Are The Media Ready For A New War?

The following is from MediaChannel executive director, Danny Schechter. It comments on the media handling of the war on terror. You can see the original article at

Are The Media Ready For A New War?
By Danny Schechter
February 20, 2002

Who wants to think about war on Valentine's Day? I am part of the "make love not war" generation. Yet it was on the eve of the day for roses and romance that the Bush administration started ratcheting up the next major front in its war on terror. The saber-rattling over Iraq began with threats by Colin Powell and reports in the Washington Post and the Guardian of a shadowy "principals committee" orchestrating covert teams and psychological operations aimed not just at Baghdad but at the American people, who are being readied for a conflict that may involve as many as 200,000 U.S. soldiers.

As the humvees hum into gear, the B-52s are refueled and another Gulf War and possible syndrome is on the horizon, media organizations need to start lobbying to make sure they will have access. As we know all too well from the last time out in the Gulf, coverage was contained by the Pentagon, with few exceptions. In Afghanistan, the media have once again, for the most part, been odd man out, scrambling to survive killers and marauders on the road and death threats from allies. We still don't know all that much of what was won and at what cost. The number of civilian casualties were downplayed. Few journalists were close to the action except perhaps Fox's Geraldo Rivera, who can always be counted to create some of his own. Think of the blur of the images - caves being bombed, breathless accounts of Osama bin Laden's whereabouts, images of heroic liberators who turned out in many cases to be gangsters, opium growers and despots. The Taliban was toppled but Sharia law - strict Islamic edicts backed up by harsh punishments - survives.

And for several weeks more reporters died than soldiers, and now, as I write, the fate of the Wall Street Journal's Daniel Pearl is unknown, his captors so far unpersuaded by appeals from the newspaper of business or even a parade of Muslim Americans, including Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam. Journalists appear to be fair game, perhaps in part because of the belief, which in some instances, unfortunately, is all too true, that they/we are one-sided transmission belts for their governments.

A column in the Dallas Morning News by Carolyn Barta points out that journalists are an endangered species2: "'American journalists are no longer considered noncombatants. At one time they were considered like the Red Cross,' said Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution scholar and author of the book International News and Foreign Correspondents... A few years ago, extremists might have kidnapped an American corporate executive or bombed a diplomat. Now they go after a journalist. 'It's part of the anti-American feeling in the world and [the feeling that] journalists are not objective professionals who are "above country,"'" Mr. Hess said.

The question that American news outlets have to ask is what it means to be "above country." Media companies that have their anchors wearing American flags and plaster their programs with patriotic imagery are taking sides - especially when they give little or no air time to critics and dissenters. Surely one can express pride of country and practice its tradition of supporting the right to dissent at the same time. The most current example is the red, white and blue Olympics, where dissenters are forced to demonstrate in penned areas miles from the crowds, and virtually uncovered on TV.

The New Media War
What was new was that this war was being stage-managed, not from a tent in some outback or cave but from the central command's military base in Tampa, Florida. When the war started, the enemy was projected - as was the "crack" Iraqi Republican Guard a decade earlier - as 10,000 strong, fearsome and ferocious. In a matter of weeks, enough bombs moved enough rocks, killing enough jihad junkies, to facilitate a quick victory. Meanwhile O & O, Osama and Omar, the evil twins of terror, managed to disappear. With that, the public, which had been primed to believe that the posse would bring them back dead or alive, began to lose interest as network coverage began to shrink. There was no pound of flesh, and most Americans never heard the reports that more Afghan civilians died as a result of U.S. bombing than those killed at the World Trade Center, according to a report3 by professor Marc W. Herold at the University of New Hampshire.

What was also new was that Washington-based Pentagon reporters became the media's front line. TV news showed canned video of weapons systems and the Rumsfield Follies updated the old Five O'clock Follies from Vietnam, where the line was always that the light is at the end of the tunnel. At least in those days some reporters in the tunnel could see that there was no light. Today there is not even a tunnel. In all too many cases, reporting has turned into stenography, without context or analysis.

What's Next?
The Washington Post's Bob Woodward reports that CIA operations may be underway in as many as 80 nations. Reports suggest that a string of assassinations of opposition leaders in Indonesia, the Philippines and Nigeria may be linked. Intelligence bureaucracies have ballooned and now have legal authority and the resources to do pretty much whatever they want. Whether they can succeed is another matter.

Do we have any grasp of how massive and well-funded this web of military power is? Are we being alerted to the risks and dangers? I was startled to hear South Africa's Bishop Tutu, whom I always considered a pragmatist, not a paranoid, raise a fear many find unthinkable. "Can you imagine any scenario," he asked at a session of the recent World Economic Forum, "in which America would suspend its democracy?" The room quieted down. Some heads began to nod. No one challenged him. The fear: It could happen here.

To prevent that, NOW is the time for media institutions, journalists' organizations and citizens' groups to seize the initiative and demand that a free press must have the right to cover wars the way they need to be covered. If the people have a right to know, if that often-cited fog of war is to be lifted, then media institutions have to speak up - loudly. And the public has to press for them to do it.

What We Need To Know
We need to know more than what the government is saying. We need hard facts about what it is doing. And not just the government. What about the industrial side of the military industrial complex? What are the oil companies really up to in the Middle East and Central Asia? Tell us about interests as well as issues.

Also, how about some attention to alternatives to war, and the principles of peace journalism4 that offer a promising new way of covering conflict, going beyond the role of cheerleader.

Wanting the truth is not enough. It is like waiting for Godot. We have to press for it.

Israeli journalist and peace activist Uri Avnery writes this week about the way public opinion in his country is begging to shift against uncritical support for hard-line policies, even as Israelis confront attacks from terrorists. "It always starts with a small group of committed people. They raise their feeble voice. The media ignore them, the politicians laugh at them ('a tiny, marginal and vociferous group'). The respectable parties and the established old organizations crinkle their noses and distance themselves from their 'radical slogans.' But slowly they start to have an impact. 'Important' journalists, serving as weathercocks, smell the change and adapt themselves in time to the new winds.

"The famous anthropologist Margaret Mead said about this: 'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.' And German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said, 'All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident.'"

Let us hope that in the case of this most recent war, and in any wars to come, these three stages will kick in, at least insofar as media coverage goes. We need more skepticism of official claims, more independent investigations and, of course, more truth.

- Danny Schechter is executive editor of

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