“War is fought in fog of falsehood, a great deal of it uncovered and accepted as truth. The fog arises from fear and is fed by Panic”,
said Arthur Ponsoby, former Lord of Shulbrede in times of the inter war period (Ponsonby, 2010). His statement still counts as a contemporary truth as media -like then in other circumstances- don’t report wars as accurate, unbiased and impartial as they should.
In history -talking about conflict reporting- we have seen censorship from governments to prevent people from knowing the truth about The Great War for example. Something that has been admitted by former prime minister, Lloyd George himself:
“If the people really knew the truth, the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course, they don’t know and can’t know” (Crosby, 2014).
But means of journalism have changed after the Great Wars. Human rights were introduced to the international community and freedom of speech was one of them (Council of Europe, 1950). This caused a radical change in journalism as media outlets and newspapers could write their own editorials, opinions and news reports without interference from the government, because that would be illegal (Council of Europe, 1950).
But this fundamental change towards press liberty doesn’t mean that media themselves report to the fullest of their conscience (McLaughlin, 2002). A great example of that is the covering of the Iraqi War in 2003 where media have misreported on events in favour of their own special interests (Barret, 2004). In this essay, I will analyse the general coverage of U.S. media during the Iraqi conflict whilst taking the controversial propaganda model from Chomsky into account.
In recent history, we can see one major conflict on which media reported with disinformation and bias, the Iraqi War (Cockburn, 2016). More specifically the U.S. media. One of the major causes of the biased coverage can be tied to the practice of embedding.
Embedding has been a great player during the coverage of the Iraqi War. It’s a form of getting journalists in the battlefield by tying them to a military unit, going to the battleground and getting their remarks and information live from battle. This was used during the Falklands War between Britain and Argentina as well. Journalists relied completely on the army for their protection, food and shelter. But also for getting their news reports back to the UK. As a result, a sort of good spirit between journalist and soldier came to life and as a consequence of that, news in favour of the Royal British Forces (Pfau, et al., 2005).
The Iraqi War was the first conflict in which embedding had been used on such a large scale. More than 600 national and international journalists were involved in the operation. Pentagon officials saw the way it worked out in the past for Britain as journalist automatically reported in favour of the homeland because of the psychological effects of embedding. Therefore the U.S. thought it would be a good idea “to facilitate access of national and international media to the U.S. Forces”, as former spokeswoman of the U.S. Department of Defense had announced on the matter back then (Pfau, et al., 2005).
By embedding a journalist, the government makes sure that the correspondent or reporter in question will be bound to create a relationship with the unit he’s tied to, which will automatically create intimacy especially in hard conditions as military combat. A fundament for censorship without breaking any law (Pfau, et al., 2005; Hawkins, 2008).
Secondly, the study conducted by Michael Pfau also states that embedded journalists will be forced to function as a part of the military unit they’re put into. In other words, they will learn to behave like a soldier and therefore feel like a soldier. This was also described by an embed journalist straight after the Iraqi war: “We lived and ate and slept with the Marines as a unit. We travelled with them and moved with them. So, we were with them all the time.” (LaFleur, 2003; Pfau, et al., 2005).
Reading through the lines of what the journalist above implies, being embedded means being restricted in movement. Journalists never really saw any military operation fail, keeping in mind that the Iraqi conflict was a great example of guerrilla warfare (Barret, 2004). Most of the well-thought of guerrilla offensives will likely take place where the enemy troops, the U.S. Forces in this case, are weak and thus not present in large quantities. That way, some very important battle stages that turned out negative for the U.S. Forces were not seen by journalists, so, rather logical, they couldn’t report them either (Cockburn, 2010). Essentially, embedding put the journalists in the wrong place at the wrong time and makes another fine fundament for legal censorship (Barret, 2004).
Another journalist stated that the embed program in Iraq worked like the Stockholm Syndrome. The journalist’s survival depends on the unit they’re covering. It’s easy to lose perspective of their foremost duty, reporting, and therefore to be impartial and cover righteously (Pfau, et al., 2005).
Beside embedding, another two-part crucial factor plays a role in the fact that media deliberately misreport certain conflicts, propaganda and capitalism (Hawkins, 2008).
Patriotism as a special interest
During the run up to the conflict, media lost their critique as it became clear that the U.S. would march to war (Pfau, et al., 2005; Buying the War, 2007). This was enforced by an overwhelmingly patriotic atmosphere after the events of 9/11. Every time the subject of a possible Iraqi War came up during press conferences at the White House, journalists kept themselves to a script given out by the Communication Department. And they did so, willingly. As a result, this patriotic atmosphere was conducted through U.S. news outlets. Essentially, they served as a propaganda channel for the government, again, willingly.
The main reason for the U.S. to go to war was the suspicion of weapons of mass destruction on Iraqi soil. This was an immediate threat to the Western world and with 9/11 in mind, to the U.S. A main goal was to convince the public of this case to justify the war. Besides, Americans sought retaliation for 9/11 and basically any place in the Middle East was good enough to blame. But a nation with an authoritarian regime and possibly WMD? How much better could a possible justification get? So, the media left its duty in the tumultuous run up to the patriotic –and for them profitable- crusade (Buying the War, 2007).
At the start of the Iraqi war, when U.S. Forces and British troops landed, a lot of Hussein’s men fled to well-equipped shelters. A very ‘traditional’ first battle stage never took place as the opposing troops actually fled before there even was a proper fight. Of course, this was hard to put forward at the editorial boards and news desks as a medium’s viewership or readership expects drama from the first battle stages (Hawkins, 2008). Therefore, large U.S. broadcasters CNN, Fox and NBC decided to transmit images from U.S. missiles and airstrikes targeting enemy territories and tanks. Later, it was released that such airstrikes, transmitted at the beginning of the war, were unnecessary as there never really was any enemy presence. Tanks that got destroyed during those bombings turned out to be defect even before the Allied forces arrived (Cockburn, 2010; Cockburn, 2016). Nonetheless, these images resulted in a patriotic view, a first victory after 9/11 and a well-fed wallet for media corporations (Buying the War, 2007).
Overly reliant on government sources and the corporate view
Media’s meddling with the U.S. government’s is an irrefutable fact as well as a mutual financial beneficial relationship, which made journalists turn against the very democratic value they stand for, freedom of speech (Barret, 2004; Herman & Chomsky, 2002).
During the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Former BBC Director-General, Greg Dyke had commented that there was no American news outlet brave enough to stand up against the White House and the Pentagon. A statement proven by the question of CNN to the U.S. government to provide (retired) army officials to analyse the Iraqi war. In this case, it also immediately relies on a point in Chomsky’s propaganda model: ‘reliance on official sources’ (Herman & Chomsky, 2002; Barret, 2004).
The collaboration goes as far as former CNN Chairman, Walter Isaacson literally prescribing stories to correspondents that would ensure a justification of the war. Like that a rather conservative audience could be kept happy. The editorial board on the other hand kept some criticism during analyses to keep a more liberal viewership and readership at bay. Chomsky’s and Herman’s point of a corporate and profit oriented view hereby becomes rather difficult to deny. (Herman & Chomsky, 2002; Barret, 2004).
Nonetheless, several journalists at The New York Times questioned the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Reportedly, the editorial board wasn’t happy with these stories as they would undermine the cause for the war in Iraq. Moreover,
the board feared a so called ‘flak’ campaign during press conferences on the paper because they questioned ‘the patriotic American values’ (Barret, 2004). Flak would therefore mean that the newspaper would sell less copies and therefore, lose profit. A corporate view on the war was created. (Hawkins, 2008; Cockburn, 2016; Barret, 2004).
A similar occurrence took place in the 70s, in times of the cold war. Back then, the U.S. Senate ‘Church’ committee conducted investigations from which came forward that the CIA hired 400 willing journalists to write untruthful and manufactured theories, about the Soviet Union. They were hired and paid by the CIA. The investigations even released a list of media corporations involved in the corruption. It consisted of pretty much every major news outlet. Even though the Intelligence Agency pledged to respect the Fourth Estate, they kept on persuading journalists after the events. In 1996, it even came to light that 90 prominent senior-positioned editors had been payed by the CIA to withhold information from the media concerning sensitive ideological information between the SU and the U.S. (Barret, 2004).
Chomsky’s allegations to the media and their way of agenda setting are rather innocent. But the evidence of long-term collaborative actions between government and journalists is something else (Barret, 2004).
Advertising and the profit oriented view of the war
Another fact that proves the biased coverage during the Iraqi war is advertising and the profit oriented view of U.S. media corporations. In an inquiry by Newsweek in 2004 came forward that major U.S. news outlets had a mutual financial beneficial relationship with their advertisers as media promised to place certain company adverts next to ‘more cheerful’ news instead of next to war reports from Iraq. The New York Times for example, decided that there would be a war-free zone in their newspaper in which the adverts of its advertisers would be placed. They even assured that adverts would be placed near buyer friendly news such as health, food, science, business and culture as an extra measurement to keep advertisers happy (Herman & Chomsky, 2002; Barret, 2004).
The entire war in Iraq has been one big collaboration between government and media.
Evidence of what has proven to be a long-term collaboration between U.S. media and the government is irrefutable. During the Iraqi war media decided to pursue financial profits by having a good story to sell instead of telling the truth and fear political and corporate flak and therefore loss in revenue. The government on the other hand, pursued agenda setting goals during the conflict such as keeping the war justified, making people believe that the threat of WMD was real. These Events eventually resulted into biased coverage of the conflict as media would profit from patriotic coverage that would serve their wallets and the government interests.
Firstly, The U.S. government wouldn’t have a had a single foot left to stand on regarding the continuation of the Iraqi War, if it wasn’t for the media’s corporate, profit oriented and special interest view. The war was a great product to sell to the people. It was in both the nation’s and the media’s interest to make sure it continued, with all the malpractices as a consequence such as making deals with advertisers, distorting stories and even making them up as it later turned out that there never were weapons of mass destruction on Iraqi soil, the major cause for the war.
In the end, embedding journalists during the Iraqi war has been the more understandable practice that lead to biased reporting. It is undeniable that embedding is and always has been a way of maintaining censorship. Journalists get attached to their unit. Moreover, they will only see what the government wants them to see. They are bound to the unit’s movements. And therefore, bound to censorship rules.
But then who is really to blame? Journalists or the government? In my opinion, the American Fourth Estate set aside its duties during the Iraqi conflict. Instead it focused on its own special interests. And even though there are plausible reasons for its betrayal to the public and itself such as the practice of embedding, which in sense a way of censorship, there are a lot of reasons where they took the wrong path on their own. The corporate view on the war is just one of them. The U.S. media coverage contributed to thousands of destroyed lives, in the Middle East but in their homeland as well. The policeman of the world turned to a bad cop during the Iraqi conflict.
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