WEAPONS OF MASS DECEPTION – a film by Danny Schechter
“If you’re going to have shock and awe you need somebody to record it. They needed the media to fight this war. The war was set up to be recorded by the media.” Robert Young-Pelton
Another American media documentary. Perhaps it’s time for some British and European ones. Nevertheless, this analysis of US mainstream media coverage in the run-up to the Iraq war and its aftermath is insightful, occasionally upsetting and even amusing in parts.
Schechter’s ‘dissection’ as he calls it (after his online blog), amongst other things, explains the effect that the process of embedding has had on (mainly U.S.) media output from the Iraq war. Christine Amanpour from CNN states that
“Behind the backs of the field reporters, field producers and crews on the ground our bosses made a deal with the establishment to create ‘pools’, what I call ‘ball and chain’, handcuffed, managed news reporting.”
There was in fact a 12 page contract signed by network executives regarding the behaviour of embedded journalists setting out the rules by which journalists had to abide. The film also shows a board in a British Army office listing subjects to be avoided by media embeds (including depleted uranium and bombing accuracy).
Schechter’s premise about embedding is that the pro-administration reports produced by embeds may not necessarily be deliberate attempts at falsification by journalists. Rather the embedding process produces a sense of loyalty by placing an unarmed individual under the protection of a group of armed soldiers. Journalists then have to rely upon the soldiers for protection, shelter, food and so on. The natural reaction to a situation such as this is to become sympathetic toward those who are providing for you (essentially the Stockholm syndrome). The suggestion is that military psychological operations units (Psy-Ops) knew this was likely to be the outcome of embedding and therefore encouraged this style of reporting.
The film suggests that because much of the American news media is based in New York many journalists therefore took 9/11 very personally, leading to statements like
“I am willing to give the President and the military the benefit of any doubt.” Dan Rather CBS (22/9/01)
A ‘patriotic correctness’ swept through the US media after 9/11 with FOX becoming known in the industry as the ‘patriotism police’. This meant that the Bush administration was able to push the war through without serious discussion. Some commentators in the film say that the war would not have been possible without the active support of the mainstream media. US networks would not run paid anti-war commercials made by activists. In the run up to the war 71% of sources used on mainstream TV were pro-war: in contrast only 3% of sources were identifiably anti-war Fairness and Accurary in reporting (FAIR).
Schechter also accuses the US media of ignoring context and background (e.g. how did Saddam get power and weapons in the first place?). This is an accusation frequently leveled at both UK and US media in relation to Israel-Palestine and other conflicts.
Of particular interest are camcorder recordings of US military ‘Media On the Battlefield’ training exercises and similar exercises for journalists. These are conducted in order to teach soldiers how to talk to media whilst undertaking military operations. The film suggests that they are also designed to create an unwarranted sense of danger in the mind of journalists. A question that arises from this is how much duress are the soldiers actually under whilst embedded journalists talk to them? This is partially answered by the fact that the US divisions engaged in most combat in Iraq were the ones that were covered least by the media.
Schechter’s comments on reporting of anti-war demonstrations in the US seem remarkably reminiscent of the coverage in the UK….
“Mainstream media sort of ‘ghettoizes’ this coverage and doesn’t allow it to really enter into the mainstream discourse. They’ll report it, they’ll show the crowd as a mass, they might show some soundbites but they won’t go into what the significance of this movement is.”
This is a good film but there are some problems with it. Some issues are mentioned but not fully explored. The growth of independent media as a reaction to mainstream media always ‘taking the pipe’ is one example. He consistently hints at news corporations making money out of war but doesn’t produce many figures (though he does mention that General Electric got $600m of contracts in Iraq and that it is the parent company of NBC). Schechter’s ‘personal story’ is also slightly clumsily woven through the film to give it more of a narrative.
There is an interesting section about the contrast between US, European and Arabic coverage of the war. Arabic networks tended to show more of the actual mess that’s caused when a bomb hits a building (the film itself actually has plenty of this) whereas US networks tended to focus more on the ‘tactical’ side. John Donovan from ABC news says there is a “long-standing practice [not to] put gore on television”. This, combined with video enhancement techniques, computer graphics etc., makes the coverage seem more like a computer game than a war. This can leave the public unaware of the full implications of what is being undertaken in their name.
Another deeply troubling moment in the film is the footage of the attack on the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad which caused injuriy and led to the death of two journalists. The footage shows a tank which has not been fired upon shelling the hotel. It then cuts to the aftermath of an explosion inside the Palestine Hotel as dead and wounded are attended to. The implication is that this was deliberate targeting of non-embedded journalists.
An amusing moment comes when it is revealed that a suggestion for the name of the operation in Iraq – ‘Operation Iraqi Liberation’ was turned down on account of the fact that the Acronym was ‘OIL’ .
Available to buy at wmdthefilm . Danny Schechter’s book ‘The More You Watch The Less You Know’ is also worth a look.