Telling the Story
April 3, 2003
This being a war of choice, rather
than a war forced on us by urgent necessity (as it is for Iraq), cant
we at least ask for candor about the cost? I dont mean only in
American blood and treasure, important as they are, but in Iraqi
casualties, both military and civilian.
We deserve something more than
propaganda. If our government is going to make us bitter enemies, we have
a right to know that. This war is being fought in our name, and we are
going to pay for it in more ways than one.
Many hawks feel that free speech
ends at the waters edge. (Not that theyre crazy about it on
our own shores.) They are furious at Sean Penn for saying in Iraq what he
had an unquestioned right to say in America, even though the war
hadnt started yet. They are doubly furious at Peter Arnett for
saying what he thought in Iraq once the United States had started bombing.
American journalists are supposed to be embedded in the
war effort, observing message discipline. That is, they are
expected to stop practicing journalism without a government-issued
In war, the adage has it, truth is
the first casualty. But if your cause is just, why do you need lies and
concealment? If your troops are fighting for freedom including
Iraqi freedom why not allow events to be reported
freely? If you are sitting at home, cheering the war while watching it on
television, shouldnt you at least be willing to face what
youre supporting? Or does the war have to be edited for family
The hawks are suspicious of the
American news media, which they feel arent parroting war
propaganda with due zeal. In their eyes, even frank reporting, if it
contradicts official optimism, amounts to treason. According to the
fanatical New York Post, the New York Times
is a fifth column of the enemy. Yet any serious reader
knows which paper to read for dispassionate information, and which paper
reduces journalism to a bad joke.
Never mind that without frank reporting the freedom of the
press is meaningless. If this is really a war for freedom, ours as well as
Iraqs, why shouldnt we exercise our own freedoms?
Im afraid the answer is all too obvious.
The American media are the
least of the hawks problems. They should be worrying about the
foreign media, especially the Arab network Al-Jazeera. The American
media are showing a serial that might be called Brave American
Soldiers. The Arab media are showing a different story:
Dead and Maimed Arab Women and Children. And
thats the one most of the world is watching. The U.S. global media
monopoly is over.
The Bush administration
doesnt seem to grasp this. It expects the world to accept its rigid
and lame self-justifications, and is utterly unprepared for the propaganda
war that may be more decisive in the long run than what happens in battle.
Perception may not be reality, but its certainly an important
reality, especially in the Media Age, and its out of the U.S.
Which story is true? In a war
that isnt decisive. It isnt the righteous side that prevails,
but the side with the more powerful weapons, and in the contest for world
opinion, the Arab story is far more powerful than the American story.
Pictures of dead children cant be counteracted by pictures of nice
Marines carrying live children. Pictures of dead American children killed
by Iraqis might help, but there arent any.
When, 40 years ago, the young
Cassius Clay (now the beloved old Muhammad Ali) challenged the thuggish
Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight championship, he was so cocky
and abrasive that one sportswriter quipped, Clay has achieved the
unlikely feat of making Liston the sentimental favorite.
Similarly, George W. Bush has
achieved the unlikely feat of making the brutal Saddam Hussein the
sentimental favorite in the Arab world and beyond. Like his hero Stalin,
Hussein knows how to enlist the passions of nationalism when he needs
them. An invasion always helps.
Our own media are barely
reporting this media war. But if the United States wins on the ground, yet
winds up isolated in a hostile world, what will it have gained?
A happy ending depends on
whos telling the story. And America isnt the worlds