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The Role of the Media in Shaping Public Perception

For The Record 
Number 82 
18 September 2001 

The Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine / 2425-35 Virginia Ave., NW / Washington, DC 20037 / 
Tel: 202.338.1290 / Fax: 202.333.7742 / 

The Role of the Media in Shaping Public Perception 

With a PhD in Political Science, a background in journalism, and a current position as professor of 
National Security Affairs at the U.S. Army War College, Stephen Pelletiere brought his expertise to 
a discussion of the media at a 13 September 2001 Center lecture. He focused on press coverage of 
Iraq, Palestine, and the current situation following the 11 September plane hijackings and attacks 
on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in the U.S. 

Pelletiere began by addressing the media campaign against Iraq following the Iran-Iraq war. The 
U.S. did not expect Iraq to win, and when it did, U.S. leaders were "dumbfounded." As Iraq sought 
to "rebuild itself" after the war, the U.S. attempted to prevent this restructuring through a 
number of avenues, focusing on damaging Iraq's "credit worthiness." Despite the accumulation of a 
large debt, Iraq "was good for the money" considering 
its oil resources. Still, in the spring of 1988, Iraq did not have the cash reserves necessary and 
wished to reschedule its debt payments. The media in the U.S. began running stories on Iraq, "the 
tone of which was extremely hostile." 

"All of the stories were slanted against Iraq," which by itself is suspicious. In addition, some of 
the stories were simply "phony," such as the report that 80,000 to 100,000 Kurds were gassed to 
death by Iraq. "You can't kill that many people using gas, in a concentrated period, in terrain 
such as exists in northern Iraq." Irrational stories do appear in the media on occasion, but not 
usually so extensively in the established press. It seemed to Pelletiere that "this was a 
campaign." At the time, Congress was 
debating sanctions on Iraq and may have been trying to prepare the public. When sanctions were 
eventually declared, Iraq could no longer reschedule its debts. 

Moving to the issue of how the media has covered Israel and Palestine, Pelletiere explained that 
Israel's current military activity in the Occupied Territories is "coming dangerously close to 
ethnic cleansing." Nonetheless, the press presents the conflict as relatively balanced and argues 
that both sides are equally responsible for the violence. Pelletiere takes a different approach. He 
explained that at the Camp David negotiations, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered a 
deal "that 
was no deal at all." Barak hoped the Palestinians would accept it and be "saddled with an entity 
that was not viable," a so-called state that would 
fall apart. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat refused. "The pro-Israeli forces . . . had to find a 
way of retreating from the exposed position they 
found themselves in, because in the process of setting Arafat up, . . . they had dignified both him 
and his movement by appearing to take the idea of 
Palestinian statehood seriously." They choose to "criminalize" the Palestinians. Israeli leader 
Ariel Sharon's provocative visit to the Haram 
al-Sharif, which Barak allowed, started the uprising, then the Israeli army responded to subsequent 
protests with "unusual ferocity." "Once a cycle of 
violence had been created, one could simply nurse it along." 

Pelletiere urged the public to "pay special attention" to the fact that journalists who are 
focusing on these stories and opinions are 
conservative, as are the newspapers publishing them, mainly The New York Times, The Washington 
Post, and The Wall Street Journal. The line between news and opinion has become blurred, mainly 
through the op-ed pages of the newspapers. "Spurious" ideas start there and then filter into the 
news. This is not only the case regarding Israel/Palestine, but with other issues as well. The role 
of the press is to "serve special interests." Pelletiere urged those concerned with these issues to 
confront to media. The "peace 
movement faced the same challenges" in the 1960s and managed to overcome them. They can be overcome 
now as well, "but it does take innovative thinking." 

"There is a cadre [in the government] that knows what's going on" and who are "fairly astute," but 
if their opinions are heard at all, they are labeled "alternative." During his work with the army 
and Central Intelligence Agency, Pelletiere met those like him who had alternative viewpoints but 
"never got a hearing until there was a crisis," such as 
during Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. 

Despite his encouragement of innovative thinking, Pelletiere was keenly aware of the challenges 
involved. As he explained, conservatives are 
"in the ascendancy" now. He already sees trends developing following Tuesday's attack. These trends 
include the perceptions that: (1) "We're at war." (2) America will never again be the same. 
However, Pelletiere asserted, "I don't think we're any different" than before. The U.S. is still 
nearing a recession, the information technology industry is still failing, President Bush is still 
untested. (3) Osama bin Laden is guilty of the attack. Pelletiere does not believe bin Laden had 
the resources to 
organize such a campaign, but whether or not he is guilty, the U.S. will use him as a scapegoat. 
(4) The United States will likely attack Afghanistan. The administration is already preparing the 
public for it through news coverage and government briefings. 

This is "not a classic conspiracy," Pelletiere pointed out. Government and media leaders do not get 
together and decide what these "lines" or trends will be. Rather, there is a "distillation process" 
"thinks tanks" and policy institutes. Certain approaches seem more plausible than others, are 
repeated often enough, and are easier to defend 
than other arguments, and they become the "line." Pelletiere also urged the audience to watch the 
stock market and observe how it affects U.S. policies. 
The only times he has witnessed "real changes made" were when business interests were affected. 

As for what the U.S. leadership will do now, Pelletiere said, "All they want to do is get 
themselves through this period. If it develops into 
a real exploitation where the administration begins to single out certain areas for repression-then 
we're in for a very bad period. I don't see any signs of that now." Nonetheless, "there's a 
tradition of using incidents like this . . . to point American society into a very conservative 
direction." This has occurred "over and over again" in the past. "Whether 
that will happen this time, I don't think anyone has a way of knowing, but it's a possibility." 

The above text is based on remarks delivered on 13 September 2001 by Stephen Pelletiere, Professor 
of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Army War 
College. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine 
or The Jerusalem Fund. This "For the Record" was written by Publications Manager Wendy Lehman; it 
may be used without permission but with proper attribution to the Center for Policy Analysis on 


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