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The media battleground

Todd Gitlin
Todd Gitlin
19 March 2004

Berkeley, California

Election fever has not yet swept California. Bush and Kerry have been muscled out of the political scene by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. That will probably change as the year progresses, but the University of California at Berkeley, where I’ve been this week, has always felt a world away from New York and Washington. It's different, sometimes acute, sometimes an unwitting negative parody of a Bush cheerleading event.

My last two columns have looked at the early Republican efforts to manipulate the media machine. The Spanish electorate have just punished Bush’s ally José Maria Aznar for seemingly spinning a false line. Will the American electorate do the same to Bush?

With this in mind, I attended a two-day conference at Berkeley’s School of Journalism on “The Media and War”. The coverage of the US military campaign in Iraq has profound implications for November’s elections. It can help us determine whether the American media will follow the commands of the White House, or turn on the incumbent administration. What chance Bush’s spin machine will backfire?

“We wanted to dominate the information environment,” Lt. Col. Richard Long of the US Marine Corps declared. As the US military launched its invasion of Iraq one year ago, they were flanked by journalists, part of their embedded reporter program. But this Berkeley audience was not one likely to be ingratiated by Long’s power smile. The reporters present – from the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post, ABC, National Public Radio, CNN, and a number of European and Middle Eastern news organizations, many of them embeds – were not thrilled to be considered instruments of the Pentagon’s imposing exercise in informational domination. Most were impressively ill-at-ease, struggling to define what they had achieved beyond (in most cases) surviving a disturbingly inconclusive war.

The cogent conservative classicist, Victor Davis Hanson, tried to comfort the room. Today’s embedded journalists were in good company, he said. The classic era’s storytellers of war also tended to be retired officers. (Though Thucydides, Xenophon and their ilk were rather more inquisitive and at times even-handed than their present-day equivalents.)

Most journalists accept that they were taken for a ride over weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Even now, said Human Rights Watch Baghdad chief Hania Mufti, reporters are missing the story of Ba’athist thugs promoted to high palaces and protected there by the Americans who now find them useful. John Burns of the New York Times, an excellent journalist, but no crusader, called in to speak of “an air of unreality and illusion” encasing the Americans of the Coalition Provisional Authority, so that they “seem to be speaking from an unvarying script” sounding more and more out of touch with every passing day of Iraqi pain and chaos.

The journalists who spoke here were more embarrassed than defensive about their failures – in particular, their failures to be sufficiently skeptical about Bush-Blair weapons of mass destruction claims (though some tried to absolve themselves from blame by noting that intelligence agencies and politicians had also been fooled). In fact, examined by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour before some 2000 spectators Wednesday evening, no less formidable a figure than former chief weapons inspector Hans Blix declared that it wasn’t until mid-May, after the Americans and British had decapitated the monuments and taken the palaces, that he concluded that the Saddam regime really hadn’t possessed chemical or biological weapons.

Judiciousness is Blix's middle name, which makes his critique of the Bush war camp and its “mind frame” all the more trenchant. “They took away the question marks and put exclamation marks.” One of his aphorisms belongs to the high metaphorical annals: “Weapons of mass destruction is a very poor concept,” he said. “It lumps together apples and pears – and mushrooms.”

One panelist who found little to admire in Anglo-American journalism was Maher Abdallah Ahmad, an al-Jazeera correspondent. He thought “we [meaning they] were made fools of,” though, when challenged, he offered no regret for his network’s free pass for Saddam Hussein.

Not that the Anglo-American coalition looked so strong. In a recent New York Review of Books article Michael Massing convincingly accused the New York Times’ Judith Miller of systematic gullibility in the face of claims by Ahmad Chalabi and various defectors from the Saddam régime. Massing and Miller were supposed to have it out in public, but Miller failed to show. Massing and his colleague Mark Danner were left trying to represent her views. One of those views is that her job as a New York Times correspondent is to relay what government officials tell her about intelligence rather than to subject their views to independent scrutiny: she is not an intelligence agency, she bristled in print. I’m sure the White House hopes such journalistic parroting can last until November.

An investigation by reporters for the Knight-Ridder chain on how successful Mr. Chalabi was – with the help of many millions of dollars in U.S. government funds – in planting his views in many media outlets (including two Knight-Ridder newspapers) caused some embarrassment - and anger.

But Lt. Col. Long is immune. From his point of view, the so-called embeds proceeded to deliver what the Pentagon hoped to see from them. “Overall, we’re happy about the outcome,” Long said. “Because we won. Our job is winning. And part of it is information warfare.” But he went on to say, “My job is not to put out propaganda.” Propaganda would flop. “And that would mean my career.”

For what it’s worth, I think the embeds have gotten a bad rap. The shortfalls in the coverage had to do with credulity at network headquarters and the disappearance of political debate, not the spectacularly unsurprising travelogues and bang-bang that filled the screen for many uninformative hours.

At any rate, the muddle of questions our best journalists wrestle with reproduces the muddle of questions our polity has barely begun to face. In a way, this represents progress. Thirteen years ago, I spoke at Berkeley’s predecessor conference on media and war after Gulf War I. Journalists then were not so reflective about their role in events that resulted in the deaths of thousands. The Americans then were more uniformly defensive, resistant to any thought that they had obscured important features of the war.

Today, their anxiety is a tribute to the difficulty of the question, What now?

November’s presidential election is set to be another huge test for both journalists and voters. How will they respond to another Bush-administered information war? What have they learned? As they say on the networks, we'll have to wait and see.

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