covering iraq: american media vs. the world?

Thursday, Nov. 13, 2003
5-7 p.m.
Wong Auditorium in E-51

MIT Campus


Are American 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.


Alex 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 1983–92 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.

Danny Schechter is the executive editor of 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.


Alex Jones

ALEX 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.

The Gulf 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.

After the 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.

Jones believes 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.

Danny Schechter

DANNY 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.

During the 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.

The idea 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.

The way 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 believable characters.

Not only 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.

On February 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.

To conclude, 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.

In response 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.


QUESTION: 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.

JONES: 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.

SCHECHTER: 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.

However, 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.

COMMENT: 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.

MATTHEW 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 people?

SCHECHTER: 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.

JONES: 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.

crowd in Wong Auditorium for Jones-Schechter Forum

SCHECHTER: 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.

DAVID 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.

QUESTION: 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?

SCHECHTER: 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.

COMMENT: 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.

STASH 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?

JONES: 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 its investigations.

SCHECHTER: 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 it.

QUESTION: 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?

SCHECHTER: 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.

BETTE 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 true?

JONES: It is true. Although Bush is not the only president to do this, his administration has been successful to a greater effect at controlling access.

REKHA 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 balanced.

JONES: 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.

MURTHY: 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.

JONES: 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.

SCHECHTER: 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.

--summary by Lilly Kam
--photos by Joellen Easton