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February 24, 2005
February 24, 2005
Media is the front line of the corporate system. And media transmits the values, sells the products. All of this is about selling, not telling. The tradition of journalism is being eroded. And in its place we have impressions, images, archetypes, icons, celebrities and the like. This is how public opinion is now being massaged and manipulated. The war was a testing ground, not only for new weapons systems and techniques, but also for new communications strategies.
...our media became a weapons systems targeted at us. Usually in war propaganda you try and confuse the enemy. In our case, this propaganda infiltrated very skillfully back into American and global public opinion, and it was done with the help of Hollywood producers, and corporate PR people brought in to help out at the Pentagon.
The only thing more compelling than interviewing Danny Schechter is watching his powerful new documentary film, "Weapons of Mass Deception," < http://www.buzzflash.com/premiums/05/02/pre05023.html >available exclusively from BuzzFlash.com through March 8. Schechterís tour de force film puts the media in the cross hairs for their distortion of the threat of Iraq, their failure to challenge the administrationís claims over WMDs, and the mediaís war mongering in the buildup to the preemptive invasion. As we wrote in our recommendation for the film, if BuzzFlash were handing out our own Oscars, Danny Schechter's "Weapons of Mass Deception" would win for best film exposť of the media.
Danny Schechter is founder and executive editor of MediaChannel.org, as well as a founder and producer of Globalvision, Inc. His career in print and broadcast journalism has garnered him multiple Emmy awards, the IRIS award, the George Polk Award, the Major Armstrong Award and honors from the National Association of Black Journalists. Mr Schechter is an internationally recognized speaker and writer on media issues. Among Mr. Schechter's books are The More You Watch, The Less You Know (Seven Stories Press) and News Dissector: Passions, Pieces, and Polemics (Electron Press).
We spoke with Danny Schechter about his new documentary, about why good journalism doesn't mean rooting for your side to win a war, and about the American media as a roadblock to progress.
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BuzzFlash: Your new film, "Weapons of Mass Deception," documents how the American corporate media complex helped the Bush Administration sell the notion of launching a preemptive attack on Iraq. And more than that, the media misled the American people into believing that there were absolutely no other options other than a preemptive attack to protect our national security. So how was the media able to control and narrow the discussion so much? Is it as simple as just not talking about what other options were available in the buildup to the war?
Danny Schechter: Journalism is supposed to be a watchdog on power, not a lapdog. Itís not there as an echo chamber or a transmission belt for the claims made by the government. The media has a duty to scrutinize information, seek out other sources, try to evaluate and try to understand what the political strategy is behind a focus on a certain issue. But what we saw over and over again, on every single news program on every channel for almost five months, was the demonization of Saddam Hussein. He went from being a bad guy to a Hitler Ė somebody who not only was threatening his own people, gassing them and committing human rights abuses but also threatening the rest of the world. The media also spun the story that the WMDs in Iraq were presented as offensive weapons that had to be disarmed lest the world itself would be threatened.
The claim made by the Administration, as the basis for the war, was based on two main pillars -- the first was that Iraq had WMDs and biological and chemical weapons. And the second was the link that was implied, inferred, and suggested between Saddam, the secular nationalist, and Osama bin Laden, who is an Islamic fundamentalist and religious fanatic. So everything was put together in a nice little package. And the television media in our country, for the most part got on board and began beating the drum and accepting the logic and need for war.
As I show in "Weapons of Mass Deception," of the 800 experts that were on the air from the beginning of the buildup to the war itself and all the way up to Saddamís statues coming down in Baghdad, out of 800 experts, only six opposed the war. A report from FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting) found that only 3% of sources opposed the Iraq war while 71% of sources supported the war. So the information was skewed.
Later a Senate report came out and said that all the analysts suffered from group-think Ė they all thought and ruled alike on the same sources. They all reinforced what the others were saying for a political reason. They had an objective and they skewed the information in that direction. Okay, governments do that. Governments always do that when they make a claim. But the question has to be, is there a media here that can question all of this "group-think" and challenge it?
I was with a prominent news anchor recently at the United Nations who basically said, well, how could the media have known if the government didnít know? My answer is, how could every cab driver in Chicago and New York know that there were no WMDs, you know what I mean?
In the rest of the world, there was a lot more balanced coverage. In fact, if you lived somewhere else, you saw a different war than we saw. And thatís one of the arguments we make in "WMD." We say there were two wars going on. One was the war in which soldiers fought each other. The other was a war in which journalists were in combat for scoops, for information, and often cooperating with the government to get access, to be embedded, to be able to get the inside look forward. The Pentagon converted the American press -- which used to be considered the fourth estate and a check on power --into the fourth front. Thatís how General Tommy Franks described the media in his secret war plan.
BuzzFlash: Although it jumps out at me, sadly I think most Americans give the media the benefit of the doubt. If your objective was to convince someone that the mainstream media acts in collusion with the Bush administration and is failing to do its job, where would you even begin to engage someone in that conversation when they falsely believe that the corporate media is a watchdog?
Danny Schechter: This is how I began. I embedded myself in my apartment, and I began watching the channels, flipping the dials of my remote control and comparing and contrasting what was on the American channels, what was on CBC, what was on BBC, what was the rest of the world watching, to the best of my ability. I did this not only on TV but online, as well, looking at countless websites.
Iím the editor of Mediachannel.org, and we have thirteen hundred media affiliates. We have access to a lot of research and reporting. And what I saw was the different narrative from the foreign press than there was in the narrative we saw in the United States. And I began to see that this was very conscious, because certain message points were reinforced again and again. And when you saw what was happening on television, it became not simply a journalist reporting information, but it became pundits interpreting information and government officials reinforcing the information. These tactics all fit into a strategy that we investigate in the film called "information warfare" or information operations.
I thought one of the compelling facts we uncovered was a retired Air Force colonel who did a study of the coverage of the Iraq War who concluded that as many as 60 stories were deliberately invented or changed in various ways to basically conceal the truth. And heís somebody from inside the Pentagon world.
I began to feel that I had to do more Ė that I had to fight fire with fire. I had to challenge the mediaís images with different images. And I began to start this project with no money, with no support, with no help, with no media channels willing to commission it, with no foundations willing to fund it. And I went into my own pocket until I couldnít afford it anymore. Eventually I was able to attract some investors and we made the film on one-tenth of one percent of Michael Mooreís budget. We were a very small team based really on our passion and feeling that what we saw emerging in the United States during this war was a state media system Ė a system that was in essence accepting and promoting government claims. And I was finding out that, in fact, the government was funding reporters to get their politics into the media.
BuzzFlash: One of the grossest examples was the twisted logic in the buildup to the war when Rice, Rumsfeld, Powell, Cheney, and Bush were asked how Iraq could be considered a threat since the U.N. inspectors couldnít find any WMDs. And the administrationís response was, "Well, the fact that we canít find the WMDs proves Iraq has them, and that theyíre hiding them." It was so transparent and yet the media swallowed this ridiculous line of reasoning.
Danny Schechter: And the logic was even more bizarre Ė Osama bin Laden speaks Arabic, hates America. Saddam Hussein speaks Arabic, hates America. Therefore, Saddam Hussein is Osama bin Laden. If they share ideology, then they also might share weapons to destroy America. This hysteria and litany of "what ifs" was just a simplistic message point: youíre either with us or youíre against us. These are the evildoers and weíre the good guys in the world.
Our news system used to rely on information and informing people. There would be facts that would be debated. These guys today have moved into a storytelling mode Ė a Hollywood narrative technique has invaded the realm of news and information. So what weíre presenting now is not necessarily information designed to inform people or deepen their understanding of how institutions work or what the choices are in the world, but rather to convey a story line. And that story line is the Jessica Lynch story Ė damsel in distress. The idea of the war being presented like a sporting event Ė a sports metaphor Ė where generals are diagramming how we marched into Baghdad so it looked like a Super Bowl play.
These techniques of the merger of show biz and news biz reduced the war to an entertainment event, and everybody played their part in it. And there was a lot of high drama. Whatís going to happen? Are we at risk? Our boys are in the field. And so, you basically shift the publicís identification from thinking about the reasons that weíre there Ė whether or not we should be there Ė to whatís happening to our soldiers in the field. Your loyalties go to the soldiers and you forget about the politics and the policies that led to the war.
Thatís why I felt we had two issues here that were in tandem with each other. One was the weapons of mass destruction and the other was "Weapons of Mass Deception" Ė the way in which our media became a weapons systems targeted at us. Usually in war propaganda you try and confuse the enemy. In our case, this propaganda infiltrated very skillfully back into American and global public opinion, and it was done with the help of Hollywood producers, and corporate PR people brought in to help out at the Pentagon.
BuzzFlash: Many Americans may find this shocking, but good journalism Ė professional journalism Ė means that reporters shouldnít be rooting for your side to win a war. Itís not a journalistís job to support the troops, itís the journalistís job to tell the story truthfully and accurately.
Danny Schechter: When journalists start talking about "we" Ė expressing an identification with the policy or with the invasion, even with the soldiers, theyíve lost critical distance, which is essential to journalism. Secondly, jingoism and a lot of flag waving is not journalism, and we saw this after 9/11, with all the anchormen wearing American flags on their lapels rallying the country. And I can understand the reasons for it. I lived near the World Trade Center. I made a film about that as well. I can understand why people were frightened, but this fear was manipulated by this Administration that had planned the war in Iraq before 9/11.
BuzzFlash: Clearly, we as consumers of information can be easily manipulated through branding, advertising, the power of images with music, and intentional framing and manipulating of language. Visuals and impressions dominate information now. Could you explain how the networks branded this war and how significant this was in the overall distortion by the media?
Danny Schechter: A film called "The Power of Nightmares" was just done by the BBC. The idea was that in the earlier part of the century, politicians organized around dreams, around things we could hope for Ė the Great Society, civil rights, womenís emancipation Ė issues that were about peopleís hopes and dreams. Now we have an administration thatís organizing itself around our nightmares, around fear, and basically being the strong father figure. This authoritarian leadership model is eroding civil liberties, our democracy, and effectively deploying large amounts of money from the corporate world to basically help them realize their self interests. This is something which has come out of a country thatís gone through a tremendous transformation over the last twenty years, where the gap between the rich and poor is growing tremendously.
But the military-industrial interests recognized that the scariest thing that ever happened was the end of the Soviet Union -- suddenly that threat disappeared.
So we needed a new threat because a threat keeps that machine going. Instead of a military-industrial complex, we now have a military-industrial-media complex. Media is the front line of the corporate system. And media transmits the values, sells the products. All of this is about selling, not telling. The tradition of journalism is being eroded. And in its place we have impressions, images, archetypes, icons, celebrities and the like. This is how public opinion is now being massaged and manipulated. The war was a testing ground, not only for new weapons systems and techniques, but also for new communications strategies. This is a tremendous priority about how you manage conflict. This goes back to the war in Vietnam, as we show in "Weapons of Mass Deception," where the Nixon Administration concluded that the U.S. lost the Vietnam war because of the media.
BuzzFlash: The distortion of the war in Iraq in the media occurred before, during and after the invasion. Letís talk about coverage of the war itself. Do you think mainstream news should show graphic images of war?
Danny Schechter: Thatís a difference we saw between the Arab satellite channels and our own. Some foreign channels showed the reality of war and the horror of people being killed. The American press decided not to show anything. My film talks about civilian casualties and how our military used cluster weapons -- two issues not covered in the American press. Our press covered it up rather than covered it. And that to me is a tragedy. I came out by saying you donít want to gross people out. On the other hand, we have a responsibility to tell people whatís happening. And in this case, we didnít.
But when we talk about this happening before the war, we have to recognize that itís still happening. If you look at the Iraq election, the way it was spun and covered, we know that a lot of people came out very bravely with their purple fingers in the air and going to vote. But what were they voting for? Or why were they voting? They were voting in part because they want to get the Americans out. Yet this was spun by the Bush administration as a vindication of our policy. So the management and news media manipulation that we saw throughout the war is still happening.
BuzzFlash: What needs to happen? Do progressives need to wage a campaign to show the rest of the country that Americans canít trust the mainstream news?
Danny Schechter: What we try to provide at mediachannel.org is ongoing, timely criticism of the media together with other resources presenting other points of view for more diversity. I write a blog every day on mediachannel.org looking at the media critically and looking at what can be done about it. Iím trying, as best I can, in addition to my books and my films, to raise these issues. But the final point I tell the viewer in my film is, "Iíve had my say. Now itís time for you." Iím trying to involve the public in these issues.
We created an outlet called "Media for Democracy," which over 75,000 people joined in order to talk back to the media and challenge the media. We also need to support independent media such as BuzzFlash.
As the Washington Post military reporter that I quote in the film says, "The United States has not won this war." We need to understand why and whatís happening there. Thatís why Iím hoping "Weapons of Mass Deception" will be an important addition to everybodyís video shelf, and if they can help to get it into libraries, schools, and screenings in communities and discuss it. Every time weíve shown this, people stay for an hour to discuss and debate it. This film is something that really resonates with people. Obviously itís hard to get the media to promote and to support a film that criticizes the media.
Itís easier to bash Bush than to critique the media, but we have to move in that direction. Thatís what Iím trying to do. I joined the media thirty years ago to address the problems of the world, but Iíve come to see that the media is one of the problems. Itís a problem that we all have to confront and try to do something about because having a strong, vital, independent media is essential to a well-functioning democracy. Without it, itís over.
And these are not issues of media only. This is what I think BuzzFlash readers have to appreciate. These are issues of democracy. If you canít have a media that informs the public, how can you have a democracy? If you canít have a trustworthy media that critiques, analyzes, exposes, and challenges, then what you have in essence is a propaganda system. My hope is that BuzzFlash readers understand the need for political change and will realize that the media is standing in the way of change. The media is a problem now, not a solution, and we have to work for media in our country that will support democracy.
BuzzFlash: Danny, "Weapons of Mass Deception" is a great film. Thanks so much for talking with us about it.
Danny Schechter: Thank you.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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"Weapons of Mass Deception" DVD, a BuzzFlash premium: http://www.buzzflash.com/premiums/05/02/pre05023.html
MediaChannel.org Website: http://www.mediachannel.org/
Danny Schechter biography: http://www.globalvision.org/who/whoa.html