When the media fails
The U.S. media's mishandling of the Iraq war--including the build-up and aftermath--has brought an unusually wide range of criticism and condemnation. Greg Dyke, General Director of the BBC, said he was "shocked while in the United States by how unquestioning the broadcast news media was during this war."
But even within the United States, such sentiments have spilled well beyond the usual circles of right- and left-wing media critics. I recently participated in a panel discussion at the National Press Club here on the media in Venezuela. In that country the private media has openly and consciously sided with the political opposition, and in the process disgraced itself in the eyes of journalists worldwide. The comparison with American reporting on the war repeatedly came up. It was striking to see such broad agreement--among people of very divergent views and politics--that our media had indeed failed miserably to fulfill its basic duty to inform the public.
The most obvious evidence of this failure is a "results-based" measure. A Gallup poll last August found that 53 percent of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was "personally involved" in the massacre of September 11. Where did they get this idea, for which no evidence exists?
They got this idea from hearing it implied--not even stated outright--repeatedly by the Bush administration. The broadcast media transmitted this information over and over again, with only occasional rebuttals, if any. Regardless of their own views on the war, American journalists became the Bush Administration's major means of promoting it, even through disinformation. This disinformation included the alleged weapons of mass destruction (still missing in action), the forged documents and aluminum tubes put forth as evidence of an Iraqi nuclear program, and other falsehoods.
Many journalists I have talked to blame the American people for allowing themselves to be fooled, some even calling Americans "stupid." As far as they are concerned, the information was all there, especially in the print media and on the Internet--so it's your own fault if you were misinformed or deceived.
This is a cop-out. Americans may have a lower literacy level than other high-income countries, but they are not any more stupid than anyone else. The people of Europe--including the British and Spanish whose governments joined the "coalition of the willing"--overwhelmingly opposed the war because the media in those countries, while presenting Bush and Blair's statements, also gave the other side of the story.
The broadcast media is most important, because that is the main source of information for the "swing voters" and Americans whose views are not determined by party affiliation. This media will have to be reformed. Journalists must begin to treat government lying as any other form of malfeasance such as bribery or stealing: it is something to be exposed to the public as news, not glossed over and reinforced with endless repetition.
And when the public is divided on matters of opinion, with 61 percent opposing a unilateral American invasion of Iraq, that view must be given equal time to that of government officials-not just an occasional spray in an ocean of pro-war messages.
The last nine months have been truly Orwellian. In a political move beginning last August that was as transparent as it was cynical, the Bush team used a manufactured threat from Iraq to remove from the electoral agenda all the domestic issues on which it was politically vulnerable. Among these: a series of scandals involving the administration's highest officials (including President Bush and Vice- President Dick Cheney), the economy, the budget, Medicare and Social Security.
The strategy worked, and helped them win both houses of Congress for the Republican party. They then invaded Iraq, causing the media and the public to rally even more around the President, and lifting his approval ratings. Now the press is talking about whether he can "use the capital from the military success to push forward his domestic agenda."
That is not likely, as the economy continues to sputter and unemployment rises. The odds are therefore very high that we will find ourselves confronting another "security threat" before the next election-North Korea, Iran, Syria . . . there are many to choose from.
Yes, it can happen again. The media's complicity in such scams is therefore much worse than a problem of bias or passivity. It is one of the greatest threats to democracy-and security-that this country faces.
Mark Weisbrot is Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington D.C. (www.cepr.net).
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