The Faustian bargain hundreds of embedded journalists struck with the military involved capitulating to an elaborate set of limits and conditions. Embedded with the military turned out to be a euphemism for in bed with the military, which is how a truly shameful episode in American television journalism shaped up. For journalistic jingoism, it was hard to find a better example than the coverage of the high-tech media extravaganza known as “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” What made the supposed American champions of objectivity so much more obnoxious is that they paraded flagrant bias as gritty and honest reporting.
Embeds, for instance, were supervised by the military in the same way Saddam once assigned minders to accompany western journalists. Even so, American television networks went beyond the call of duty in giving unquestioning credence to the home team.
As farsighted as Washington has been in controlling and shaping the emerging information, not least through the embed program, the degree to which the networks transformed into shills for the administration must have exceeded its wildest expectations. (Come to think of it, the dearth of hard-edged questions from the press in general at the U.S. Central Command’s briefings would have done any dictator proud.)
The monolithic quality of the reporting/cheerleading coming from the networks was and still is proof of the slutty sell-out. Practically all network embeds focused exclusively on the pentagon’s version of who did what, when, and how. Logistics usurped real issues; spectacle replaced substance, as the viewer was subjected to a perspective as monochromatic as the green of the night vision optics.
In their coverage, the networks also evinced a thorough assimilation of the Pentagon’s power words. With the deployment of bluster like, “Breaking Baghdad,” “Decapitation,” and “Shock and Awe,” a morally repugnant zeal was the order of the day.
Journalistically, the word “embedded” has bad connotations. Still, reporters who slept with their sources were treated as paragons of truth, while those who refused such cohabitation, and didn’t join the embed program were labeled “unilaterals.” The more independent perspective was thus tagged as one-sided. The networks were complicit in this linguistic co-optation.
Some of the issues that ought to have been highlighted and weren’t:
There was a compelling tale in the obscene power discrepancy between the dilapidated Iraqi military and the American military might. Instead, when network reporters obliged viewers with proof of “huge caches of Iraqi weapons,” their cameras would invariably zero in on ancient AK47s and rusty tubs of bullets. Jarring disagreement between verbal description and image was par for the course in the coverage.
Surely the peculiar specter of the “coalition forces” feigning shock and indignation at Iraq’s lack of commitment to the Geneva Convention was worthy of media commentary? Isn’t the nation that has been aggressed against justified in deploying all methods to repel the invader? Would anyone, including our truth-seeking reporters, have flinched if, in 1990, Kuwaitis had gone all out against the invading Iraqis? If my home were broken into, and if I ruthlessly eliminated the burglar, even when he assured me he was there to ultimately improve my lot, would I be without logical warrant? Or as a 33-year-old Iraqi Shiite told the Los Angeles Times: “Do you allow someone to enter your home and force you out of it?” Iraq had been invaded, yet the Pocahontas Partners were complaining bitterly about the Iraqis’ disrespected for the Convention.
I’m still waiting to hear why it is that the U.S. decides which nations are sovereign and hence immune from invasion, and which are not and can be invaded, their leaders hunted down and killed. Incapable of posing the kind of questions that come with elemental intellectual curiosity, journalists thus remained poker-faced when Central Command issued a corny list of the most-wanted figures in Iraq in the form of a set of playing cards.
The stories that should have been told and weren’t?
I learned about 12-year-old Ali Ismail Abbas from the Canadian Broadcaster (CBC). Most of my information about Iraqi civilian casualties has come from the CBC. Abbas lost both his arms when an American missile smashed into his home, killing both his parents. Sixty percent of his body was covered with burns that turned septic. The hospital director at the Saddam General said there were hundreds like Ali, killed, orphaned or maimed. Their faces are not seen on American networks.
Reporting hearsay as truth and failing to verify stories has also been part of the networks’ war effort. A Geiger counter that went off in the inexpert hands of a marine was broadcast as possible evidence of weapons-grade plutonium. Every bottle of Cipro tablets became a likely precursor to an anthrax factory. Anchormen and women somberly seconded these “finds,” seldom bothering to issue retractions for misinforming the viewing public.
Periodic reality checks came from the CBC: “So far, soldiers have found gas masks, chemical suits and some white powder. None of it has turned out to be the biological or chemical weapons they are looking for.”
Knowing what we know about Saddam Hussein, it’s probably safe to say that if he had an arsenal, he would have used it. Since he didn’t use his lethal stash in the face of “decapitation,” it’s reasonable to conclude that, either he didn’t have weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or, if he had them, he was an extremely responsible tyrant. Both conclusions incriminate Bush.
In the unlikely event that it will fail to convincingly coordinate the planting of evidence of WMD in Iraq, the Pentagon, aided by the “parrot press,” has begun to prime the American audiences (no other population would swallow the bait) with a new twist. The Associated Press recently reported that, according to the Pentagon, the looters may have removed the evidence. Even better: The Syrians spirited the weapons away. Better still: Onward to Syria!
©By ILANA MERCER
April 16, 2003