media reporting the story in Iraq accurately and fully? How
does their coverage compare with that of the media in Britain
or the rest of Europe? Or with the coverage offered by Arab
news sources? Are there significant differences in the tone
or content of the television version of the American occupation
of Iraq as compared with newspapers or radio? Do global or transnational
media such as CNN or al Jazeera tell a significantly different
story from that available in national media systems? Our panelists
will address these and related questions as part of the Communications
Forum's ongoing conversation about the technologies and politics
of contemporary journalism.
Jones is the director of Harvard University's Joan
Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.
He covered the press for the New York Times from 198392
and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1987. Jones has been a
Nieman Fellow at Harvard, a host of National Public Radio's
On the Media and is currently the host and executive
editor of PBS's Media Matters. He serves on the advisory
board of the Columbia Journalism Review.
Schechter is the executive editor of MediaChannel.org
and co-founder and executive producer of Globalvision, a New
York-based television and film production company. The producer
and director of many TV specials and films, he is also a prolific
writer whose recent books include Embedded: Weapons of Mass
Deception (How the Media Failed to Cover the War on Iraq),
The More You Watch, The Less You Know and News Dissector:
Passions, Pieces and Polemics.
JONES began by describing American media coverage during
World War II. Before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the New
York Times and a few other papers had been advocates of
entry into the war, but fought against a strong tide of isolationism
in the country. The country was divided over the issue, and
newspapers failed to change opinions. Pearl Harbor changed everything.
The United States, as well as other countries with a free press,
follows a familiar pattern of history. In times leading up to
war, there is a secular period characterized by debate and argument.
But once the moment occurs when American lives are at stake,
the nation enters what Jones calls a "sacred domain."
During World War II, the American press effectively signed up
and went to war along with the soldiers.
War followed a similar pattern. Initially, there was enormous
debate over whether the U.S. should push the Iraqis out of Kuwait.
Al Gore was one of the few Democrats in the Senate to vote in
favor of war. When the decision was made to commit troops to
the war, people did not stop being in disagreement, but joined
behind the president to proceed as a nation. According to Jones,
the current media situation with Iraq is not an anomaly. It
is important to see where Americans are psychologically as a
nation, and where the media fits into that equation.
September 11th attacks, the United States reentered the sacred
domain. Having been made aware of the nation's vulnerability,
the American people and media were behind President Bush and
his response. His response of invading Afghanistan faced little
debate within the country. There was much debate in the media
elsewhere, but not in the sacred domain of the U.S. Although
in the early stages, The Guardian reported that the conflict
would be "ten times worse than Vietnam," the U.S.
had a surprisingly successful moment in Afghanistan, where the
tribes and clans turned against the unpopular Taliban, and there
was relatively little guerilla warfare. This set the stage for
the movement into Iraq.
that American media does not necessarily lead public opinion.
It was the government that fed the public information about
a hostile and dangerous Iraq. There was debate in newspapers
and publications, but the decision to invade Iraq was made in
the hermetically sealed environment of the Bush administration,
which shut out any intervention by the media.
In the current
post-Iraq War period, the style of the media coverage has changed.
The media is asking tougher questions, and there is more defiance
of the administration. This is a reflection of how the story
has changed. We now have facts about the manipulation of intelligence;
the number of casualties; and the absence of weapons of mass
destruction, whereas before there was only speculation.
SCHECHTER would agree with Alex Jones's analysis if America
had been threatened as it was in World War II by the likes of
Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan, but the facts do not support
that. In order to understand the story of the Iraq War, things
must be seen within a broader media context. For every news
story, there is an official, dominant narrative. In this narrative,
the issues are debated by so-called experts, set within a framework
of accepted policy guidelines; assumptions that are rarely questioned;
and a body of evidence that is rarely debated. It is within
that frame that stories were shamefully constructed and sold
by the American media about the response to September 11th,
the necessity for war, and the current situation in Iraq.
Gulf War, Schechter worked for CNN, which was a small startup
organization then. CNN found that they could parlay their coverage
of the war into a tremendous expansion of its ratings, revenues
and global brand. War sold for media organizations; it was an
upward mobility track. Many of today's top journalists moved
up in success by covering war. Considering this example of CNN,
network executives saw the coverage of the Iraq War as an opportunity
for enhancing their brands. Consequently, what we saw was not
an attempt to challenge public opinion, but to pander to it
in a patriotically correct manner.
that there was a pre-war secular period of debate is not borne
up by the evidence. Voices critical of the war were silenced.
For example, the Phil Donohue show was canceled by MSNBC well
before the war, because it supposedly featured too many antiwar
guests. Leading up to the war, a Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting
study found that of 1,607 on-air sources that were cited in
the coverage, 71% were pro-war and only 3% were antiwar. The
debate itself was always lopsided. Analysis and critical ideas
were excluded. When the demonstrations happened in New York
City, where people had to fight in court for their right to
protest, the local coverage featured attacks on police horses,
windows being broken, and other incidents that were totally
unrepresentative of the message of the event.
war is presented on television follows a script and formula.
It was clear to the Bush administration that orchestrating a
positive media spin for this conflict was extremely important,
and they set up a sophisticated apparatus for it. People from
the corporate world compared the media spin to a product rollout.
The administration has talked about how they would package a
message of the day. They used a fire hose technique, pouring
information and stories into the 24-hour news organizations,
the goal being to dominate the discourse. They used Hollywood
narrative techniques, structuring stories with three acts and
did this administration disseminate their stories to the press,
but they also tried to manage the perception of them. Through
market research, they monitored public response to the stories.
It is interesting to see how, at a time when generals were talking
about a quagmire in Iraq, the Jessica Lynch story suddenly emerged.
The line between news and propaganda, or between reality and
reality television had begun to blur, and it became difficult
to decode what was happening.
15, 2003 a New York Times editorial said there were essentially
two major forces in the world. First was the superpower of the
Bush administration, backed by American economic dominance and
military prestige. The other was the weight and power of global
public opinion, which expressed itself with protests and other
actions, speaking out not only against American policy, but
also about the future of the global order. The war Americans
saw was very different from what Europe and the Middle East
saw. In the Middle East, the focus of coverage was on pain and
casualties. On American television, the focus was on strategy
and tactics for moving into Baghdad. The question of whether
the war made sense in world policy was often ignored, and the
opinions of other countries were not taken seriously.
Schechter showed a brief clip from a film he is making that
raises these media issues. It features an interview with retired
Colonel Sam Gardner who was an expert on chemical weapons, and
a military analyst for PBS. In the course of commenting on the
war, he became skeptical of some media reports. After analyzing
these stories and charting their sources, Gardner discovered
that 50 to 60 stories of the Iraq War were embellished or exaggerated.
to Schechter's presentation, Jones added that when the United
States went to war with Germany and Japan, Hollywood was also
enlisted, and the idea was to tell the story in the same way.
The public and media's prewar willingness to suspend disbelief
and give the president support is part of the sacred domain
from which America is just beginning to emerge.
Besides the manipulation of stories by the government, what
happened to the stories that were never covered at all? For
example, European news reported certain casualties that were
not covered by American media.
That especially applies to American television coverage, which
was largely pro-war, while the European television coverage
was antiwar. European public opinion was very much against the
war, and the coverage reflected that. An interesting thing to
note is that while half the American public believed there was
a link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, an idea that has
been debunked, it's also true that a quarter of the German public
believes George Bush was responsible for the September 11th
attacks. It makes me wonder who is more ill informed.
Although I wouldn't say Bush orchestrated September 11th, I
don't think we can prejudge that statement. There are plenty
of unanswered questions, and much information remains to be
revealed that may end up deepening or changing our views of
the events. We should see what the investigation by the National
Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States reveals,
as it procures documents that the Bush administration has not
wanted to give them.
I also want to caution that the European media is not ideal.
Cardiff University did a study of the BBC, and found that their
news coverage in Britain was actually more pro-war than most
Americans think. Overall, because there is a more diverse press
in Europe, there is more diversity of opinion and debate about
these issues. A legitimate concern is how we can listen to these
voices from other parts of the world as well.
The issue about manipulating public opinion seems to be the
heart of the debate today. I believe the public's initial response
to September 11th was not to seek revenge, but to understand
why terrorists wanted to target Americans. The media did not
address this. Instead, they took their cue from the White House,
which saw the opportunity to do things they wanted to do, such
as get rid of the Taliban and invade Iraq. When Bill Maher tried
to present a different opinion, saying that dropping bombs over
the enemies was more cowardly than the suicide terrorists, the
White House effectively put out a warning to all media to watch
what they said. I think we are still feeling the effects of
that warning, which is another form of manipulation.
EDDY, Dibner Institute Fellow: I hear a lot in the British
media that there seems to be a censoring source in the background.
Who at the top of media companies makes decisions on what stories
to report? Is it an issue of what will sell with the American
The dynamics of censorship and self-censorship are very important.
If you work for any of these media institutions at a time of
war and great fear, you are not going to be an advocate for
heavy anti-war criticism. The head of MSNBC referred to FOX
as the "patriotism police" - they seized the high
ground of being the red, white, and blue network. Other channels
tried to match this, and the journalists that stepped out of
line suffered consequences. Ashleigh Banfield of MSNBC gave
a lecture at Kansas State University, where she revealed that
media filtered the realities of war, and that stories were sanitized.
Afterwards, she was rarely on the air again. Christiane Amanpour
recently said straight out that CNN had been self-muzzled. People
who fear for their jobs go along with the networks, and this
conformity is what turns into complicity at times of war.
I have a slightly different view. There is a saying in journalism:
you only see what you believe. I believe many people tend to
filter out things they dislike or disagree with, which is one
of the reasons why FOX News was so successful. They made it
easy for people to avoid the bad news.
I have two points to add. CNN actually had two separate news
teams that covered the war very differently: CNN International
for the rest of the world, and CNN domestic. CNN itself was
schizophrenic on the war. Secondly, the Media Research Center
in Washington D.C., which is the prime right-wing media monitoring
organization, presented an award for the best war coverage not
to FOX News, but to CBS.
THORBURN, director, MIT Communications Forum: I suggest
that the speakers and the audience also think about the fundamental
disparity between the television and print coverage of Iraq.
Readers of the New York Times, or of smaller magazines
such as The Nation or The New Republic
would get a more complex sense of the story than if they just
watched the CBS evening news.
Even after September 11th, there is relatively little international
news on television. How can Americans deal with international
problems if they are not being informed?
According to a National Geographic survey, 80% of high
school graduates could not find Japan on a map. This is because
such things are not a part of the typical school curriculum,
and it's not a part of our media discourse. In the late 1980s,
networks closed their bureaus as they began to spend less time
on gathering news. When I worked at ABC, they covered events
in Africa only if there was an American involved or in trouble.
There are certain story genres that are repeated over again.
This is one of the biggest indictments of our media: that in
an era of globalization, global news has actually been reduced.
Our coverage needs to stop piggybacking on what the U.S. government
is doing, and include what other people in the world are doing.
I also challenge
the idea that the coverage of Iraq is so much better now. A
team of independent journalists who were embedded in Iraq revealed
to me that certain American military units wanted more embeds,
but the networks' commitment to the stories is not there. The
opportunity to gain access and investigate deeper exists. There
may be a few magazines or newspapers doing this, but most day-to-day
coverage is incident-driven, lacking in-depth perspective. This
is clearly the dominant form of coverage we have.
In American media, the problem is not only with the coverage
of Iraq, but also with the lack of coverage of other global
issues like world poverty, which the rest of the world is fully
engaged in. Now a gap is growing between world public opinion
and opinion within the United States, the country that claims
to lead the free world.
HOROWITZ, Association of Cambridge Neighborhoods: Over the
last 40 years, there have been changes in people's attention
spans and the way they meditate over issues. There's been a
change in what the public demands, to which the media responds.
Are there any changes in the areas of education or television
itself that may affect the way media deals with stories?
I think the general American public, especially the younger
generation, is more disengaged now. Perhaps there are so many
problems that it may be daunting for people to become engaged.
But the public will always care about the most important issues.
For example, when the Washington Post started working on the
Watergate story, it was a time when the media was leading the
American public, and the media was popular and respected for
I feel there is a false view held by people who don't believe
there is a role for crusading investigative journalism. The
most popular television newsmagazine in America for 30 years
has been 60 Minutes, who does stories about the rest of the
world, and the ratings do not drop. The argument that people
don't care is a reflection of news executives who don't care,
who project their indifference onto the public at large. When
journalists do things that are gutsy, the public will support
I saw the Iraq War from India, where I had access to CNN, FOX,
and Al-Jazeera. If someone in America wanted to see coverage
on international channels, what kind of access do they have?
There are some channels available, but people must search for
them. CNN International would like to be on the air, but the
top cable operators will not carry it. It's not just a question
of whether or not people have choices, but whether they even
know they have choices.
DAVIS, MIT Humanities: I've heard that reporters actually
have to be invited to the President's press conferences, and
that he has a list made up in advance of who he will call on.
Those who are critical of him are not invited back. Is this
It is true. Although Bush is not the only president to do this,
his administration has been successful to a greater effect at
MURTHY, CMS graduate student: My question is more for Alex
Jones. I used to work for a media organization that went to
the Pentagon press briefings, and felt they were doing good
journalism by merely reporting on what was being said. What
I think you are suggesting is that questioning these assertions
would be considered antiwar, whereas I would consider it being
My point is that nobody really knew the truth about whether
or not there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and if
they had actually been found, we probably would not be having
this discussion. What we now know is not supposition but fact,
and challenging opinion is difficult.
You were saying before that the American people were not ready
to deal with certain issues. In the past couple of years, especially
since the last presidential election, there have been a lot
of surveys split at 50% on major issues. Wouldn't that allow
the media to report whatever they wanted, because there would
always be half a population they were not going to please? It
must be something else that is driving these perceptions of
what stories need to be covered.
I think it was September 11th that changed everything, and it
is also what we are just now coming out of. What we tend to
forget is the traumatic power of it.
I think it was the traumatic interpretation and narrative of
September 11th. In order to understand the media coverage, you
have to understand the media system and how it relates to our
political culture. Stories were engineered and exploited, and
facts will come out to raise serious doubts about our understanding
of those events. It troubles me that the families of the victims
have had to fight to get an official investigation, over the
objections of the Bush administration. Informed citizens must
demand answers to these questions and get involved in the issues.
by Lilly Kam
--photos by Joellen Easton