Danny Schechter The Huffington Post 5/31/08

Duh: The Bush Administration deployed a dishonest but very effective propaganda campaign to sell the Iraq War to the American people on virtually every media outfit. Their “Culture of Deception” is now acknowledged.

How do we know? Scotty McClellan told us so. It’s all in the former Press Secretary’s new book. And, happily, it’s all over the news.

It’s easy to put McClellan down. On the right he’s a traitor. The President dismissed him as “sad.” Karl Rove compared him to a left-wing blogger. Most of the real left-wing bloggers were equally contemptuous suggesting he’s just trying to sell books, some asking: Why did he wait so long? Wasn’t he part of the plot? Is this just the pot calling the kettle black?

Yes, but, at least, he had the courage, these many years later, to confirm what I and other have been saying for years. And he didn’t avoid taking a poke at the media which did the Administration’s job for them by carrying unverified claims as facts, while blocking out any other narrative. To his credit, McClellan called our media “deferential, complicit enablers.”

He’s not the first rat to jump ship and won’t be the last. Think of him like the informants who turn on the mafia. The fact that a high profile former propagandist blew a whistle matters in the same way that it was a former Vietnam strategist named Daniel Ellsberg, who with Anthony Russo, exposed the Pentagon Papers. We all knew the government had lied then, but the Pentagon Papers explained how they did it. (The Papers came out in 1971; the war had been underway since l945.)

Ellsberg was branded a rat too. But without rats, prosecutors can’t get convictions. In Ellsberg’s case, he was the one convicted. Lets hope that in McClellan’s case, we can get to the real criminals in the dock along with the many who collaborated with them.

To be honest, what’s needed here are not more confessions by political insiders but an actual trial of the perpetrators. This government strategy, and the media coverage that served it, were not just mistakes or lapses in otherwise accurate coverage but crimes with real world consequences. Try a million dead in Iraq, and 40,000 Americans. And counting…

As I and others probed into the daily indifference to Iraqi suffering and the continuing orchestration of pro-war coverage, we came to see the problem not as continuously flawed reporting or even as a series of institutional failures, but in the same way as many whistleblowers tend to view the practices they expose–as a crime.

Given the number of lives lost and the amount of money wasted, these were the moral equivalents of serious felonies. When crimes take place in other settings, eventually government officials step in. As the scandals become public, there are exposés and then prosecutions. In this case, it is the government committing the crime, and the media, in essence, covering it up.

Yes, media crimes rationalize war crimes. Both are shameful and worthy of indictment.

Official scrutiny of media practices rarely happens, partly because of Constitutional protections afforded journalists and media outlets, and partly because wronged parties have little recourse.

It’s hard to fight back against media irresponsibility. Public shaming seems the only response, and its effectiveness depends on whether critics can be heard in the so-called public square. In the case of Iraq, there were 800 experts on all the channels in the run-up to the war. Only 6 opposed the war. No wonder, judgments like this are left to historians.

After the Second World War at the Nuremberg Tribunal, American prosecutors wanted to put the German media on trial for promoting Hitler’s policies. State propagandists were condemned. More recently, hate radio was indicted by the Rwanda tribunal investigating the genocide there, while in the former Yugoslavia, Serbian and Croatian TV were criticized for inciting a war that divided that country, encouraging murderous ethnic cleansing.
The principle that media outlets can, for reasons of omission or commission, be held responsible for their role in inflaming conflicts and promoting jingoism, has been well established. Many remember William Randolf Hearst’s famous yellow journalism dictum: “You give me the pictures, I will give you the war.”

In February 2005, Italy hosted the citizens-initiated World Tribunal on Iraq, which put the media “on trial” for its role in selling of the Iraq War. It was of course not covered here. The Tribunal was modeled on an earlier initiative during the Vietnam War by the then-leading international intellectuals Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone du Bouvoir. As a young journalist, I covered their sessions in Stockholm in 1967. I saw it as an act of conscience.

Most of the U.S. media saw it as an exercise in propaganda. Most of the charges they made then about U.S. war crimes are largely corroborated by the historical record even though only a few were reported when they occurred. I still remember watching CBS correspondent Morley Safer filming a stand-up in Stockholm, denouncing the Tribunal. Decades later, his “60 Minutes” returned to the scene of the My-Lai massacre interviewing former US soldiers who charged the U.S. military with the very war crimes Safer had dismissed when it mattered.

Critics today believe the media has covered up war crimes in Iraq, minimized civilian casualties, downplayed the destruction of cities like Fallujah, and misreported the reasons for going to war and how it was conducted. And they are right.
Will any of the “enablers” in TV news, or our leading newspapers, face consequences for their actions? I am not just talking about high profile journalists but their editors, producers, executives and proprietors.


Many pro-war reports won awards; many of those who engineered the propagandistic “coverage” were promoted. Their patriotically-correct ‘all the war, all the time’ approach raised ratings and revenues. Some were hailed as heroes, critics dismissed as zeros. Dick Cheney even dropped into a post-invasion media dinner to thank them for their service.

Media companies were happily co-opted as embeds while naysayers like Peter Arnett were banished. Later, many reporters were killed and wounded while trying to tell a story that has now largely disappeared from view.

Has there been any outbreak of conscience in newsrooms over the last five years or, more importantly, any commitment to cover Iraq in a less jingoistic manner? Not that I can see even though there is some occasionally “good” reporting. The title of the book by Editor & Publisher’s Greg Mitchell sums it up: “So Wrong for So Long.”

No wonder, many of the outlets abandoning journalism for “mili-tainment” lost viewers and credibility.

So thank you Scotty, whatever your motives, for reopening the debate. (And thank the indy media and a few gutsy websites and mainstreamers for telling the truth.)

Now it’s time to consider potential remedies even if we lack the power to enforce them. Our main media outlets have already been convicted in the global court of public opinion.

News Dissector Danny Schechter made WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception in 2004, a film shown in 40 countries. (Wmdthefilm.com). He wrote two books on media complicity, Embedded (2003) and When News Lies (2006). His latest, PLUNDER is about the financial crisis.

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