[Marxism] Michael Massing on media coverage of Iraq

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Dec 2 08:04:39 MST 2004


NY Review of Books
Volume 51, Number 20 · December 16, 2004
Iraq, the Press and the Election
By Michael Massing

(clip)

The gingerly approach to civilian casualties in the US press is part of 
a much larger hole in the coverage, one concerning the day-to-day nature 
of the US occupation. Most of the soldiers in Iraq are young men who 
can't speak Arabic and who have rarely traveled outside the United 
States, and they have suddenly been set down in a hostile environment in 
which they face constant attack. They are equipped with powerful weapons 
and have authority over a dark-skinned people with alien customs. The 
result is constant friction, often leading to chronic abuses that, while 
not as glaring as those associated with Abu Ghraib, are no less 
corrosive in their effect on local sentiment.

One journalist who has seen this firsthand is Nir Rosen. A 
twenty-seven-year-old American freelance reporter, Rosen speaks Arabic 
(a rare skill among Western reporters in Iraq), has a dark complexion 
(allowing him to mix more easily with Iraqis), and prefers when in Iraq 
to hang out with locals rather than with other journalists. (In the late 
spring, he managed to get inside Falluja at a time when it was a death 
trap for Western reporters; he described his chilling findings in the 
July 5 issue of The New Yorker.) Seeing Iraq from the perspective of the 
Iraqis, Rosen got a glimpse of how persistently and routinely American 
actions alienated them. "People have to wait three hours in a traffic 
jam because a US army convoy is going by," he notes. "Guns are pointed 
at you wherever you go. People are constantly shouting at you. Concrete 
walls are everywhere. Violence is everywhere."

In October 2003, Rosen spent two weeks embedded with a US Army unit near 
the Syrian border. In sweeps through neighborhoods, he said, the 
Americans used Israeli-style tactics— making mass arrests in the hope 
that one or two of those scooped up will have something useful for them. 
"They'll hold them for ten hours in a truck without food or water," he 
told me. "And 90 percent of them are innocent." Writing of his 
experience in Reason magazine, Rosen described how a unit he accompanied 
on a raid broke down the door of a house of a man they suspected of 
dealing in arms. When the man, named Ayoub, did not immediately respond 
to their orders, they shot him with nonlethal bullets. "The floor of the 
house was covered with his blood," Rosen wrote. "He was dragged into a 
room and interrogated forcefully as his family was pushed back against 
their garden's fence."

Ayoub's frail mother, he continued, pleaded with the interrogating 
soldier to spare her son's life, protesting his innocence:

     "He pushed her to the grass along with Ayoub's four girls and two 
boys, all small, and his wife. They squatted barefoot, screaming, their 
eyes wide open in terror, clutching one another as soldiers emerged with 
bags full of documents, photo albums and two compact discs with Saddam 
Hussein and his cronies on the cover. These CDs, called The Crimes of 
Saddam, are common on every Iraqi street and, as their title suggests, 
they were not made by Saddam supporters. But the soldiers couldn't read 
Arabic and saw only the picture of Saddam, which was proof enough of 
guilt. Ayoub was brought out and pushed on to the truck."

After holding Ayoub for several hours in a detention center, the 
soldiers determined that he was innocent, and they later let him go.

Rosen believes that such encounters are common. The American soldiers he 
saw "treat everybody as the enemy," he said, adding that they can be 
very abusive and violent. "If you're a boy and see soldiers beating the 
shit out of your father, how can you not hate the Americans?" He added: 
"Why doesn't anybody write about this in The New York Times or The 
Washington Post? The AP always has people embedded —why don't they write 
about it?"

One reason, he suggests, is that embedded journalists who write 
negatively about the US military find themselves "blacklisted." It 
happened to Rosen: a series of stories he wrote for Asia Times about his 
experience while embedded elicited an angry letter from the commander 
and the public affairs officer of the unit he accompanied, and he has 
not been allowed to become embedded since. Other correspondents told me 
of similar experiences.

Another reason why news organizations don't write about such matters is 
suggested in the recently released DVD version of Michael Moore's movie 
Fahrenheit 9/11. It contains as an added feature an interview with Urban 
Hamid, a Swedish journalist who in late 2003 accompanied an American 
platoon on a raid in Samarra. Hamid's experience was similar to Nir 
Rosen's, with the difference that he caught his on tape. In it, we see 
soldiers using an armored personnel carrier to break down the gates of a 
house. We see the soldiers rush in with their rifles pointed ahead, and 
terrified women rushing out. An elderly man on crutches is rousted up 
and a plastic bag is placed over his head. The soldiers go through the 
family documents, trying to determine if this man is connected with the 
insurgency, but because they don't speak Arabic they can't really tell. 
Nonetheless, they take him to a detention center, where he joins dozens 
of others, their heads all sheathed in plastic. Celebrating the arrests, 
the soldiers take pictures of one another with their "trophies." One 
soldier admits that he's surprised they didn't find more weapons. "The 
sad thing for these guys is that we'll probably let them go because 
their names don't match up," he says.

In the interview, Hamid says he asked many Iraqis if they'd heard of 
things like this, and they all told him "of course." "It's 
preposterous," he says, "to think there is any way you win somebody's 
hearts and minds by imposing such a criminal and horrible policy." Hamid 
says that he tried to sell his tape to "mainstream media." First he 
approached the "Swedish media" but got no response. He then approached 
the "American media," with the same result. "It's obvious," he says, 
"that the mainstream media exercise some kind of self-censorship in 
which people know that this is a hot potato and don't touch it, because 
you're going to get burned."
5.

Is self-censorship among US news organizations as widespread as Hamid 
says? The group he's referring to, of course, is television news, and 
it's here that most Americans get their news. For six weeks before the 
election I watched as much TV news as I could, constantly switching from 
one station to another.

Viewing the newscasts of the traditional networks—ABC, CBS, and NBC —I 
was surprised at how critical of Bush policy they could be. When Prime 
Minister Allawi claimed that fifteen of Iraq's eighteen provinces were 
fit for elections, Charles Gibson on ABC's World News Tonight asked 
Pentagon correspondent Martha Raddatz if this was true. "I can give you 
a two-word answer from a military commander I spoke to today," Raddatz 
replied. "He said, 'no way.' And one other commander said, 'Maybe nine, 
ten, of the eighteen, and that's being generous.'" On many nights, the 
networks aired "mayhem reels" out of Iraq, two minutes' worth of cars 
afire, blood stains on payments, bodies being carried from rubble. In 
addition to relaying scoops from the daily press, the networks broke 
some stories of their own. On the Sunday before the election, for 
instance, 60 Minutes ran a hard-hitting segment about a unit of the 
Oregon National Guard in Iraq that lacked such basic equipment as the 
armored plating needed to protect soldiers in Humvees from roadside 
bombs. Such reports appeared often enough to reinforce longstanding 
conservative complaints that the networks are inherently "liberal."

Yet even these "liberal" outlets had strict limits on what they would 
show. On September 12, for instance, a group of American soldiers 
patrolling Haifa Street, a dangerous avenue in central Baghdad, came 
under fire. Another group of soldiers in two Bradley fighting vehicles 
came to rescue them. They did, but one of the vehicles had to be 
abandoned, and a jubilant crowd quickly gathered around it. A banner 
from a group associated with Zarqawi was produced and placed on the 
vehicle. Arab TV crews arrived to record the event. At one point, two US 
helicopters showed up and made several passes over the vehicle. With the 
crowd fully visible, one of the helicopters launched a barrage of 
rockets and machine-gun rounds. The vehicle was destroyed, and thirteen 
people were killed. Among them was Mazen al-Tumeizi, a Palestinian 
producer for the al-Arabiya network who was doing a TV report in front 
of the Bradley. Hit while on camera, his blood spattering the lens, 
Tumeizi doubled over and screamed that he was dying.

The video of Tumeizi's death was shown repeatedly on al-Arabiya and 
other Arabic-language networks. On American TV, it aired very briefly on 
NBC and CNN, then disappeared. On most other networks, it appeared not 
at all. Here was a dramatic piece of footage depicting in raw fashion 
the human toll of the fighting in Iraq, yet American TV producers 
apparently feared that if they gave it too much time, they would, in 
Urban Hamid's phrase, get burned. (I still have not heard of a single 
instance in which the killing of an American in Iraq has been shown on 
American TV.)

This fear seems especially apparent on cable news. Given the sheer 
number of hours CNN, MSNBC, and Fox have to fill, it's remarkable how 
little of substance and imagination one sees here. CNN still bills 
itself as "the most trusted name in news," but one wonders among whom. 
Its breakfast-time show, American Morning, offers a truly vapid mix of 
bromides and forced bonhomie. In mid-October, with a grinding war and 
bruising electoral campaign underway, the show spent a week in Chicago, 
providing one long, breathless promo for the city. Every hour or so, 
correspondent Brent Sadler would produce an update from Baghdad. For the 
most part, he offered rip-and-read versions of US press releases, with 
constant references to "precision strikes" aimed at "terrorist targets" 
and "Zarqawi safehouses." Not once did I see Sadler make even a stab at 
an independent assessment.

For analysis, CNN leaned heavily on safe, establishment-friendly voices, 
including many of the same retired military officers who appeared in the 
run-up to the war. On October 15, for instance, former General George 
Joulwan discussed with Wolf Blitzer the need for Americans to do a 
better job of explaining to Muslims how much they'd done for them over 
the years. Blitzer agreed: "I don't think a lot of Muslims understand 
that over the past fifteen years, every time the US has gone to war, 
whether in Kuwait, or Somalia, or Kosovo, or Bosnia, or Afghanistan or 
Iraq, it's to help Muslims." Joulwan: "We've saved tens of thousands of 
them. We need to understand that, and so do our Muslim friends."

Thankfully, not everything on CNN descended to this level. The network's 
reporting on the election in Afghanistan was crisp and informative, 
thanks largely to Christiane Amanpour's sharp reports. Aaron Brown's 
nightly show, while often slow-paced, offered a sober look at serious 
issues. And occasionally a truly stellar bit of reporting poked through, 
as when Jane Arraf, breaking loose from her embed with a US unit laying 
siege to Samarra, found that many of the claims she'd been fed were 
untrue. "The US said more than one hundred insurgents were killed, but 
residents saw it differently," Arraf reported. The signs of destruction 
all around her, she stated that "it was hard to find anyone who believes 
any of the people in hospitals are insurgents."

Rare on CNN, such reports are almost entirely absent from Fox News. The 
channel continues to insist that it is "fair and balanced," but hardly 
anyone takes this seriously anymore. Still, I was not prepared for just 
how blatant and pervasive its bias was. This was apparent throughout the 
presidential campaign, with George Bush forever portrayed as resolute, 
principled, and plainspoken, and John Kerry as equivocating, elitist, 
and French.

The slant was evident in the coverage of the war as well. Whenever news 
about Iraq came on, the urgent words "War on Terror" appeared on the 
screen, thus helping to frame the war exactly as the President did. "Did 
the President and his administration take their eye off the ball in the 
war on terror?" Brit Hume asked one night. For an answer, Hume spoke 
with Richard Miniter, the author of Shadow War: The Untold Story of How 
Bush Is Winning the War on Terror. No bias there. After the Washington 
Times reported the discovery in Iraq of a computer disk belonging to a 
Baath Party official that contained data showing the layout of six 
schools in the United States, Fox asked, "Can your school be a potential 
terrorist target?" This time, Fox turned to Jeffrey Beatty, a former 
Delta Force commander who, it so happens, runs an antiterrorist 
consulting firm. In fact, Beatty said, schools are potential terrorist 
targets, and they had better take precautionary measures now. On The 
O'Reilly Factor, the central question for weeks was "Should CBS fire Dan 
Rather?" Bill O'Reilly spent far more time dissecting Rather's mistakes 
at CBS than he did analyzing Bush's deeds in Iraq.

And that's how Fox wants it. The most striking feature of its coverage 
of the war in Iraq was, in fact, its lack of coverage. A good example 
occurred on the Saturday before the election. That morning, the US 
military announced that eight Marines had been killed and nine others 
wounded in attacks in the Sunni Triangle. It was the highest US death 
toll in nearly seven months. After reading the news on the Web, I tuned 
in to Fox's 11 AM news summary. It made no mention of the dead Marines. 
The next hour was taken up by a feverish program on hot stock picks. 
Then came the noon newscast. After spending ten minutes on the Osama bin 
Laden tape, the presidential campaign, and the tight race in Ohio, it 
finally got around to informing viewers of the Marines' deaths. It then 
spent all of twenty seconds on them. As it turned out, that Saturday was 
a particularly bloody day in Iraq, with a series of bombings, mortar 
attacks, and ambushes throughout the country. Viewers of Fox, however, 
saw little of it.

This formula has proved very popular. The O'Reilly Factor is currently 
the top-rated cable news show, and Fox's prime-time audience is on 
average twice as large as CNN's. That audience still trails far behind 
that of the traditional networks, but Fox has much more time to fill, 
and it does it with programming that is far more overtly ideological 
than anything else on TV. Its constant plugging of Bush, its persistent 
jabs at Kerry, its relentless insistence that Iraq is part of the war on 
terror and that both wars are going well—all have had their effect. 
According to election-day exit polls, 55 percent of voters regarded the 
Iraq war as part of the war on terrorism, as opposed to 42 percent who 
saw it as separate. And 81 percent of the former voted for George Bush.

In some ways, the coverage of the war featured a battle as fierce as the 
political one between Democrats and Republicans, with the "red" medium 
of Fox slugging it out with the "blue" outlets of the Times and the 
Post, CBS and ABC. CNN seemed somewhere in between, careening wildly 
between an adherence to traditional news values on the one hand and a 
surrender to the titillating, overheated, nationalistic fare of 
contemporary cable on the other. In the end, CNN—influenced by Fox's 
success—seemed firmly in the latter camp. It offered the superficiality 
of Fox without any of its conviction. This hollowing out of CNN was, in 
a sense, an enormous victory for the Bush campaign. Overall, in 
analyzing the reasons for Bush's triumph, the impact of Fox News should 
not be overlooked.

Now, with President Bush preparing for a second term, what can we expect 
from the press in Iraq? The initial signs, from Falluja, are not 
encouraging. Even allowing for the constraints imposed by embedding, 
much of the press seemed unduly accepting of US claims, uncritically 
repeating commanders' assertions about the huge numbers of insurgents 
killed while underplaying the devastation in the city. And little 
attention was paid to the estimated 200,000 residents said to have fled 
Falluja in anticipation of the fighting. Amid US claims that the city 
had been "liberated," these refugees seemed invisible. But, in light of 
the coverage in recent months, this should have come as no surprise.

full: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/17633

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