Seven years ago, the Pentagon imposed strict curbs on media coverage of the Gulf War. American military activities in the region were mostly off-limits to journalists. Defense Department censors cleared photos, video footage and battlefield dispatches. Reporters were only allowed to travel in "pools" accompanied by U.S. military escorts.
With some grumbling, major news organizations went along with the restrictions-and then, two months after the war's end, tried to blame U.S. authorities. In a May 1991 letter to then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, the Washington editors of 15 big media outlets faulted the Pentagon for exerting "virtually total control" over coverage.
But the main problem was self-censorship. And it still is. Many journalists grow accustomed to parroting Pentagonspeak-especially after Uncle Sam's missiles start flying. That's how dead Iraqi civilians become merely "collateral damage."
In recent weeks, as the Pentagon finalized its rules of media engagement for another assault on Iraq, news outlets again seemed ready to knuckle under. Tidy euphemisms for killing returned. And, as if to stiffen American resolve, news reports warned that Saddam Hussein will use civilian casualties for propaganda purposes.
As a media theme, it's a retread. During the Gulf War, NBC's Tom Brokaw echoed the White House and the dominant media mantra when he told viewers: "We must point out again and again that it is Saddam Hussein who put these innocents in harm's way." So, no matter how many civilians die as a result of U.S. bombardment, we can always deny responsibility.
This time around, more than ever, America's air power has been touted as the key to success. Of course, we're assured that the weaponry is new and improved. "The smart bombs of the Gulf War have gotten smarter, and there will be more of them," USA Today reported. Under the high-tech circumstances, Iraqi victims will be blips on screens for American TV viewers and military personnel alike.
The news is filled with footage and descriptions of cruise missiles, F-117 Stealth bombers, F-16CJ jets and other ultra-modern aircraft. Their awesome technical prowess is publicized in detail.
But don't expect much coverage of exactly what happens to people when the bombs detonate. When explosions demolish vital organs. When shrapnel slices into human flesh and bones.
Above all, the mass media are able to numb us, dispensing anesthesia along with selected information. But if there were genuine confidence about the morality of firing missiles on Iraq, then presumably the euphemisms and media evasions would not be deemed necessary.
Meanwhile, media conflicts of interest are unacknowledged. So, for example, if Brokaw and his NBC News colleagues marvel at the exploits of F/A-18 Hornet jets, they don't mention that NBC's parent company-General Electric-produces the engine that goes into each one. Nor are any such disclaimers heard on CNBC or MSNBC.
When CNN aired an "International Town Meeting" on Feb. 18, all three panelists were top U.S. officials. Only Madeleine Albright, William Cohen and Samuel Berger were permitted to make lengthy remarks. CNN anchor Bernard Shaw invited other participants to provide "a question, not a statement." In effect, CNN worked with the U.S. government to co-produce the program.
Fortunately, grass-roots anti-war fervor gave the staged event a jolt.
Writing in the London-based daily Independent a week earlier, longtime Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk challenged the notion that there are no good alternatives to attacking Iraq.
"The world might, after all, demand that all Middle Eastern states apply all UN Security Council resolutions-which include an Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab land as well as the disarming of Saddam Hussein," wrote Fisk. "It could insist that within five years, all weapons of mass destruction in the region-not just Iraqi weapons, but Syrian missiles and Israeli nuclear weapons and possibly Iranian rockets-be destroyed. It could offer a real peace in the Middle East, based on human rights, justice and a Palestinian homeland."
But instead, Fisk noted, "we are beating the old 1991 drums of war, our claims so preposterous that they bury the real viciousness of the real Saddam. For war is not primarily about victory or defeat. It is about death. It represents the total failure of the human spirit."
Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His most recent books
are Wizards of Media Oz (co-authored with Jeff Cohen) and The
Trouble With Dilbert: How Corporate Culture Gets the Last Laugh.
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