Notes for the Next Media War

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We can change war coverage. We can change the pattern of deception, dissemination, revelation and indignation that characterizes U.S. war news since Vietnam.

Jonathan Sterne

Issue #64, September 2003


It's summer 2003, the third Gulf War is over, and the U.S. government is trying to figure out how to occupy a country while public support for continued troop presence in Iraq dwindles.

Meanwhile, if one reads the alternative press, it appears that the left is still smarting from the fact that the Bush administration essentially lied and got away with it (or "spoke untruths," or "hid facts," or "said what needed to be said," depending upon whom you ask). The August edition of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting's Extra Update — a media watchdog publication — complains that "for Bush, the bar on 'lying' has been set impossibly high" — meaning that if Bush merely says things that are not true, the mainstream press will not call it lying. As this issue goes to press, Eric Alterman's column in The Nation reminds us that Colin Powell also lied.

And in a bizarre imitation of mainstream glossy news magazines, the September 2003 In These Times promises more on its cover than it can deliver in its pages. The cover screams "PSYOPS"! in red letters, with the subtitle "How George Bush, the media, and a PR firm sold Americans on the war in Iraq." But turn inside, and the article says "of course, we have no way of knowing whether Rendon or any other PR specialist helped influence the toppling of Saddam's statue or any other specific images that the public saw during the war in Iraq." The article does, however, point to a more important dimension: the relationship between the press and the government, and the casualization of lying when it comes to government speech about war. The article quotes an exchange between Donald Rumsfeld and a reporter at a press briefing in September 2001, about two weeks after the terrorist attacks on New York City:

Reporter: Will there be any circumstances, as you prosecute this campaign, in which anyone in the Department of Defense will be authorized to lie to the news media in order to increase the chances of success of a military operation or gain some other advantage over your adversaries?

Rumsfeld: [After a long quote from Winston Churchill] The answer to your question is no. I cannot imagine a situation. I don't recall that I've ever lied to the press. I don't intend to. And it seems to me that there will no be reason for it. There are dozens of ways to avoid having to put yourself in a position where you're lying. And I don't do it [ . . .]

Reporter: That goes for everyone in the Department of Defense?

Rumsfeld: You've got to be kidding.

[Laughter from the press corps at the briefing.]

What are we to make of this? On the one hand, the press and news audiences are so accustomed to government lies that it can be joked about in briefings between the highest levels of government and the elite of the U.S. press. On the other, much ado has been made about the Bush administration's use of untruths, partial truths and outright lies during the conquest of Iraq. On the question of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), they lied to Congress, the United Nations, the American public, and people around the world. They lied about why the inspectors left Iraq, and they lied about the amount of evidence they had for the existence of WMDs. Of course, discussions quickly turned to who was really lying, and who was simply operating on the "best information" they had available. But the attempt to apportion blame is exactly the wrong approach. Rather than looking for the bad apples, we need to ask some hard questions about a system of political PR and news reporting that allows for lies and half-truths to circulate so easily and with such great effect.

panic While protesters were loudly scolded in March for even mentioning that naughty three-letter-word "oil," by summer Wolfowitz and company happily admitted that oil was a big part of the equation, along with a complex and sometimes-contradictory mix of "strategic" reasons for invading Iraq, overthrowing its regime and killing thousands of people. And this was not simply a matter for the alternative magazines with small circulations; it was also covered in mainstream papers like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and on several television newsmagazines. Reporters, both alternative and mainstream, acted indignant and scandalized that the Bush administration had deliberately misled the press and the American public. One can even find occasional moments on the major TV networks where journalists are finally asking Bush administration officials tough questions about the whole WMD debacle. Mainstream press outlets have published articles with titular phrases like "Bush Administration Misled Congress" and "Faulty Intelligence."

By now you know the story. But to borrow a line from the now-infamous French writer Jean Baudrillard:

The scandal is that there is no scandal.

The U.S. government has publicly and loudly lied to justify almost every major military engagement of the 20th century, and a few of the 19th century as well. The explosion of The Maine at the beginning of the misnamed Spanish-American War? A lie. Pearl Harbor an unprovoked surprise attack? A lie. Gulf of Tonkin incident? A lie. Iraqis pulling Kuwaiti babies out of incubators in 1991? A lie. These and countless other well-documented cases of government fabrication and exaggeration point to a century-long pattern of U.S. government press manipulation with the goal of whipping the American people into a war frenzy. If that's not enough, consider the use of war photography. As has been well documented all over the World Wide Web, the famous photo of Iraqis toppling the Saddam Hussein statue was not a spontaneous act by a jubilant crowd, but rather an orchestrated and carefully cropped photo opportunity. Wider-angle photos of the square clearly show that it's mostly empty, and ringed by American tanks and troops (see the picture at http://www.indybay.org/news/2003/04/1598451_comment.php).

It is easy to applaud the mainstream media for taking a critical stance, now that less is at stake and their own hides are no longer on the line. And yes, it is indeed better that the Bush administration be challenged on its behavior. But why now and not before? To answer that, we have to look at broader patterns of news media practice.

The problem is not a few "bad apples" or a corps of incompetent or compliant reporters who don't do their jobs right. The problem is that the system of lying, PR and misinformation depends upon reporters doing their jobs just as they are supposed to. To put it another way, the U.S. government's PR apparatus can exploit the institutions and routines of the press to say whatever it wants and let the press clean up the mess later. That's how it happened in 1991, and that's how it happened in 2003.

As it stands, the press has essentially become a client of the federal government for its political news. As is obvious if you read any political news story, since reporters must maintain the routines and appearance of objectivity, they need to pepper their stories with sources. And official government sources have lots of credibility and are trained to make reporters' difficult jobs easier. Or, to put it another way, agencies in the U.S. government, despite their many internal conflicts and differences, have adopted a pretty uniform strategy toward dealing with the press. To spread their messages, they use the techniques of PR — classic PR techniques that are taught in introductory PR courses at colleges and universities all over the world. PR for wartime is not significantly different than any other kind of PR campaign, only that the stakes are higher and that more human lives hang in the balance. Here is an admittedly rough sketch of how it works:

  1. A key principle of PR is that you need a coherent message. A group of people is designated to come up with the "message" that the government wishes to get out to the press, and through the press, to people who read, watch, and/or listen to the news. As The Nation quoted Paul Wolfowitz, the choice of WMD had "a lot to do with the US government bureaucracy, we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on, which was weapons of mass destruction as the core reason." This kind of thinking is quite common. Not only would WMD appeal to a wide range of sometimes-competing federal bureaucratic interests, it could also be a particularly effective issue with the American public by playing on post-9/11/01 fears of American vulnerability to attack.
     
  2. A second principle of PR is that you have to control access to information. Once a message is chosen, it is sent out through official channels. As contradictory as this might seem at first blush, American political journalists have relatively little access to information about what is going on at any given moment. Most people know this to be so during wartime, but the same is true during peacetime. For information, journalists rely on "press secretaries" and "spokespeople," who are essentially designated PR officials. This sets up a client-like relation, where the spokesperson can reward journalists for favorable coverage and punish journalists (by withholding information) for unfavorable coverage. Generally speaking, journalists' access to organizations is restricted, as best as possible, to (and by) official sources like a designated spokesperson.
     
  1. This works the same way in the field. While "embedding" (the practice of putting journalists in the field with troops) may seem like an amazingly open and democratic way of allowing the press to cover a war, it also greatly increases the chances of uncritical, prowar coverage since the military is able to select exactly who will be embedded, and moreover, journalists intentionally put in harm's way are more likely to identify with the U.S. troops they cover (and who now have the added responsibility of protecting the journalists who cover them).
     
  2. The U.S. destruction of the Palestine hotel in Baghdad (which killed several non-embedded journalists) was also a PR maneuver, even if it was unintentional: if you're not with us, you could get killed.
     
  1. A third principle of PR is that it is easier to tell a lie than to correct a lie. Once something is reported, it is very hard to "unreport" it, no matter how outrageous the untruth. Consider the Jessica Lynch story. It is well documented by now that Lynch's captors had tipped off U.S. troops to come get her, and that no significant force stood between the troops and Lynch. Yet to this day, news sources will report on the "heroics" of the rescue, and we can readily expect that the CBS made-for-TV movie will also feature a dramatic rescue, which will further serve to obscure the real event.
     

panic Now, add this up. The federal government and military decide that the message is going to be "they have WMDs." Press releases are sent out, and spokespeople do their best to keep the press "on message" by providing a flood of prepackaged news and information about WMDs, intelligence about Iraqi WMD, etc. They make it easy and attractive for journalists to report the story "on message." If journalists want to go against this flood of information, they have a lot more work to do. They have to ask impolite questions that may alienate their sources (upon whom they depend for news). They have to go out and find sources who are willing to talk with them. They have to get extra time (an especially rare commodity in these days of newsroom cutbacks) from their editors in order to research and present a credible story.

In short, if we follow the WMD story up to the present moment, it follows the PR model perfectly. As I've suggested, so does the famously-fabricated picture of Saddam Hussein's statue being toppled, or the "rescue" of Private Jessica Lynch.

Of course there were published challenges to the official line in all of these cases and many others, both by a few mainstream op-ed columnists and by many in the alternative press. But very little of this saw the light of day outside the editorial pages in mainstream newspapers, and there was even less critical coverage on television.

Once the Bush administration declared the war over, and Iraqi resistance continued into the summer of 2003, published challenges started to crop up everywhere. And the mainstream news finally talked about other dimensions of war, like civilian dead. While iraqbodycount.net has been attempting to document the civilian dead in this war since before it started, June saw the New York Times finally showed some front-page interest as well. Reporters, talk show hosts and other pundits pushed the administration on its fabrications, and even occasionally published critical takes on the military PR apparatus.

One could be an optimist and say "it's good that the news media are finally coming around." And indeed, it is good. Except that this also follows a pattern of war coverage.

Go back and look at how major media outlets reconsidered their coverage of the Gulf of Tonkin, the Panama invasion, or the second Gulf War (the first Gulf War was the Iran-Iraq conflict, where the U.S. supplied Iraq with weapons and money — another case of PR slanting news coverage to a particular message). In every case, at some point after the war, the mainstream press begins to question the lies put forth by the administration (years later, in the case of Pearl Harbor). Indignant articles are published, difficult questions are asked.

Most of these reports are published and read by adults with long memory-spans and good reading comprehension. We should ask why, then, the scenario repeats itself. If we knew that the federal government lied about the second Gulf War, why didn't the mainstream press push harder the third time around, this past spring? One answer is that mainstream outlets in the U.S. are very concerned about appearing "biased" and they are afraid of being labeled anti-American. This is probably true at some abstract level.

A more concrete and politically significant answer lies in the PR model on which war news is manufactured and delivered. It is cheap and efficient for all concerned, and works especially well for news organizations (usually owned by media conglomerates) that deliberately understaff their newsrooms and give reporters inhumanly short deadlines to keep profit margins as high as possible. War news is also exceptionally important for ratings and readership. More people watch or read the news in wartime than in peacetime. So increased war coverage actually helps networks and newspapers sell their audiences to advertisers.

panic

The combination of organizational imperatives within the mainstream news media and the PR strategies by government and military organizations has led to a fairly predictable system in wartime. Lies can be quickly manufactured, easily and effectively disseminated, and "cleaned up" later, after the fact. One needn't even read this as a cynical ploy on the part of journalists: reporters were likely attacking administration officials earlier this summer because it was their first real chance to do so. They may well believe in the importance of truthful news and the ideals of public service that journalism is supposed to embody. The problem is that many of their sources — and many of their ultimate bosses — do not.

While people of all political persuasions were horrified by the recent FCC decision to further relax media ownership rules, there are many other levels on which we need to challenge current media practice. The mutual interdependence of mainstream war news and PR-style information manufacture virtually guarantees the pattern of fabrication, reporting, and cleanup that we are now experiencing. Alternative media that largely exist outside the client relationship of the mainstream have done a much better job of reporting the war, in part because they don't have the same organizational imperatives as mainstream outlets do. One can say the same for many non-U.S. press outlets, which have comparatively more journalists, and a different set of institutional relationships (though there are homologies, as when the British press fell in line behind Tony Blair once the bombs officially started to fall in Iraq). But there is no reason not to believe that mainstream journalists, given a little more time, leeway, and opportunity could also provide stories critical of the official government line during wartime.

So what lessons can we take for the next media war? Here are a few:

  1. We have to remember that the problem is structural, and not individual. Even at the level of the presidency, while Bush may have lied, it is entirely likely that if Democrats or other Republicans were in the same position, they would have done the same thing. This is why the mainstream media pattern of deception, dissemination, revelation and indignation recurs with each war the U.S. enters.
     
  2. While the alternative press must expose whatever specific lies are circulated in the next war, the bigger goal has to be exposing the system that enables the lying.
     
  3. It's not just a question of corporate control over the news, but rather how the news is made. Much has been made of the recent FCC decisions (which are, of course, peanuts compared to the giant giveaway in the 1996 telecommunications act). While media reform should focus on alternatives to commercial institutions, if our goal is better, more truthful news for an informed citizenry, we need to devise and promote viable alternatives to the current PR-news apparatus that drives all mainstream war journalism. Attacking corporate control is part of the strategy, but it cannot be the whole strategy.
     
  4. Like the government's PR strategy, ours is also an enterprise of persuasion. A great deal of alternative press coverage of the administration's lies assumes a readership that already agrees with their position. Indeed, this piece does as well. But we also need to produce alternative media that don't assume their audience already agrees with their position. If our goal is to persuade people who do not already agree with us, we need to produce accessible, available and powerful media that will speak to them. It is tragic that much of the alternative press (apart from volunteer efforts like indymedia.org) has had to worry about appealing to its own "demographic" and the shrill marketing techniques of fashion and consumer magazines, like the deceptive cover of September's In These Times. We need a bigger, broader and more diverse alternative news media. We need a range of alternative media voices, styles and institutions.
     
  5. We need to think long-term. In a dissertation on the U.S. Crime Victim Movement ("The Crime Victim Movement and U.S. Public Culture," Communication, University of Illinois, 2002), Carrie Rentschler shows how a well-organized, behind-the-scenes movement affected the coverage of crime and violence in the U.S. media over the past four decades. They did it, in part, by training journalists and building new kinds of journalistic curricula. If we want to break the PR stranglehold on war news, it's our job to come up with alternative models of journalism education, and to find ways to get them into journalism schools.
     

We can change war coverage. We can change the pattern of deception, dissemination, revelation and indignation that characterizes U.S. war news since Vietnam. But to do so, we need to work on multiple fronts, we need to abandon our scandalized indignation, and we need to build alternative institutions for the future.


Jonathan Sterne is a member of the Bad Subjects Collective and an assistant professor of Communication at the University of Pittsburgh. He's written widely on media, technology and the politics of culture. Visit his website at http://www.sterneworks.org.

Credits: Protesting Iraqi © 2003 Mike Mosher. Newspaper image from public-relations-bockow.com. Handshake image from agitprop.co.yu.

Copyright © 2003 by Jonathan Sterne. All rights reserved.

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