Media and War

Moderator: There is no more important subject; lies lose lives. It’s widely accepted now that the lead-up to the war produced terrible failures [rooted in inaccurate media coverage]

Sonali Kolhatgar, author, Bleeding Afghanistan

I was invited to share my thoughts on the radio, in 2002, and that led to a career change. I became the morning host (KPFA)
The horrendous portrayal in much of the media of Muslims, and particularly Muslim women, portrayed as mute victims waiting for us to save them. Right away after 911 that coverage became so hyper, as that object that we were going to drop bombs on and liberate. That image helped drive the moral impetus for the war. And then after the Taliban fell, uncovered faces that ‘we’ had uncovered. Some were being paid to take off their burqas for the camera. Never mind that Afghan women are still imprisoned, primarily because of our own policies.

Many of you remember the Q’uran abuse affair, that Newsweek published. The Pentagon responded fiercely and Newsweek bowed down, even though it was later shown to be true. One point that really strikes me in the coverage of this forgotten war in Afghanistan is that the media tends to go where the violence is, not where it is building up. In 2005, it was so easy to get interviews. I got an interview with the NATO spokesperson in one afternoon, because there was no other media there. That was 2/05. Fast forward one year, the country is blowing up, suicide bombings. They weren’t monitoring Afghanistan when we were saying the warlords are back in power, and suddenly we see in our newspapers, ‘what happened?’ The mainstream media once more failed Afghanistan. We have to urge coverage of these forgotten wars when no one is paying attention.

Paul Rykoff, Iraq Veterans of America, author, Chasing Ghosts.

When I was in Iraq, it was critical that people asked tough questions, and in many ways, the media failed us. When I got back, the #1 story was Janet Jackson’s exposed breast. In past weeks, it’s been Rosie and Donald Trump. More people talk about that than about Fallujah. Soldiers call Afghanistan Forgotistan. What struck me was the disconnect. It’s easy to understand why. Less than 1% of the American people have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. It had been 12% in previous wars, and everyone knew someone. That makes the role of media even more important, to remind people of the human cost. But they don’t show the depth of the story. You never see a dead American soldier on TV. You rarely hear the soldier’s perspective. It’s dominated by policy wonks, politicians, and people like Bill O’Reilly that don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. And you never hear the Iraqi perspective. That’s the side that’s really missing, and I hope we can bring them into the dialog. I want to see them. I heard it all the time in Baghdad.

There was a lot coming out of the White House attacking the media,’ you’re only telling the bad stories.’ I say, ‘if you want good news, go to Disneyland.’

Embedding—I’m not comfortable with it. If you embed, you’ve compromised a large part of your journalistic integrity. You can’t cover the war if I’m covering your ass. It’s a very shrewd move of the DOD but it doesn’t give the full picture.

One thing that encourages me is the number of veterans that are coming home and writing books. And the bloggers. I can go on patrol and go through a firefight and come back to base and blog about it. DOD shuts them down as soon as they pop up, but I urge you to seek them out, on both the Iraqi and American sides

Helen Thomas, White House correspondent since the 1950s

More correspondents killed in Iraq than in WWII. The U.S. Press mission is to search for the truth, to keep a spotlight on public officials. But it has lost its way. Fear of being called un-American when asking challenging questions after 911. And yet it was so clear, President Bush was determined to attack Iraq and nothing was going to stop him. Congress rolled over as we [the media] did. But the result is devastating. A destroyed country, thousands dead, wounded, a drain on the treasury and we lost our halo around the world.

That a third-world country would attack, after over a decade of crushing sanctions [was completely unrealiustic]. And some newspapers are still supporting the war undertaken under false pretense. We’ve seen the government create a disinformation mill, pay reporters to write news stories. Of course the daily spin helped, and we reported it as stenographers.

They finally came out of their comas for Katrina and began to ask the questions that should have been asked. I don’t know whether the correspondents personally refrained or were told not to rock the boat. And where were the news organizations when photos of coffins and funerals were banned? It took a former professor to sue the government and get the ban lifted.

For years, I used to get calls during the Johnson and Nixon eras,’ who the hell are you, why did you ask the question?’ After 911, I get calls, ‘where is the press, where are the aggressive, take-no-prisoners reporters?’

As staffs are slashed, I believe that newspapers are more relevant than ever. Sound bites cannot replace a good solid story. In the last few years we’ve witnessed a chipping away of our basic liberties, an unprecedented power grab by a president who thinks he can read our mail, listen to our phone calls, and who can say in a signing statement that he doesn’t agree, with impunity. He has ordered wiretapping without a warrant. He’s won support for the Patriot Act that reads your email, rounds up suspects to be tortured in secret prisons. I believe the latest endeavor to escalate the war compounds the debacle. Where is the “liberal press”? I say, bring ’em on. They’ve been intimidated for so long. I feel the people are best served when they get straight reporting, accuracy, truth. A free press is indispensable tour democracy; you can’t have a free country without a free press.

Eric Bowert, author, Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush

I spent years writing about Clear Channel and radio consolidation.

The difference between a liberal and conservative critique of the press. When I was writing Lapdogs, I tried to keep the rhetoric low. I don’t know anyone on the left who hates the press and has the image of treasonous people. I think we need to critique factually and responsibly.

I wrote, ‘the only beef the war bloggers have with the press is that it exists.’ None of us want to end up in the Michelle Malkin and Ann Coulter world.

Just as Bush is going to have to finally reckon with this war, and he’s going to be remembered for all time for this war, and the press will be remembered and shamed. The war was not possible without the press; there is no way the White House and Pentagon could have sold an unprecedented preemptive war that had never threatened America. The press fell down for the war on terror and just segued right in to the war on Iraq. Michael Gepler, former Washington Post ombudsman, was right that it was the single biggest press failing. Al Gore was right when he called it the biggest mistake in the history of US foreign policy.

[The press conference]10 or 12 days before the invasion (3/6/03) was the pinnacle of everything that was wrong with the press. Bush came out with his little cheat sheet of who to call on, and he laughs and says it was scripted, but everyone knew it was scripted. Out of embarrassment, they continued with this charade that it was a press conference and not classic Kabuki theater. 12 days before the invasion, if people wanted an explanation of why our long-time allies weren’t supporting it, they didn’t get answers, there were no follow-up questions, nobody asked about why Bin Laden had not been captured. And of course all the cable shows went wall-to-wall with talking heads. Hardball had a pro-war —six of seven guests were pro-war. So any articulate critic of the war had long been shown the exits.

This was in theory going to be the first uncensored war; they had digital cameras and complete access. Journalists were sending the photos back to their editors, who refused to print them. One photographer got back a message, do not send me any more photos of wounded civilians.

The Los Angeles Times in 2005 did a six-month study of war imagery in major newspapers and found a total of 14 wounded American soldiers. Dead American soldiers do not exist in [coverage of] this war.

I’m thinking of early in the war when Private Lynch was captured, and the president of CNN said he’d never show it because it could be used as propaganda (Al Jazeera showed it). But in Clinton’s era, the dead US soldier being dragged through Mogadishu was shown on every network.

But in 2003, [broadcast executives] went and cleared their list of retired generals with the Pentagon before having them as guests.

I went back and found that in the fall of 2002, Ted Kennedy gave a passionate, fiery speech raising concerns about the war—but journalists said they couldn’t criticize the war because Democrats weren’t protesting. The Washington Post gave that speech 23 words, out of thousands of articles on the war. Between November 2002 and March 2003, the Washington Post editorialized 26 times in favor of the war, 8 of them in the month before the invasion. E.J. Dionne was the only Post columnist who opposed it.

The White House war on the Press:

Threats of jailings and subpoenas, to use the Espionage Act, declining success in using FOIA, the ‘you’re not showing the good news campaign.

Sonali: The impending court-martial of Eric Watata. Several journalists who interviewed him are now being subpoenaed to testify against him. This is very scary. I interviewed Sarah Olson, one of the first journalists to be subpoenaed, and I think, that could be me. I’m not even a citizen, my application is pending, since August 2005. It’s a very scary thought. It’s absolutely chilling. We should make a distinction between the attacks on independent journalists and attacks on media institutions. Powerful corporate institutions whose first mission is to make a profit—there’s a difference. When institutions are attacked, somewhere up the chain of command someone realizes, we have to toe the line. Often, they realize they have to stay afloat. But what happens to the independent journalists who refuse to speak out against the people they’ve interviewed. Journalists have been jailed. It’s people like that that the community have to come to their defense. We don’t have many resources. Pacifica doesn’t have enough money to support me if I’m ever targeted. It becomes nearly impossible, because independent journalists, the only protection they have is from the consumers of independent journalism.

Sarah Olson (called up from audience)

We talked for over an hour about Erik Witata’s reasoning for speaking out against Iraq and refusing to deploy. He was charged with one count of missing movement and four counts of conduct unbecoming an officer, all having to do with statements to the press and public. If he’s convicted of all five, he faces six years in prison, four of those years for speaking to the press.

The army has subpoenaed me, and I’ve taken the position that it’s not my job to testify against my own sources. Particularly with regard to political speech. When a reporter testifies in this way, you are eroding the very necessary separation between and press, threatening to turn journalism into the investigative arm of the government. You face a situation where speech, particularly dissenting speech, is [curtailed] and where topics unpopular with the current administration [are not discussed]. We need more debate in this country, not less. It’s my duty to the public, not the government. If I refuse to testify (February 5-9, 2007), I’m facing a felony charge of contempt of court and up to six months in prison. The choice between my personal liberty and my integrity is not a choice any journalist should have to make.

I’m not alone. Josh Wolf has been imprisoned for 145 days. He will become the longest jailed journalist in history on February 6. I’m looking for all of your help. I’m looking for support, encouragement, people to write letters. I want the army to know that if they insist on eviscerating the 1st Amendment, they’re facing a whole movement that cares about press freedom. Sarah Olson website:

Eric: [Former White House Chief of Staff] Andrew Card called the press ‘just another special interest.’ This was all in motion before the war, and intensified with the war. That’s why Jeff Gannon was invited in, why they paid Armstrong Williams. It was a way to put the press on notice that this was a new game, and the press reacted by bowing down. If you look at the New York Times, Howell Raines saw the war as a way to prove that he was not running a liberal newspaper. The press has developed such rabbit ears because that label has career consequences.

The Times ran a half-assed apology about Judy Miller without mentioning her name, and he said (then editor Bill—) that it wasn’t an apology at all. Because that critique was coming from the left. We see the consequences.

Helen: Right after Vietnam, the Pentagon was said to have made a decision never again to allow the press to kill their wars. Something has happened to our country; there’s a sea change. Finally, the American people are waking up. But the whole thing is that the press did play ball, out of fear. If you’d been in the press room, for two years, before the war, every day, Ari Fleischer said Saddam Hussein, 911. The press was excited. They found out different, that people fight for their country even if they have a horrible dictator. The Pentagon thought it could manipulate, set up an office of disinformation, and it became so impossible they pulled it. But truth cannot be buried. Somehow, in a democracy, it still works. Bush’s support has absolutely almost vanished.

Paul: There is one area where it’s worked, and that’s the military. It’s a captive audience. There’s a lot of rebuilding that needs to be done to regain that trust. The administration has always used the tactic of saying something enough times that [people start to believe] it’s true. First it was blame the media, now it’s blame the Iraqis, and the big CYA drill is going to start to develop in the White House. But the American people are not stupid. There is going to be a reckoning, accountability. Don’t let them blow it back. Force responsibility to the people who gave the orders.

Joshwolf.Net (his mom): We need money, we need publicity.

Audience: Iran, let’s oppose it now. This war was not a mistake, it was a criminal act and should be treated accordingly.

War on Terror: Sunali, I never understood how you could make war on an abstract noun. It should be called the war OF terror.

Women sources: Sunali: we request guests who are women, of color, or both. If we can do it at Pacifica, they could certainly do that in the mainstream media.

Danny Schechter: Why are there no protest signs at Times Square, the nexus of American media? Why are we not supporting the Helen Thomases who are out there? In the tribunals in the former Yugoslavia, in Rwanda, media was attacked for promoting hatred and genocide. Yet no one is talking about media crimes to disinform us.

Erik: A lot of progressive democrats were born with the notion that the press is our friend. But after Whitewater, the press is not on our side and we can’t rely on them to tell the truth. Since the Al Gore recount debacle, I think the progressives have been very strong in spreading word that media is an important issue. Conservatives started this concern 40 years ago, progressives only about 4 years ago. So I’m heartened.

Paul: it’s bullshit that it’s unpatriotic to protest. My girlfriend was at a protest when I went to Iraq. If a vet challenges your patriotism, you can push back. A recent Army Times poll showed half of active duty are dissatisfied with the way this admin has run the war. Cultivate and encourage those who have come home to step out and voice their opinions. They’re concerned about being blackballed.

I may go back as a part of this surge. It’s very dangerous for us and our families. Offer protection however you can, and create an environment that embraces their opinions. My brother said I need to worry about GOP snipers. People were calling and harassing my family, but that’s kind of gone away now. Now it’s become more acceptable to criticize. There’s a strange camaraderie within the vet community. Vietnam vets were the first to embrace me. Thee is a huge credibility vacuum. There are more coming home and we need that first-person credibility. It’s integral that we embrace these people. By and large, I’ve been really supported.

Support their right to speak out, and understand how risky it is.

Audience: I saw a camera crew in the Lower 9th Ward [in New Orleans] stop at a pile of rubble, pull out an American flag from their van, drape it and frame a shot. I’m not convinced that Katrina was a turning point in journalistic integrity.

Moderator: If you experience a journalist telling a lie, follow up with the individual and the media outlet. And be very specific about who when you talk about it later.

Sunali: There’s a huge blank space in U.S. coverage of Israel’s wars, our proxy wars.

Mario: two other culprits: the PR industry, which doesn’t get enough attention, those unscrupulous multimillion dollar PR farms that are in cahoots with the Bush administration, drawn up by some of the most brilliant minds in PR. The other guilty party—why do we have such a general optimism about the Democrats? They’re talking about symbolic opposition. That’s doubletalk. There’s a lot of criticism about the Democrats from the right. How do we go about calling them on these contradictions?

Helen: The Democrats have only been in power a few days. I think they’re gathering strength from watching how the people are reacting. They have a great opportunity to stand up for the people and against this war.

Eric. There have been victories, the Downing Street Memo was brought to history by progressives and bloggers. Keep up the pressure and hope they do a better job. But we have had successes, and if we keep doing that, the press will realize they wont be allowed to turn a blind eye.

Paul: I’m encouraged that [Bill] O’Reilly’s losing market share and [Keith] Olbermann’s gaining.

Sunali. We can push back on the myth of the liberal media. With the same authenticity and intensity. And write letters to these big institutions. We have to write back in equal numbers.