US Media Coverage of the War in Iraq; an Assessment

Alison Darby, Dickson College, 2008

If it were left for me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. (Thomas Jefferson)

The media, with control of information, holds an essential role in sustaining a free and democratic society. During the Iraq War however the media did not act in a way, which fulfilled its social responsibilities or promoted democracy. The news media misled and misinformed the public about the Iraq War. It was heavily influenced by bias and did not report a diversity of views. Furthermore, the media employed the use of various techniques that dramatized the war, causing its coverage to be more for entertainment than for educational purposes. The performance of the media in The War in Iraq had serious distortions and hindered democracy.

The fourth estate of the media is a vital part of the democratic system, and is essential to ensure a functioning democracy."Media is the nervous system of a democracy. If it’s not functioning then the democracy can’t function".[1] It is through the media that the general public gains knowledge of important events and decisions, and attains an informed basis on which they can then exercise their democratic rights to lobby, protest, vote and express their views on the future of their elected representatives.[2] The media has an “obligation is to speak honestly and truthfully to the public” and provide them clear and balanced information so as to allow them to make an educated decision.[3] It is also the role of the media to provide coverage that is realistic, contextual and sufficiently critical of government policy. Amy Goodman from ‘Democracy Now’ states:

It’s up to the media to challenge those in power not cosy up to them.[4]

Political issues are debated through the media, and the media has the power to orchestrate and stifle this debate through its coverage. The media has extensive influence on public opinion. This was demonstrated in Vietnam, known as the “first television war” where the media’s coverage of the horrific realities of war led to diminishing public support.[5] After the lessons of Vietnam, the American Administration knew that it needed a supportive media to enable its War on Terror, and that is indeed what it got.

In the lead up to the War in Iraq and after its outbreak, the media failed to fulfil one of its major responsibilities and did not provide the populace with accurate information. The media ran with links proposed by the government, such as the connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda and September 11, which were obviously fabricated and unfounded (Cutting Edge: Weapons of Mass Deception 2005; Greenwald 2005; Langmore 2005). The information that Saddam Hussein in fact persecuted al Qaeda and other fundamentalist religious groups within Iraq, and that Osama bin Laden opposed Saddam calling him a “socialist infidel” was not reported (Greenwald 2005; Langmore 2005). A Study published on October 2 2003 highlighted the alarming frequency of misconceptions about the war. It was found that eighty per cent of Fox audiences, seventy-one per cent of CBS audiences, sixty-one percent of ABC audiences, and fifty-five per cent of CNN and NBC audiences believed one or more of several proven falsehoods about the war (Cutting Edge: Weapons of Mass Deception; 2005; World Public 2003). Of the entire surveyed populace

48% incorrectly believed that evidence of links between Iraq and al Qaeda have been found, 22% that weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq and 25% that world public opinion favored the US going to war with Iraq.(World Public 2003)

Studies found that if you watched Fox you were more likely to not understand foreign policy and more likely to support the government (Outfoxed 2005). The media did also not report American misdemeanours in the war, such as American use of illegal cluster bombs and the Napalm-like Mark 77 fire-bombs responsible for the deaths of thousands of Iraqi civilians (Cutting Edge: Weapons of Mass Deception 2005). If the general public had been better informed support for the war, and the government, would have been reduced. In relation to the Iraq War the media did not act to sustain democracy as it deliberately misled the public, thus influencing their opinions and their ability to complete their democratic duties.

During the Iraq War the media failed to present a balanced and diverse coverage of events and opinions. Instead many mainstream media outlets selectively portrayed the news in accordance with their own political beliefs and interests. Before the outbreak of war there was little coverage of the anti-war movement in America, and even less as to the reasons and views of this movement. Michael Gelton of the Washington Post admitted to

under-reporting and poorly displaying…coverage of big [anti-war] demonstrations here and abroad (Cutting Edge: Weapons of Mass Deception; 2005)

The media successfully smothered the debate over whether America should go to war by under-reporting the opposing side, and proposing only the one opinion. According to a study conducted by FAIR, the organisation for Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, between March 29 and April 3, 71% of the 1617 on-camera sources studied were overtly pro-war. Only 3% were anti-war (Cutting Edge: Weapons of Mass Deception 2005). This is a clear representation of the lack of diversity in the media before the outbreak of war.

After September 11 the media made a visible shift to the conservative right, known as the ‘Fox effect’, wherein Fox’s competitors began to imitate Fox’s patriotic and conservative line (Outfoxed 2005). Fox News also influenced its competitors by attacking journalists and citizens who opposed the war as being unpatriotic; often accusing them of supporting Saddam Hussein and terrorism if they did not follow the Administration’s line (Outfoxed 2005). Fox presenter Bill O’Reilly stated on his The O’Reilly Show:

Once the war begins we expect every American to support our military and if they can’t do that they can shut up. (Outfoxed 2005)

This clearly shows how the media lacked diversity of opinion, and in some instances actively discouraged and refuted opposing views. Fox is perhaps the worst offender when it comes to bias in the media, regularly blurring the line between news and commentary and advocating a staunchly pro-republican version of the news, however they operate under the slogan “fair and balanced.”(Outfoxed 2005) This was one of the major issues in media coverage of the Iraq War; the public was being fed political and news commentary labeled as fact. Indeed, according to a Canadian Study, states Peter Rutherford:

Most Americans were not aware of how one-sided and bias the coverage had been. They believed the news media had served the country well.(Cutting Edge: Weapons of Mass Deception 2005)

The use of embedded journalists further exacerbated media bias, as the Pentagon, who had the ability to ‘embed’ and ‘remove’ them, fed these journalists exaggerated claims and as journalists personalized with troops, making them more sympathetic to their views. The media has also been accused of acting to support their own vested interests. Large news corporations, which are importantly still businesses, have been accused of trying to endear themselves to the government run Federal Communication Commission, the American media regulatory organisation, through their support of the war in order to try and persuade the Commission to pass new policies which would save these companies millions of dollars in tax cuts (Cutting Edge: Weapons of Mass Deception 2005, Langmore 2005 p.49). Political analyst John Langmore writes:

These media groups have became the propaganda arms of government in return for regulatory advantage such as relaxation of ownership limits” (Langmore 2005 p.49)

The media did not serve democracy in its coverage of the War in Iraq as it did not present balanced and clear information enabling the public to make an informed decision, nor did it present a diversity of opinion representative of the people.

The media further inhibited democracy by selecting and portraying news aimed more at entertaining than informing the public. Coverage of the Iraq War lacked context, background and realism (Cutting Edge: Weapons of Mass Deception; 2005). The media coverage of the war focused on the tactical and military elements more than the actual reality of war on the ground, with reports highlighting the “shock and awe” campaign, and the use of “precision
bombing” and “damage limitation” (Langmore 2005 p.21). In contrast to the Vietnam war where realistic images of war lessened public support, by focusing on military strategy the media successfully de-humanised the war and its Iraqi victims, thus helping to maintain its support. The media used charts and diagrams to show the advancement of American troops without entering into the more unsavoury topics such as the real effect of the American assault and the extensive civilian casualties. With the promotion of “action coverage” by the Pentagon, the media incorporated “video enhanced elements”; computer generated graphic and dramatic music
to make the war more exciting resulting in coverage that has been described as making the war seem less real and more like a “football” or “videogame” (Travers 2005; Cutting Edge: Weapons of Mass Deception 2005). The existence of programs with titles such as “The Best of the Bombs” only accentuates this point. Furthermore, several of the most iconic images of the Iraq War, such as the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statute, were media stunts aimed at promoting a certain image of the war to the American people, and were not the spontaneous and large events they were reported to be (Ramptom and Stauber 2003). The American media favoured dramatic images and “Soap opera news”, such as the fabricated story of Private Jessica Lynch, rather than accurate portrayals of the situation. This coverage supports the idea as the news business as “Show business” (Outfoxed 2005) and does not help to maintain a democratic society as it denies the public access to real information, replacing it with trivialities, dramatic headlines and infotainment.

Throughout the Iraq War the media did not act in a way beneficial to democracy. The media did not inform the public, but misled them. News reports were selective and bias, in accordance to corporations’ own political and economic agendas, and did not provide varied opinions on the issues. The media presented information in a way that pressed a particular viewpoint, selecting stories on the basis of their entertainment value rather than factual merit. The media is essential to sustaining democracy and has considerable persuasive power, which it did not use appropriately in the Iraq War.

Alison Darby, Dickson College 2008

Further Reading

Cutting Edge: Weapons of Mass Deception. 2005. SBS. DVD Recording.
Greenwald, Robert. 2005. Hot Docs: Uncovered the War on Iraq, SBS. DVD Recording.
Langmore, John. 2005. Dealing With America: The UN, The US, and Australia, University of NSW, Australia.
Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism. 2005. DVD One. DVD Recording.
Rampton, Shelton and Stauber, John. 2003. Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush’s War On Iraq. Penguin Books, Australia.
The Museum of Broadcast Communications. 2008. Vietnam on Television., 24/8/08
Thompson, Alastair. 2003. The Role of the Media in the Second Gulf, viewed 19/8/08
Travers, Carmel. 2005. Truth, Lies and Intelligence. SBS, DVD Recording. Australia
World Public 2003. Misperceptions, the Media and the Iraq War., viewed 21/8/08
  1. ^ Outfoxed 2005
  2. ^ Thompson 2003
  3. ^ Greenwald, 2005
  4. ^ Cutting Edge: Weapons of Mass Deception, 2005
  5. ^ The Museum of Broadcast Communications, 2008