The Iraq War: The Influence of the Media

Sarah Buttle

MEDIA – PROPAGANDA – WAR

Since the 1950s both media and military have changed exponentially. The discovery of instantaneous broadcasting across the globe with the introduction of the 24/hour news-cycle, commenters now have more platforms than ever before to communicate from.

The arrival of new media players such as the famous Al Jazeera, will be discussed further as a historic media organisation throughout the Iraq war. For the first time, the U.S. and UK audiences were exposed to the ‘enemy’, which we witnessed during the coverage and developments throughout the Iraq war (Pinder, 2009).

Much international media reported on the Iraq war was reported without ever gaining a primary understanding of why the Iraqi people continued to suffer after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Many Iraqis supported the invasion or stayed neutral to the U.S. occupying Iraq. They were desperate to end the state of war in which they had been living under since 1980. This left an unstable Iraq behind, fuelled with hatred for one another and hatred for the American troops. The U.S. military were seen to be ‘invading’ their lands and over staying their time during the new post-Suddam era (Cockburn, 2006).

The Iraq War (Second Persian Gulf War) from 2003-2011 was a war of two phases. The first was in 2003, where military from the U.S. and UK invaded Iraq and defeated Iraqi military. It was then followed by a second phase which was much longer, in which a U.S. led occupation of Iraq was opposed by an insurgency… declining rapidly in 2007. The U.S. slowly reduced its military presence in Iraq, finally completing its withdrawal in December 2011.

I hope to show how the mass media failed to report the invasion Iraq objectively. I will simultaneously analyse the development of the Iraq war, a conflict that lasted nine years, for which the role played by the media was notoriously influential.

In particular, the media showed an unforeseen power in its position during the Iraq war. Through propaganda reports serving from the Pentagon and Downing Street, the media which the public was viewing was both biased and in many cases untrue.

So what went wrong? Why were the Iraqi people still living in such horrific, dangerous and unstable conditions post-war? We must ask ourselves this- Is it possible that the global institutions during the Iraq invasion, such as the mass media and military, could have attributed to this horror?

Iraq had been ordered to pay war reparations to Kuwait for damage to the oil industry. Iraq was ordered to declare all weapons of mass destruction (WMD) so that they could be destroyed. The UN inspectors had made several journeys to Iraq searching for weapons. Despite the economic sanctions which had been imposed to ensure compliance, the inspectors were not allowed access to Iraq. This gave the US quite an argument as to a primary cause to declare war on Iraq. Chief General Sir Dannatt (2002), asserts: It seems probable that when George W. Bush asked our Prime Minister in spring 2002: “We are going into Iraq, are you with us?” there was only one answer (Wilesmith, 2017).

In 2001 it was noted by Wilesmith that Vice President Cheney declared that 9/11 had “changed everything”. He also wrote how before 9/11 Bush asked national security advisor Richard Clarke to “see if Saddam did this, see if he’s linked in any way” It also may be possible that Bush may blame Saddam for the attempted assignation of his father, George H. W Bush in Kuwait in 1993 (Wilesmith, 2017).

Tony Blair’s seemed hesitant at first to join Bush. Just eight days before the invasion in 2003, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced at a press conference that the US will start the invasion without the British. That evening, Blair had a phone call from media tycoon Rupert Murdoch. He said how News International would support Blair if he decided to go to war on Iraq with the U.S.

It is important to note that Murdoch 14 years previously expressed “one benefit of the invasion would be cheaper oil” and is now seen a prime supporter of President Donald Trump (McSmith, 2017). This merge of media tycoon and British Prime Minister was the beginning of a corrupt relationship, with both parties siding with President Bush.

“We can’t back down now, where you hand over the whole of the Middle East to Saddam,” … “I think Bush is acting very morally, very correctly, and I think he is going to go on with it” …these are the words spoken by Murdoch. He also stated, “The greatest thing to come out of this for the world economy… would be $20 a barrel for oil. That’s bigger than any tax cut in any country” (Wilesmith 2017).

Dr. Steven Kull, director of International Policy Attitudes, demonstrated how the Iraqi people grew impatient with the pace of US withdrawal after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. 144 of the 275 members of Parliament signed a letter calling for a prompt timetable for the withdrawal of US troops with the key reason being the public attitude of the Iraqi people (Kull, 2008).

In March 2003, Hafez looked at 1,617 sources about Iraq of six television networks. The news programs studied were ABC News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Reports, Fox’s Special Report with Brit Hume, and PBS’s News Hour. He found that 64% were pro-war, while 71% favoured the war (Hafez, 2003).

The German reporting was less convinced about Baghdad’s connection with Bin Laden and about the existence of Iraqi WMD, which did restore some hope in the media (Esser, 2009, pp.718). Unfortunately, throughout the world the mass medium had predominately negative news coverage on the Muslim community as a result of the Iraq war.

Unlike the neutral German press, the UK and US media conglomerates made investments and gave large amounts of air time to the coverage of the Iraq War. They used frames to instil fear and in return made substantial profits. In 2003 a Cardiff University report found that the BBC displaced the most “pro-war” agenda of any broadcaster on the Iraq invasion. Over the three weeks of the initial conflict, 11% of the sources by the BBC were of coalition government or military origin.

In a speech at New York’s Columbia University, John Pilger commented; “We now know that the BBC and other British media were used by the M16, the secret intelligence service. In what we called “Operation Mass Appeal”, M16 agents planted articles about Suddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, such as weapons hidden in secret underground bunkers. All these articles were fake” (Cromwell, 2012, pp.25).

Chomsky is right when he says “the creation of a misleading reality and an illusionary sense of justice during war are not due to the technology of the mass media, nor are they signs of the times. They are forms of control of the outcome of war, through the influence of the enemy’s psychology and promotion of national pride” (Kalogiratou, 2012).

The audience’s views on the War in Iraq have been “created, shaped, reproduced and disseminated by the mass media. Bush increasingly mentioned Iraq as a “threat” which he attempted to link with 9/11 attacks and terrorism in at least 16 times to the media. “Unable to make a case for a war against Iraq…. Bush could only invoke fear and a moralistic, rhetoric, attempting to present himself as a strong, nationalist leader…repeating the same tired clichés over and over” (Kellner, 2004, pp.330).

The use of propaganda can be sometimes called public diplomacy and it was seen significantly through the coverage of the Iraq war, which has only come to surface years after the Occupation. Gilboa (200), “public diplomacy entails one-sided communication and used mostly in international confrontations where governments seek to create favourable images of their nations”. The role of news journalism and news management has grown considerably in recent military conflicts (Esser, 2009, pp. 709 and 710).

Research shows that the mass media had little coverage on the primary reasons for the war in Iraq. Buy Time magazine had a feature on Iraq, which explicitly proves how horrifically the media performed. The headline reads: ‘How to Tell Sunnis and Shi’ites Apart. Fisk comments on this headline by saying “I don’t know why the American military don’t just buy up this week’s edition of Time. This unawareness shown by the media is evidence that the propaganda model is working, distraction at all cause from what was really the cause for the Iraq crisis, the Occupation and UN restrictions (Fisk, 2011, pp. 140).

This type of editorial raises another issue of how the media covered the ‘war on terror’. It brings up the issue of racism and targeting the Muslim community with satirical works for profit. It was discovered that the journalist and reporters who were covering the Iraq war were required by law to sign papers agreeing to “a set of restrictions on their reporting”. Kellner writes how “It was clear that the embedded reporters were indeed “in bed” with their military escorts since the beginning” (Kellner, 2004, pp.332).

The dramatic story of “saving Private Lynch” was one of the most spectacular media interest stories of the war that revealed the ways the Pentagon influenced the media. News reports all reported that she was shot, stabbed and tortured by Iraqis who held her captive. It was after 8 days that the U.S. media broadcast footage of her dramatic rescue by U.S. military. It turned out that it was all fake, and medics could claim that Iraqi troops had actually left the hospital two days before. This is another example how the media covered the war using explicit propaganda methods (Kellner, 2004, pp.333).

The media must share blame alongside Blair and Bush. The media continued to report claims that Iraq and Saddam Hussein were immediate threats to our nation, resulting in 75% of Americans believing that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11 (Truthout, 2013). Bush Press Secetary, Scott McClellan (2008) admitted in an interview that the U.S. administration used propaganda to secure public support for war in Iraq (Shafer, Glasser and Dovere, 2017).

Bill O’Reilly used his pedestal on Fox News to pitch the pro-war lies of the Bush Administration. Steve Hayes, a Fox News contributor stated how he “repeatedly used his columns in the The Weekly Standard and his time on Fox so-called News to push the now debunked lie that Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein were inextricably linked” (Truthout, 2013).

Karen Young confessed that: ‘We are inevitably the mouthpiece for whatever administration is in power. The public seemed to view the war as one related more to 9/11 and less a continuation of long-term U.S. policies.” Counter-terrorism official Anthony Zinni said: “In the lead up to… war and its later conflict, I saw at a minimum, true declaration, negligence and irresponsibility at worse, lying, incompetence and corruption”.

In both wars, the U.S. administrations contracted PR firms to form their public rationales “around carefully selected and test-marketed themes”. In 1991 the media portrayed Suddam as the new Hitler and in 2003 the news framed him as a terrorist, “terrorists attacked us’, he must be involved in 9/11”. Jack Powell advised to “use overwhelming force in communication strategy” (Paolucci, 2008, pp.880).

The White House Iraq Group (WHIG) formed just after the dates of the Downing Street memos (2002):  including Bush and Vice President Cheney who worked to shape information in the media. To further provide propaganda to the media, the Bush administration organised The Office of Strategic influence, ‘to generate false news to serve US interests’. The administration went on to coach ex-military members with Pentagon ties, who then appeared as their ‘experts’ (Paolucci, 2008, pp.871).

The Pentagon wanted the world media to “record heroic exploits, enemy dastardliness and hoped for discoveries of weapons of mass destruction”. During the second invasion more than 100 journalists reported from the Palestine hotel in Baghdad and 600 correspondents were embedded with coalition troops. Although this seems like a large quantity of journalists, they were not reporting the truth as they were, like the troops, just following orders and conditions of employment (Esser, 2009, pp.711).

Mr. Silverman from the Associated Press had said this as his reasoning, or for better word excuse, for such bad reporting from the front lines of Iraq reporters, was that “Iraq remains the most dangerous place in the world to work as a journalist, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. A total of 50 media personnel have died in Iraq” (Seelye, 2005). One obvious fact is the U.S. administration succeeded in focusing the international debate on the alleged possession of WMD, Suddam Hussein’s Iraq and on possibly links to Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terrorist network (Kalyango and Eckler, 2010, pp.533)

From the formation and abruptness of WHIG and other Bush deployments and the biased news coverage of the lead up to the war and the aftermath of the war, I believe I have put forward a strong argument with a series of sources that confirm the media had major implications and influence on the war in Iraq. Many media organisations have remained silent in the uncovering of propagandist material used in the coverage of the war. Notably, both the New York Times and the Washington Post admitted amplifying US government propaganda in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Their editors wrote: ‘We have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then, and questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallengeable. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged- or failed to emerge’ (Cromwell, 2012, pp.54).

Some may argue that a mere apology from an editor does not resolve any of the negative implications the coverage of the Iraq war and prior to that, 9/11, on civil society. The media omitted to release the reality of the war in order to withhold their job to report what they were handed, which was predominately sourced from the U.S. government.

Many also argue that professional journalists are required to follow the script, if not there would be punishment. They could become in denial of access to powerful politicians, sources or even career death. As the U.S. political analyst Glenn Greenwalk pointed out “most establishments media figures, by definition, are hard-core nationalists, who scorn any ideas that suggest their country is at fault for anything. The very suggestion that the U.S. might have done anything to provoke rational hatred against it and helped 9/11 is like poison in the journalist’s soul” (Greenwald, 2008).

I feel I have demonstrated how the mass media failed to report the invasion Iraq honestly, without any bias or hidden agenda. In doing so, I feel I have also established the impact the media had in creating negative attitudes towards Iraq and fuelling the development of the Iraq war, as it prominently took the centre stage.

I would like to conclude with words from Walter Lippmann who is the famous author of his book ‘Public Opinion (1992). Twenty-five years ago, Walter Lippmann also worried about the impact of media in a functioning democratic society and with the increase in Islamophobia. He described the images created by the media as the “picture in our heads, which individuals employ to help make sense of the information they are presented”.

If the information that is been continuously presented in the media on the war in Iraq is both inaccurate, harmful, impartial and negative, then the mass media may create a greater, potentially harmful fear amongst the public (McCombs, 2004, p.68). The Muslim Youth Helpline said Islamophobia is causing among the Muslim community depression, that they “feel isolated, criminalized and neglected and feel they are portrayed as uncivilized and a problem to European culture” (Siraj, 2014, p.33).

I would now like to finally conclude that our media, during times of terror, must look at what can be done to create journalism which reduces the propaganda effect for either the terrorist or politician. Beckett writes they could do this; “By showing more empathy for the people involved and including more constructive narratives for resilience and understanding, the news media can at least counter the sense of fear and hopelessness terror news can induce” (Beckett, 2016).

Feature Image credit and source: https://www.kennardphillipps.com/

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Sarah Buttle

Mental Health Youth Advisers for the Milestone Study