Tag Archives: Iraq war

The lessons of Jessica Lynch on media monopoly

June 30, 2003

The affair of Jessica Lynch, the U.S. Army private who was injured in Iraq and rescued in a commando raid, seems unrelated to monopoly control of the media. But the handling of her story offers good reason to cheer Senate elders for moving to reverse the ideologically besotted Federal Communications Commission decision to trash safeguards against deepening concentration of media ownership.

In the latest development of the Lynch story, CBS News, desperate to get the 19-year-old West Virginia girl for an exclusive on-camera, sweetened the pot dramatically.

CBS can do this. As fans of monopolistic excess know, CBS belongs to Viacom, which also owns all things Paramount, 39 TV stations, MTV, VH1, Showtime, Comedy Central, The Movie Channel, Sundance, Nickelodeon, Simon & Schuster and the huge Infinity radio network, plus such trifles as Blockbuster Video and several big movie and TV producers.

So in wooing young Jessica, CBS News wasn’t confined to offering flowers for Mom, a limo to the studio and a backstage tour. Viacom’s honchos dangled a two-hour CBS News documentary, a TV movie produced by CBS Entertainment, the possibility of co-hosting an MTV special and a book deal with the venerable Simon & Schuster.

This was denounced by other media heavyweights. They were probably chewing their cheeks that they hadn’t thought of it first, but they were also concerned that by bidding high, Viacom might make it hard for everybody to get the “exclusives” that the ravenous flock of TV news magazines believe their ratings depend on.

Under the ethics of big time news, it’s cool that top-flight anchors make seven figures for reading a Teleprompter and marquee correspondents get $10,000 for addressing business conventioneers. But the schlubs whose misfortunes constitute the news TV journalists are paid a fortune to report cannot get a nickel. That would be unethical. (Also expensive.) Hence the dismay over CBS’ reported offerings to Jessica.

But that’s not the most vexing ethical quandary with the Jessica affair. The real problem is that nobody knows what the facts of the story really are. So what exactly is Viacom buying?

Initial accounts were based on unnamed Pentagon sources. (They’re people we pay to tell us things that make us feel better.) Jessica was captured after her hapless supply convoy was ambushed. She was wounded blazing away at Iraqi troops. Shot and stabbed, she was maltreated by her captors, tortured, finally recovered in a nighttime raid in which special ops fought their way in and carried her home.

Some of that’s true. Subsequent reporting, prompted by a highly skeptical report on the BBC, suggested that her horrific injuries were from the crash as her vehicle maneuvered to evade the Iraqi ambush. She was likely too mangled to fight. Overstretched Iraqi doctors say they did their best, even tried to return her to American forces. Her rescue was unopposed; the Iraqi military had abandoned the hospital before the raid ever took place.

The point isn’t to denigrate Jessica Lynch’s service or the valor of those who brought her home.

But Viacom would hardly buy the story of a supply clerk whose superiors landed her in a fine mess, and who spent agonized days in a sparsely equipped enemy hospital, tended by kindly but ineffectual doctors until she was rescued in a needless display of videotaped bravado.

No, the parent of CBS News — one of the world’s great news organizations, the home of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite — can only be falling over itself to invest in a different Jessica story, the one built by Pentagon propagandists around blinding courage and patriotism, the one that may well be make-believe.

Maybe Jessica isn’t a combat hero. No shame in that. But if she’s not what CBS Entertainment’s movie proposes to say she is, what is CBS News prepared to say? That’s the most disturbing element of the whole affair. Thanks to Viacom’s commercial ambitions, Jessica Lynch could never be a story on 60 Minutes. She becomes a no-go zone for CBS News.

It’s that compression of news and entertainment, and the abusive potential in consolidating control over both, that ought to be Congress’ concern as it reviews the FCC’s latest lunacy.

The Senate Commerce Committee, in a bipartisan vote, moved to roll back this month’s decisions liberalizing common ownership of newspapers and TV stations and raising the cap on how much of the population a single media company may reach. The committee even insisted that radio mega-giants like Clear Channel — which purportedly engineered the protest against the Dixie Chicks for opining against the Iraq invasion — actually sell some of their bloated holdings.

The senators may just be posturing. And they don’t directly address that melding of news and entertainment, and the potential — apparent every time Time puts Warner’s latest movie on the cover of a once great news magazine — to make news a marketing channel for the chieftains of popular culture.

But at least they keep the issue of monopoly control alive. And at a time when such things proceed invisibly, unremarked, that’s not a bad thing. Maybe it makes the truth of Jessica’s war more likely to unearth.

What was CNN protecting when it sat on news of Saddam’s brutality?

May 5. 2003

In an extraordinary confession last month, CNN’s news chief wrote that during his dozen visits to Baghad since the first Gulf War he personally learned of savagery inflicted on ordinary Iraqis — among them his own employees — that CNN did not report for fear of reprisals against innocents.

Eason Jordan titled his The New York Times disclosure, “The News We Kept to Ourselves.” He said an Iraqi CNN employee was tortured so that he might denounce Jordan as a CIA agent, and a Kuwaiti source was butchered. He recounted a session he had with Uday, Saddam’s psychopathic son, who vowed to murder King Hussain of Jordan and two fugitive sons-in-law of Saddam the king was harboring. CNN reported none of that.

Jordan’s column touched off a squall of controversy. Sympathizers, among them journalists with experience in squalid police states like Saddam’s, said that soft-pedaling distasteful realities has long been the price of access. They argued that the partial truths they relate are preferable to the informational void we’d otherwise have.

Others wondered just how much CNN was prepared to swallow to keep the Baghdad bureau open. It was a jewel in the network’s crown since 1991, when CNN alone among Western networks kept reporting from the ravaged capital.

Was news chief Jordan worried about protecting the innocent — or protecting CNN’s franchise, however hobbled the reporting? Was CNN’s silence, as the Washington Times asserted, part of a “propaganda-for-profits deal with Saddam?”

The portrait of Saddam’s Iraq that emerged from Jordan’s account goes way beyond the odd sadistic encounter. It was a land of capricious terror where speaking to a journalist invited torture, dismemberment, death or all three, if the subsequent report displeased somebody. Even escorts and translators might be punished.

The issue here isn’t the depravity of Saddam’s Iraq. It’s whether the accommodations CNN made to stay there so compromised its operations that its reporting was fatally corrupted: Jordan’s staff, he told The Washington Post, wouldn’t “report anything that jeopardized people’s lives.” What was left? Did CNN suppress the most fundamental truths about the regime? Was that equivalent to CBS retaining its Berlin bureau in 1943 in exchange for silence on the Holocaust?

Why didn’t CNN simply shutter its bureau and redouble its reporting on Iraq from unhindered vantage points in neighboring countries?

Jordan insists CNN did fine, and notes that its bureau was shut a half-dozen times and 10 correspondents either expelled or refused entry.

Maybe. But he also assured Poynter Institute ethicist Bob Steele that the cases in his column were the only horror stories he held back.

That is nonsense. If those were the only atrocities CNN’s staff knew about they weren’t looking very hard. Since CNN wouldn’t air what its chief already knew, its reporters would hardly go digging for more. Plainly, CNN decided it couldn’t report torture safely — safely for its staff and sources, safely for its corporate presence.

And were omissions the only issue, or did CNN shill for Saddam? A harsh appraisal in The New Republic last fall accused the network of fawning. Saddam’s 100 percent sweep in a manifestly bogus election was “a vote of defiance against the United States.” A report on Saddam’s birthday declared him “more than a symbol, a powerful force who has survived three major U.S.-led attacks since the Gulf War … Not just standing tall but building up.”

So what if Saddam bullied the world’s most powerful news network into subservience. Did it matter? Who knows. But perhaps, had Saddam’s image been more clearly exposed as ruthless and homicidal, his luster in the Arab streets would have been dimmed, diplomatic pressures on him intensified — and the recent war averted.

For the news audience, a more enduring question concerns the unacknowledged compromises journalists make, routinely and invisibly — with sources, publicists, apparatchiks, whose connivance is indispensable to the news process, and whose approval has indisputably more impact than the public’s.

To what degree are you, as reader or viewer, the person to whom the news is truly intended — or are you eavesdropping on another transaction? When does news become currency, with the news organization purchasing what it needs with generous and judicious reporting?

The notion of programming as payment isn’t new. Marshall McLuhan suggested TV shows are the payoff viewers get for watching advertisements.

For a TV journalist, the public is vague and amorphous: Viewers won’t scrutinize every reference to Saddam to determine if it’s respectful. But censors will. Their jobs — and perhaps their lives — depend on it.

So when do they become the primary audience for which the message is crafted?

Unfortunately, the conditions under which CNN operated in Iraq aren’t so different, in their essentials, from those that many reporters face. So they tailor their reporting to sustain their access to the sources they need.

The public is wedded to the absurd belief that journalists pillage their sources. Reporters are far more likely to coddle, flatter and pander to them. Even when they’re monsters.

Covering the War, Missing the Story

April 21, 2003

The war in Iraq gave U.S. media the chance to appear before millions of viewers just as they most wishfully imagine themselves: brave, dedicated bearers of the news.

Integrated into advance military units under the Pentagon’s embedding program, reporters slogged it out under fire alongside GIs and Marines, full partners in the pluck and valor they assured us they were witnessing.

Whether the advent of embedded reporters will soften the public’s prickly opinion of news people isn’t clear. Pew Research Center polls found modest approval: 58 percent thought embedded journalists a good thing, a third thought not. People worried that reporters would spill secrets; fewer wondered if they’d tilt toward the visiting team.

But an unusually high eight in 10 found the reporting from the embedded journalists fair and objective.

Was it? And more important, did the central role that the embedded reporters play in reporting the war help the U.S. public understand its conduct, its costs — and its consequences?

The coverage — I’m talking chiefly about TV, which most Americans relied on — was both heroic and disgraceful. Journalists died in numbers disproportionate to their battlefield presence. Some offered unvarnished and eloquent accounts of the dirt, exhaustion, terror and confusion of 21st Century combat.

But the battlefield journalist knew as much, and as little, as the soldier next to him. Frontline reporters were steeped in the realities of small-unit combat, but were ignorant of the significance of what they saw. They were truly embedded, stuck fast, without mobility or context.

If their accounts were sometimes riveting, they were also unintelligible, and you could watch for hours without having a clue whether the shooting meant progress or impasse.

Having that frontline contingent replicated within the journalist corps the class divisions of the military itself, with grunts in the field and senior correspondents back at the headquarters briefings.

Oddly, while in Vietnam it was the field reporters who brought back harsh truths that undermined the official line, in Iraq the skeptical questions came from the journalistic brass at HQ. With parliamentary accountability having collapsed at home, those journalists asked the only tough questions the people running the war ever faced.

Nevertheless, it was the coverage from the embedded reporters that flooded our screens and became the fulcrum of American reportage. The air war, which was devastating and decisive, was seen only from afar. The immense destructiveness of the armored units went unrecorded.

Instead, the war was defined by the infantry’s experience, because the cameras were right there. And because the troops met resistance and drew return fire, the viewer naturally concluded there was actually a battle going on.

Sometimes there was. But overall, the Reality TV version of the war differed profoundly from the war’s reality.

What was that reality? A completely overmatched Iraqi army — conscripts press-ganged into uniform by a wretched dictatorship, with poor training, obsolete weaponry and no air support — was slaughtered in the thousands and probably the tens of thousands by the world’s best-equipped, best-trained and most highly motivated military.

That wasn’t the story we got.

Worse, the war experienced by the Iraqi population, the people for whom it was fought, was offstage.

The scale of Iraqi suffering remains hard to gauge, at least if you rely on the Pentagon, as American reporters do. The U.S. military says it doesn’t have a clue how many civilians died. I suppose that’s possible, although this was an exceptionally well-calibrated campaign, guided by razor-sharp intelligence, and having no idea of the scale of civilian death suggests ignorance so gaping as to be implausible. At the very least, if they wanted to know, they’d know.

Current estimates number the dead Iraqi noncombatants at 1,500. That seems low, in view of the lethality of U.S. weaponry. But even 1,500 isn’t trivial. That would represent a proportionate death rate nearly as high as Israel suffered last year from Palestinian suicide bombers, and those attacks had a searing effect on Israeli opinion.

American viewers wouldn’t be ready for the effect of civilian losses on Iraqi opinion because unlike the rest of the world we saw few Iraqi casualties, uniformed or not. Indeed, I’ve seen more images of Iraqis being cared for by American soldiers than harmed by them. You’d think the 101st Airborne was a division of Doctors Without Borders.

Even if they couldn’t embed reporters with Iraqi families, our media had access to pictures of what U.S. air strikes, artillery barrages and assault forces did to the population they were liberating — and to the opposing army of hapless draftees.

Those images were pushed out of prime time by the dramatic, if confusing, pictures brought to us by the embeddeds. So was sustained coverage of how the war was perceived by vital constituencies in the Muslim world, of the pressures from neighboring countries on what kind of post-Saddam regime they’ll tolerate, of how Iraqi civil society was disintegrating into chaos in the slipstream of the furious U.S. attack.

The paradox is that unparalleled media access to the war has left the U.S. public wholly unprepared for the post-war. Only now is it becoming apparent that to many Iraqis, including those who loathed Saddam, the war has been a calamity, a moment of national shame for which reckoning will be sought.

If that surprises us, we have our media to thank.