Saturday, November 20, 2004

From Florida to Fallujah: What the News Coverage Covers Up

One minute, we are still debating election returns in Ohio and Florida. And then, in a flash, the story largely disappears and the subject changes. Quickly, we have moved on as the news media converges on Fallujah to report on, and in the view of many, support what may be the bloodiest chapter to date of the Iraq war.

Media coverage lurches from event to event, and from spectacle to spectacle as a substance deficit disorder hyperactively drives the news agenda. No sooner are we focused on one major story, than another intrudes to change the subject and insures that there is no time for follow-up, much less thoughtful processing.

In some cases, this is the natural disorder of news, but in many others, there are hidden hands shifting the agenda in a conscious effort not simply to influence what we think, but control what we think about.

The Administration wants to refocus us on the elections to come in Iraq, not likely flaws in the elections that just occurred in America.

The coverage of the fight for Fallujah is a case in point, as the US military makes clear that "information control" is its first priority. When US troops seized a hospital there the goal was said to insure that news about civilian casualties in Iraq not infiltrate the news agenda.

As I document in my film WMD, US war strategy in Iraq has been run like a political campaign with key message points and "message of the day" perception management techniques underlying a strategy of "information dominance."

This invariably relies on deception as a key component of war fighting. There are five elements of this strategy currently in play:

1. Shape a Narrative

In Fallujah the US narrative and key talking point is making Iraq safe for democracy and elections. To achieve this -- or so the storyline goes -- the US must restore "local control," end the insurgency and kill or otherwise neutralize "foreign fighters" from whose ranks the US forces exempt themselves and their "coalition" partners.

Little attention is paid to warnings by the UN's Kofi Annan or the head of the EU that this ferocious attack on Fallujah makes fair elections unlikely.

And what of the "foreign fighters?" Most journalists and Iraq specialists argue that what the townspeople of Fallujah want is local control, but in their own hands. They insist that much of the "insurgency" that the locals call the resistance or Mujahadeen is home grown, not foreign or origin or direction. But why let the facts get in the way of a misleading if marketable narrative?

2. Control Media Access

The US military plays the press as a "fourth front," not a traditionally autonomous fourth estate. Suddenly, the embedding program is back in place, with journalists dependent on US forces for their information and protection. As Madeleine Bunting explains in the Guardian: "It's long since been too dangerous for journalists to move around unless they are embedded with the US forces. There is almost no contact left with civilians still in Fallujah, the only information is from those who have left."

The result: largely one-sided coverage.

3. Spin the Theme of Iraqi Control

To undercut any suggestion of a foreign occupation running things, the official story line has it that it is the Iraqis under the Allawi government -- actually (but rarely mentioned) a temporary, un-elected and unstable entity -- that are in charge with the US troops merely supporting them.

Julian Manion of Britain's ITV put the lie to this assertion on the first day of fighting, reporting: "We've had now, this morning, the formality -- some would call it, I'm afraid, the fiction -- that Iyad Allawi, the prime minister of Iraq, has given the official order to commence the operation against Fallujah. Of course in reality it is an American operation." On that same day, November 8, CNN was reporting that the Allawi government was calling the shots.

4. Avoid Historical Parallels

While media critics were invoking parallels of towns in Vietnam that were destroyed in order to be saved, there was little perspective offered on the realities of that parallel even as US soldiers invoked it directly. AP reported: "Sgt. Maj. Carlton W. Kent told an assembled group of 2,500 Marines in a 'pep-talk' on November 7: 'You're all in the process of making history. This is another Hue city in the making. I have no doubt, if we do get the word, that each and every one of you is going to do what you have always done -- kick some butt.'" (AP, November 7 2004)

Analysts reminded audiences that after US soldiers reoccupied Hue after Vietnamese forces overran it in the Tet Offensive of 1968. Then Under Secretary of the Air Force, Townsend Hoopes, described the results as leaving "a devastated and prostrate city. Eighty percent of the buildings had been reduced to rubble, and in the smashed ruins lay 2,000 dead civilians... "

One reason for the lack of analysis like this is not simply media amnesia. Most TV news reporting follows templates, driving action-oriented and picture driven "breaking news" with little time and fewer resources allocated for background and context.

5. Its All About US

The US media focuses on "our boys" and US government agendas, not Iraqi civilians, religious leaders or political representatives. It is always all about us, not Iraq. The death toll is always rationalized afterwards as necessary and unintentional

This is a point made with eloquence by The Guardian's Madeleine Bunting, with a perspective conspicuous by its absence in most US reporting:

"Assaults on cities serve symbolic purposes: they are set showpieces to demonstrate resolve and inculcate fear," she writes.

"To that end, large numbers of casualties are required: they are not an accidental byproduct but the aim. That was the thinking behind 9/11, and Fallujah risks becoming a horrible mirror-image of that atrocity. Only by the shores of that dusty lake in Dreamland would it be possible to believe that the ruination of this city will do anything to enhance the legitimacy of the US occupation and of the Iraqi government it appointed."

And so here we are after a debate about the policy and intelligence failures in Iraq repeating them again. And alongside those flaws, a larger media failure is all too tragically on display once again.

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