No Questions Asked

James Zogby’s Column

One can’t fault the White House for trying to sell the war and the President.  What is troublesome, however, is the way the American media has been such an uncritical conveyor of these White House efforts.  Selling is what politicians always do, but never before has an administration been blessed with such willing buyers.

During the past two months the White House’s communications team has used both carefully crafted messages and skillfully created scenarios designed to win public support for the President and his war effort.  The campaign to build support for the war with Iraq was ultimately presented as being linked to the war on terror, a response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, an effort to enforce UN Security Council Resolutions ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction and a divinely ordained mandate to topple a cruel dictator and spread liberty.

As the campaign grew, what the White House campaign managers focused on were venues and stage effects and the emotional impact of their message.  They either took the daring risk that their efforts would not be challenged or they were extremely lucky in this regard.  Because, with the exception of a few daring souls, the Administration was given a free ride by the U.S.’s major media.

When weapons inspectors challenged U.S. information, in one case categorizing U.S. leads as “pure rubbish and a waste of time”, they were ignored.  When U.S. intelligence analysts questioned the case established in Secretary Powell’s infamous U.N. testimony, they were dismissed.  And when some leading members of Congress demanded that the White House provide the American people, in advance of hostilities, with best estimates of costs and the expected level of commitment of U.S. forces in a war on Iraq, they were shunted aside. 

The major American media seemed more inclined to beat the drums of war than to investigate the White House’s claims.

During the war, this behavior did not change.  One media critic noted that the U.S.’s major networks behaved more like “state-run television” than a “free and critical press”.  The average day on one of the networks, he noted, consisted of: briefings from the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department and the Military Command in Doha; in-studio commentary by former generals and colonels hired as network analysts; interviews with the networks own journalists who were imbedded with the U.S. military on the road to Baghdad; and live long-distance shots of bombs exploding over Baghdad while reporters and anchors praised the skill of the U.S. military and their own coverage of the war.

Only a few journalists have expressed their outrage over their industry’s abandonment of its role.  In a recent address before a university audience, Ashleigh Banfield, one of the U.S.’s rising stars in television journalism, accused news outlets of “wrapping themselves in the American flag”, shielding the American people from the horrors of war, and failing to probe deeper into the war and search for the truth. 

Instead of being journalists the media behaved more like compliant campaigners.  And it hasn’t ended yet, since all this was once again in evidence last week. 

When President Bush spoke to what the media described as a supportive Arab American audience in Dearborn Michigan, the media carried the address and portrayed it uncritically.  The scenario was carefully crafted for U.S. and Arab world audiences since it was carried live around the world.  The President’s podium was set before a backdrop with Arabic and English writing.  Behind the President were seated a small group of about 40 Iraqi Americans some Shi’ia and some Chaldean.  The audience was not seen, but the impression was created that it was an enthusiastic crowd representative of Michigan’s 400,000 plus Arab Americans.  Cameras never focused on the audience, no one saw that the room was only one-third full-an estimated crowd of 300.  The fact that the group was personally invited by the White House and was carefully screened to include Republicans and supporters of the President was not reported.  The impression was created that the President was giving a victory message full of optimism and hope to his Arab American supporters.  That was what the White House wanted to convey and that was the story the media allowed them to uncritically convey. 

Much the same could be said about the President’s victory speech delivered last week aboard the US. Aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln.  The scenario created by the White House handlers was a campaign manager’s dream.  The President landed on the carrier in a Navy jet.  The scene as described in the New York Times read as follows:

“…Mr. Bush emerged for the kind of photographs that other politicians can only dream about. He hopped out of the plane with a helmet tucked under his arm and walked across the flight deck with a swagger that seemed to suggest he had seen “Top Gun.” Clearly in his element, he was swarmed by cheering members of the Lincoln’s crew.”

“Even in a White House that prides itself on its mastery of political staging, Mr. Bush’s arrival on board the Lincoln was a first of many kinds.”

All of this was carried live by the major news networks.  As the New York Times editorialized “the scene will undoubtedly make for a potent campaign commercial next year.”

In his “victory speech” the President evoked many of the themes he had used to justify the war.  Principle focus was given to the terror of 9/11 and America’s victory over tyranny.  Interestingly, the President only made passing reference to weapons of mass destruction and no mention at all of Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden.  This war is now being cast as a continuation of “our war against terror” and our “fight against a great evil…to bring liberty to others”.  All reported without question.  The fact that both Afghanistan and Iraq remain quite dangerous and unstable is not discussed.  And no questions have been asked about what may be the broader goals of this continuing war.  Success is not measured or evaluated it is just reported as such. 

Again, one can’t fault the White House for doing what White House’s always do, what remains troublesome is that so few are asking questions.

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.