The Air War
By Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber
Excerpted from Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq (Tarcher/Penguin).
The news media offer two basic services to people who are trying to understand the world: information gathering and information filtering. For people who are trying to change the world, the media provide a third essential service: publicity. These days, the service of information-gathering has been supplanted to a significant degree by the Internet, where it is now possible to instantly access information and opinions about a wide range of topics from a virtually infinite choice of sources. The task of filtering all that information, however, has become more important than ever. The broadcast media claim that they deserve the trust of their audiences because their information is produced by professional journalists with expertise and ethical standards that enable them to separate the wheat from the chaff.
In reality, each media outlet filters the news according to a set of priorities and biases that are often not disclosed to its audience. The Fox News Network, for example, purports to offer "fair and balanced" reporting in which "we report, you decide." To see what this means in practice, read the following excerpt from a "fair and balanced" interview conducted by Bill O'Reilly, who calls his program, "The O'Reilly Factor," a "no spin zone." On February 24, 2003, O'Reilly interviewed Jeremy Glick, whose father died in the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Unlike O'Reilly, Glick opposed the war in Iraq and had joined with thousands of other Americans in signing a public declaration to that effect. For space reasons, we have edited the exchange, but this excerpt will give you the flavor:
O'REILLY: You are mouthing a far left position that is a marginal position in this society, which you're entitled to.
GLICK: It's marginal—right.
O'REILLY: You're entitled to it, all right, but you're—you see, even—I'm sure your beliefs are sincere, but what upsets me is I don't think your father would be approving of this.
GLICK: Well, actually, my father thought that Bush's presidency was illegitimate.
O'REILLY: Maybe he did, but...
GLICK: I also didn't think that Bush...
O'REILLY (cuts him off): ... I don't think he'd be equating this country as a terrorist nation as you are.
GLICK: Well, I wasn't saying that it was necessarily like that.
O'REILLY: Yes, you are. … All right. I don't want to...
O'REILLY (cuts him off again): I don't want to debate world politics with you.
GLICK: Well, why not? This is about world politics.
O'REILLY: Because, number one, I don't really care what you think. …
GLICK: But you do care because you...
O'REILLY (cuts him off again): No, no. Look...
GLICK: The reason why you care is because you evoke 9/11...
O'REILLY (cuts him off again): Here's why I care.
GLICK: ... to rationalize...
O'REILLY (interrupts again): Here's why I care...
GLICK: Let me finish. You evoke 9/11 to rationalize everything from domestic plunder to imperialistic aggression worldwide. …
O'REILLY: You keep your mouth shut when you sit here exploiting those people. … You have a warped view of this world and a warped view of this country.
GLICK: Well, explain that. Let me give you an example of a parallel—
O'REILLY (cuts him off again): No, I'm not going to debate this with you, all right.
GLICK: Well, let me give you an example of parallel experience. On September 14—
O'REILLY: No, no. Here's—here's the...
GLICK: On September 14—
O'Reilly cuts him off several more times; Whatever happened on September 14, Glick never gets the chance to say.
O'REILLY: Man, I hope your mom isn't watching this.
GLICK: Well, I hope she is.
O'REILLY: I hope your mother is not watching this because you—that's it. I'm not going to say anymore.
O'REILLY: In respect for your father...
GLICK: On September 14, do you want to know what I'm doing?
O'REILLY: Shut up! Shut up!
GLICK: Oh, please don't tell me to shut up.
O'REILLY: As respect—as respect—in respect for your father, who was a Port Authority worker, a fine American, who got killed unnecessarily by barbarians...
GLICK: By radical extremists who were trained by this government...
O'REILLY: Out of respect for him...
GLICK: ... not the people of America.
O'REILLY: ... I'm not going to...
GLICK: ... The people of the ruling class, the small minority.
O'REILLY (to his producer): Cut his mike. I'm not going to dress you down anymore, out of respect for your father. We will be back in a moment with more of THE FACTOR.
Reasoned debates between people with opposing views can provide a useful way of clarifying and understanding the issues that separate them. Viewers who watched "The O'Reilly Factor," however, came away with no better understanding of the respective worldviews of Glick and O'Reilly than they had before watching the show. As O'Reilly stated, he doesn't really care what Glick thinks, and he assumes that his viewers don’t care either. Why have him as a guest at all, then? Because what the program is really offering is not discussion but entertainment—the voyeuristic, sadistic thrill of watching someone get beat up, just like a bullfight or World Wrestling Smackdown. O’Reilly’s viewers understand this point implicitly. On the day of the broadcast, FreeRepublic.com, a conservative web site, received postings from O'Reilly fans who gloated over the exchange with comments including the following:
• “O'Reilly wanted to kick that little punk’s ass!”
• “I was waiting for Bill to punch him out. What a piece of crap Glick is.”
• “It was very entertaining.”
• “Bill should have $itch-slapped that punk-@ss fool.”
• “His family will never know how lucky they are that it was O'Reilly only telling him to shut up. Had it been me or my husband, I think America would have been witness to a murder on-air and few juries would have convicted us!”
Of the 219 comments posted to this discussion thread (not counting comments that were deleted because the moderator considered them excessive), 31 advocated subjecting Glick to some form of actual physical violence or humiliation. For O’Reilly and his fans, television is a form of combat—specifically, the “air war.” This fact is implicit in O’Reilly’s description of his program as “no-spin zone”—a phrase that parallels and evokes the “no-fly zones” that US jets imposed over Iraqi airspace. As O’Reilly himself has said, a “no-fly zone” and a “no-spin zone” are “the same thing. Violate the rules, get shot down.”
The Patriotism Police
Bill O’Reilly’s fans at FreeRepublic.com represent the “ground war” that accompanies his air war against “liberal media bias.” The ground war—grassroots organizing and pressure—is directed by well-funded organizations such as or the Media Research Center (MRC), a conservative “media watchdog.” MRC has an annual budget of .8 million—roughly ten times the budget of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), the most prominent media watchdog on the left. MRC sends out daily email alerts to its list of more than 11,000 followers, detailing the alleged bias of media figures such as Dan Rather and Peter Jennings, encouraging the followers to rain complaints onto networks that fail to toe the correct line on Iraq and other issues. In the wake of 9/11, this lobbying took on new intensity. The New York Times reported in September 2001 that TV networks were "increasingly coming under criticism from conservatives who say they exhibit a lack of patriotism or are overly negative toward the government." As MSNBC president Erik Sorenson told the Times, “Any misstep and you can get into trouble with these guys and have the Patriotism Police hunt you down.”
Other attacks on the press have come directly from the Bush administration. After television personality Bill Maher made remarks following 9/11 that were perceived as critical of past U.S. bombing campaigns, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer told journalists that Americans “need to watch what they say, what they do. This is not a time for remarks like this; there never is.” In response to complaints about restrictions on civil liberties, Attorney General John Ashcroft testified before Congress, characterizing “our critics” as “those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty; my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists—for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies, and pause to America's friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil.”
Dennis Pluchinsky, a senior intelligence analyst with the U.S. State Department, went further still in his critique of the media. “I accuse the media in the United States of treason,” he stated in an opinion article in the Washington Post that suggested giving the media “an Osama bin Laden award” and advised, “The president and Congress should pass laws temporarily restricting the media from publishing any security information that can be used by our enemies.”
Fox Network owner Rupert Murdoch brilliantly exploited the wartime political environment, in which even extreme nationalistic rhetoric was accepted and popular, while liberals and critics of the White House were pressured to walk softly and carry no stick at all. In addition to Fox, Murdoch owns a worldwide network of 140 sensationalist tabloid newspapers—40 million papers a week, dominating the newspaper markets in Britain, Australia and New Zealand—all of which adopted editorial positions in support of war with Iraq. In the United States, his New York Post called France and Germany an “axis of weasel” for refusing to support Bush’s war plans and published a full-page cover doctored photo with the heads of weasels superimposed over the faces of French and German ministers at the United Nations. In France, his paper distributed a story calling French President Jacques Chirac a “worm,” illustrated by a large graphic of a worm with Chirac’s head.
This sort of imagery has historical precedents. Author Sam Keen, who examined the iconography of war in his 1986 book, Faces of the Enemy, notes that during wartime, countries frequently produce cartoons, posters and other art that attempts to dehumanize their enemies by “exaggerating each feature until man is metamorphosized into beast, vermin, insect. … When your icon of the enemy is complete you will be able to kill without guilt, slaughter without shame.” The use of this extreme imagery against erstwhile allies simply for refusing to endorse the U.S. war push represented, in symbolic terms, the Murdoch media’s interpretation of the Bush doctrine that “if you are not with us, you are with the terrorists.”
At MSNBC, meanwhile, a six-month experiment to develop a liberal program featuring Phil Donahue ended just before the war began, when Donahue’s show was cancelled and replaced it with a program titled “Countdown: Iraq.” Although the network cited poor ratings as the reason for dumping Donahue, the New York Times reported that Donahue "was actually attracting more viewers than any other program on MSNBC, even the channel's signature prime-time program, Hardball with Chris Matthews." A different story appears, however, in an internal NBC report leaked to AllYourTV.com, a web site that covers the television industry. The NBC report recommended axing Donahue because he presented a "difficult public face for NBC in a time of war. ... He seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration's motives." It went on to outline a possible nightmare scenario where the show becomes "a home for the liberal anti-war agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity." At the same time that Donahue was cancelled, MSNBC added Michael Savage to its line-up, who routinely refers to non-white countries as "turd world nations" and charges that the U.S. "is being taken over by the freaks, the cripples, the perverts and the mental defectives." In one broadcast, Savage justified ethnic slurs as a national security tool: "We need racist stereotypes right now of our enemy in order to encourage our warriors to kill the enemy," he explained—a fairly straightforward summary of Sam Keen’s thesis.
The patriotism police also patrolled American radio. Clear Channel Communications owns more than 1,200 radio stations—approximately half of the U.S. total, and five times more than its closest competitors, CBS and ABC. Its executives have not hesitated to use their power to impose ideological direction. In the weeks leading up to war with Iraq, Clear Channel stations offered financial sponsorship and on-air promotion for pro-war “Rallies for America.” A number of Clear Channel stations also pulled the Dixie Chicks from their playlists after the group's lead singer, Natalie Maines, told fans in London that they were ashamed to be from the same state as President Bush. Only a few days previously, Clear Channel Entertainment, the company’s concert tour promotional arm, had been enthusiastically promoting its co-sponsorship of 26 upcoming concerts in the Chicks’ upcoming “Top of the World Tour.” In Colorado Springs, two disk jockeys were suspended from Clear Channel affiliate KKCS for defying the ban. Station manager Jerry Grant, admitted that KKCS had received 200 calls from listeners, 75% of which wanted the ban lifted. Nevertheless, he said, he gave the DJs "an alternative: stop it now and they'll be on suspension, or they can continue playing them and when they come out of the studio they won't have a job." Cumulus Media, another radio conglomerate that owns 262 stations, also banned the Dixie Chicks from all of its country stations. Nationally syndicated radio personality Don Imus told his producer to screen out guests "who come on and whine about how the president failed to explore all diplomatic avenues. Just drop it, because I’m not interested in having that discussion.”
Greater diversity could be found in the print media, but pro-war voices still predominated. Journalism professor Todd Gitlin tabulated editorials that appeared in the Washington Post during a 12-week period shortly before the onset of war and found that “hawkish op-ed pieces numbered 39, dovish ones 12—a ratio of more than 3-to-1.”
In addition to restricting the number of anti-war voices on television and radio, media outlets often engaged in selective presentation. The main voices that television viewers saw opposing the war came from a handful of celebrities such as Sean Penn, Martin Sheen, Janeane Garofalo and Susan Sarandon—actors who could be easily dismissed as brie-eating Hollywood elitists. The newspapers and TV networks could have easily interviewed academics and other more traditional anti-war sources, but they rarely did. In a speech in the Fall of 2002, U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy “laid out what was arguably the most comprehensive case yet offered to the public questioning the Bush administration’s policy and timing on Iraq,” noted Michael Geler, the Washington Post’s ombudsman. “The next day, the Post devoted one sentence to the speech. Ironically, Kennedy made ample use in his remarks of the public testimony in Senate Armed Services Committee hearings a week earlier by retired four-star Army and Marine Corps generals who cautioned about attacking Iraq at this time—hearings that the Post also did not cover. Last Saturday, antiwar rallies involving some 200,000 people in London and thousands more in Rome took place and nothing ran in the Sunday Post about them. ... Whatever one thinks about the wisdom of a new war, once it starts it is too late to air arguments that should have been aired before.”
Some peace groups attempted to purchase commercial time to broadcast ads for peace but were refused air time by all major networks and even MTV. (Some peace groups managed to partially circumvent the ban by buying local time for the ads in major cities.) CBS network president Martin Franks explained the refusal by saying, “we think that informed discussion comes from our news programming.” MTV spokesman Graham James said, “We don’t accept advocacy advertising because it really opens us up to accepting every point of view on every subject.” While pundits from pro-war think tanks generally had ready access to talk shows, it took mass protests of millions of people worldwide on February 15, 2003 before broadcasters gave more than cursory attention to the existence of a large, grassroots peace movement. Even then, coverage consisted of crowd shots and images of people waving banners, with little attempt to present the actual reasoning and arguments put forward by war opponents.
Gulf War II: The Sequel
Media coverage of the 2003 war in Iraq was a sequel, both in style and content, to the 1991 “CNN phenomenon” that occurred during the first U.S. war in the Persian Gulf. “For the first time in history, thanks to the shrewdness of Saddam Hussein, a television network became an active participant in the development of a major international crisis,” observed former journalism executive Claude Moisy in a 1995 study titled The Foreign News Flow in the Information Age. CNN “became the channel of communication between the warring parties and the instant chronicler of the conflict. The impact on the international community was such that the expression ‘global live coverage’ was widely accepted as the description of what had happened and as the definitive hallmark of CNN.”
These trends continued and intensified with media coverage of the 2003 war in Iraq. "By a large margin, TV won in Iraq—even in areas that papers expected to win,” reported John Lavine, director of the Readership Institute, a research organization funded by newspapers to help them attract subscribers. The Readership Institute conducted a study of media consumption patterns during the war and found that newspapers were being trounced by TV, which viewers regarded as more complete, accurate and engaging, offering the best experts and the greatest variety of viewpoints.
Within the TV world, moreover, the cable networks dominated the traditional nightly news broadcasts on ABC, CBS and NBC. A survey conducted by the Los Angeles Times found that nearly 70 percent of Americans were getting most of their information about the war from the all-news cable channels such as Fox, CNN and MSNBC. Only 18 percent relied on the traditional nightly news. Even MSNBC, whose market share was a distant third behind Fox and CNN, saw a 350 percent increase in viewership during the war. But it was Fox, with its belligerent brand of hyper-patriotism, that won the ratings war. And just as CNN’s success in the first war shaped editorial policies throughout the broadcast world, the success of Fox triggered a ripple effect as other networks tailored their coverage to compete with what industry insiders called “the Fox effect.”
In many ways, however, the rise of round-the-clock cable TV news phenomenon reflected a decline in the amount and quality of foreign news available to American audiences. As Moisy pointed out, CNN by 1995 had a news gathering network worldwide of only 20 bureaus, with 35 correspondents outside the United States—“only half of what the BBC has had for a long time to cover world events on radio and television” and “only a fraction of what the three largest international newswire services maintain on a permanent basis. … The Associated Press, a wire service in the United States, … can carry up to a hundred foreign stories a day. By comparison, CNN (including CNN International) never brings more than twenty foreign stories a day to its viewers, if for no other reason than the much higher cost of producing and transmitting video news.”
With the exception of wars and national disasters, noted Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, “many news executives, particularly in television, concluded more than a decade ago that Americans had little interest in news beyond their borders." The time devoted to foreign coverage on ABC, CBS and NBC fell from 4,032 minutes in 1989 to 1,382 in 2,000, rebounding only slightly following the 9/11 attacks to 2,103 minutes in 2002. Once wars are over, countries fall quickly out of the spotlight. Afghanistan received 306 minutes of coverage while the war raged in November 2001, but within three months it fell to 28 minutes, and by March 2003 it was just one minute. Following the collapse of Saddam’s regime, attention to Iraq went into rapid decline, as the cable and TV networks turned to covering the murder of pregnant Californian Laci Peterson and a miracle dog that survived being hit by a car.
Round-the-clock live coverage often comes at the expense of detail, depth and research. It may be visually engaging and emotionally riveting, but viewers receive very little background analysis or historical context. While Operation Desert Storm was underway in 1991, a research team at the University of Massachusetts surveyed public opinion and correlated it with knowledge of basic facts about US policy in the region. The results were startling: "The more TV people watched, the less they knew. … Despite months of coverage, most people do not know basic facts about the political situation in the Middle East, or about the recent history of US policy towards Iraq." Moreover, "our study revealed a strong correlation between knowledge and opposition to the war. The more people know, in other words, the less likely they were to support the war policy." Not surprisingly, therefore, "people who generally watch a lot of television were substantially more likely to 'strongly' support the use of force against Iraq."
The same can undoubtedly be said even more strongly about Gulf War II and the viewers in 2003 who tuned in to watch Fox anchor Neil Cavuto berating a professor who had written an anti-war letter as an “obnoxious, pontificating jerk,” a “self-absorbed, condescending imbecile,” and an “Ivy League intellectual Lilliputian.” Viewers may have felt that the coverage on TV was better than the coverage in newspapers, but there was actually an inverse relationship between the amount of emotional entertainment on display and the amount of actual information that viewers received. "Fox does less news and more talking about the news than any other network," noted Contra Costa Times TV critic Chuck Barney after reviewing more than 200 hours of war coverage from different channels.
As in Gulf War I, the coverage of Gulf War II featured engaging visuals, some of which were familiar such as the green nightscope shots of Baghdad. Others were new, such as the live videophone images from embedded reporters of troops advancing through the desert. "The characters are the same: The president is a Bush and the other guy is Hussein. But the technology -- the military's and the news media's -- has exploded," said MSNBC chief Erik Sorenson. He compared it to "the difference between Atari and PlayStation." TV coverage, he said, "will be a much more three-dimensional visual experience, and in some cases you may see war live. This may be one time where the sequel is more compelling than the original."
In Doha, Qatar, the Pentagon built a .5 million press center, where Brigadier General Vincent Brooks delivered briefings surrounded by soft-blue plasma screens. Networks quickly scrambled to give names to their war coverage, with corresponding graphic logos that swooshed and gleamed in 3D colors accompanied by mood-inducing soundtracks. CBS chose "America at War." CNN went with "Strike on Iraq." CNBC was "The Price of War," while NBC and MSNBC both went with "Target: Iraq"—a choice that changed quickly as MSNBC joined Fox in using the Pentagon's own code name for the war—“Operation Iraqi Freedom.” The logos featured fluttering American flags or motifs involving red, white and blue. On Fox, martial drumbeats accompanied regularly scheduled updates. Promo ads for MSNBC featured a photo montage of soldiers accompanied by a piano rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.” All of the networks peppered their broadcasts with statements such as, "CNN's live coverage of Operation Iraqi Freedom will continue, right after this short break.” Every time this phrase came out of a reporter’s mouth or appeared in the corner of the screen, the stations implicitly endorsed White House claims about the motives for war.
The networks also went to pains to identify with and praise the troops. Fox routinely referred to U.S. troops as "we" and "us" and "our folks." MSNBC featured a recurring segment called "America's Bravest," featuring photographs of soldiers in the field. Regular features on Fox included "The Ultimate Sacrifice," featuring mug shots of fallen U.S. soldiers, and "The Heart of War," offering personal profiles of military personnel.
Much of the coverage looked like a primetime patriotism extravaganza, with inspiring theme music and emotional collages of war photos used liberally at transitions between live reporting and advertising breaks. Bombing raids appeared on the screen as big red fireballs, interspersed with "gun-cam" shots, animated maps, charts and graphics showcasing military maneuvers and weapons technology. Inside the studios, networks provided large, game-board floor maps where ex-generals walked around with pointers, moving around little blue and red jet fighters and tanks.
"Have we made war glamorous?" asked MSNBC anchor Lester Holt during a March 26 exchange with former Navy Seal and professional wrestler turned politician Jesse Ventura, whom it had hired as an expert commentator.
"It reminds me a lot of the Super Bowl," Ventura replied.
Overcoming the "Vietnam Syndrome"
During World Wars I and II, government censorship of military correspondents was routine, heavy, and rarely questioned even by the journalists themselves, who engaged in self-censorship and avoided graphic depictions of the gore and emotional trauma of war. This was mostly true also of the Korean war, although censorship was less frequent and journalists began to report on negative aspects of war that previously went unmentioned, such as casualty rates for specific units and morale problems among American soldiers. Vietnam was the first "television war" and also the first war in which serious differences emerged between the military and the reporters who covered it. After the war ended, in fact, many people concluded that television coverage undermined public support for the war by bringing disturbing scenes of death and violence into American living rooms.
This belief is largely a myth, according to University of California-San Diego professor Daniel Hallin, who has extensively studied the content of Vietnam war reporting. “Blood and gore were rarely shown," he states. "The violence in news reports often involved little more than puffs of smoke in the distance, as aircraft bombed the unseen enemy. Only during the 1968 Tet and 1972 Spring offensives, when the war came into urban areas, did its suffering and destruction appear with any regularity on TV. … For the first few years of the living room war most of the coverage was upbeat. … In the early years, when morale was strong, television reflected the upbeat tone of the troops. But as withdrawals continued and morale declined, the tone of field reporting changed. This shift was paralleled by developments on the 'home front.' Here, divisions over the war received increasing air time, and the anti-war movement, which had been vilified as Communist-inspired in the early years, was more often accepted as a legitimate political movement."
Regardless of whether television coverage created anti-war sentiment or merely reflected it, as Hallin suggests, the Vietnam war marked a watershed in the relationship between the military and the media. In subsequent wars, military planners placed considerable emphasis on controlling the information that reaches the American public. Journalists were excluded from the wars in Granada and Panama until the fighting was already concluded. This in turn led to complaints from journalists, and in the 1990 war in Iraq, code-named Operation Desert Storm, the Pentagon adopted a “pool system” through which a hand-picked group of reporters were allowed to travel with soldiers under tightly controlled conditions. Between August 1990 and January 1991 only the “combat pools”—about 23 groups of reporters—were allowed access to military units in the field. The Pentagon's Joint Information Bureau, which was responsible for pool assignments, denied reporters access to some areas of the war zone on military orders. “For historic purposes, for truth-telling purposes, there were no independent eyes and ears” to document all the events of the war, recalled Frank Aukofer, former bureau chief of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. As a result, the public saw a largely sanitized version of the war, dominated by Pentagon-supplied video footage of “smart bombs” blowing up buildings and other inanimate targets with pinpoint accuracy. Journalists who refused to participate in the pool system, such as photographer Peter Turnley, captured images of “incredible carnage” but were dismayed that their coverage of the graphic side of war went largely unpublished.
By the time of the 2001 war in Afghanistan, however, reporters had come to identify with the soldiers they were covering. Fox war correspondent Geraldo Rivera went so far as to announce on air that he was carrying a gun (a violation of the rules of war for journalists under the Geneva convention) and told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he hoped to kill Osama bin Laden personally, to "kick his head in, then bring it home and bronze it." Just as reality TV crossed the boundary between journalism and entertainment, Fox and Geraldo crossed the boundary between reporters and combatants. Rather than exclude reporters from the battlefield, the Pentagon realized that it had little to lose and everything to gain by inviting them in.
Victoria (Torie) Clarke, the Pentagon's assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, is credited with developing the Pentagon's strategy of “embedding” reporters with troops. Clarke came to the military after running the Washington, DC, office of the Hill & Knowlton public relations firm, which had run the PR campaign for the government-in-exile of Kuwait during the buildup to Operatiion Desert Storm a decade earlier. In a 13-page document outlining the round rules for embedded journalists, the Pentagon stated that “media coverage of any future operation will, to a large extent, shape public perception” in the United States as well as other countries. The system of "embedding" allowed reporters to travel with military units—so long as they followed the rules. Those rules said reporters could not travel independently, interviews had to be on the record (which meant lower-level service members were less likely to speak candidly), and officers could censor and temporarily delay reports for "operational security." Along with journalists, the Pentagon embedded its own public relations officers, who helped manage the reporters, steering them toward stories, facilitating interviews and photo opportunities.
Overt censorship played a relatively minor role in shaping the content of reports from the field. Far more important was the way embedding encouraged reporters to identify with the soldiers they were covering. Part of the “point of view” to any journalistic account depends on the actual physical location from which reporters witness events. Since much of modern warfare involves the use of air power or long-range artillery, the journalists embedded with troops witnessed weapons being fired but rarely saw what happened at the receiving end. At the same time that hundreds of reporters were traveling with American and British troops, there was almost no journalistic presence in Iraqi cities. Prior to the launch of war, Defense Department officials warned reporters to clear out of Baghdad, saying the war would be far more intense than the 1991 war. "If your template is Desert Storm, you've got to imagine something much, much different," said Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Although some print journalists remained in Baghdad, almost all of the television networks took the Pentagon's advice and pulled out in the days immediately preceding the start of fighting. Of the major networks, only CNN still had correspondents in the city on the day the war began. In the absence of their own news teams, the other networks were forced to rely on feeds from CNN and Al Jazeera, the Arabic satellite network once derided by Bush administration officials as “All Osama All the Time.”
Embedding also encouraged emotional bonding between reporters and soldiers. CBS News reporter Jim Axelrod, traveling with the Third Infantry, told viewers that he had just come from a military intelligence briefing. "We've been given orders," he said before correcting himself to say, "soldiers have been given orders."
NBC News correspondent David Bloom (who died tragically during the war of a blood clot) said the soldiers "have done anything and everything that we could ask of them, and we in turn are trying to return the favor by doing anything and everything that they can ask of us."
"They're my protectors," said ABC's John Donovan.
Oliver North, the former Marine lieutenant colonel and Iran/Contra defendant turned talk show host, became an embedded reporter for Fox, further blurring the line between journalists and warfighters. "I say General Franks should be commended—that's a U.S. Marine saying that about an Army general," he said in one broadcast.
“Sheer genius,” commented U.S. public relations consultant Katie Delahaye Paine, saying that the embedded reporters “have been spectacular, bringing war into our living rooms like never before. ... The sagacity of the tactic is that it is based on the basic tenet of public relations: it’s all about relationships. The better the relationship any of us has with a journalist, the better the chance of that journalist picking up and reporting our messages. So now we have journalists making dozens—if not hundreds—of new friends among the armed forces.”
You’re on Combat Camera
In addition to embedded journalists, the Pentagon offered combatants-as-journalists, with its own film crew, called “Combat Camera.” In fact, one of the biggest media scoops of the war—the dramatic rescue of POW Jessica Lynch—was a Combat Camera exclusive. Baltimore Sun correspondent Ariel Sabar watched the Combat Camera team at work: “A dozen employees at computer stations sift through the 600 to 800 photographs and 25 to 50 video clips beamed in each day from the front lines. About 80% are made available to the news media and the public,” he reported. “The images glisten from big screens at the news briefings in the Pentagon and the U.S. Central Command in Qatar. A gallery on the Defense Department Web site gets 750,000 hits a day, triple the number before the war. And for the first time, Combat Camera is e-mailing a daily batch of photographs to major news organizations. … In the battlefield of public opinion, experts say, images are as potent as bullets. ... Photos of sleek fighter jets, rescued POWs, and smiling Iraqis cheering the arrival of U.S. troops are easy to find among Combat Camera’s public images. Photos of bombed-out Baghdad neighborhoods and so-called ‘collateral damage’ are not.”
“We’ve got a lot of good humanitarian images, showing us helping the Iraqi people and the people in Baghdad celebrating,” said Lt. Jane Laroque, the officer in charge of Combat Camera’s soldiers in Iraq. “A lot of our imagery will have a big impact on world opinion.”
Outside the United States, however, the imagery that people were seeing was quite different. Instead of heroic soldiers giving candy to Iraqi children and heartwarming rescues of injured POWs, the television networks in Europe and the Arab world showed images of war that were violent, disturbing, and unlikely to have the impact that Laroque imagined.
Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber are the editors of PR Watch, an investigative journal that exposes deceptive and manipulative public relations and propaganda campaigns. This article is excerpted from their latest book, Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq, published by Tarcher/Penguin.