The Media at War

At the end of June, I went to London to participate in a conference hosted by the Guardian newspaper about the media’s coverage of the war in Iraq. The Brits were asking, it struck me, exactly the questions the U.S. media was trying to avoid asking about itself. How much had the press bought the Bush package? How much had professional skepticism been overwhelmed by Pentagon spin (Victoria Clark and General Vincent Brooks), commercial patriotism (flag logos on every television news show), war romanticism (the embeds), and the intimidation factor (9/11 and the Fox effect)?

In the column that I wrote when I returned from London, I said that I could hardly imagine an American news organization holding such an event. Whereupon it occurred to me: We ought to hold such a conference. And to make it a little hotter for the American media, we ought to do it with British reporters, who had had a significantly more critical war (and who were having a much more hostile peace). The Guardian immediately offered to send its war editors and reporters to join us, and we rounded up their American counterparts.

We rushed to do this conference quickly—before the August exodus from the city—because (and this was just a few weeks ago) we thought the war might be less of a story by the time everyone returned in September.

That, of course, was short-sighted—as, it seems, almost everything about this war has been. Clearly, the war will be more of a story. It gets bigger every day. Not least of all because the media is now having to rewrite itself. The questions we failed to ask, the stories we declined to pursue, have surely helped get us into the present mess.

What follows are highlights of the conversations that took place on July 24 at the New School, commencing a critique that I expect will go on long into the fall and until we figure out exactly why we’re in Iraq.

Did the American media sell out in covering this war?

John R. (Rick) MacArthur, president and publisher, Harper’s magazine: I was virtually reading only foreign press during the first few days. It was the only way to get any information about what was really happening. I thought the Financial Times and Le Figaro did a far better job than any American newspaper, and certainly if you read the Guardian and the Independent, you were far ahead of the curve, because any American newspaper had sold out to such a degree that it made it impossible for them to report anything straight. It was just rank cheerleading.

Mike Elliott, editor-at-large, Time magazine: I think the American media has done a fabulous job since September 11. Like a lot of people, I read the French newspapers and looked at the English newspapers, and I watched the BBC feed. So I was aware there were other stories out there. But when I sat down to write, I trusted my own reporting.

Bill Hemmer, anchor, CNN’s American Morning: I saw French television in Kuwait, and I thought they were decidedly anti-American.

Was the coverage jingoistic?

Gary Younge, New York correspondent, the Guardian: By and large in the American networks, you would hear people talking about “we.” As if the network was actually in the war. “Tell us what these weapons will do for us.” It was a mood. The media wasn’t just physically embedded; it was politically embedded, too.

Hemmer: We don’t use words like “we” at CNN. Word goes out periodically from senior staff to avoid it. But I think that the word “hero” has been used.

Did 9/11 set the tone?

MacArthur: Yes, 9/11 is still a factor because people are still afraid that someone will put an A-bomb in a suitcase and throw it on the subway. But then again, you have credulous—not even credulous, but enthusiastic—support of this notion. Based on no evidence. No reporting.

Elliott: Most of America has forgotten about 9/11. I don’t think it has changed the United States in the way that people say that it has. If it had done so, in the year afterward you would’ve seen an upsurge in recruitment to the armed forces. It didn’t happen. You would’ve seen an upsurge in religious observance or devotion. It absolutely didn’t happen. Every bit of reporting I’ve done has convinced me that outside of this little hothouse that we live in in New York and Washington, people have left this behind. I don’t think our readers come to this story with some incubus of 9/11.

Hemmer: I’m sorry, I think the tentacles and the shadows of that day extend into almost everything that we do almost daily.

Did the British press do better?

Alan Rusbridger, editor, the Guardian: Britain is the most competitive newspaper market in the world … There is something about this rough-and-tumble of daily journalism, this thing which takes a positive pleasure in washing as much dirty linen as possible in public, that actually leads you to some confidence that if there’s dirt out there, somebody is going to find it.

MacArthur: I once asked Christopher Hitchens why it was that the British press was so much more ferocious than the American towards politicians who were, for the most part, lying bastards, and he said, interestingly, that in a constitutional system, to attack our representatives is in some sense to attack ourselves. The sad thing is that we haven’t progressed to the point where we realize that it isn’t our government anymore. And that the press’s first responsibility is to the Constitution, not to the temporarily elected administration.

The British vs. the American PressJohn Kampfner, reporter, BBC’s War Spin: You can see the difference between American and British journalists at summits. The American journalists stands up when the President comes in, backs rigid, at attention. And the British are slouched in their chairs. The impression I have from the U.S. media is that it regards the people in authority, the people in government, as good men who need to be proved otherwise. In Britain, we work from the assumption that they need to prove to us that they’re telling the truth. Elliott: I think that’s an incredibly interesting observation. I’ve been at numerous press conferences in France where the French corps stands at attention when their president walks in. I would say that the attitude that right now is very present in the British press–that a politician is a lying Bastard unless proven otherwise–has gotten to the stage where it is really, really dangerous. Nobody elected us.

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The BBC is under siege for accusing the government of “sexing up” the WMD reports. What’s at stake?

Adrian Van Klaveren, head of newsgathering, BBC: What’s at stake here is the BBC’s ability to question governments, the inquisitorial approach which is one of the hallmarks of British journalism. Our ability to hold governments to account. That’s what we’ve been trying to do. We have to be making sure that we’re not just reporting events, we’re finding things out. This is not passive journalism. This is about trying to get information which others don’t want us to know.

Rusbridger: The BBC is easily the most trusted institution in the country, and you feel like the government and the right-wing media almost want to bring it down.

Did the Bush administration use the American press as a weapon?

Paul Steiger, managing editor, Wall Street Journal: There’s a tendency on all of our parts to overplay our roles. But in this kind of warfare, where both sides are using their own version of shock and awe, things are done for effect. You have all sides trying to make points through the media. And therefore, how we respond to it is important.

Stephen Schlesinger, director, World Policy Institute, the New School: The issue isn’t just bias in the American media; it’s intimidation. I think the Bush administration has exploited 9/11 to the point where people think they have to be either with us or against us.

MacArthur: But I don’t think this quite explains why the American press corps turned into a corps of stenographers in September and October. There’s will here—we want to be a part of the government effort.

Was the press looking for the feel-good story?

John Donvan, correspondent, ABC News’ Nightline: Our car was literally looted in Safran the first day. The very first day, I reported that it was unstable in the place where just yesterday people were cheering. And our editors in New York were saying, “Well, John, could you get us some of those pictures of people cheering?”

Jonathan Foreman, embedded reporter, the New York Post: On more than one occasion, I’d be writing stories about how exhausted and pissed off the troops were—I’d find they were topped by a headline like TROOPS CAN’T WAIT TO GET THEIR HANDS ON THE REPUBLICAN GUARD.

What about the Fox effect?

Elliott: Fox presents itself with a pure political point of view, which is different from pretty much anything that goes on in journalism in this country, outside of the New York Post. There is a difference—if I was still an academic, I would say a semiotic difference—in the way it does what it does.

Younge: The problem is the same one we faced in Britain with Thatcher. The liberals thought, She’s crazy, she’s a lunatic, anyone who supports her is a lunatic. And what we didn’t realize was that she had tapped into a fairly ugly vein of Britishness that we would have to deal with. Fox is doing well because it’s engaged in a vein of the population which, if you don’t learn how to deal with it and turn it around, is just going to get bigger and bigger.

Should we have seen more dead bodies?

Hemmer: What we saw was far too clean and sterile in the U.S. War is an ugly thing. Gavin Hewitt, special correspondent, BBC: You could never get close to the Iraqi people when you’re embedded. You were always speeding through.

Donvan: We never show you how horrible it really is. It really is much, much worse than anything you ever see on television. You can’t imagine. And we talk about that. We don’t show it to you. The principle isn’t that we’re trying to be pro-American. It’s something that falls more into standards and practices. We don’t show naked breasts, and we don’t show the guy burnt in a tank. And we talk all the time about that: Should we break that taboo? And if we did, that would have huge impact. Huge.

Leroy Sievers, executive producer, ABC News’ Nightline: And the danger is that if we don’t, then it becomes too sanitized.

Rusbridger: Last week, we published the first picture of a dead American. We’d been looking for one since the beginning of the conflict, not because we were particularly desperate to publish one, but the imbalance between dead coalition forces and dead Iraqis was becoming an embarrassment.

Did the experiment with embeds work?

Foreman: Most of us in the media had no experience whatsoever with the military or its institutions, most of us had never been in the Army, only what we’ve seen in the movies. That’s part of why I think there were so many references to Vietnam in the media. Some of them might’ve been there, but more likely because they’d seen Platoon. We have all these received images, and what was interesting was to report what these people were really like, who they were, and how they behaved.

James Meek, correspondent, the Guardian: The real problem was that the Iraqi Army didn’t have any journalists embedded with it. You wouldn’t think much of a boxing match—say, the recent Lewis-Johnson fight—if the camera only showed Lewis punching, dodging, but you didn’t know what or who he was fighting.

Were the embeds in bed with the people they were covering?

Rick Leventhal, embedded correspondent, Fox News Channel: It was difficult. We were dressing like them and we were eating and sleeping with them and we became a part of them. But at the same time, I reminded myself of what I was there to do. I was there to tell stories. And if I found a story they didn’t want me to tell, I’d do it. For example, when we ran low on food, and we were eating one to two meals a day instead of three, they didn’t want me to report that, but I did. We were there to tell their stories. We weren’t there to tell the entire story of the war.

Hewitt: I didn’t think I was there to tell their stories. I was there to tell as much of the war as I could see. I recognized that I was dependent on them for my safety. And that is a powerful bond. But every day, I was very conscious that this war was a controversial war, especially in the UK. They weren’t all tied up with the excitement and whether it was a B-52 or a Humvee.

Sievers: It’s not just war. Anybody who ever reads a police story—we have people in police stations. John used to be a White House correspondent. He dressed like the president, dark suit, white shirt, red tie. And nobody ever said, “You know, John’s starting to identify with the president too much.”

Was covering the war fun?

Donvan: The truth is, some of the embeds really enjoyed dressing up.

MacArthur: When I see Walt Rogers on CNN announcing while they’re speeding toward Baghdad, “This is fun!,” I think, This is a joke, this is a circus performance, not journalism in a traditional sense that I grew up with. It hearkened back to 1880s and 1890s journalism that Pulitzer and Hearst were so good at. It was a show—until it got ugly and then it wasn’t so much fun anymore.

Hemmer: I listened to Rogers virtually every time he was on the air and I never remember the word fun coming out of his mouth.

What about journalists who traveled independently?

Hewitt: I think the natural state for people in our business is to not be embedded, and to be sort of lone wolves. I think all of us would feel we are at our best when we’re on our own … But someTimes when you want to see a part of the war, you have to report from a certain side.

Donvan: The other problem with being a unilateral was that it was crazy dangerous. Much more unsafe than I expected. The British were particularly unfriendly to us. And it was dangerous because the Iraqis weren’t convinced that we were neutral. And in fact, we weren’t.

Leventhal: I would never go unilateral in a war. You guys are nuts. I’d much rather be surrounded by men with guns who are pointing away from me.

What happens when journalists become the story?

Molly Bingham, photojournalist, WorldPictureNews: I was arrested on March 25th by Iraq security forces, interrogated, and subsequently released. We were all a bit surprised we were the story that week. I was and still am uncomfortable being the story. I was very glad to get back to Baghdad, and got back to working on a story of women political prisoners who I felt deserved the spotlight I had.

What about Danny Pearl?

Steiger: One of the reasons that Danny made an attractive target was that they wanted to make propaganda out of his death and they calculated that his being an American and a journalist would increase the visibility of his murder. They went to great efforts to document the horrible way they killed him and then went to great lengths apparently to smuggle a disk with images of it to Saudi Arabia to put it up on the Web. Not only are they not protected, they can be targeted and are likely to be targeted.

Was the strike on the Palestine Hotel aimed at journalists?

Barry Moody, editor, Middle East and Africa regions, Reuters: We know what happened but don’t know with any degree of accuracy why it happened. I don’t think there was a deliberate attempt to hit a hotel full of journalists. We were told that the commanders knew, but for some reason the troops on the ground were not aware that it contained journalists.

Or just Al-Jazeera?

Hafez Al-Mirazi, Washington, D.C., bureau chief, Al-Jazeera: Even before the war, we had a meeting with the Pentagon. We said, “You did it before, in Afghanistan, and you said it was because you didn’t have the coordinates.” So we gave them the coordinates for Baghdad. One of them joked, “As long as you stay away from the Presidential Palace, you’ll be fine.” But they did target the Al-Jazeera office. The first missile hit an electric generator. Then they came back, resulting in the death of a reporter and the injury of a cameraman. There is no explanation.

Maybe because Paul Wolfowitz thinks they’re the enemy?

Al-Mirazi: Just yesterday, at a briefing, he said: Aside from securing our troops in Iraq, our few remaining challenges are, first, electricity; second, jobs; third, Al-Jazeera and other Arab stations who aren’t doing a helpful job for us in Iraq. And when you hear that from someone who’s as important in this administration as the Information minister was in Iraq, it’s really scary.

Whose side is Al-Jazeera on?

Al-Mirazi: The sad thing for me is that some of the American networks behaved in similar ways as government-controlled stations in the Arab world before 9/11. They used to call us the Israeli-U.S.-backed network. We were suspected of trying to divide the Arab world. The Americans were so positive about us before 9/11, but afterward, when we gave both sides, they behaved the same way that other government-controlled media in the Arab world did to us.

Can any country cover itself objectively at war?Younge: Nations at war do not do particularly well. The British covered Ireland, the French covered Algeria, appallingly. The American media was out of kilter with the rest of the world–but I don’t think they were out of kilter with a large segment of the American public.Rusbridger: With the troubles in Northern Ireland, the boot was on the other foot. It was the British who were under attack, sometimes quite severe and sustained attack, often without warning, and often upon civilians. And it would be fair to say that it wasn’t the British press’s finest moment. Because we all went into bunker mode… it was American journalists who were at the vanguard of exposing abuses going on.

Did the media miss the WMD story before the war?

Mark Whitaker, editor, Newsweek: We knew a lot of intelligence was flimsy before the war. I think most people understood that the reason we were going to war was because the Bush administration was determined to go to war on this timetable. And I’m not sure it was the intelligence which convinced anyone.

Or did the public just not tune in?

Whitaker: As hot and bothered as we might all get about the justifications before the war, given the costs of the war Americans make a simple cost-benefit analysis. If it was a fast, decisive victory, I don’t think most Americans would care if we found weapons of mass destruction or not. If it’s an open-ended confrontation which would bleed us slowly, that could be a problem.

Younge: The point is that in the political context in America, there weren’t that many takers for certain kinds of information. In the same way that, in Britain after the Harrod’s bombing, there weren’t that many takers for, you know, Irish independence.

Well, what if we were lied to? How much of a problem is it for Bush and Blair?

Sidney Blumenthal, author, The Clinton Wars: It’s different in both countries, parallel but divergent. Blair supported Bush and pushed him at the same time. He supported him in order to play a role, first on the U.N. track, and then pushed him to support a road map for peace in the Middle East as a price for his support. And then Bush pushed back, to get him to support his rationale for the war. So Blair’s response was to create these dossiers. Bush had, in the run-up to the war, not much questioning on the issue, although you had the CIA, State Department, and many people in the Pentagon as doves. Now, afterwards, you have a pebble, which, as always, starts an avalanche. You have these sixteen words which Ari Fleischer now admits were not true. So the next thing you do is you’re running to different offices in the White House—who knew what, did it involve this office or that, and who was responsible—and it’s just beginning.

Whitaker: What sets this administration apart from previous administrations is not spin. Every administration spins. They’ve tried to enforce this absolute message discipline throughout the administration: Nobody leaks, nobody gets off-message. They’ve been willing to intimidate their own people. But as it begins to fall apart, if it does, then there are a lot of people in Washington who so resent the way they’ve been treated by this administration that something could happen.

Karl E. Meyer, editor, World Policy Journal: It was like the first drops of blood in the aquarium with the piranhas.

Hemmer: When it comes to going to war in the future, if we don’t find the WMDs, doesn’t it make it a lot harder from this point further for the government to go to war again?

MacArthur: They’ll fake it again. They’re very good at propaganda.

The Participants
Hafez Al-Mirazi, Washington-bureau chief, Al-Jazeera; Emily Bell, editor-in-chief, Guardian Unlimited (the Guardian’s Website); Molly Bingham, photojournalist, WorldPictureNews; Sidney Blumenthal, author, former assistant and senior adviser to President Clinton; David Chater, correspondent, Sky News; John Donvan, correspondent, ABC News’ Nightline; Mike Elliott, editor-at-large, Time; Jonathan Foreman, embedded reporter and editorial-board member, New York Post; Suzanne Goldenberg, Washington correspondent, the Guardian; Bill Hemmer, anchor, CNN’s American Morning; Gavin Hewitt, special correspondent, BBC; John Kampfner, reporter, BBC’s War Spin; Rick Leventhal, correspondent, Fox News Channel; John R. (Rick) MacArthur, president and publisher, Harper’s; James Meek, correspondent, the Guardian; Karl E. Meyer, editor, World Policy Journal; Barry Moody, editor, Middle East and Africa region, Reuters; Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief, the Guardian; Stephen Schlesinger, director, World Policy Institute, the New School; Leroy Sievers, executive producer, ABC News’ Nightline; Paul Steiger, managing editor, Wall Street Journal; Adrian Van Klaveren, head of newsgathering, BBC; Mark Whitaker, editor, Newsweek; Gary Younge, New York correspondent, the Guardian. Excerpts for this story compiled by Carl Swanson.

The Media at War