Monday, April 5, 2010

When The Media Goes To War

The author of this book used Lexis-Nexus and other sources to quantify the character and extent of U.S. and some foreign media coverage of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the controversy surrounding Iran's alleged nuclear weapons programs. How many pro-war reports, op-eds and editorials, how many antiwar or critical reports, op-edit and editorials? The theoretical basis of his study was guided but not entirely determined by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky's landmark work Manufacturing Consent; The Political Economy of the Mass Media. He examined his quantifying results in juxtaposition to many public opinion polls conducted on a global basis.

His general finding is that the U.S. media usually parrots the official government line as restrained within the narrow debate between the two major political parties in the U.S., much more so than in any other advanced industrial country in the world. But it is only in times of crisis that the American people "buy" the official line and they usually only do so by a very slim majority. At all times a substantial percentage of Americans regard their government and the media with deep suspicion, believing them to be irresponsible, crooked and only looking out for their own pocket-books. Contrary to the assertions of media executives and "anchors" like Wolf Blitzer and Dan Rather, they are not much enamored of the celebrity-orientated, 'human-interest', "fluff news" which is imposed upon them by networks and cable outlets primarily for the purpose of profits and yearn for more comprehensive ( and thus necessarily, from the media's point of view, expensive) coverage of both foreign and domestic affairs and policy. However, it appears that lack of focus, continued distraction and poor investigative perspectives in the media contributes to a general decline among Americans in any interest in the news at all, especially among the younger generation.

Non-mainstream journalists and scholars studying the Middle East have raised some critical questions about military escalations in Pakistan and Afghanistan beginning in 2009. Middle East specialist Juan Cole questioned the true extent of al-Qaeda's capabilities:

"They don't seem to have a presence in Afghanistan anymore to speak of. What is called al- Qaeda in the northwest of Pakistan is often just Uzbek, Tajiik, and Uighur political refugees who have fled their own countries in the region because their Muslim fundamentalism is not welcomed by those regimes. The old al-Qaeda of Bin Laden and al Zawahiri appears to have been effectively disrupted. Terrorist attacks in the West are sometimes planned by unconnected cells who are al-Qaeda wannabes, but I don't see evidence of command and control capabilities by al-Qaeda central."

Cole also warned about the unrealistic military goals of the Obama administration and worried about the humanitarian crisis that may result from U.S. bombings"

"What is the goal here in Afghanistan? If it is to wipe out the Taliban, the Taliban are a social movement that has a certain amount of support in Pashtun areas and wiping them out would be genocide. It is very unlikely to be accomplished and very brutal if it were done. If the goal is to establish a stable Afghan government that could itself deal with challenges like the remaining Taliban, that's state building on a large scale. Afghanistan is a mess; it's been through thirty years of war... it has no visible means of support, it's a fourth world country... So there's a real question of whether Afghanistan actually has the resources to accomplish what the U.S. wants it to do."

Non-mainstream reporters raised similar concerns. Christian Parenti- a reporter for the Nation magazine and recently returned from Afghanistan- explained:

" I don't think the Obama administration thinks it's going to win militarily against the Taliban, and I don't think it's stupid enough to think the institutions of the Afghan state are going to function. It's considered one of the most corrupt governments in the world...Nothing gets done, the Afghan government has very limited ability to raise taxes, 95% of its income comes from foreign aid, and very little for the people of the society is produced from that."

[ The U.S. committed a mere $5 billion in reconstruction funds from 2002 to 2008, yet was spending by 2008 an average of $36 billion a year in military action in Afghanistan. As of 2008, the Afghan government concluded that it needed as much as $50 billion for adequate reconstruction over the next five years. Barack Obama, in contrast, committed just $4 billion to the reconstruction for 2010, but $68 billion for military activities...causing many critics to conclude that the escalation of the war is deemed more important by the Obama administration than reconstruction despite its rhetorical commitment to to 'nation-building" through the civilian development projects.]

The views of the critics, however, were generally ignored in the American press and by officials in government. It is not that the U.S. media should be expected to provide definitive answers to these critical questions. But when the media refuse to report the assessments of critical experts in the area, or the factual evidence upon which these assessments are based, news consumers inevitably suffer from curtailment of debate on the the legitimacy of war.

Another example of such curtailment is that reporting on Obama's escalation neglects the civilian causalities that result from U.S. bombing. Statistical studies suggest that civilian casualties are climbing steadily. Afghan civilian casualties escalated by 40% in 2008 to a total of 2,100. The 60 U.S. Predator drone strikes undertaken in Pakistan from January 2006 to April 2009 resulted in the alleged deaths of fourteen al-Qaeda leaders, but an additional 687 Pakistani civilians. In other words, 94 % of all deaths reportedly committed by the United States were innocent civilians. This reality is often omitted from reporting on the strikes. The Los Angeles Times, for instance, ran a headline in March 2009 that read "U.S. Missile Strikes Said to Take Heavy Toll on al-Qaeda" but omitted any reference in their report to the number of civilians killed. The New York Times ran sixteen stories and the Los Angeles Times twelve stories on U.S. bombings and aerial drone missions in Pakistan from January 1 to August 31, 2009. Not a single story in the New York Times and only one story in the Los Angeles Times emphasized the deaths of civilians from these attacks They framed these attacks as targeting and killing al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other militants, but not civilians.

To be sure, the New York Times occasionally notes the tragedy of civilian deaths but always with the proviso that they are a necessary price to be paid for progress in fighting the war on terror. Nowhere in their stories were international legal scholars or antiwar critics quoted explaining that these attacks are criminal acts of aggression and blatant violations of international law. This is practically unique to American press, critics and comprehensive fact-based reports of the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan receive considerable coverage in the main-strean media throughout Europe and the rest of the world.

The American government's bi-partisan attacks on Iran for alleged nuclear weapons development has been accompanied by its own open admission that it is is seeking to expand its nuclear weapons arsenal through the Reliable Replacement Warhead program which received over $70 million in funding from 2005 through 2007, with over $150 million projected through 2008). Yet despite hundreds of features the Washington Post ran on Iran in recent years, only three stories (from 2005 and 2007) mentioned the Reliable Replacement Warhead program- less than one story on average per year. On September 30, 2009, just five days after Obama's speech about the Iranian "threat", his administration announced that it was moving forward, in violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, with its own plan to reconstitute nuclear weapons, "Complex Modernization", an expansion of two existing nuclear plants to produce plutonium pits and bomb parts of enriched uranium for a new generation of nuclear bombs. This was disclosed by the Inter Press Service but reported only by alternative-left news outlets Truthout, Z Magazine and Common Dreams on October 1.

Television coverage of U.S. plans for uranium enrichment for a new generation of nuclear bombs was non-existent; not a single reference anywhere in any of the news programs on ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC or Fox News in the week after the IPS report. References to Iranian "nuclear weapons", for which U.S. Intelligence Services admit there is no empirical evidence, appeared in nearly four dozen stories in these television outlets in the same period. The U.S. Reliable Replacement/ Complex Modernization program received no headline, op-ed or editorial coverage in the New York Times, Washington Post, Washington Times, Chicago Sun-Times, Houston Chronicle, San Francisco Chronicle, or the Los Angeles Times in the week following the disclosure. In contrast, Iran's alleged nuclear weapons development was discussed in a total of 66 news stories, op-eds, and/or editorials in the same papers.

The author of this book, only a fraction of whose findings can be practically included in this blog, modestly concludes that "U.S media outlets provide a charitable reading of U.S. foreign policy while largely disregarding those assessments that substantively challenge U.S. actions in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. No conspiracy is at work here; rather, reporters simply see the world through the same lens a political leaders. This does not mean that the general public accepts such messages, hook, line and sinker. Opposition to war quickly materializes when it becomes apparent to them that costly conflicts contribute to increased destabilization and destruction in host countries. The American public is not merely a passive vessel that accepts the dogmas proclaimed officials, repeated by journalist and framed solely inside the debate between Democrats and Republicans. Public opinion is influenced by a number of social factors, of which media is only one.


  1. When Media Goes To War; Hegemonic Discourse, Public Opinion, and The Limits of Dissent by Anthony Dimaggio; Monthly Review Press, N.Y. 2009;

  2. "Opposition to war quickly materializes when it becomes apparent to them that costly conflicts contribute to increased destabilization and destruction in host countries."

    If only I believed this were true.

  3. The Tet offensive is an example, impossible for the press to ignore since they were ensconced in the mayhem that overcame Saigon. To some extent the Mai Lai massacre as well. The reporting of these events resulted in upsurges of anti-war sentiment. There is an implicit recognition of this dynamic in the official and self imposed press censorship through-out W.W. II, as covered briefly here:

  4. Also the Kent State killings, which occured after protests of Kissinger's foray into Cambodia...which quickly got my attention as a 10th-grader in Nixon's America.