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Media Coverage of Iraq Called “Shameful”

by Christopher Bollyn Friday, Apr. 09, 2004 at 4:28 PM

Media Coverage of Iraq Called “Shameful” By Peers

In the ongoing Iraq conflict, there is a growing realization among mainstream newsmen that they have failed the American public, but the U.S. military is happy with the way it controlled information through its program of embedding journalists with soldiers.

Those are just some of the outspoken assertions from a three-day Media at War conference at the University of California (Berkeley) School of Journalism. In attendance were Hans Blix, the former chief U.N. weapons inspector, Joseph Wilson, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and a host of senior journalists and editors from the U.S. and abroad.

Serious criticism of the role of the U.S. media came from two leading journalists—Robert Scheer of The Los Angeles Times, who is a visiting professor at the journalism school, and John Burns, The New York Times bureau chief in Baghdad.

Scheer pulled no punches in making the following condemnation of his own profession: “This has been the most shameful era of American media. The media has been sucker-punched completely by this administration.”

In making his contribution to the conference by phone from Baghdad, John Burns was equally forthright about where the blame should lie:

“We failed the American public by being insufficiently critical about elements of the administration’s plan to go to war.”

Maher Abdallah Ahmad of the Arab network, Al Jazeera, based in Qatar, said he felt that Americans still did not know what was happening in Iraq.

“Does anyone here know how many Iraqis were killed in the war? You make all these efforts to establish a democracy, and you don’t give a damn how many people were killed?” he added.

The U.S. correspondent for Italy’s La Republica newspaper Federico Rampini, told the conference he was amazed that American journalists have not investigated more deeply Vice President Dick Cheney’s role in the Halliburton scandal. According to Rampini, such a story would have made the front pages for months in his native Italy.

“Frankly our job is to win the war. Part of that is information warfare. So we are going to attempt to dominate the information environment. Overall we were very happy with the outcome,” Lt. Co. Richard Long told the conference. He was the former Marine Corps’s public information director. In that role, he was responsible for the media “boot camp” at Quantico, Va. where 700 journalists were coached for the embedded process.

Responding to those comments, Todd Gitlin, professor of sociology and journalism at Columbia University, pointed out that “embeddedness” has a tendency toward propaganda because a reporter is effectively part of the military team. The reporter’s life therefore depends on the soldiers with whom he is embedded, and his desire to write negative stories is “quite diminished.”

The debate about the U.S. media’s failure to confront the Bush administration’s case for going to war and the inadequacy of the overall coverage of the conflict have also found their way into ongoing exchanges in some parts of the media, including American Free Press.

In an article entitled “Now They Tell Us” in The New York Review of Books, Michael Massing vented his frustration in the following comments:

“Where were you all before the war? Why didn’t we learn more about these deceptions and concealments in the months when the administration was pressing its case for regime change; when, in short, it might have made a difference?”

Massing particularly focused on the New York Times writer, Judith Miller, who wrote several front-page articles before the war about Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD), based on faulty information provided by Iraqi defectors of dubious credibility.

Massing pointed out that in an e-mail to John Burns, the Times bureau chief, Miller wrote that Ahmed Chalabi, the indicted bank embezzler and head of the exile Iraqi National Congress, “has provided most of the front page exclusives on WMD to our paper.”

According to Massing, it was not until Sept. 29, 2003 that The New York Times got around to informing readers about the controversy over Chalabi and the defectors associated with him.

“More than 6 months into the war and with no evidence of the alleged Iraqi WMD anywhere to be found, Douglas Jehl reported that most of the information provided by Chalabi and his defectors had been judged by the Defense Intelligence Agency as being ‘of little or no value. The performance of the Times was especially deficient. Compared to other major papers, the Times placed more credence in defectors, expressed less confidence in inspectors, and paid less attention to dissenters.” complained Massing

When he personally asked Miller why she had not included more comments in her stories from experts who contested the assertions made by Iraqi defectors and the White House, she offered the following explanation:

“My job isn’t to assess the government’s information and be an independent intelligence analyst myself. My job is to tell readers of The New York Times what the government thought about Iraq’s arsenal.”

Miller’s journalistic defense did not satisfy Rich Mercier of the Free Lance Star of Fredericksburg, VA. On March 28, he wrote the following:

“But even a cub reporter should know that if the government tells her the sky is blue, it’s her job to check whether it might not be red or gray or black. And skepticism must be exercised most strongly when the matter at hand is whether the nation will go to war. By neglecting to fully employ their critical-thinking faculties, Miller and many of her colleagues in the elite print media not only failed their readers during the countdown to the Iraq invasion, they failed our democracy. And there’s no excusing that failure.”

In Massing’s view, the Times set a pro-war tone on Iraq that many other papers followed. For him, that was the “pack mentality—one of the most entrenched and disturbing features of American journalism.”

N.B. Web casts from the Berkeley conference are viewable online at the web site of Berkeley’s school of journalism.

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