Danny Schechter, News Dissector
No matter your political persuasion, if you’re one of the people who helped make Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11 the highest grossing documentary in history, you’ll have a vested interest in viewing WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception – even if it’s just for an opportunity to get even more fired up for election day. Not that it’s unpersuasive – quite the contrary – but just don’t expect your neighbor to be throwing popcorn at the screen. This is not a film for the faint-hearted conservative.
In an era where the infamous slogan of “fair and balanced reporting” has become rife with political implications, it is difficult to consume news from any media outlet these days and confidently believe in its authenticity. Difficult, that is, if you retain enough awareness to actually consider this kind of thing when you read the morning newspaper, which is exactly the film’s point: we’ve all been duped! But WMD takes this argument a step beyond the plight of misled viewers to show how the American media itself has been coerced into promoting a misleading portrayal of the news, and explains how this calculated deception has been enforced psychologically, politically and financially.
Spinning the news is certainly not a new phenomenon, but according to the film, the war in Iraq has ushered in a new level of biased coverage. In the film, Danny Schechter, media watchdog and Emmy-award winning former producer at CNN and ABC, criticizes major media outlets for providing the public with a “pro-war narrative driven by jingoism, not journalism,” and he argues that this failure to provide vigorous, inquisitive coverage has been orchestrated by the White House itself. Some American media outlets called their non-stop coverage of the war in Iraq their finest hour, but according to this film, most of that coverage was part of a second war being waged with “cameras, satellites, armies of journalists, and propaganda techniques.”
Billed as “the film that the major media companies do not want you to see,” WMD was screened recently at NYU’s Kimmel Center by the New Democracy Project, a New York City-based urban affairs and public policy institute which seeks to “counter the conservative consensus now dominating the public conversation,” so it’s not surprising that the film targets the Bush administration as the culprit behind the mass-scale disintegration of independent and objective reporting. What’s shocking is how deliberately and extensively this operation has been premeditated, applied, and imposed. After watching this film, you’ll doubt the veracity of any news.
In the run-up to the war, Schechter tells us, the Bush administration engaged in a wholesale demonization of Saddam Hussein, insisting that the Iraqi leader needed to be “disarmed” at any cost. Weapons of mass destruction were postulated, and the tragedy of September 11 was used as fuel for heightening fear of terrorist attacks – a very real fear in the minds of many Americans. Playing on society’s emotions in the midst of this paranoiac atmosphere, Saddam and terrorism were effectively (but inaccurately) linked. And from the moment the U.S. invaded Iraq, claims Schechter, neither the American public nor the American media had a chance for true and honest discourse about why we were fighting this war in the first place.
“I have never shown the viewer what war is really like,” says one journalist in the film. The reason, simply enough, is that coverage of Iraqi children targeted by cluster bombs and innocent civilians displaced and killed just aren’t allowed to make it onto the nightly news. Blood and gore, after all, may be offensive to some viewers. Media networks are keenly aware of this fact, and they are also motivated by higher political and financial pressures – get on the bad side of the government, and there is no way you’ll gain clearance to enter a war zone. The result is a passive, pandering news media characterized by slavishness and timidity, for the most part forced to remain uncritical of government justifications and de-escalate war coverage to palatable storytelling rather than critical analysis. What the public actually ends up seeing is coverage that is tepid and ingratiating at its best, and categorically inaccurate at its worst. “There was a script in how coverage of the war was handled,” states Robert Young Pelton in the film, an independent reporter who likens the war to a product rollout by the Pentagon. “It was set up to be filmed and recorded by the media.”
Schechter terms this mixture of entertainment and war “militainment,” and he holds the government and the news networks equally responsible for its propagation. From the beginning, he asserts, the media called the war like a football game, transforming it into an action-oriented spectacle complete with play-by-plays and statistics. One network called it “Showdown to Saddam,” and a collection of the best bomb footage (referred to by media insiders as the “Best of the Bombs”) was circulated and replayed by several media outlets. Reporters in Iraq were urged to “take their cameras off the sticks” and run alongside the soldiers to mimic the impulse and excitement of an action movie. It was news business as show business, brought to a grand finale with Bush’s declaration of “mission accomplished” – straight out of a scene from Top Gun.
But perhaps even more chilling than the lack of a free, independent press in the face of a war waged on questionable foundations is the psychological persuasiveness of the government’s manipulative regulation of media coverage. One of the most fashionable reporting techniques during this war has been the embedding of reporters, enabling what Pelton calls a “bizarre symbiotic relationship” between the media and the military. Such journalists necessarily become dependent on the troops for their own protection and understandably come to sympathize with the soldiers, losing a bit of their critical eye. In one of the film’s most jarring insights into this psychological manipulation, government-cleared journalists are required to complete a Pentagon survival course involving an extensive gas-mask instruction – ostensibly to protect themselves against the threat of weapons of mass destruction that, as the world now knows, never existed. Schechter also speculates that the bombing of the Palestine Hotel, where several foreign journalists who tended to portray the less favorable side of the war were staying in Baghdad, may have been carried out by the U.S. military to “keep the media on message.” This promotion of a climate of fear has been the Bush administration’s most effective silencing tool, and journalistic integrity has been its greatest casualty.
Schechter’s proposal to this catastrophic media failure is to institute an independent commission of citizens – not journalists or those corrupt government people – to investigate media blunders during the war coverage, in the same way as the 9/11 Commission has probed intelligence agency missteps. “I joined the media to report on the problems of the world, but found that the media is one of the problems of the world. How can we hold the media accountable?” asks Schechter at the film’s conclusion. “Now I’ve had my say – it’s your turn.”
Pleas for ruthless media self-examination such as Schechter’s have already begun to produce results. In late May, the editors of the New York Times conceded in a lengthy editorial note that looking back, they wished they had been “more aggressive” in their coverage of the war, which was “not as rigorous as it should have been,” and that certain information depended on as evidence “was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged.” The note was buried on page A10, but that didn’t overshadow the significance of an enormously influential news source coming forth with such potentially injurious self-criticism. Other mainstream media sources, including the Washington Post, the New Republic, and (sit down for this one) Bill O’Reilly for Fox News, have since issued similar mea culpa statements acknowledging that their coverage of the war has been less than perfect. What Schechter’s film proposes is that these admissions are simply the tip of the iceberg. Think about that the next time you turn on the news. Or, you can just stick to the Daily Show.