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Guest Commentary: Propa-News and Media

May 5, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Now that the war part of the war is over a new media war is heating up as more diverse perspectives emerge within a news business many felt acted as publicists for the well-branded “Iraqi Freedom” campaign.
With adrenaline no longer pumping on the front lines or in the control rooms, some self-criticism is finally surfacing.
Ted Koppel told Marvin Kalb on C-SPAN that TV channels “going live” to a war and pointing cameras at events, does not journalism make.
“Watching war on TV from a distance,” the Nightline anchor insisted “is pulse-pounding entertainment. That’s damn good entertainment. We need to show people the consequences of war. People die in war.” No one turned on an icon like Ted for his mild dissent.
That wasn’t the case when MSNBC’s Ashleigh Banfield complained in a lecture, not, heaven forbid, on the air. “There were horrors that were completely left out of this war. So was this journalism, or was this coverage?” she asked. “As a journalist, I have been ostracized just from going on television and saying, `Here’s what the leaders of Hezbollah, a radical Moslem group, are telling me about what is needed to bring peace to Israel. And here’s what the Lebanese are saying.’ Like it or lump it, don’t shoot the messenger, but that’s what they do.”
The “they” undoubtedly were her bosses, who used the war to outfox Fox with promos proclaiming “God Bless America.” They quickly let Banfield know her thoughts were not welcome.
“NBC News President Neal Shapiro has taken correspondent Ashleigh Banfield to the woodshed for a speech in which she criticized the networks for portraying the Iraqi war as `glorious and wonderful,”’ wrote The Hollywood Reporter.
An official spokesperson for the GE/Micosoft-owned news net said: “She and we both agreed that she didn’t intend to demean the work of her colleagues, and she will choose her words more carefully in the future.” This sounds like the kind of patronizing statement you would expect in Pravda-or Baghdad’s old Ministry of misinformation. In Saddam’s Iraq, she would have been done for. Let’s see what happens at NBC. Rush Limbaugh, the voice of America’s Republican Guard, has already begun to denounce her.
Even mainsteam media monitor Howard Kurtz is looking back in anguish. “Despite the investment of tens of millions of dollars and deployment of hundreds of journalists, the collective picture they produced was often blurry,” he wrote, asking, “Were readers and viewers well served or deluged with confusing information? And what does all of this portend for coverage of future wars?”
Good questions, which lead to others: Why all the patriotic correctness? Did the Pentagon subsidize all the embedded journalists? How effective were their spinmeisters and behind-the-scenes-information (IO) operatives? Did they exercise the right of approval over all those armchair generals on the air? Were media companies pulling punches to curry favor with an administration they are lobbying to lift regulations?
Especially troubling are reports that news networks vetted their commentators with the Pentagon. CNN News Chief Eason Jordan told Kurtz: “I went to the Pentagon myself several times before the war started and met with important people there and said, for instance, at CNN, `Here are the generals we’re thinking of retaining to advise us on the air and off about the war.’ And we got a big thumbs-up on all of them. That was important.”
Propaganda is a term that American TV News uses freely to describe others. It is rarely applied to what we see and hear.
Remember all that on-air cheerleading for “taking out” Iraqi TV even though bombing TV stations violates international law? Remember all the vicious attacks on Al Jazeera for showing images of U.S. POW’s which Mort Kondracke on Fox denigrated as “culturally Arab?”
Again, that’s propaganda. Whereas our sneering coverage of Iraqi prisoners, or the detainees in Guantanamo Bay, is just (gulp, keep a straight face) objective news.
This is an old debate. Perhaps its time for our generation of embeds and TV hot heads to become acquainted with the findings of Harold Lasswell, one of our greatest sociologists. He explained that all sides rely on propaganda in every war. Why? Because it engineers consent.
He wrote: `”'[A] new and subtler instrument must weld thousands and thousands and even millions of human brings into one amalgamated mass of hate, will and hope. A new will must burn out the canker of dissent and temper the steel of bellicose enthusiasm. The name of this new hammer and anvil of social solidarity is propaganda. Talk must take the place of drill; print must supply the dance. War dances live in literature, and at the fringes of the modern earth; war propaganda breathes and fumes in the capitals and provinces of the world.”
He wrote that l927, before TV News could bring us all war all the time.
Some say the war in Iraq was about oil and empire.
In the suites of network power, it was fought for ratings and revenues. People may die, but war, fellow viewers, boosts business. Ultimately, it became a battle of the brands. Turn, turn, turn.
“News Dissector” Danny Schechter, formerly a producer for CNN and ABC, writes a daily blog on news coverage for Mediachannel.org. His latest book is Media Wars: News at a Time of Terror (Rowman & Littlefield).