration would not have thought this out thoroughly and carefully.
- And the Administration of course took time mobilizing a force to attack Afghanistan as a result.
- Indeed, an October 9, 2002 interview by the BBC's Hard Talk programme, with Professor Eliot Cohen, a former policy advisor to the US Defence department, who has also served as an intelligence officer in the US Army Reserves, points out that,
Whatever you think about the [Bush] Administration, this is an administration that is politically quite calculating.For more on this, you can see the BBC interview on-line6.
The implication then is that the subsequent attacks on Afghanistan cannot really be considered as self-defence as much as it was basic revenge or retaliation.
Rise of terrorism in the Middle East, beyond
they hate our freedoms
There has been little mention of a significant fact that the CIA had trained the mujahadin and even Osama Bin Laden to fight against the Soviets 7. Through the Pakistan's secret service, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency or ISI, the Mujahadin and Bin Laden and even the Talibam were supported. As MSNBC noted (in the previous link, as far back as August 24, 1998) the consequences of this
blowback have been disastrous.
There has been very little attempt by the mainstream to seriously and thoroughly understand why such terrorists could commit immense vile acts and what gives rise to terrorists in the first place.
- For a long time, George Bush's claim that they did this because they don't like the freedoms in the West was taken without any serious discussion.
- The history of the Middle East, and the West's involvement, as well as the larger historic struggle for the control of resources8, our support of dictatorships and other non-democratic regimes in the region etc, has been conveniently ignored as a possible reason terrorism might unfortunately rise.
- Instead, the theme has been limited to the fact that that what those terrorist did was wrong (which is true) and must be brought to justice (also true). But this is an example of what has been described as a
narrow range of discourse.
- Within this narrower
range of discourseand not understanding or looking at the wider history, the public at large form a narrow range of opinions as to what should be done, why people did these things, and so on.
- As another result, by gaining support of the public on this premise, the legitimacy of the actions of the leaders of Western nations become somewhat unquestioned and unaccountable as well.
- Within this narrower
- Indeed, with the use of the sophisiticated Public Relations firms9, to present a positive perception of the U.S. in the eyes of others, it appears as though there is a desire to avoid looking at the deeper issues and instead just present a preferred perception.10
In December 2002, the National Security Archive project at George Washington University, Washington D.C, published onto the Web declassified U.S. documents obtained under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, concerned with an early Cold War campaign to win hearts and minds in the Middle East, launched 50 years before current efforts to achieve United States
public diplomacy goals in the region to meet geopolitical interests. A detailed essay which introduced and cited the various documents drew parallels and some differences to today's war on terror with propaganda attempts through the Cold War. The terrorist attacks on America highlighted how many in the Middle East viewed U.S. policies, and so one of the efforts has been a propaganda battle:
In addition, the essay details the various propaganda techniques and avenues that were employed to project a friendly and supportive U.S. attitude and a hostility towards the Soviet Union and communism. For example, techniques included the use of:
- Foreign Aid
- Posters and Brochures
- Newspapers, Magazines, Newsreels
- Cultural Influences
- Exchange Programs and Associations
- Semiotics (using signs and symbols)
- Inter government collaboration
- U.S. collaboration with
- U.S. media
- Private Associations
- Publishing Industry
The types of themes promoted included projection of:
- Freeedom, emphasizing to the world America's role as a beacon of freedom for the world.
- Prowess, demonstrating
the overwhelming and increasing industrial and military strength of the United States
- Peace-loving, by also being admired as a peace-loving nation, differentiating itself from a violent and disruptive Soviet Union
- Promoting nuclear and other scientific advances
- Religion as a propaganda asset, as for decades,
religious tradition was viewed as a valuable asset that could be exploited to achieve American ends. This included Saudi Arabia's conservative interpretation of Islam, as
an important asset in promoting Western objectives,including anticommunism, in the Middle East.
Yet, of course it was not easy, as today's often militant and anti-American feelings testify. Some of the problems included:
- The Palestine issue -- the priorities and concerns of many people of the Middle East (such as Palestinian refugees early on) and U.S. priorities were seen as being at odds with each other.
- Competing national interests also complicated U.S. plans for anticommunist propaganda directed at the Kurds.
- Anticolonialism feeling was high and the U.S. was seen as a close ally with British and French.
Anti-westernnationalism was viewed as one of the principal threats to U.S. interests in the Middle East. Efforts to impress Middle East audiences with U.S. popular culture and display of material success, were not always going as smoothly as hoped.
- Demands for change -- many were unhappy with the U.S. support for a repressive status quo.
- Disillusionment with U.S. policies
In drawing parallels to the current war on terror, the Archives concludes:
And, as N. Janardhan highlights in an Inter Press Service news report, (January 2, 200313)
As anti-American sentiments rise in the Middle East, Washington is stepping up its propaganda battle through new radio stations that are airing restyled programs designed to woo the hearts and minds of the region's youth.
As a small set of examples of perhaps very subtle propaganda, consider the following.
Opinion Polls on Bombing Afghanistan
During the Aghanistan bombing campaign, there was military control of images and footage. At the same time, Al Jazeera, the free Middle Eastern news station, was the only station allowed to broadcast from Afghanistan, even giving time to Osama Bin Laden. Yet, because of that, they have been accused of bias, prejudice, etc. The BBC for example, often made the passing statement when mentioning Al Jazeera, that it is a station friendly to the views of the Taliban, because it aired reports from such angles, although it also aired other angles too. (Should not then, the world's various news stations point out that the BBC, CNN etc are friendly to the views of the West, etc?)
Heavy emphasis was put on various opinion polls during the bombing, but the actual content of those polls were questionable; that is, some polls narrowed the range of options and choices so as to create a result which would be favorable. Yet, other polls offering a different picture were not typically highlighted, such as those with wider and larger polls suggesting that world opinion was opposed to the attacks in Afghanistan14.
Fear Mongering and Pre-Warning Many Possibilities of Another Attack
Following revelations about the CIA having warned the Bush Administration weeks in advance of the September 11 bombing:
- Vice President Dick Cheney for example, appeared on an NBC political program, Meet the Press (May 19, 2002) and claimed that in his opinion he believed that the Al Quaeda terrorist group may attack the U.S. again but did not know if it would be the next day, the next week, or within a year, but that it would happen.
- On May 21, 2002, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that it is
inevitableterrorists will acquire weapons of mass destruction.
- Other announcements from officials and government departments also raised additional concerns about more terrorist attacks.
- The BBC, when reporting Cheney's opinion, hinted that this stance had a few other effects as well, including that
- It would attempt to slightly deflect criticisms of the Bush Administration and issues about the past, raising concerns about the future instead. (Indeed, as the New York Times revealed (May 19, 2002), Cheney had even tried to block probes into September 11 events 15.)
- It would also serve as a pre-empted warning so as not to fall foul again of the damaging revelations that the Bush Administration didn't tell the American people.
- Another BBC report aired on the same day as Rumsfeld's message. This had an interview with a security expert in the U.S. who implied just this, adding that this could amount to fear-mongering and pre-warning many possibilities in the event of another attack, the Bush Administration could not be blamed for not warning the American people.
Of concern as well is that there may indeed be many legitimate threats and concerns, yet many announcements, especially ones based on opinion and fear-mongering, may lead to a
cry of wolf.
How Food Drops to Afghanishtan Were Reported
The food drops into Afghanistan were highly publicized at the time of the bombing on Afghanistan, but hardly was it mentioned that this was far less food that was being delivered before, and many aid agencies criticized the air drops for being useless or token gestures. The media though, managed to highlight its success by pointing out a few recipients who did manage to get the food and benefit. While this is good, the larger story that for the large majority food drops would not work, was comparatively ignored.
Since the bombing campaign in Afghanistan had largely died down in January 2002, there seems to have been little mention of the suffering16 of Afghans. Or, the importance of it seems to have diminished. Indeed, David Edwards of Media Lens17 a British media watch dog, criticizes the BBC and other British media for appearing to ignore or reduce coverage of the suffering of the Afghan people18.
Mainstream Media Not Questioning Leader's Emotional Appeals and Claims
While leaders like Tony Blair, George Bush etc make emotional appeals, speeches and even questionable claims, it is the media's jobs to remain critical, even in times of national sorrow, so as to be sure that the public receive as diverse a view as possible, to help ensure appropriate and accountable policy measures are made. This forms a crucial backbone to a functioning democracy. Instead, there has been hardly any critique of comments made by Blair, Bush and others, in the aftermath of the attacks even though many aspects of what has been said has been very controversial from some respects. (Not that they have always been lies, per se, but some of the claims have been partial truths, as the propaganda models suggested in the propaganda section19 would predict.)
Accusing Whoever you do not like of being terrorist
In May 2002, to preceed former President Jimmy Carter's historic visit to Cuba, the U.S. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control made a speech at the right wing Heritage Foundation claiming that Cuba both makes and exports biological weapons. While Cuba is advanced in sciences related to biotechnology (it has one of the world's most efficient organic agricultural systems, for example) the claim about biological weapons was made without offering any proof. Washington D.C.-based Center for Defence Information (CDI) provided a scathing critique20 of the undersecretary's claim. The article points out amongst other things that:
- No proof was offered;
- That not even U.S. Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld knew about it;
- That other senior intelligence and military officials have said the claims are
way overstatedand based on shoddy evidence.
- They also point out that not even the CIA had mentioned Cuba in this context.
- The article concludes to point out that such claims allows
politics to bias the war on terrorism.
The Guantanamo Prisoners
The controversy over the Al-Qaida, Taliban and other prisoners in Cuba is interesting for it raises some serious issues:
- On the one hand there is just criticism from the likes of Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Red Cross etc, that these are prisoners of war and that outdoor cages etc are outrageous. Furthermore, because people like U.S. President Bush and British Prime Minister Blair went to enormous lengths to explain that their reactions and retaliations were in the name of defending civilization, then how we as civilized peoples and societies treat the captives is of course of moral importance, as Bush and Blair themselves raised the moral stake, and retaliated on a moral high ground.
- Furthermore, with the U.S. having claimed that the terrorist attack was an act of war, and having retaliated by invoking the U.N's Article 51 on the right to self defence, then surely according to international law these prisoners are prisoners of war, as Amnesty International asserts21? If so, like it or not, we are duty bound to treat them with dignity, no matter how despicable we might find them to be. Else talk about us being civilized can be pointed out as being hollow. (Side NoteIn addition, British media reported October 2002 that at least one prisoner was released and returned to Afghanistan because he was wrongly rounded up. In fact, he wasn't even a Taliban supporter. On November 27, 2002, the BBC also reports that some workers from Arab charities are also detained in Cuba, caught by bounty hunters and handed over to the Americans for cash. In addition, the above also highlights the possibility that other innocent people may have also been rounded up. The LA Times adds to this concern, reporting on December 22, 2002 that many held at Guantanamo Bay are not likely to be terrorists 22.)
- A BBC television report (27 November 2002) also highlights how U.S. officials such as Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld have often claimed the detainees to be
unlawfulcombatants, which, as the International Red Cross points out, is just a U.S. concept, not something established in international law. Using the U.N. Charter and Article 51 to justify attacks on Afghanistan in response to the terrorist attacks implies attempting to go the route of international law (though this has also be questioned, but that is a different issue). Yet, here, the U.S. could be accused of double standards.
- Human Rights Watch also highlighted a similar point. In a forum hosted by the BBC, the following, amongst other points were raised, where questions were fielded by the host, Paul Reynolds, and answered by Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch:
- But, as David Edwards above perhaps also rightly observes, while this is an issue in itself, are not issues such as the suffering of the Afghan people still important after the bombing has died down? Where has the intense media coverage gone? Bombing removed the Taliban, but the Afghani people are still suffering. Is that not still news? As the Los Angeles Times reports (December 25, 2002), many Afghans fault the U.S. for the poor condition that the country is still in 24, almost a year later.
- And not caring about the well-being of the captives, which some people can understandably feel, raises questions about the hype used to justify retaliation. For example,
- Even high officials such as U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have explicitly expressed little concern about their well-being.
- But, at the same time, whenever he has mentioned being civilized and right to respond militarily, etc, those same high standards of being civil in even the most uncomfortable situation have not been upheld.
- Could that not imply that his claims amount to propaganda in order to get public support?
- What message does that also send to other states on how they can treat others that they will claim as being terrorists, for example?
Creation of an Official Propaganda Office
In February 2002, there appeared to be a Pentagon attempt to create a propaganda dissemination system26 that met a lot of resistance even in the mainstream media. This was the Office of Strategic Information which was, as put by the New York Times (February 19, 2002),
developing plans to provide news items, possibly even false ones, to foreign media organizations. However, because top officials themselves decided to abandon this led some commentators to think that by succumbing to the public uproar, it also appears to increase credibility of the officials and perhaps lead to less questioning next time:
And sure enough, in November 2002, it appears that the ideas behind the OSI continue28, even though the OSI itself has gone, as detailed by Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting.