Media is all iwar, all the time
- Critic Accuses Media of Aiding U.S. War Propaganda
By David Morgan
Friday 2 May 2003
PHILADELPHIA - It is one of the most famous images of the war in Iraq:
a U.S. soldier scaling a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad and
draping the Stars and Stripes over the black metal visage of the
But for Harper's magazine publisher John MacArthur, that same image of
U.S. military victory is also indicative of a propaganda campaign
being waged by the Bush administration.
"It was absolutely a photo-op created for (U.S. President George W.)
Bush's re-election campaign commercials," MacArthur, a self-appointed
authority on U.S. government propaganda, said in an interview. "CNN,
MSNBC and Fox swallowed it whole."
In 1992, MacArthur wrote "Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in
the Gulf War," a withering critique of government and media actions
that he says misled the public after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
In MacArthur's opinion, little has changed during the latest Iraq war,
prompting him to begin work on an updated edition of "Second Front."
U.S. government public relations specialists are still concocting
bogus stories to serve government interests, he says, and credulous
journalists stand ready to scarf up the baloney.
"The concept of a self-governing American republic has been crippled
by this propaganda," MacArthur said. "The whole idea that we can
govern ourselves and have an intelligent debate, free of cant, free of
disinformation, I think it's dead."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan denied the existence of any
administration propaganda campaign and predicted the American public
would reject such notions as ridiculous.
A Pentagon spokesman also denied high-level planning in the appearance
of the American flag in Baghdad. "It sure looked spontaneous to me,"
said Marine Lt. Col. Mike Humm.
In fact, a recent survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and
the Press found that Americans were happy with Iraq war coverage,
though many wanted less news coverage of anti-war activism and fewer
TV appearances by former military officers.
But MacArthur insists that both Gulf wars have been marked by phony
tales calculated to deceive public opinion at crucial junctures.
BABIES AND BOMBS
On the eve of the 1991 Gulf War, Americans were asked to believe that
Iraqi soldiers tossed Kuwaiti infants from hospital incubators,
leaving them to die. Not true, he says.
This time, MacArthur says the Bush administration made false claims
about Iraqi nuclear weapons, charging Baghdad was trying to import
aluminum tubes to make enriched uranium and that the country was six
months from building a warhead.
The International Atomic Energy Agency found those tubes were for
artillery rockets, not nuclear weapons. And MacArthur says a supposed
IAEA report, on which the White House based claims about Iraqi
weapons-making ability, did not exist.
"What's changed is that there's no shame anymore in doing it
directly," MacArthur, 46, said of what he views as blatant White House
and Pentagon propaganda campaigns.
Cynthia Kennard, assistant professor at the USC Annenberg School of
Journalism, said the Bush administration has mastered the art of
building favorable public images and shaping messages to suit its own
"It's put the journalism profession in somewhat of a paralysis," said
Kennard, a former CBS correspondent who covered the 1991 Gulf War.
"This is not a particularly glowing moment for tough questions and
As Harper's publisher, MacArthur oversees a 153-year-old political and
literary magazine he helped save from financial ruin 20 years ago with
money from the foundation named for his billionaire grandparents, John
D. and Catherine T. MacArthur.
While MacArthur accuses news outlets generally of avoiding opposition
stands, his own magazine has been vitriolic toward Bush, describing
the president in its May issue as a leader who "counts his ignorance
as a virtue and regards his lack of curiosity as a sign of moral
But MacArthur is not troubled by the thumping patriotism displayed by
cable TV news outlets like Rupert Murdoch's Fox News Channel, which
leads CNN and MSNBC in viewer ratings.
"All that means is that Murdoch knows how to run a circus better than
anyone else. War and jingoism always sell. But the real damage was
done by the high-brow press," MacArthur said.
"On the propaganda side, the New York Times is more responsible for
making the case for war than any other newspaper or any other news
He blames the Times for giving credence to Bush administration claims
about the aluminum tubes. And when Bush cited a nonexistent IAEA
report on Iraqi nukes, he says, it was the conservative Washington
Times -- not the New York Times or Washington Post -- that wound up
refuting the assertion.
The New York Times also reported an Iraqi scientist told U.S.
officials that Saddam destroyed chemical and biological equipment and
sent weapons to Syria just before the war.
The only trouble, MacArthur says, is that the Times did not speak to
or name the scientist but agreed to delay the story, submit the text
to government scrutiny and withhold details -- facts the Times
acknowledged in its article. "You might as well just run a press
release. Let the government write it. That's Pravda," he said.
Times spokesman Toby Usnik dismissed MacArthur's claims regarding the
Times' war coverage as a whole: "We believe we have covered the story
from all sides and all angles."
Fox had no comment on his remarks.
Editors across the nation also worked hard to avoid the grisly images
of war, especially scenes of dead Iraqi civilians and Americans, while
Europeans saw uncensored horrific images.
The Pentagon's decision to embed journalists with U.S. forces produced
war footage that the 1991 war sorely lacked. But the coverage rarely
rose to the standard MacArthur wanted.
"Ninety percent of what we got was junk ... I think probably 5 or 10
percent of it was pretty good," he said.
MacArthur says the character of the news media, and the government's
attitude toward it, was best summed up by Defense Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld at a Pentagon "town hall" meeting.
Asked by an audience member what could be done to reverse the media's
"overwhelmingly negative" war coverage, Rumsfeld said: "You know,
penalize the papers and the television ... that don't give good advice
and reward those people that do give good advice."
MacArthur said that translated as: "You punish the critics and you
reward your friends. That's what he means. That's the standard
currency of Washington journalism ... To show reality becomes
unpatriotic, in effect."
But the Pentagon's Lt. Col. Humm said Rumsfeld had not been talking
about unfavorable reporting but about inaccurate reporting. "It is
Department of Defense policy with regard to working with the media
that we do not penalize or reward for the nature of what they report
on," he said. "The standards we demand and expect are professional
standards of conduct."
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