30,000 deaths, more or less: When the media becomes subservient to government policy

Jeff Smith

On a recent episode of The Daily Show they showed a clip of a woman asking Bush about how many Iraqis have been killed since the beginning of the US war in Iraq. Bush responded that he wasn’t sure, but around 30,000 “more or less.” Unfortunately this flippant display by Bush about civilian deaths at the hands of US policy was not commented on much by pundits or reporters across the country.

This is just the most recent example of a media that will not seriously challenge or investigate the current administration on its war policy. This is amazing considering that well over half of the country’s population is now opposed to the US war/occupation of Iraq and a good percentage of that majority population wants the troops to come home now. Clearly news consumers would welcome information that would critique the current war policy, particularly if it provided perspectives outside of the narrow partisan political echo chamber. Despite the fact that the role of the news media in regards to Iraq has been one of stenography – just repeating official positions – the American public is overwhelmingly still opposed to the war. A positive note, if one is looking for optimism in the American public.

Through my work with the GR Institute for Information Democracy we have been able to document the local news coverage of the US war in Iraq. Our most recent study entitled Violence, Soldier Deaths, and Omissions: Local TV News Coverage of the US Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, looks at 20 hours of local TV news per week for 3 months – from August 1 through November 8 of 2005. Some of the basic findings are that when reporting about what was happening in Iraq, the coverage was primarily violence-based. For instance most of these violence-based stories were about the latest “insurgent” attacks, with video footage showing burning cars or building rubble on the street and a statement from the Pentagon on whether or not US troops were killed or wounded. We provide numerous examples in the report which you can find online at http://www.griid.org. The basic critique we offer on this type of coverage is that it doesn’t provide a context for the attacks by insurgents, a context which might explain the motives of Iraqis who have taken it upon themselves to resist the US occupation. We also note in the study that there was not one single story about US military attacks against, thus leaving viewers with the impression that the US is only there to protect Iraqis from the “militants, but commits no atrocities themselves.

However, most of the coverage locally dealt with either US troops returning home for a visit or the death of an area soldier. With channel’s 8 and 17 nearly 50% of the news coverage of the US wars in Iraq & Afghanistan was about area troops and in the case of channel 13 it was more than 50%. These stories involved family members greeting troops at the airport, with an emphasis on the emotional aspect of these encounters. When reporting on local soldier deaths the stories tended to be longer, averaging over 2 minutes, and focused on comments from family, friends and the community at large responding to the tragic news. Former teachers and coaches are sought out to reflect on the character of these young men who died in Iraq, but the reporting never goes beyond that. A question we need to ask ourselves and reporters who cover these stories is “does it serve the public to just report the deaths of these soldiers or do we need to ask the question why?” I say, HELL NO! If families and communities are going to have their young people put in harms way it is imperative that journalists and news agencies provide the public with as much information from as many perspectives as possible so that we all can decide whether or not it is worth it for these young people to risk their lives. Anything less would be disrespectful and dismissive of their family’s loss, much the same way that Bush was flippant about the loss of Iraqi lives.

In early December there was another interesting element on the role of news on the war in Iraq. It was reported in the mainstream press that the US military was paying to have positive stories written about Iraq. The December 1st story that ran in Grand Rapids reported that the Pentagon had hired a US-based firm, the Lincoln Group to place these fabricated stories in the Iraqi Press. This story, which originated from the LA

Times, provided little response from the US government other than a simple oops. The international Press did a better job of fleshing out some of the details. Agence Fance Presse quotes one Iraqi journalist who says “We were called to go out with them on various educational, reconstruction, health or aid projects and asked to write positive stories for $50. After 3 months I left. The whole thing was ridiculous and against the ethics of journalists.” According to PR Watch, a spokesperson for the military, Lt. Col. Barry Johnson said, It’s “an important part of countering misinformation … by insurgents.” However, Gen. Peter Pace, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed concern that it could “be detrimental to the proper growth of democracy” in Iraq. Media organizations weren’t so conflicted. The International Center for Journalists’ vice-president called the program “indefensible” and the World Press Freedom Committee’s director called it “unacceptable.” One thing missing from even the international press was that this is not a new strategy of the US when engaged in foreign wars.

According to Nancy Snow’s book Propaganda Inc. this has been standard practice by the US especially since the creation of the CIA. In his book

Mockingbird: The Subversion of The Free Press By The CIA, Alex

Constantine writes that in the 1950s, “some 3,000 salaried and contract

CIA employees were eventually engaged in propaganda efforts”. As an example, Edward Bernays, the grandfather of the Public Relations industry in the US, was hired by the US government to take US journalists to Guatemala in early 1954 to meet with US Embassy officials in order to write article that would demonize the democratically government of Guatemala, making it easier to justify the CIA back coup in October 1954. William Blum in his book Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Intervention since WWII, demonstrated that planting stories in the media by the CIA and other US agencies is standard practice. Blum even documents instances where CIA agents wrote speeches for foreign leaders who were backed by the US. For example, after Ramon Magsaysay was brought to power in the

Philippines with CIA assistance, the Central Intelligence Agency “wrote his speeches and carefully guided his foreign policy.”

So whether it is a subservient Press or a bought Press we can not rely on the mainstream coverage of the ongoing war/occupation of Iraq. There are great independent sources out there like http://www.IraqJournal.org, http://www.OccupationWatch.org and ZNet’s Iraq page, so check out these independent voices, but there are other things you can do. Join the GRIID media action alert campaign. What we do is send out regular media alerts about local news coverage, either specific stories or when we complete studies to engage the local news to improve their reporting on crucial issues such as the war/occupation of Iraq. You can also get involved in local campaigns against the war, especially since we are fast approaching the third anniversary of the beginning of this war in March. There will be numerous efforts planned locally, like a film series, anti-recruiter actions and an effort to get the Grand Rapids City Commission to adopt a resolution against the ongoing war, mostly because of the cost to tax payers and local communities that are slashing their budgets for services like education and recreational facilities. To sign up for the GRIID Media Alerts send an e-mail to Jeff Smith at jsmith@grcmc.org and for the other campaigns just check out http://www.mediamouse.org.

Author: mediamouse

Grand Rapids independent media // mediamouse.org