Major media do not want you to see this film!
`WMD weapons of mass deception` poster.
Danny Schechter takes his position in the new Bush administration!
From the 1980's, Danny Schechter with Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda.
Danny with Paul at Globalvision's old Broadway office in 2002.
Danny being interviewed at Fox news - don't worry, he wouldn't work there!
Dr Kissinger orders his copy of WMD!
2004 was a year many would like to forget with the horrors of Abu Graib, Fallujah (twice), Najaf, Samarra, Mosul and of course the awful loss of life in the tsunami in December. Along with George W. Bush, Tony Blair was nominated for the Nobel peace prize in 2004. This along with the naming of Bush as `Person of the year` by Time magazine lends weight to that old aphorism `satire is now obsolete`. Who said that? It sounds like something Danny Schechter could have quipped after his old sparring partner Henry Kissinger got the Nobel peace prize in 1973 though I believe the wit in question was Tom Lehrer.
The abysmal failure of the American media over Iraq for which they belatedly apologised is really little better than the performance of the supposedly superior British version. Journalistic assassin Trevor Kavanagh of the Sun (nicknamed the` Scum` by its many detractors) received an award at the `What the papers say` awards ceremony in London just before Christmas. The man who was largely or partly responsible for stories behind headlines like `He’s got ‘em, now let’s get him`, `Traitor` (referring to Labour MP George Galloway) and `Blair Force One` was given the award of scoop of the year for his leaking of the Hutton report which so whitewashed Blair and co back in January. Dyed in the wool Tory Ann Leslie of the asylum seeker bashing Daily Mail was named foreign correspondent of the year. While it’s easy to belittle these two papers as comics remember they rank number 1 and 2 in circulation in Britain.
Owner of the British `Sun` and New York Daily Post, Rupert Murdoch purchased a penthouse apartment in New York for $44 million in December 2004, the highest price ever paid for a residence in New York. The cash purchase should not be a problem for Mr Murdoch, 73, who is ranked 27th on Forbes magazine's rich list with a fortune estimated at $6.9bn. His close friend Tony Blair has also moved into the property market with a luxurious house in London’s Connaught Square in Mayfair, the most expensive slot on the Monopoly board. It is one of London’s top addresses, and with an estimated £3.5 million price tag, it is the kind of location which certainly befits a world leader married to a top lawyer. Contrast that with the state of the hundreds of thousand of refugees from Fallujah who now sleep under plastic sheets in freezing temperatures, conditions unlikely to be experienced by the Murdoch’s or Blairs of this world.
Bush’s election win was followed by the confirmation of Alberto Gonzales to the office of Attorney General. Mr. Gonzales is the author of the infamous "torture memo" that called the Geneva Conventions "obsolete" and "quaint," and has argued for virtually limitless presidential power to evade or circumvent laws and treaties.
Several anti-war pressure groups want to try Blair for war crimes in Iraq at the International Criminal Court (Bush could not be tried because the USA is not a signatory to the treaty). Far from being prosecuted Bush won the November election, this time without the help of US Supreme Court and Blair is predicted to win this year’s British general election by a landslide.
Is satire obsolete? Or is the peace movement obsolescent? The failure of the worldwide peace movement to stop the attack on Iraq and end the occupation has left many down and disillusioned including myself. I look for inspiration from somewhere, and one bright spot on a gloomy horizon is the tireless Danny Schechter who has recently released his latest film `WMD –weapons of mass deception`. I have corresponded with Danny for several years after reading his excellent `The more you watch the less you know` a really incisive analysis of the American mass media. I was able to get a copy of `WMD` before its general release on DVD. Watching it over Christmas was a pleasure after the pathetic performance of the mass media on both sides of the pond. The BBC1 evening news of December 23rd featured a PR piece masquerading as a news item when the usually excellent John Simpson showed us the difficulties of life for the 1,800 Britons inside the Green Zone in Baghdad. Watching them tucking into turkey in (relative) comfort and security is surely in stark contrast to the awful conditions faced by ordinary Iraqis with intermittent electricity, queues for gasoline, polluted water and of course in the case of hundreds of thousand of refugees the lack of all but basic shelter.
I read on the Net that Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) were halfway toward their goal of raising $25,000 by the end of 2004. What is the budget of the likes of Fox, NBC, CNN, CBS, and ABC etc? Probably ten thousand times that - is this FAIR? Depressing I thought; it reminded me of one of Danny’s blogs from the Republican Convention in New York in August last when the corporate press numbered 15,000 to just 15 bloggers – a disadvantage of 1,000 to one. There’s no way the alternative media can ever compete with the mainstream, I thought. Time to watch some television.
Being a fan of 60’s star and activist Jean Seberg I watched a movie called `Cat and Mouse` which wasn’t one of her best. I then tried one of her early films called `Bonjour Tristesse` which contains a drop dead funny theme song and has Jean saying at one point “What a waste of time Dear Jacques, what a hopeless waste of time.” I thought it sounded like what Tony Blair might have said to Chirac in the French President’s attempts to stop the attack on Iraq. Jean’s career was destroyed by COINTELPRO of which more later. After the `What the papers say` awards and the annual Queen’s message I settled down to watch Danny’s film.
The film starts at a checkpoint in Iraq with a CBS camera crew being politely waved through with a “Y’all keep going now. Where y’all from?” The answer of “CBS news.” was like a password to proceed. Nice respectable mainstream corporate media. What response would the answer of `Al Jazeera` have elicited? A bullet in the back? Maybe not that but certainly a lot of questions and a long delay. Then there is a cut to the king of the `shock jocks` Bill O’Reilly who opines: “There is a school of thought which says we should have given the citizens of Baghdad 48 hours to get out of Dodge and flatten the place, then the war would be already over - we could have done that in two days.”
Other snatches to be heard in the cacophony of sound bites include “In a few days we’re gonna own that country” “Media war, it’s time to get sore” “Time for a shock, are you bored, it’s time to get awed!” Captions shown repetitively included `Weapons of Mass Destruction` `Showdown with Saddam` and `Target Iraq`. We then see Danny at home tossing and turning in his sleep. He protests: “The Pentagon has invaded my living room” as he goes through the tortures of having to watch what he knows is not objective reporting but subjective propaganda. He accuses news outlets of creating a "pro-war narrative driven by jingoism, not journalism."
"There's been a lot of talk about policy failures, there has been a lot of talk about intelligence failures, but there hasn't been a lot of talk about media failures," he says.
The media have merged with the military and speak with one voice. Danny was `self-imbedded` at his computer watching hundreds of hours of footage of the war and writing thousands of words daily for Mediachannel.org of which he is Vice President and Executive Producer. Watching the television coverage regularly amounted to little more than brainwashing with hardly any alternative view put forward and with most news channels displaying a prominent American flag on the screen. CNN didn’t have a flag in the corner like FOX or NBC but had a horizontal bar two thirds way down the screen with one or two stripes and several stars flickering subliminally. (I saw this myself in 2002 a whole year before the war started when I was in the USA for a peace rally.) Danny then briefly recaps his long media career where he has reported from many countries including South Africa, Iraq and Bosnia.
ABC’s John Donvan explains that in his whole career the media has never actually shown the viewer what war is really like. Gory scenes like those of dead children are not publicised.
Then there is a cutback to Vietnam where it is often claimed the media `cost us the war`. Veteran reporter Peter Arnett was interviewed saying, “In Vietnam reporters did not get on the team. We challenged generals and governments.” Seymour Hersh who broke the Abu Ghraib scandal was shown saying “Generally, it’s my belief that Richard Nixon was much more of a national security threat to the United States than any reporter I know.” The media were then undoubtedly less controlled by the military than they are now but it’s worth noting that Hersh who also broke the My Lai massacre had that story turned down by over forty newspapers and magazines until a whole year after it happened it was published in Newsweek in 1969 under the banner headline `An American Tragedy`.
“Wars may destroy people and property but they can be profitable to cover,” declares Danny, explaining the commercial aspects of the fighting. CNN was known as the Chicken Noodle Network until it made its name in the first gulf war. Later on the ownership of NBC by Pentagon contractor General Electric is dealt with.
The myth of the smart bomb so propagated by the media in the first gulf war was shown to be the falsehood that it is with Danny explaining that only one in five bombs actually hit their targets.
The imposition of the devastating sanctions after the first Gulf war was referred to but too briefly I feel. The million or so deaths that the blockade caused was likened to a medieval siege and caused the resignation of UN food coordinators Dennis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck. This along with the issue of DU was virtually absent from the mainstream media reporting and according to FAIR the two words `depleted uranium` were never used on three of the big networks; ABC, CBS and NBC, in the run-up to war.
We then see the images of the twin towers falling on 9/11, which were used to justify the attack on Iraq that had been planned long before Dark Tuesday. Peter Arnett pointed out that virtually the whole of the American media is based in New York City and they took the assault personally. There is a scene of a heated debate at ground zero between peace activists and those who looked for revenge. Nationally the pro-war lobby carried the day with around two thirds of Americans believing Saddam was responsible for 9/11 despite no proof of this. The media was well and truly onside with prominent anchors like Dan Rather of CBS happy to give President Bush the `benefit of any doubt`.
Danny observes, “Without their cheerleading there could have been no consensus for war.” In May 2004, a year after the attack on Iraq, the New York Times did acknowledge its shortcomings but the apology was a little late.
Trouble is, once you have put an idea into people’s minds it tends to stay there. According to a poll of mid-October 2004 (quoted in the film) just before the election 42% of Americans still thought Iraq was behind 9/11. If 42% of the people entitled to vote were to put their cross on the ballot paper for you then you would win every state. In November’s election Bush got 27.8% of the total electorate equivalent to about 51% of the popular vote. 42% of the electorate would translate as 77% of the popular vote based on the 2004 turnout of around 55%. When Richard Nixon virtually swept the board in 1972 wining all but one state he did it with about 60% of the vote. As Danny would say you can fool enough of the people enough of the time or sometimes it would seem too many of the people too much of the time.
The underreporting of the anti-war movement was a feature of media coverage of the war on both sides of the pond. As the film illustrates the peace movement was seen but not heard, there was no analysis. It was casually noted by ABC’s `Eyewitness News` that the million plus demonstration in London on February 15th 2003 was the biggest ever in Britain but there was no follow up examination of what it was all about. Why were these people demonstrating? What were their views and why did they hold them so strongly? They were often portrayed as simply people who were bored.
Many activists and celebrities tried to buy airtime for their anti-war views but the big networks often wouldn’t run them even for the money. They were presumably thinking of the fat government contracts they could look forward to after the war. We saw Tyne Daly, Susan Sarandon and Bishop Melvin Talbert all plead the case for peace, sadly to no avail.
Here the point is made that many young people abandoned the mainstream media for satirical websites like the `Onion` and overseas networks like the BBC and Al Jazeera. Nevertheless some 80% of Americans still rely on homegrown television for their information on the outside world. When I was in Iraq on a sanction busting mission in 2001 I heard a local man ask one of our delegation (an American) “Who owns the media in your country?” to which the reply came “Oh, the military industrial complex.” While this may be an oversimplification there is no doubt of the strong links between the military and the media.
We got a glimpse of Iraqi information minister Mohammed Al Sahaf (`Comical Ali`) while in Britain we had our own comical Ali – Tony Blair’s former spin doctor Alastair Campbell who promoted the infamous 45 minute warning.
Rupert Murdoch whose papers vociferously supported the war was paying Saddam Hussein’s government $500,000 a week for permission for his news outlets to operate there. The joke was that Murdoch was Saddam’s second largest source of revenue after oil smuggling. Journalists were paying up to $5,000 for visas to get into Iraq. The 4,000 journalists who were in the region prior to the war were largely located in nice hotels, were on expense accounts and met in the bar every night for happy hour. Despite all the media presence there was no reporting on human rights abuses or about the effects of sanctions or DU. The whole war was presented as a kind of football game. The awesome weapons used in the `shock and awe` bombing of Baghdad were presented as boys toys. There was a clip of Fox news with the stars and stripes flickering in the top left hand corner of the screen: “Should they use, you know the MOAB – the mother of all bombs? Let’s not just stop at a couple of cruise missiles.” Sadly, many Americans seemed to buy it. It wasn’t a game - remember real people were under those bombs.
For a little comic relief we see Donald Rumsfeld explaining: “There are also unknown unknowns; there are things we do not know we don’t know.” Then General Tommy Franks asserts, “This is not a platform for propaganda, this is a platform for truth.” I had to laugh at this point, though I don’t think either speaker intended satire.
The close relationship between corporate PR and the media was emphasised with the appearance of Victoria Clarke, a former public relations guru. She oversaw the embedded reporter policy, which saw the media effectively brought under the same discipline as the military. At this point I was reminded of the piece Danny wrote in `Wars, Lies and Videotape` when he is flying to a conference in Greece. He was seated next to a young woman who worked for a well-known PR company in Washington. He tells her of his book `The more you watch, the less you know` about the dumbing down of the media. She just laughs and says, “My job is to keep it that way.” He doubted if his flight mate knew that PR flacks in the USA now outnumber journalists by two to one.
Embeds lived, ate and slept alongside the military and consequently a bond was established. As embed Gwendolen Cates of `People` magazine explained “I did place their safety above any sort of journalistic responsibility I had.”
Noam Chomsky has said that calling yourself an embedded reporter is like saying “I am a government propagandist.”
The parts of the US military machine which did the most damage were covered the least for example the covert operations and the aerial bombardment.
Amazingly, after all the farcical nonsense which was served up as balanced reporting, Victoria Clark was seen saying that in 5, 10 or 15 years time people would look back and say how real and how accurate the media coverage was. Could she be proved right? How did they get away with telling such breathtaking, bald-faced lies? I am reminded of the words of 19th century American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson who said: “Public opinion, I am sorry to say, will bear a great deal of nonsense. There is scarcely any absurdity so gross, whether in religion, politics, science or manners, which it will not bear.” How little has changed since then! The nonsense with which the American public was bombarded was really grossly absurd. Using fear like the anthrax scare and constantly changing the colour coded warning levels of a possible terrorist attack, the war was sold to the majority in a way, which no other government could have. The Bush Administration and a compliant media took advantage of ordinary American’s lack of geographical and historical perspectives to market the attack on Iraq.
They don’t seem to teach geography in American schools and in a survey quoted in the British Daily Mirror in November 2002, 80% of Americans could not find Iraq on a map and ended up pointing to South Africa, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Mongolia, the Caspian Sea and perhaps most ridiculously of all Switzerland. Danny has pointed out that many Americans cannot even find their own country on a map of the world. The idea that some, most or even all of the September 11th hijackers were Iraqis was held by a majority of Americans before the war as was the belief that Saddam and Osama bin Laden were somehow collaborators when in fact they were mutual enemies. The State Department successfully played down the significance of oil to such an extent that the preposterous assertion that the war was “Nothing to do with oil.” was believed according to one survey by 85% of the American public.
Danny takes us to his old employer ABC, sometimes unkindly referred to as `the Asylum` and `Always Be Conservative`. He deplores the closing down of foreign bureaus and the general dumbing down of the news.
We then see the front page of cold war warrior `Time` magazine with a sinister portrait of Saddam based on Adolf Hitler.
The guidelines for reporting seemed almost outrageous with the encouragement for the “use of lipstick and helmet mounted cameras on combat sorties is approved and encouraged to the greatest possible extent.” The horrific damage the bombs and missiles must have caused was hidden behind graphics, promos and special music. Like the first gulf war the gruesome details were carefully edited out. A CNN graphics designer based in Atlanta confided to a friend that he was told to `sex it up`. The war as Danny’s voiceover tells us was “for ratings and revenue.” It was also a chance for journalists to make their names – as `Scud Studs` like the BBC’s Rageh Omar or ITN’s Bill Neely.
The attack on Iraq was originally called Operation Iraqi Liberation until just in time someone realised it spelt O-I-L - something of course the war was not about. The acronym was abandoned in favour of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Retired air force colonel Sam Gardiner explained how the media message was coordinated between the State Department, the Pentagon, the Doha press office as well as the British Government in London so that everyone got the same message. The White House actually controlled the giant media centre in Doha, Qatar, which was built by a Hollywood set designer. We see General Vincent Brooks make the bizarre claim that a missile, which killed 14 people in a Baghdad market, was an Iraqi one, which had `went up and came down`. After Michael Wolff of Vanity Fair questioned the value of the military briefings he was told as Danny puts it to “Shut the Fuck up.” (Fox TV attacked him for lack of patriotism, and right-wing commentator Rush Limbaugh gave out Wolff's e-mail address - in one day he received 3,000 hate e-mails. Finally, a mysterious civilian in army uniform took him aside and told him: “This is a fucking war, asshole. No more questions for you.” Wolff realised that the press conferences were not for the benefit of correspondents.)
While viewers attention was constantly focussed on Iraq’s (non-existent) WMD the effects of the horrific weapons the coalition used were almost totally suppressed by US networks. The South African network SABC explained how cluster bombs worked while the German ARD TV had an Emmy winning report about Depleted Uranium, not shown as far as I know on British or American television. Half of Iraq’s population is under 15 and floor after floor of the paediatric departments of Baghdad’s Hospitals had horrific scenes of child victims of cluster bomb attacks. The general public who were instead blitzed with bogus stories about Jessica Lynch saw none of this. We had a glimpse inside a military briefing room where there was a clearly visible list on the wall of subjects to be avoided including DU and bombing accuracy.
“What is the problem here, Danny?” asks Bill O’Reilly as Danny visits the Fox studios, implying that the media coverage has been beyond reproach. Perhaps he should watch the film!
“Full, fair and balanced coverage,” booms the voice over the opening titles of the Fox news channel with its faintly ludicrous programme logo `We report, you decide`.
While like its cousin the Murdoch owned British `Sun` newspaper Fox is easily dismissed as a comic or a cartoon, it is in fact intensely ideological. The guidelines come from the top in the form of a daily memo according to a former producer Charlie Reina “The roots of Fox news day-to-day on air bias are actual and direct, they come in the form of an executive memo distributed electronically each morning, addressing what stories will be covered and often, suggesting how they should be covered.” Fox coverage included reports by Oliver North of Iran Contra fame who while a super patriot is not usually known for his veracity. What was called `the Fox effect` efficiently forced the other networks to ape them as no-one wanted to be seen as disloyal to the cause.
NBC’s Peter Arnett was the target of hysterical abuse after he said on Iraqi TV that the Pentagon planners had underestimated the degree of Iraqi resistance. Seeming to give succour to the anti-war movement 157 cartoons of Arnett appeared, most of them showing him in bed with Saddam Hussein. The tens of thousands of e-mails calling Arnett a traitor that forced NBC to dismiss him did not come from the public but largely from a right wing online network called `Free Republic`. NBC also fired anti-war talk show host Phil Donahue. (His show was so popular that it became NBC's top-rated show. However, Donahue's producers say that they were continually pressured to "balance" anti-war voices with an equal number of pro-war voices, and then provide a greater number of pro-war voices. It worried that the show would be "a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity." Leaked internal memos provided an alternative explanation for the cancellation. One noted that Donahue presented a "difficult public face for NBC in a time of war......He seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti George W Bush and sceptical of the administration's motives." Donahue remarked about his NBC show's cancellation: "Well, we were the only antiwar voice that had a show, and that, I think, made them very nervous. I mean, from the top down, they were just terrified. We had to have two conservatives on for every liberal. I was counted as two liberals." Asked if he felt mistreated, he responded: "I was isolated, and we were very alone at the end. And then we had nobody supporting us, and our numbers were very decent." )
For its role in pushing the rest of the media to the right Fox became known as the `patriotism police`.
Michael Moore once said that the American people don’t like being lied to but did they know, do they know? Most Americans seem to think the media coverage was free and fair. Many people, both in the US and UK, think the non-existent WMD were actually found (as my next door neighbour here in Edinburgh does) or even used. The lie about the firing of the Iraqi scuds was repeated 27 times on British television. The sensational `finds` of WMD that later turned out to be drums of pesticide were emblazoned across front pages everywhere and later retractions were hidden on inside pages. The Fox website had the bogus story on its website for months.
One of the defining images of the war was the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein but this image was not quite what it seemed. (The statue was pulled down by American troops using American equipment - the Iraqis on their own would not have been able to do it. Although there were lots of other statues, the toppling of this one took place opposite the Palestine Hotel, where most members of the international media were still staying. Without the media, the event would have meant nothing. Long-distance shots show that the Iraqis who helped topple the statue and later celebrated its fall numbered no more than 100.) The film reveals that the operation was part of a Psychological Operations unit.
Like a scene out of `top gun` Bush is seen in his jump suit on a US aircraft carrier proclaiming `Mission Accomplished. `
The search for WMD got nowhere fast and when none were found the networks sought to change the subject while in Britain people were informed by the Murdoch press that they were sick of hearing about the subject they had been bombarded with only months earlier. Anyone asking about what had been the whole rationale for the war was dismissed as a `weapons whinger`. What did it matter now that Iraq was currently `sovereign and free`?
The awful images from Abu Ghraib appeared courtesy of Seymour Hersh on CBS in late April 2004. Amnesty International had in fact known about the story since July 2003. When CBS wanted to run it, it was held up on request from the Pentagon. Shock Jock Rush Limbaugh is heard on his radio show laughingly dismissing the whole affair as a `college fraternity prank. `
We then see the contrast between the US coverage with that of Arab networks like Al Jazeera. In the USA and Britain Al Jazeera was denounced as a one-sided propaganda organ, presumably with no irony intended. While it is a commercial media outlet based in a country (Qatar) that is not exactly a paragon of human rights Al Jazeera did nonetheless offer a refreshing and necessary alternative to the comic book coverage of the Western networks. We see Danny travel to Dubai for a media conference where Nima Abu Warden of Dubai television challenges CNN correspondent Nic Robertson of CNN as to comments made by Christiane Amanpour that there was gagging and a climate of fear at CNN during the war. Robertson refused to answer her question saying the comments were `off the record` when they had in fact been made on TV. Nima told of the contrast when she flicked from Western stations to Arab ones. US networks like CNN were full of strategic stuff often in the form of graphics while the Arab networks would show the awful realities of the war like the plight of the thousands of refugees fleeing the conflict. Nima then spoke of what she called the moral responsibility of journalists to speak the truth.
In our free world with its democratic and unfettered media journalists should have nothing to fear, should they? So how could western reporters have been so muzzled that they told us so little about civilian casualties, refugees, depleted uranium the effect of the sanctions on Iraq etc.? Part of the answer comes in the next chapter of the film when the BBC’s Kate Adie said the Pentagon told her that independent journalists could be targeted. Abu Dhabi TV ran a story about how the Palestine hotel in downtown Baghdad, crowded with journalists, was shelled by a US tank killing two cameramen. (When the news of the Palestine Hotel attack first came, the American command said nothing until it emerged that the French TV channel, France 3, had filmed the tank aiming and firing. Then the coalition put out a series of contradictory accounts. Colonel David Perkins, commander of the Third Infantry Division's Second Brigade, said Iraqis in front of the hotel were firing rocket-propelled grenades at the tank. The division's commander, General Bouford Blount, issued a statement saying the tank had come under sniper fire from the hotel roof and had fired at the source of the shooting, which had then stopped. More puzzling was an official Spanish government statement that the coalition had actually declared the Palestine Hotel a military objective 48 hours before it was attacked and that the correspondents should have left. This was news to the correspondents, all of whom denied knowledge of any warning. Correspondents in the Palestine Hotel insisted there had been no grenades and no sniper fire. But the most telling evidence is that France 3's cameraman had started filming some minutes before the tank opened fire, and his camera's sound track records no shots whatsoever.)
Then there is a compelling and visually stunning scene of the attack on the hotel. We see an American tank on the bridge across the river from the Palestine hotel firing unprovoked at the building killing one reporter and seriously injuring another – Reuters’s Samia Nakhoul. Reuters demanded an investigation but the whole incident was passed off as an accident, the `fog of war`. Philip Knightley, author of `Truth, the first casualty `, was quoted saying he believed the military was deliberately targeting journalists.
The final part of the film shows Danny standing in Times Square surrounded by a galaxy of neon signs. He explains the dominance of the US media by a handful of companies whose offices are all around him – MTV, ABC, NBC, CBS, Reuters, Fox and VIACOM etc who represent the power of media power to promote economic and political agendas. They represent a consumer culture, to them the war is a product – they sell it and we buy it. NBC `won` the media war by having the biggest audience share in the conflict. Their parent company is General Electric, which won $600 million in Iraq reconstruction contracts. Danny asks some well-known media figures like Tom Brokaw of NBC if the war coverage could have been more sceptical and critical and suggests to ABC vice-president Jeff Schneider that there was an identification of the media with the military. He was fobbed off with comments like, “I think that we told it straight ahead.” Mike Wolff of Vanity Fair was cited saying there was great pressure on media companies not to rock the boat and Sheldon Rampton, co-author with John Stauber of "Weapons Of Mass Deception: The Uses Of Propaganda In Bush’s War On Iraq” stated that the American media was designed to sell things and was a propaganda system and everyone knew this. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates the US media in the `public interest` favours deregulation meaning more power to media moguls. They argue that only big companies can cover a war like the war in Iraq. “Did the FCC agree to waive the rules if the media companies agreed top wave the flag?” The answer was provided by Jeff Chester, director of the centre for digital democracy who averred: “You don’t go in and report critically on an administration that you hope will give you billions and billions of dollars in new policies.” He went on to say the reason the coverage of the war was so tepid, was so timid, was because these same media companies, like Fox, VIACOM, CBS, NBC etc were trying to curry favour with the Bush administration with its huge giveaway on media ownership.
What is to be done? FCC commissioner Jonathan S Adelstein said that people need to take back the airwaves; they need to try and restore democracy to the airwaves. Yes, but how Jonathan? Danny echoes the question asking, “How do we fight back?” Yes, good question, what can be done?
Retired air force colonel Sam Gardiner warns that if people don’t like the coverage of this war then they won’t like coverage of future wars implying it can only get worse. Danny argues that freedom of the press should not just be for those who own the press. What can we do to hold the media more accountable? He finishes by saying, “Think about it. Now I’ve had my say, it’s your turn.”
The 98-minute film is very watchable and does analyse well the shortcomings of the media coverage of the war. We do see inside the system through the eyes of someone who has been an insider having worked most of his life in the mainstream. The film does use a myriad of sources featuring characters as diverse as Rush Limbaugh and Mike Wolff. There is a very good examination of how the embedded system worked and a comparison of the US coverage with that of the Arab networks. We are shown how the power of the US media is awesome – look what they were able to do. They were able to convince most of their viewers that Iraq, a country with no navy, no air force, a country that was in fact devastated by war and sanctions was likely to attack them and within 45 minutes. Iraq’s best missiles, the Al Samoud 2, only had a range of about 100 miles but apprehensive Americans at a distance of 6,000 miles stocked up on food and water and taped up the insides of their windows with duct tape.
However I do feel that while the issues of the 12-year sanctions regime on Iraq and the issue of Depleted Uranium were at least mentioned these subjects could have been given more prominence and examined in greater depth. I remember asking reporter Julian Rush of Britain’s Channel Four news what he thought British people ever knew about the sanctions. He sighed and said sympathetically, “Sadly, not very much I’m afraid.” The American people, it is likely, knew even less.
The film does reveal that the pulling down of the Saddam statue was a psy ops operation but there could perhaps have been a clip of the long-range shot, which showed how the huge crowds supposedly pulling down the statue were just a hundred or so supporters of (ex) Pentagon favourite and convicted fraudster Ahmed Chalabi.
A comparison with Fahrenheit 9/11 is probably a little unfair as it is not comparing like with like. Michael Moore's film dealt with the Bush administration’s deceptions, its connections with the Saudis, its incompetence in preventing 9/11 and in failing to capture Bin Laden. Moore acerbically comments in his film, “We have an independent media.” This is the cue for Danny to show us within his film, in his own inimitable way, just how free and independent the US media really is. I don’t see any kind of rivalry or incompatibility between the two films, both of which I enjoyed.
Were the correspondents merely extras in a piece of theatre, just pawns in a game, perhaps unaware of their own malleability? Wouldn’t most of us with mortgages and families to support have done much as they did?
Informed people may see the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh as a joke but in 2004 Limbaugh was the most listened to radio talk-show host in the United States, and had an audience exceeding 20 million listeners weekly. In 2001, The O'Reilly Factor passed Larry King live to become the most watched cable news program in the United States and he was named the third most popular U.S. television personality of 2003 in a Harris Poll, behind Oprah Winfrey and David Letterman. The likes of Globalvision, I’m sure, would be very happy to have that kind of an audience.
It is surely obvious that a broadcast system that is so tied in with the military can hardly be objective. In times of war of course the media and the government tend to speak with one voice but this is perhaps particularly so in the case of the US. Journalists "are finding they goofed in much the same way that everybody else did, carrying the administration's water, not wittingly, but carrying it nonetheless,” ponders Marvin Kalb, the former network newsman and a co-editor of the book "The Media and the War on Terrorism." I disagree, as I don’t think anyone got anything wrong, it was surely obvious to anyone with half a brain that Iraq was essentially defenceless. It had no navy or army or air force to speak of and most of its weapons had been destroyed by UNSCOM in the 1990’s. The US and British governments lied and lied and LIED. The media knowingly relayed these falsehoods. In fact the whoppers told were not just lies but absurdities. The very idea that you would attack a country with WMD is ludicrous – you would be deterred by such a proposition. None of the 19 September 11th hijackers were Iraqis, as a quick web search would have shown. Bin Laden is Saudi not Iraqi. Saddam and Osama were opposites who hated each other. Iraq’s secular regime was the antithesis of Al Qaeda and fundamentalism. I believe the great searchers after truth who enjoy such a high social status were knowingly passing on colossal fibs, as they wanted to hold on to their sinecures.
Danny asks what is to be done and an FCC commissioner says people must take back the airwaves without any suggestion as to how. So, what is to be done? I certainly know what the easy options are. It is easy to be pessimistic or even defeatist and say something like “There is no profit in peace.” It is easy to dismiss the embeds as mouthpieces for the military, more concerned with their well paid jobs and celebrity status as `scud studs` than in being objective and fearless seekers after truth. It is easy to compare the incomes of FAIR who had to pass the hat around to get less than $25,000 while NBC’s owners GE got $600 million for just one contract – that’s a ratio of something like 24,000 to one in favour of the mainstream. It is easy to remember the words of Dr Kissinger who when asked by Danny how he could justify himself to his children after his policies led to millions of deaths in South East Asia answered furiously “It is easy to challenge people who must make tough decisions. I vill not stand here and be lectured by you or any-vun. I have no apologies to make.”
So what is the answer? Is the solution something like Indymedia with it’s uncensored, available to all approach? There are many alternative websites like the Onion, liberalslant.com, common dreams, anti-war.com, mediachannel.org, Iraq occupation focus, International Action Center, medialens.org, A.N.S.W.E.R., etc. Maybe, but how many people use them or even know about them? Could they ever have the reach of the corporate media? Could anyone?
In his 2001 book `News Dissector; passions, pieces and polemics ` Danny devotes the final chapter on how to change the media. He suggests more monitoring of the media, tougher anti-monopoly laws and enhanced regulation in the public interest by a revamped FCC and for citizen groups to demand media accountability. For all this to happen people have to be aware, for democracy to thrive the electorate has to be informed. Trouble is, who is going to inform them? Not the mainstream as it isn’t in their interests, so the burden will have to be borne by the alternative media. Can it ever be built up or will people like Danny Schechter, Mike Wolff, Ramsey Clark, Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky etc always just be `voices in the wilderness` or as John Pilger puts it `distant voices. `
I attended a teach-in on Iraq in London last December and one of the workshops was on direct action. Direct action, it was argued, is necessary as it is unrealistic to expect those in power to change things so as to be detrimental to their interests. Someone from the floor mentioned Media Lens, which is a website that analyses and corrects the distortion of the corporate media: www.medialens.org - they do regular `media alerts` and give out the e-mail addresses of many journalists and editors and politicians. The following ideas came up:
Three main ideas for action on the media:
1) Blitz journalists with e-mails.
2) Direct action - big publicity stunts like `Fathers for justice`.
3) Develop alternative media sources like Indymedia.
Is there a danger on speaking out or is there peril in becoming an activist? That brings me back to the case of 60’s actress Jean Seberg who was effectively hounded to death by the FBI’s COINTELPRO campaign after her support for the Black Panthers and opposition to the Vietnam War. The Patriot Act and recent FBI surveillance on the anti-war movement in the United States are warnings that the ghost of COINTELPRO may still linger on. However George Clooney, Susan Sarandon, Mike Farrell, Dustin Hoffman, Michael Moore, Tyne Daly, Sean Penn and Martin Sheen were among many celebrities who spoke out against the attack on Iraq and to date none have suffered seriously for it. I wonder what would Jean have made of it?
It’s a bit fatuous to ask why the mainstream media don’t oppose wars, which are their lifeblood. It’s like trying to get an intelligent response from the President when he holds one of his all too infrequent press conferences. So can I leave the last word to that political genius George Bush who was asked why the administration has so far been unsuccessful in its attempt to locate the mastermind of the Sept. 11th attacks, Osama bin Laden. Asked why, Bush said, "Because he's hiding."
(For more information about the film please visit the website: www.wmdthefilm.com)