Between Iraq and a hard place: The use of propaganda during wartime

Propaganda: Information, ideas, opinions or images, often only giving one part of an argument, which are broadcast, published or in some other way spread with the intention of influencing people’s opinions. Cambridge International Dictionary

So when Al-Jazeera shows Iraqi children slaughtered and maimed as a result of the war in Iraq, it’s propaganda. But when FOX News uncritically praises the actions of the U.S. military in Iraq, it’s unbiased reporting. No-spin zone, my butt.

I watched Tom Brokaw, NBC news anchor, live on TV the other night commenting about “how successful we were” during one of the battles in Iraq. He quickly realized he’d blown his journalistic cover and crawfished. Er, uh, that is, how successful “the United States was.”

Of course, everyone who communicates does so with a built-in bias—individuals and governments alike. But somehow here in America, a lot of us have the notion that what comes from the mouths (or pens) of our politicians and journalists is the truth, while the pronouncements of anyone who disagrees with us—the French, the Russians, the Iraqis, ad infinitum—are essentially lies.

So based on the definition of propaganda above, how would you rate the stories floated by the Bush administration that implied a connection between Saddam Hussein and the events of 9/11, stories often carried by our media with little critical analysis? No such association has been proven, yet seventy-five percent of those polled by CNN/USA Today/Gallup during March 14-15 said that this hypothetical link was the main reason or at least one reason that they supported the invasion of Iraq.

If propaganda was used to manipulate U.S. citizens to support a war, it wouldn’t be the first time.

World War I—President Woodrow Wilson, elected as a peace candidate, led the nation into war. He created domestic support for this endeavor through the activities of the Committee on Public Information, an organization that blended advertising techniques and psychology to disseminate propaganda intended to incite hatred of Germany.

Vietnam War—By reporting unsubstantiated government allegations that U.S. ships were attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin as fact, the American media became complicit in Johnson’s exploitation of this non-event to escalate the Vietnam War.

Gulf War I—A tale of invading Iraqi soldiers throwing sick Kuwaiti babies from incubators onto the floor to die became a primary motivator in our march toward the Gulf War. Recounted to Congress in November 1990, it later came to light that the 15-year-old girl telling the story had been coached in her lies by a well-known public relations firm and that she was the daughter of the U.S. Ambassador to Kuwait.

But this war is different, right? Embedded reporters in the field bring us first hand accounts of the action. According to Robert Jensen, journalism professor at The University of Texas, “The embedded reporter system has produced a lot of copy and images, but not much understanding of what the war is about. U.S. reporters are publishing and broadcasting most anything U.S. officials say, even though much of it is turning out to be false or misleading.”

False and misleading? How about some examples from the field?

  • Iraqis have fired SCUD missiles (banned weapons) at Kuwait. Oops! No, they haven’t.
  • A huge chemical weapons plant has been discovered in Jajaf. Sorry, false alarm.
  • A major Iraqi civilian uprising is underway in Basra. Never happened.
  • Our precision weaponry is ensuring very few Iraqi civilians casualties. So far between 565 and 724 Iraqi civilians deaths have occurred and these are just those that can be confirmed by at least two newsgathering agencies.

So where is one to go for unbiased news coverage of the war? According to Jensen, “All news comes from a political position, and the key to understanding the world is reading widely. I try to read the mainstream U.S. press, the U.S. alternative media, and newspapers around the world. No one source is completely trustworthy.”

Note: My commentary on Iraq and the use of wartime propaganda was originally published in the April 5, 2003 edition of the Asheville Citizen-Times.

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