This column appeared in The Namibian on March 28, 2003, written by its editor, Gwen Lister. Lister, a 1996 Nieman Fellow, founded the Namibian in 1985. In 2001, she was named one of the 50 World Press Freedom Heroes by the International Press Institute.
It is undoubtedly fascinating and even mesmerizing to watch war, live on television. But I am conscious, as I’m sure are many other viewers the world over, that we’re largely seeing, on these channels, only what “they” want us to see. It is the sanitized version. Nothing too ugly, so the undiscerning viewer may think, and even believe, that it is a worthy war that is all but won.
The reality is something totally different and, if you’re lucky, and equally perceptive, you might catch a glimpse of it coming through now and then on your television screen: the traumatized and bleeding face of a child visible in a bombed building; a petrified dog fleeing as a missile is fired from a U.S. gun emplacement. Generally speaking, though, we’re simply seeing the relentless war machine hammer away at Iraq, from the air and the land and the sea. And we are seeing the talking heads sitting in the comfort of Camp David or 10 Downing Street, spouting off their moralistic propaganda about securing world safety and winning the fight on weapons of mass destruction.
But the United States networks in particular, and to a lesser degree the British, prove that they’re not going to show their viewers the images that will repel and revulse even the most hardened hawks. So the some 500 “embedded” journalists largely put out the image that the respective military forces and their political masters want the world to see.
George W. Bush, according to White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer, “doesn’t really watch TV.” As if we believe that! This U.S. President, who himself ducked service in Vietnam, now finds it all too easy to wage war and probably revels in the images.
The media are manipulable, particularly the vast TV networks. CNN, to our surprise, went against a Pentagon recommendation that they not screen the faces of POW’s or bodies of U.S. soldiers, for that matter. It is clear that while the public there is generally amenable and supportive of the war effort, the tide can turn if and when enough U.S. casualties are reported. And they don’t want to lose public support in this war of all wars.
The BBC’s Mark Damazer has already admitted that reporting of allied military claims in Iraq that later proved false—such as the heralding of the fall of Um Quasr at least nine times—had “left the public feeling less well-informed than it should be.” He agreed, too, that language used was misleading, such as claims of an area in Iraq being “liberated.” “That’s a mistake,” he said. “The secret is attribution, qualification and skepticism,” he added, a sentiment expressed by a U.S. media monitoring group, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting openly criticizes the networks, in particular, for a lack of skepticism towards official U.S. sources who had already led journalists into embarrassing errors in their Iraq coverage. Among others, they’ve claimed the Iraqis have fired Scuds (subsequently denied by military sources). (It is also worth recording that despite being touted as the prime raison d’etre for the war, no weapons of mass destruction have either been found in Iraq or used by the Iraqis in the conflict.) TV journalists even discovered a chemical plant that in fact did not exist!
Reference even to “coalition forces” is stretching the truth. It is simply the United States, the British allies, the Australians, and a few Polish noncom-batants. For the rest, there is no real “coalition.” The language of the networks in this regard speaks volumes. It is evident that objective journalism has been lost in the “us” and “them” scenario, in which Iraq is openly referred to as “the enemy.”
George W. Bush is getting muddled, too, but the networks won’t point this out. First he promised a short war, then he said it would be longer than anticipated, and so it goes. But no one points out these discrepancies. The TV networks generally show the sanitized version of the war. Iraqi civilians smiling as they’re treated for war wounds in a hospital; military medical corps operating to save lives of “enemy” soldiers; distribution of food and water—and so it goes. And much of the unsuspecting public is probably totally taken in by these images, and most of the U.S. public still appear to fervently believe that their troops are “liberators” rather than the occupiers they really are! (The raising of the U.S. flag at Um Quasr was a revealing “mistake.”)
There’s no truth in the propaganda that the United States wants to give Iraq back to the Iraqis. Simply put, they want it themselves. Already a U.S.-based company has been given the multimillion dollar task of managing the Um Quasr port. This is reality TV with a huge slice of Hollywood. So watch with this in mind and, where possible, turn to alternative sources of information, because fortunately those who haven’t been jammed or taken off the Internet or bombed off the face of the earth by the United States are still out there.