Journalism and Propaganda
A wartime dilemma.
By David McKenzie
In the weeks following September 11, the country changed. In mourning, the nation turned to symbols for support and comfort. American flags popped up everywhere-in cars, in windows and on televisions.
Flags were draped all over the news channels. The new seriousness of the world was given slogans. 'Attack on America' became 'America strikes back' which, in turn, became 'America's new war.'
At best, news during wartime is informative, concise and objective. At worst, it is propaganda. The broadcast media are under enormous pressure during wartime, the war on terrorism is no different. Network and cable news are pressured by the government, the public and within themselves. The context is not without historical precedent, but 'America's new war' is a difficult one to cover.
"What you have is a clash of values," says Terence Moran, a NYU professor of propaganda and former marine, "on the one hand there is the need in a democracy for the public to have as much information as possible, on the other hand there are very legitimate reasons for security, for secrecy, during combat operations."
This was the explanation given by Condeleezza Rice, national security advisor to President Bush, who asked broadcasters not to air unfiltered tapes of Osama bin Laden. According to the government, bin Laden could be sending secret messages to his followers. "Every Muslim after this event should fight for their religion," said bin Laden in a videotaped address that was aired in its entirety on MSNBC and CNN, "starting with the head of the infidels worldwide, Bush, and those with them." The address came less than a fortnight after the attacks on the world trade centers. His words rattled American nerves; the White House response was immediate. "At best, Osama bin Laden's message is propaganda, calling on people to kill Americans," said Ari Fliescher, press secretary of the Bush administration, "at worst, he could be issuing orders."
Publicly, the administration worried that bin Laden might be sending coded messages to terrorists. Many believe that the government privately worried about bin Laden's propaganda power. Rice conducted a conference call with the major networks, CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX News to discuss the issue. All five agreed to edit any further releases.
The audience seems to side with the government. While most polls show government approval ratings hovering at around 90 percent, just under half of the nation disapproves of media coverage of the war, according to a Fox News sponsored survey.
"That was so misinterpreted," says Jim Murphy, executive producer of 'CBS Evening News with Dan Rather', "they did not do it in conjunction with the government, they did it on their own." Murphy points out that CBS and the other news networks never air unfiltered feeds that appear. "We don't put every press conference that government holds on the air-we filter every single thing the president says, why wouldn't we do that with bin Laden material?" 24-hour news channels often give unfiltered coverage to speeches and news conferences. It is standard fair on MSNBC, FOX News and CNN.
The controversy illustrates a major dilemma during wartime coverage: the balance between security and information. "The question of whether restrictions are necessary is an open shut question. They are," says Robert Manoff, the director of the Center for War Peace and the News media, "I think that there is going to be more censorship necessary, this is a war." As the head of a group that promotes press excellence, Manoff's view might seem contradictory, but he feels that ideals of objectivity and openness become mute if they could damage national security.
The viewing public generally shares this perception. "I think a lot of people don't want to know about what's going on," says Forrest Sawyer, veteran correspondent and MSNBC anchor, "they tend not to distinguish between operational security and strategic analysis, which are very separate things." Sawyer thinks that the public simply does not want to know what is going on in wartime.
Polls confirm his view. According to a Harris Interactive poll conducted at the end of October, 68 percent of the respondents felt that the media was 'providing too much detailed information about U.S. military actions.'
Though the public worries about security issues, the assessment of the possible damage is usually made by the military. In the past 30 years, news outlets have been under increasing control from the Pentagon. In many ways, the current policy towards the press reflects a reaction to the Vietnam War. In a study conducted in the mid-nineties by the Freedom Forum of 2,000 military officers, 64 percent of the respondents still believed strongly that the news media significantly harmed the war effort.
"In Vietnam journalists had total access to anything," says Moran, who has extensive experience in the military and studying propaganda, "The army opened up anything to them, allowed them to go anywhere that they wanted." Initially, the press filed glowing reports. But soon critical assessments started streaming into American living rooms. The Tet offensive is often considered the turning point of the war. Broadcasters sent home visuals of the takeover of the new American Embassy, including the bodies of military police crumpled on the grass of the compound.
By the end of the war, the military felt betrayed by the increasingly disapproving coverage. In 1968 Walter Cronkrite came over the air live to the nation in a black and white statement, "It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only way out will be to negotiate, not as victims, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could." One would be hard pressed to find such erudite criticism today.
By the time of the Gulf War, the military had learnt its lesson. The pool system was set up and the press was effectively fed their information. The situation left many news insiders unhappy.
"As in the Gulf War," says Moran about the current conflict, "they have been restricted in how much access they have, so they are doing very little independent reporting, they are dependent on what they can get from the military." Murphy, who has the final say on content every weeknight on the CBS national news emphatically disagrees, "The government is not our only source." Murphy cites their correspondents in adjoining countries that are able to collect information from the opposition and his reporters at the Pentagon and Justice Department, "They are smart enough to know what facts should be used and what stuff can not be verified."
Information is not always there for the press to access. Satellite imagery, one of the few ways that the broadcast press are able to independently verify information, has become unavailable in the war on terrorism. The Ikonos satellite of Space Imaging Inc. takes the highest quality images of the earth. Using it, you could read a dusty newspaper on a Kabul street from space. The government cleverly did not exercise the 'shutter control' bill to block satellite images of Afghanistan, and thereby avoided public debate. Instead, the pentagon bought out the images. For $1.5 million every month, no images are available to the media. It may be a legitimate claim that terrorists could access the images, but the company always verified potential purchases with the Defense Department. The pentagon already has seven comparable satellites in orbit.
It is not only outer space that is blocked; the nature of the war on the ground hinders the flow of information. Special operations forces are the primary military in Afghanistan-a notoriously secretive group of soldiers. The first photograph of troops came out seven weeks after they first landed in the region. The war in Afghanistan seems to be on the wane, and as Afghanistan is liberated more images become available. But this difficulty will continue now and in future conflicts.
"It is the worst sort of scenario for TV, there is nothing they want you to see," says Julian Prictoe, the head field engineer for NBC news in Afghanistan, he has just returned from the front and a flak jacket and helmet sit beside him, "They don't want to show what sort of things they are putting on the ground, they are keeping it very close to their chest." In his six weeks covering the war at the front, Prictoe only heard rumors of troops, he never saw them.
With this lack of access on the ground, the press depends on government released information and videos. The green-tinted night shoots of army rangers efficiently dropping into the desert make for good front-page pictures and images to voice-over, but they do not tell the full story of the ground war. "People are tying to use us in a propaganda situation all the time," maintains Murphy in the headquarters of CBS news, "it doesn't force us to do things that we don't think are right."
The size of the story and the horror of the attacks placed journalists under pressure to prove their loyalty. "You have to choose between being a journalist and being a patriot," states Moran, Uncle Sam pointing from a poster behind him. Moran feels that the binary environment of 'good versus evil' created in this war has forced journalists to take sides. "In times of war the media rally around the flag," says Manoff, while a Fox News crew sets up in the hallway to interview him, "protesting that is as relevant as protesting the fact that when you drop a stone it will go up instead of down."
One controversy literally concerns the stars and stripes. The debate was sparked when a few news anchors decided to wear American-flag pins on the air. This seemingly innocuous statement caused a wave of discussion amongst the public and in many newsrooms. On one side, news producers felt that it was not the place of news organizations to wave the flag-no matter how mildly. On the other side, many viewers felt that an anchor had to be in line with their vision of citizenship.
"I do love this country and I don't wear a flag on camera," says Sawyer, who was set to go live at 10 p.m. to the country, "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, it tends to cloak our mistakes in red, white and blue." He feels that it is not his job to judge, just to explain and contextualize. At CBS, Murphy maintains that the discussion did not even come up in the newsroom. Perhaps fellow journalists were too quick to jump on the issue.
One cannot blame journalists for feeling somewhat patriotic. Khalil Mahtar, an Arab American journalist working for Reuters, feels that patriotism is not the issue, "You cannot blame somebody for being patriotic," he says with a mix of a Middle Eastern and American accent, "Patriotism did not cloud reality, overreaction with emotions clouded reality." As a young boy in Lebanon, a bomb exploded in his uncle's house, he was hit in the head with shrapnel. Mahtar equates this experience with what would initially go through the minds of American journalists. At first, he maintains, a journalist will naturally react emotionally to a traumatic even, "Then we are supposed to get back to reality and try to look at the whole picture without being affected by it."
But journalists are also human.
"I have friends who died," says Sawyer, pausing visibly, "so I do feel most personally attacked by this." Before claiming the anchor chair, Sawyer worked as a war correspondent. He has spent a career pushing emotions aside, "While your viewpoint of the world invariably informs how you construct your stories," says Sawyer, "you ought to try and be as fair as you can."
The rapidity of the events of the past few months has made it impossible for many journalists to process the impact. They are mainly trying to catch up to the story. "I didn't sit there and think about the sadness in relation to my work," says Murphy, chain-smoking in a colleagues office at CBS, "what was unfolding in front of us was the biggest story we had ever seen."
The sporadic Anthrax attacks occurring in the country are one aspect of this monumental story. Those attacks were unprecedented as it made news organizations the apparent victims of a terrorist attacks associated with the greater war.
On October 19, NBC News received a letter tainted with Anthrax. ABC and CBS would follow. What occurred next was a rare instance of news outlets reporting on major stories within their buildings. In a profession that is based on objectivity and distancing, anthrax brought the news uncomfortably close.
"The first case was just stunning, no one expected something like that to happen," says Murphy, whose office is being used by anchor Dan Rather. Rather's office is being fumigated for Anthrax spores. Murphy rushed in to work on the day that he found out about the anthrax attacks. He simply wanted to cover the news the best he could.
There has been criticism of the broadcast media's coverage of the anthrax attacks. Many feel that they were too sensationalist in an attempt to grab viewers. Every day broadcasters made new connections and counted new anthrax deaths. "I think that some people just try to make it more than it is, because they know the audience is gravely concerned," says Murphy, whose broadcast is flagging behind ABC and NBC in the ratings, "I am not going to play to anxiety or fears just because I know that it will make them watch."
And ratings put major pressure on the broadcast news. All of the major news organizations are owned by non-news operations. Profit remains the bottom line.
In the last decade, foreign and hard news has been pushed aside for gossip and entertainment. "It has been a sort of vicious cycle where the media gives them gossip, they get more gossip, they want more gossip" says Sawyer, who relishes the opportunity to cover international fronts, "we know more about Tom Cruise than Saudi Arabia, September 11 was a hard slap in the face."
"For so long everybody knew the world except the leader of the world," says Mahtar, "now the world has come to the United States with the worst of its miseries, it might serve as a justification to learn about it."
If Americans choose to become better informed, one teacher would be the media. According to a Gallup poll, 99 percent of the nation saw the attacks on the New York live on television. Broadcast news holds immense power of information and instruction.
But it is an uphill battle. "American's have in the past, and we don't know about the future, tended to be parochial," says Sawyer, who was booed back in the 90s when he made critical speeches about U.S. international policy, "We just don't get that the world is not like us.