Who's afraid of the context?

13 August 2004
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The popularity of recent war news documentaries in America shows that the public is hungry for more probing and serious information about the Iraq war, argues George Blecher, since the large television networks have failed to report and analyse the war in-depth and have instead opted for insubstantial, but flashy news clips that depict a sanitized and highly patriotic version of the war. Despite this renewed interest, Blecher is pessimistic about a sustained, serious engagement on behalf of Americans with the war.

New York, July 20
Coming back to the US after a month away, it takes only a little while to recognize that this is a nation still at war. The signs are subtle but unmistakable: stick-on American flags on subway cars; aging posters in windows reading “We support our troops” and “Bin Laden: Wanted DEAD or alive”; lists of American military casualties dutifully reported in the daily papers and TV news broadcasts; scare bulletins from the Office of Homeland Security threatening to postpone the November elections because of “alarming” but vague intelligence reports; a buzz of conversation in the streets or among one’s friends about whether it’s safe to fly on one’s vacation, or whether Kerry’s candidacy will offer any real alternative to Bush’s aggressive stance.

There’s another sign of the war that hasn’t been in evidence since World War II: the popularity of war news documentaries in movie theaters. Both “Control Room” by Egyptian-American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim and Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” are drawing record crowds.

I saw the two films within the space of a few days. “Control Room,” a much – needed corrective film about Al Jazeera and its role in reporting the war, was showing at a downtown Manhattan multiplex to an audience made up mostly of young people just off work. They looked more like Wall Street investment types than Left-wing “liberals,” though it has to be said that New York City isn’t a hotbed of Republicanism. A few days later on a Sunday noon, I saw “Fahrenheit ” with a very different crowd-retirees in tennis shorts, affluent residents of Westchester, a suburb north of New York whose political demography is fairly evenly divided between the two main parties. Both audiences were far from being politically radical. It struck me that they weren’t there to see what they already knew or to register their protest against the American troops in Iraq, but for another, more urgent reason: to collect information that hadn’t been available to them on TV or in the newspapers.

If not exactly starving for news, the US public is hungry for it, and the mainstream media has by and large let them down.

In terms of the electronic media, the biggest difference between reporting on the war inside and outside the States may not be so much a question of content but of accessibility.
I spent most of the past month in Denmark, where I not only heard several lengthy, informative reports on Danish Radio, but also saw a long TV documentary, no doubt using extensive footage from Al Jazeera, that was unlike anything I’d seen in the States. In part an examination of the creation of Moktada al-Sadr’s Mahdi militia, the film also followed an American army patrol searching an Iraqi home for suspected weapons (they found a rocket launcher hidden behind a stove). The mixture of fear and misunderstanding on the part of both Iraqis and Americans humanized the war for me in a way that I hadn’t felt since its inception.

Documentaries as long and probing as this one simply don’t get aired on American commercial TV, at least not on “prime time.” Most of the news is limited to very short, often hyper-patriotic segments sanitized of any pictures of the dead or injured. Even on the margins of the electronic media-cable TV stations like CNN, late night shows like ABC’s “Nightline,” Public Television’s “Frontline” or National Public Radio’s morning and evening news programs – the length of such a program alone might be enough to keep it out off the air.

Like nearly everything else in the US, the main reason is money. It costs too much to show long documentaries on prime time television, or rather too much money is lost by not showing the program that advertisers have already paid for. Commercial TV networks are expected by their owners to clear a 40 percent profit, so to pre-empt two or three “reality” shows to show some actual reality would be to risk economic suicide, a step that none of the networks is prepared to take.

But there are political reasons as well.

Unlike the government handling of news coverage in Vietnam, the current administration has controlled the tone of war coverage in a number of ways. Not only has it created an atmosphere in which critical analysis of the war implies a lack of patriotism (think of the fuss raised when the ABC-TV network wanted to read out loud the names of the fallen), but the idea of “embedding” reporters with the fighting men created loyalties among many reporters that made it difficult for them to be objective. Stories still float around of gung-ho reporters dressing in military uniforms and refusing to let colleagues from rival news organizations interview “their” troops. Combine this with the fact that almost none of the American reporters had a command of Arabic or Iraqi history, and one is left with a group of journalists more likely to accept the official version of events than the independent “unilateral” reporters that most foreign news services have in their employ.

The media also plays a very different role in Europe than in the States. The public service aspect of European media, which Tony Blair defended even as he was under attack by the BBC, is lacking in the US, at least in the for-profit companies. Commercial networks live in a state of constant anxiety about the possibility of federal regulation that might limit some of their profits. Recently the Federal Communications Commission considered further relaxation of the rules concerning cross-media ownership (Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Fox network, also owns newspapers and magazines), so it makes perfect sense that the owners of the media would want to stay in the government’s good graces. Furthermore, NBC is owned by General Electric, a prime defense contractor, ABC is owned by Disney, whose subsidiary was the original distributor of the Michael Moore film until they thought better of it – you get the picture. In a myriad of ways it pays for the TV companies not to rock the boat.

This isn’t to say that the electronic media haven’t had their moments. CBS’s “Sixty Minutes” was the first to show the Abu Ghraib photographs; some reporters, notably Ted Koppel of ABC’s “Nightline,” have filed excellent reports from the field; unembedded filmmakers have sometimes managed to find mainstream outlets for their films; Public Television’s “Charlie Rose Show” has featured a good variety of talking heads; and on the Net “list serves” are available for anyone who wants to hunt down facts on their own home computers.
A satirical cable news show, “The Daily Show,” was probably the bravest voice in addressing issues that the networks and even public television were afraid to deal with. If nothing else, host Jon Stewart’s mischievous smile suggested that the official version of the war was directed at 6 year olds.

Comparisons between American and European print media are a bit more nuanced and complex. The New York Review of Books has been particularly good in reporting the war, and has done outstanding analyses of the weaknesses of war coverage in general. The New Yorker , The Los Angeles Times , The Washington Post , The New York Times – all the usual suspects published adequate to excellent articles, though all have occasionally given into the temptation to accept the official party line.

If one selects a few of the major events in the war and compares the daily coverage in The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde and the Danish daily Information, the results are informative.

Coverage of April 9, 2003, when “Coalition” troops reached the center of Baghdad, differed, as far as I can see, only in emphasis. All four newspapers were careful not to exaggerate the jubilation in the streets; all gave plenty of space to the wave of looting that followed the “liberation.” The European newspapers spent more time on the “accidental” shelling of the Palestine Hotel the day before that killed journalists from Al Jazeera and European news bureaus, and the Guardian added that the Americans also strafed the headquarters of Abu Dhabi TV, which had its call letters painted prominently on the roof. But the Times was properly cautious and circumspect. Among its many articles that day (what ex-Times Managing Editor Howell Raines called “flooding the zone”) was one by Alessandra Stanley that actually apologized for the American flag draped over the statue of Saddam Hussein that was pulled down in Firdos Square. Stanley pointed out quite candidly that “it was exactly the image that the administration had most wanted to avoid.”
(Incidentally, Noujaim’s Al Jazeera documentary goes farther in looking at the Firdos Square incident, alleging that it was staged, and citing the fact that there were only young men in the square, who all spoke with non-Iraqi accents.)

If one looks at the other end of the war – the handover of sovereignty on June 28 of this year – one comes out in the same place: the differences in daily reporting between Europe and the US were more about shading than substance.

Le Monde and The Guardian were a bit cynical about the “ceremony” that accompanied the transfer of power. The Guardian’s Brian Whitaker, for instance, wrote that “the half-dozen or so officials in the room clapped politely for about 3 seconds… and Mr. Bremer…hastily left the country” – and Information emphasized the “fragile” nature of security in the “new Iraq.” The Times, on the other hand, ran a flag-waving picture on the front page where President Bush scrawled “Let Freedom reign!” over a note from Condoleeza Rice, but they also devoted the larger portion of their copy to fretting over the future of Iraq, stating that even Bush’s advisers, in their “more candid moments,” don’t know if the damage from the occupation can be repaired.

The real differences between US and European print reporting are to be found in the area of context: by and large the American press has left it out.

Subjects like the strategic interests of Israel and the role of Saudi Arabia have been taboo in the American press, and the pan-Arab indignation that Al Jazeera covers extensively (and which makes its way onto European TV screens) is also unexamined. Even a close look at the religious differences in the area and the secular nature of Iraqi government are given short shrift in the American press, which tends to personify America’s opponents, unlike the press and public in Europe and Asia, which accept the loose, anarchic nature of Al Qaeda with no particular Bad Guy at the top.

According to author Jonathan Schell, who spoke last March at a conference on “Media and the War” at the Berkeley School of Journalism, without this awareness of context the American press accepted a narrative about the possibility of nuclear weapons in Iraq while ignoring other narratives, such as the actual possession of nuclear devices by Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea. Examining alternative narratives might have provided ways for the press to understand the hostility of “liberated” Iraqis and to avoid making serious faux pas, such as recent articles in the New York Times insisting that the “insurgents” consisted of remnants of Saddam’s armed forces and “foreign” intruders rather than what now appears to be the case: that among the insurgents are nationalist groups without allegiance to either Saddam or Al Qaeda.

On May 26 of this year, the New York Times made a startling admission. In a long article entitled “FROM THE EDITORS: The Times and Iraq,” they confessed that there were “instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been.” They went on to blame everyone from unnamed reporters and editors to US officials, a “circle of Iraqi informants, defectors and exiles,” and especially Ahmad Chalabi, once the darling of the press and the Bush administration, but now their whipping boy. No matter who the individual sinners were, however, the larger culpability lay with the Times itself: they were doing exactly what Schell had warned about – accepting someone else’s version of reality rather than examining several versions and coming to their own hard-won conclusions.

Of course the major culprit on the Times staff, who wasn’t named in the mea culpa piece of May 26, was Judith Miller, whose articles on the existence of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons are now largely discredited. The more one looks at her story, which has been well covered in the European media, the more one can’t help seeing it as typically American-ambition and aggressiveness inhibiting her ability to look at the complexity of experience. In its way, the Miller incident mirrors the administration’s own rush to judgment.

I wish I could say that the popularity of news documentaries in movie theaters and the May 26 article by the editors of the Times were harbingers of a new contrition and depth in the reporting of the American military presence in the Middle East. This simply isn’t the case. If anything, the reporting will most likely diminish, not increase. If one looks at the hopelessly scanty coverage of Afghanistan in the American media, one can only surmise that the same will hold true for Iraq. News organizations have reduced their foreign desks over the past 20 years, and there’s no indication that this will change. In lieu of training reporters in Arabic and other Eastern languages, the least that should be done is to broadcast material from Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, and other international news organizations. But, as Michael Massing writes in the New York Review of Books: “In the current climate… any use of Arab or European material…could elicit charges of liberalism and anti-Americanism. The question for American journalists is whether they really want to know what the Iraqis themselves, in all their complexity, are thinking and feeling.”

Published 13 August 2004

Original in English
First published in Information, 31 July 2004 (Danish version)

© George Blecher Eurozine


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