Since 11 September 2001, I have observed with alarm that many people have taken at face value what the media has said about this atrocity, its presumed perpetrators, and their aims — even though much of what has been said flies in the face of common sense. A willingness to suspend belief is in evidence even among knowledgeable and otherwise prudent people. Many accept fantastical stories about Bin Laden and the people alleged to have carried out the bombings, despite the obvious disparity between the means available to those people and the exceptional planning and attention to detail that went into the attacks.
Similar instances of gullibility came also to my attention during the war, a grossly inaccurate term for what the US has been up to in Iraq. Many accept unquestioningly the implausible claims made about Saddam Hussein, his links with the United States, and the US motives for waging the aggression.
In both cases — the 11 September attacks and the US campaign against Iraq — those who believe the most outrageous reports are people who spend hours flipping television channels — satellite and terrestrial — missing out on nary a commentary or statement published by the print media.
It startles me to see how educated people so easily fall prey to highly dubious information. On further reflection, though, it occurred to me that the sheer volume of information has something to do with the phenomenon.
Most of us, unfortunately, treat the information carried by the media as though it were partial and objective. We try to separate — perhaps too well — commentaries, which may contain biased views, and factual reports, which are presumably impartial.
Our willingness to believe in the impartiality of factual statements is enhanced by the prestige of the media involved. The more sophisticated the media is, the less suspicious we become. I’ll give you an example. If you receive two letters, one hand-written and the other typed, which one would you regard as more reliable? The style in which information is presented, the technology by which it is conveyed, warps our perception of reality. This is a phenomenon worth pondering. Most people would fall for a big lie sooner than a small one — the bigger the falsehood the harder it is for most people to grasp how mendacious it is. Ordinary people have trouble conceptualising deceit conducted on a large scale. Fraud, if on a grand scale, can pass as reality. Smartly dressed newscasters speaking in sophisticated settings have a credibility that is akin to an irresistible force.
Our reaction to the media is anything but reasonable. Events are twisted every which way before the media hands them to us. They are perceived from a certain angle, conceptualised, given colour, edited, and then relayed. In each of these stages, the truth changes and becomes a matter of interpretation. By the time we have the final information, it is at best an approximation of reality. Not all events become news, and not all news reports are accorded equal weight. Some appear in the beginning of the cast; some wait till the end. Some are given considerable air time; some are mentioned only in passing. Also, there is the manner in which reports are read, the degree of enthusiasm in delivery, and the number of times they are repeated.
This is why many took as an item of faith Bin Laden’s responsibility for the 11 September events, subscribing to the view that a band of depraved Arabs and Muslims masterminded and carried out the atrocity, although fairly credible evidence suggests otherwise. And, this is why Saddam Hussein has acquired two opposing personas , neither of which is credible.
Saddam’s first persona is that of an evil-hearted, extraordinarily powerful man, with an insatiable, selfish lust for power. His invasions of Iran and then Kuwait have, according to this version of reality, more to do with his personality than the surrounding political circumstances. This is the Saddam many Kuwaitis and Americans, among others, have chosen to see.
There is also the other Saddam, the Pan-Arab and Muslim champion, the enemy of Israel and the West, the man who dedicates his life to restoring Palestinian rights and preserving Arab glory. This equally fantastical persona gained currency during the last two Gulf wars, especially during the first few days of the US-UK campaign against Iraq.
Neither persona tallies with reality, and neither takes into account the manner in which America dealt with Saddam over the past 24 years.
The way the media influences and misleads the public is far from benign. This is particularly worrying when major television stations take a certain political line, as has been the case recently. Media, whether audio-visual or print, is susceptible to monopoly. Those who control the media have the power to manipulate facts and influence the public’s perception of reality.
What have television viewers been told of the war? The aim of the campaign was to bring democracy to Iraq, they were told. America and Britain have suddenly become champions of the cause of downtrodden people. Does this make sense? The invasion was met with fierce resistance, the media claimed. The Iraqi information minister — a charismatic and eloquent man — enlivened many a news conference with reassuring words that evaporated in the face of reality. What exactly was Al- Sahhaf trying to prove? It was said that Saddam ordered the minister to stage this verbal defiance to keep the spirit of resistance alive among the people. How is it that the minister heeded the orders with more enthusiasm than that of Saddam’s own Republican Guards?
Then, there is the statue. Footage of the monument being vigorously attacked, as though it were the ultimate target of the campaign, ran for hours. Viewers were rewarded for their vigils in front of round-the-clock coverage of weeks of war by the sight of a collapsing colossus. But who knocked the statue over? Were the crowds that gathered in the square acting of their own volition, or commissioned by the masterminds of the campaign?
Looting followed. And again, how spontaneous was it? It is natural for some plundering to occur in an impoverished and oppressed country when law and order collapse. But does the scale of looting witnessed make sense? Ever since 11 September, those who waged war on Iraq have wanted to tarnish the image of Arabs and Muslims? Now, they have the footage to show Iraqis jubilantly committing robbery — are we to believe this is coincidental?
The assault on Iraq was not carried out by tanks and missiles alone, but by cameras and news reports. The slaughter of Iraqis was accompanied by a media offensive of questionable intent. The media proved how lethal it could be, and truth was the victim.
The writer is professor of economics at the American University in Cairo.