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Egad! They Lied!

Much ado has been made about the Bush administration's lies.

Jonathan Sterne

Friday, June 20 2003, 09:37 AM

Much ado has been made about the Bush administration's lies. On the question of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), they lied to congress, the United Nations, the American public, and people around the world. While protesters were loudly scolded in March for even mentioning that naughty three-letter-word "oil," now Wolfowitz and company happily admit 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. One can find indignant stories all over the mainstream news. I will not rehearse the details here. Instead, I wish 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.

Now, some critics are heartened by mainstream media indignation. 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."

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.

As it stands, the press has essentially become a client of the Federal government for its political news. The U.S. government has long since learned that the techniques of Public Relations (PR) are essential to managing public opinion. 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 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 latest Nation quotes 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 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. For that knowledge, they 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 withhold 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. While it makes sense for big organizations to both organize and control information to some degree, there are also important issues of access when that organization is a government or otherwise accountable to an external public.

2a. Information is also controlled in the field. While "embedding" 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).

2b. The U.S. destruction of the Palestine hotel in Baghdad (which killed several non-embedded journalists) was also effectively a PR maneuver, even if it was unintentional: if you're not with us, you could get killed.

3. Though this goes against the curriculum of any good journalism school ethics course, 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.

Now, add this up. The federal government and military decide that the message is going to be "they have WMD." 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 WMD, 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. 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. One can say the same thing about lesser tales in the Iraqi conflict, like 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. This is key: people may or may not believe mainstream news coverage. But if they turn on the television, they are not likely to see any alternatives because of the way that coverage is manufactured.

Now, there are published challenges cropping up everywhere. And the mainstream news is finally talking about other dimensions of war, like civilian dead. While has been attempting to document the civilian dead in this war since before it started, last week the New York Times finally showed some front-page interest as well. Reporters, talk show hosts and other pundits are pushing the administration on its fabrications, and even occasionally publishing 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). 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.

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 are likely attacking administration officials now because this is 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 who 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 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. Our goal should be to help manufacture those opportunities and to fight for a mainstream press that is free of both prior restraint, as promised by the First Amendment, and cynical PR manipulation.

Jonathan Sterne is a member of the Bad Subjects Collective. 

Copyright © 2003 by Jonathan Sterne. All rights reserved.