The War for Public Opinion -Tamara Straus, AlterNet - December 10, 2001

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Tue Dec 11 15:32:39 MST 2001


http://www.alternet.org/story.html?StoryID=12050

The War for Public Opinion
                                        Tamara Straus, AlterNet
                                           December 10, 2001

                         In 1922, social critic Walter Lippmann wrote,
"Decisions in
                         modern states tend to be made by the interaction,
not of Congress
                         and the executive, but of public opinion and the
executive."

                         Never has this been truer than in the war on
terrorism. The Bush
                         administration has justified its bombing campaign
against
                         Afghanistan not with a Congressional declaration of
war, but with
                         polls indicating that close to 90 percent of
Americans want
                         military action. How easy it must be to point at
those numbers and
                         claim, "The public made us do it!"

                         Public opinion polls have become a kind of Fifth
Estate in
                         American politics. As soon as they are released,
poll results
                         become fodder to justify policies, attack opponents
or wage wars.
                         When the numbers hover around 90 percent, as do
Bush's current
                         approval ratings, they are political gospel. After
all, when 9 out
                         of 10 Americans agree, the country's resolve must
be strong as
                         steel. Or is it?

                         Therein lies the rub. Public opinion is a fickle
thing, sometimes
                         turning on as little as one horrific image or
triumphant speech. A
                         few well-placed media messages can cause sea
changes in
                         national opinion: think of Southern cops turning
dogs and fire
                         hoses loose on desegregation marches; or the
videotape of
                         Rodney King; or napalmed villagers in Vietnam.

                         The Bush administration knows this media truism all
too well.
                         They also know its corollary -- that with the right
pressure, public
                         opinion can be manipulated. And so, as bombs began
to fall on
                         Kabul, the administration launched an equally
aggressive front
                         here at home: the war for America's approval of
war.

                         Like recruiting its allies abroad, the U.S.
government quickly
                         recruited friends and institutions for its domestic
battle. Back in
                         1922 Lippmann noted that public opinion tends to
solidify during
                         times of war and that the media, becoming more
patriotic, aids in
                         this solidification. That was the case during World
Wars I and II,
                         when news items smelled heavily of government
propaganda and
                         Hollywood's most talented filmmakers were hired to
make
                         inspirational war movies.

                         That was also the case during the Persian Gulf War.
Had the U.S.
                         government allowed reporters to file from the front
lines, showing
                         the effect of the war on civilians and the region,
public opinion
                         might have been different. Instead, the Gulf War
came into
                         American living rooms as a series of fuzzy Defense
Department
                         abstractions. From the couch, what happened in Iraq
looked like a
                         video game. Unlike the images that poured into the
tube during
                         Vietnam, there was very little to get upset about.
The campaign
                         seemed clean, technologically efficient. The
majority of the
                         public came away with a favorable impression, even
if they
                         failed to feel the war was a moral victory, as was
the case during
                         World War II.

                         That was the media success story of George I. Now
along comes
                         George II, waging a more complicated war that is a
descendant of
                         his father's. Since the first shots were fired, the
Bush
                         administration has successfully squelched negative
news reports
                         from Afghanistan. Asked at an October press
conference how he
                         would handle the media's war coverage, Defense
Secretary
                         Donald Rumsfeld quoted Winston Churchill's
statement about
                         disinformation around the D-day invasion.
"Sometimes the truth is
                         so precious it must be accompanied by a bodyguard
of lies," he
                         said. "They plan to fight the war and then tell the
press and the
                         public how it turned out afterwards," said CNN
correspondent
                         Jamie McIntyre, according to the Center for Public
Integrity.

                         The Pentagon's tactics in the media war have been
less than
                         subtle. For starters, they bought up access to all
commercial
                         satellite photographs of the region, preventing any
news outlets
                         from obtaining them. They also have prevented
journalists from
                         accompanying soldiers or airmen on most missions,
or even from
                         interviewing them afterward. Meanwhile, television
news has
                         been behaving more like a wing of the military than
an objective
                         Fourth Estate, with anchors like CBS Dan Rather
pledging his
                         allegiance on air: "Wherever [Bush] wants me to
line up, just tell
                         me where." CNN Chairman Walter Isaacson ordered
news staff to
                         limit reports of Afghan war casualties and use
World Trade
                         Center deaths to justify the killings. Newspaper
editors have
                         admitted to taking dead civilian Afghans off their
front pages for
                         fear of appearing unpatriotic.

                         In other words, so far, so good. Bush has never
strayed from
                         framing the war on terrorism as a fight of good
against evil. Thus
                         the further destruction of Afghanistan is just
retribution against
                         "evil doers," whether majority of the Al Qaeda are
in Afghanistan
                         or not, whether military retaliation will quell
terrorism or not. It's
                         a message that domestic media outlets seem to like
far more than
                         reports of civilian casualties.

                         However, the Bush administration has had to contend
with a new
                         set of media forces arising from the "Information
Revolution."
                         The war on terrorism is the world's first war for
the Internet and
                         foreign news outlets. Never before have so many
people
                         ostensibly had access to so much news and opinion
from so many
                         sources. Never before has it been possible to gauge
so many
                         views, not only in the U.S., but from Europe and
the Middle East.
                         That is the quandary the Bush administration faces
in "winning the
                         war on ideas," as Bush phrased it. Public opinion
is now
                         vulnerable to what is reported outside the U.S.'s
news borders.

                         In fact, of the 10 percent that don't approve of
Phase I of the terror
                         war, many have probably taken to surfing the
Internet for their
                         information, reading critical reports on the
progress and logic of
                         the campaign from sites like the UK's Guardian,
Dawn (Pakistan's
                         English daily) and AlterNet.org (whose readership
soared 500
                         percent in the days after Sept. 11). London's BBC
has reported a
                         record number of Americans tuning in to their Web
site, radio and
                         television broadcasts.

                         There is plenty of stomach-turning information out
there to be
                         found. In a Dec. 3 New York Times story, an Afghan
man named
                         Khalil, who survived U.S. bombs in the Tora Bora
area, was
                         quoted as saying, "The village is no more. All my
family, 12
                         people were killed. I am the only one left in this
family. I have
                         lost my children, my wife. They are no more."
According to
                         AlterNet's David Corn, other Afghan refugees have
reported
                         similar slaughters; one said she had lost 38
relatives in a U.S.
                         attack; another estimated up to 200 were dead in
her village.

                         So what will Phase II of the war hold? According to
a December
                         Harris poll, more than eight of 10 Americans said
the U.S.
                         government's actions should be assisted by many
countries, and
                         that it is important to get support from the U.N.
Security Council
                         to expand the war. If this is true -- if
multilateralism becomes
                         increasingly important to Americans -- then views
from Europe
                         and the Middle East may suddenly become relevant.

                         In Europe, public approval of America's war in
Afghanistan
                         waned significantly in the month of November. In
England, from a
                         peak on par with U.S. public opinion right after
the attacks,
                         support for the bombing campaign fell to
two-thirds. In France,
                         support dropped from two-thirds to half, and, in
Germany and
                         Italy, well over half the population wanted the
attacks on
                         Afghanistan to stop, according to the European
press.

                         The reason for this wane in European support was
fairly clear:
                         the Europeans saw disturbing images of civilian
casualties from
                         the U.S. bombing campaign that Americans did not.
"The public
                         sees continuous bombing of buildings and they see
pictures from
                         Al Jazeera of small villages that have made things
immensely
                         difficult," Helmut Lippelt, a German Green Party
legislator, told
                         the New York Times. This kind of negative opinion
could come
                         to haunt Americans if the war is widened or
American troops get
                         bogged down in civil unrest in Afghanistan.

                         Harder still to ignore will be views from the
Middle East, where
                         negative opinion about the war on terrorism has
been of huge
                         concern to the U.S. government. Never before in
wartime has the
                         U.S. had to work so hard to contain the views of
its enemies. And
                         that has everything to do with telecommunication
advances as
                         well as the growth of Middle Eastern news media.
Back in
                         August 1990, in the prelude to the Gulf War, news
of Iraq's
                         conquest of Kuwait did not hit the Arab world
through official
                         media for three entire days. There were no 24-hour
news Arab
                         news networks and Middle Eastern media were tightly
controlled
                         by government. Today, there are five pan-Arab new
networks,
                         including Al Jazeera, the 24-hour Qatar-based news
station,
                         which is watched by 35 million viewers in 20 Arab
countries and
                         airs sharp critiques of American policy in the
region.

                         The Bush administration is well aware of the powers
these news
                         outlets possess, and has gone into high gear to
convince Middle
                         East citizens that the war on terrorism is aimed
not at them, but at
                         terrorists in their midst. As part of this effort,
the Pentagon has
                         hired the Reardon Group, a public relations firm in
Washington,
                         D.C., to help explain the U.S. military strikes to
global audiences.
                         The administration also has established a
"coalition of
                         information centers" in Washington, London and
Islamabad to
                         disseminate war news to Middle Eastern reporters --
a hard task
                         since those in the region are 10 hours ahead of
Washington.

                         Yet even with these recent moves, U.S. government
officials have
                         been quick to admit that, so far, they have lost
the battle for
                         Middle Eastern public opinion. The U.S. has almost
no cultural
                         organizations in the Middle East. As of Sept. 11
its main
                         broadcasting arm, Voice of America, had an audience
share of 2
                         percent in the region.

                         The chief problem is that the U.S. has little
credibility in the Arab
                         world -- not in Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan or Iran and
certainly not in
                         Iraq and Palestine. In order to explain the Afghan
bombing
                         campaign, officials of the Bush administration,
such as
                         Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell, have appeared on
Al
                         Jazeera. But, according to many news critics the
effect has not
                         been positive. "Every time I see an American
official speaking on
                         Al Jazeera, I think of how much that person is
inciting sentiment
                         against America by promoting the American view,"
said Lamis
                         Andoni, a Jordanian journalist who has covered the
Middle East
                         for 20 years. "It backfires. What does the U.S.
have to say? That
                         in order to get bin Laden it has to bomb all of
Afghanistan and
                         cause more misery in Afghanistan? This doesn't sell
in the Arab
                         world."

                         What does seem to sell is bin Laden's message --
not necessarily
                         that a jihad should be waged against America -- but
that the U.S.
                         is at fault for the economic, political and social
problems of the
                         Arab world. On Arab TV, bin Laden has listed the
very issues
                         that the U.S. government refuses to address:
support of repressive
                         regimes like Saudi Arabia, which permit the
stationing of U.S.
                         troops; the economic sanctions against Iraq, which
have stifled
                         Middle Eastern trade; and globalization, which has
weakened the
                         cultural traditions of Islam and caused a stark
awareness of the
                         haves and the have-nots.

                         Indeed, bin Laden has proved to be the U.S.'s chief
foe not only
                         because he presents a terrorist threat but because
he is the
                         savviest of media manipulators, the fiercest of
propagandists. His
                         chief weapon on Sept. 11 was not so much the bodily
damage that
                         can be achieved with jetliners but the
psychological impact of
                         watching those jetliners take out America's most
important
                         economic and military symbols. Bin Laden understood
well in
                         advance that the destruction would be watched over
and over
                         again on American television.

                         The question now remains: What is the level of
support for bin
                         Laden in the Arab world? If he is captured and
executed by the
                         U.S. military will there be blowback? Will bin
Laden's death
                         unleash a new wave of terrorism in the U.S. and
abroad? And if
                         that happens, will the U.S. media remain as devout
to government
                         propaganda as it has been thus far, or focus more
on what is being
                         said in Europe and the Middle East? The answers to
those
                         questions will shape the public opinion war to
come.

 Tamara Straus is senior editor of AlterNet.org.

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