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[casi] Media turnaround

Volume 20 - Issue 16, August 02 - 15, 2003
India's National Magazine


Media turnaround


The collaboration between the mainstream Western media
and the Bush and Blair administrations over the Iraq
war appears to be over - the former have, though
belatedly, begun scrutinising intensely the claims
made by the two regimes.

THOSE who politicised intelligence in order to lead us
to war, at the expense of national security, hope to
cover their track by corrupting the system even
further." This quote from a recent column by Paul
Krugman in The New York Times shows how far the
mainstream media in the United States have swung, from
the time the invasion of Iraq was launched until now.
It also pinpoints the key concerns that are agitating
the media in the U.S. and the United Kingdom as they
shed their deference to the governments concerned and
revert to the role of watchdogs of the public

It was not as if the media in the two countries that
invaded Iraq and currently occupy it, collectively
underwent a Damascus experience. Atrocities had been
committed against civilians during the aerial campaign
and ground attack; the killing of dozens of civilians
in Hilla had been reported by Robert Fisk of The
Independent and a few others who covered the war from
the Iraqi side; pictures of bodies lying torn up in a
Baghdad suburb had been carried by the world's
newspapers. But the photographs and reports had not
evoked the same degree of abhorrence in the media or
among the public as had the images from My Lai in the
Vietnam War. The media, especially the segment that
was "embedded" with the invading forces, appeared to
have taken the horrors of the Iraq War in their

Then again, the anti-war movement was at its strongest
before the war began and, in fact, progressively faded
to the margins as the Anglo-American formations
advanced into Iraq. Therefore, the change in the
media's attitudes could not be attributed to a drastic
shift in public sentiments. Neither did the media
suddenly succumb to their pack-instincts and follow
the lead of diligent journalists who had covered the
real war. Fisk, easily the best on the West Asian
beat, had been something like a lone beacon during the
war and for much of the period of occupation. If
anything, the change in the media's attitude towards
Iraq appears to have been shaped by the commercial
interests of the organisations that run the media and
the professional interests of the journalists.
Considerations, both moral and legal, raised by the
invasion have had, at best, a secondary impact.

Many journalists were shaken free from their
"embedded" shackles once President George W. Bush,
declared that the phase of formal combat was over.
These journalists could no longer limit themselves to
reportage of the actions of the military units they
were embedded with. The competition for exclusive
"sound bites" and special reports forced them to cast
their nets wider. At the same time, their audience's
euphoria over the easy victories had begun to abate.
The other side of the picture began to emerge almost

Reports about the lack of enthusiasm, often the
outright hostility, with which Iraqis greeted the
Anglo-American forces were the first signs that the
worm had begun to turn. The lack of security in
Baghdad and other cities and the collapse of the civic
infrastructure were the other areas that the media
began to inquire into. In this phase the reportage was
still skimming the surface with the journalists trying
to draw a clearer picture of the situation in a
country after a war had been inflicted on it. Overall,
the theme was that there were problems in plenty, that
the media were drawing attention to these problems,
and that those in control in Iraq were serious about
repairing the situation. In the immediate aftermath of
the war the media continued to repose faith in the
Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the group of
American and British civil administrators running
Iraq, or in the governments behind them.

One snake, however, continued to lurk in the grass. At
first the media appeared to be merely teasing the CPA
and the military leadership about their lack of
success in discovering traces of the weapons of mass
destruction (WMD) which Iraq was supposed to possess.
But, as time passed and the occupying forces were
unable to unearth any weapons stocks, or manufacturing
facilities or even documents, the media's suspicions
began to grow. The tactics that the U.S. and British
governments adopted to deal with the media's quickened
interest in the matter conveyed the impression that
they had not anticipated that the phase of supportive
coverage would come to an end so soon.

At first, U.S. and British governments spokespersons
thought they could get away with confident assertions
that traces of the WMD programme would indeed be
found. They then shifted tack and began to contend
that although traces of the WMD might not be
discovered, there could be no doubt that such material
did exist at one time and that, therefore, the war was
justified. By then the media were getting ahead of the
game. It had moved on to the question of whether the
war had been necessary when Iraq did not possess the
means to threaten its neighbours, leave alone the U.S.
or the U.K. The two governments, still complacent,
began to talk of the well-recorded brutality of the
Saddam Hussein regime as the real justification for
the war.

As the governments side-stepped the queries about the
Iraqi WMD, the media began to scent that it was on the
trail of a big one. Reports questioning the veracity
of the governments' assertions on Iraq's WMD programme
had been published earlier, but they had hardly been
noticed so long as the media pack had been caught up
in the jingoism of the political leadership. These
reports were discovered afresh. It was clear that
these reports, prepared after intense interaction with
U.N. weapons inspectors, provided a more authentic
version of the situation. A deficit in a government's
credibility is the stuff the media thrive on. In the
U.S. and the U.K., the lack of credibility could be
traced to the highest echelons. Bush had pushed the
case for war against Iraq in his State of the Union
address earlier this year. Sixteen words in that
address had conveyed the unmistakable impression that
he was convinced Iraq had tried to buy uranium from
Niger. Serious doubts had been raised about the
authenticity of reports that spoke of a Niger-Iraq
uranium connection, but the media might have treated
Bush's assertion as a mere, and perhaps pardonable,
exaggeration if traces of a WMD programme had actually
been found in Iraq. Since no such traces had been
found, the media began to swing to the conclusion that
the case for war had been built on fraudulent claims.

Bush and his senior aides once again resorted to
evasive tactics. A careful reading of the President's
words would show that he had not directly asserted
that Iraq had revived its nuclear weapons programme,
Bush's aides said. He had merely referred to a British
claim that they believed an Iraq-Niger link did exist.
If there was anyone to be faulted it was not the
President but the members of his staff who had not
properly vetted the contents of his address or the
British government, which had passed on unverified
information in the first place. Or so went the spin.

The media now had a new allegation to level against
the government, that of weaselling - Bush was trying
to weasel his way out of the consequence of an
assertion that he had made by pointing a finger in
another direction. His aides sought to bail him out
with an act, which at best can be described as one of
half-contrition and half-innocence. These efforts by
Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National
Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, failed to convince
the media. So the Central Intelligence Agency's
(C.I.A.) Director-General, George Tenet, came forward
to confess that he was the real culprit. The media
were not impressed. Tenet's grand gesture of falling
on his sword to save his chief merely showed that the
Bush administration would sacrifice anyone and
anything to get its way, was the media's general

If the administration's lack of credibility and its
willingness to sacrifice anyone for its survival were
issues that were already agitating the media, it soon
had another, which cut closer to the bone. Senior
administration figures had already accused the media
of indulging in a "feeding frenzy". New directives,
reportedly issued from the highest levels, appeared to
show that the administration was taking hard measures
to curb the flow of negative reports. Personnel of the
C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies had apparently
been ordered to not speak to the press. The picture of
a Republican administration that resorted to
fabrications and was ruthless and hostile to the press
seemed reminiscent of the Nixon era.

MATTERS are far worse for the British government of
Prime Minister Tony Blair. The media and public in the
U.K. have grown increasingly disgusted with his
poodle-like loyalty to the U.S. administration. A
raging controversy between No.10 Downing Street and
the BBC had played out with more viciousness than the
media-administration rumpus in the U.S. It was in this
atmosphere that the David Kelly episode slammed down
on Blair. Amidst all the confusion about who said what
and to whom, certain facts stood out.

Kelly, one of the most respected experts on biological
and chemical weapons, had told reporters, at the
minimum, that Iraq's WMD capability was somewhat
lesser than what Washington and London had
consistently claimed it was. The Prime Minister's
Office and the Defence Ministry considered Kelly's
conversations with some journalists as acts of
indiscretion. They, therefore, hounded Kelly to the
point where he was driven to commit suicide. Across
the Atlantic, Bush is in a better shape. The adverse
publicity over the month had whetted the appetites of
the nine Democrats who have out done their markers for
next year's presidential election. Bush's approval
ratings are, however, still above the 50 per cent mark
and the fourth week of July brought news which seemed,
at least temporarily, to mark a turn of the tide. The
killing of Saddam Hussein's sons, Uday and Qusay, gave
the administration some hope that it would be able to
ride out the messy situation.

It is unlikely that the media will let up on Bush for
anything more than a short spell of time. Quotes
similar to the one made by Paul Krugman did appear
before the war. But, only in the alternative media.
That such opinions have begun to be expressed in the
mainstream press only shows how far Bush has slid in
the assessment of his country's media.

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