November 28th, 2007 | Published in Reporting commentary
Today dramatic footage is often the primary goal, not the byproduct, of combat. The reality created by the media is what determines the outcome in the information war – not the reality on the ground. As Richard Landes of the Augean Stables asserts media really is a theater of war and has been since the Vietnam war.
I think the intentional creation of footage – real of faked – by our enemies to sell to our media is possible only because our media is open to it. One vector is the endless appetite of TV for dramatic footage to maximize the emotional impact of their coverage. Another is the general disaffection of our press with the goals of our government and military. The later goes back to Vietnam when a tradition of cynicism toward the claims of the military became so common that the daily press briefings became known as ‘the five oclock follies.’ A current and fairly outspoken example of this view entitled Iraq Has Only Militants, No Civilians: “Tactical Perception Management” by Dahr Jamail was sent to me recently. Here is the opening:
Name them. Maim them. Kill them.
From the beginning of the American occupation in Iraq, air strikes and attacks by the U.S. military have only killed “militants,” “criminals,” “suspected insurgents,” “IED [Improvised Explosive Device] emplacers,” “anti-American fighters,” “terrorists,” “military age males,” “armed men,” “extremists,” or “al-Qaeda.”
Unsurprisingly, even a superficial survey of Dahr Jamail’s work reveals an ideologically commited anti war reporter. But that’s ok – the polemical nature of the writing is clear and upfront. What I am concerned with is covert deception and the infiltration of our news media by enemy propagandists. TV news is the most vulnerable because it allows the use of unattributed footage presented along with commentary that can be highly misleading. Still photographs are a close second. Print journalists, on the other hand, are expected to name their sources or specify if they are anonymous or pseudonymous.
I first became very skeptical during a visit to the US in 2004 when I got to view endless clips on my son’s plutocrat class TV of strutting jihadis, burning US vehicles, and suicide bomb blasted streets. And it is not just a bias problem – it is a problem intrinsic to TV as a medium. Fox News did the same because it needs gripping footage to attract eyeballs regardless of its ideology. Where was all this footage coming from? Answer: local stringers who apparently had the contacts to provide an ample supply of such material. Later in 2004 I realized the problem was endemic when I read about this incident in Tal Afar in Anbar Province.
Soldiers of the Stryker-borne 5-20th Infantry had their “Mogadishu moment” when an OH-58D helicopter went down hard in the urban sprawl of TaI Afar. The pilots, although injured, escaped the wreckage and crawled to the relative safety of a nearby rock wall. Our adversaries seem to have been as familiar with Mogadishu precedents as we were, and a race developed between those trying to prevent another “Black Hawk Down” and those trying to reproduce one.
It was an intense and dramatic battle, but the ending is what concerns us here:
With the coolness of troops who completely dominate their battlefield, the Americans now brought forward a HEMTT (heavy expanded mobility tactical truck) wrecker and a palletized load system flatbed truck. This recovery team sawed off the helicopter blades and loaded the wreckage onto the flatbed, and then the entire contingent disengaged by stages and drove away. There would be no bodies dragged through the streets, no hostages, no captured materials, no pictures of jubilant insurgents dancing on a helicopter.
The battle was over when the helicopter was removed – and both sides knew it. The media potential of the incident was the military objective. When Donald Rumsfeld said “You go to war with the army you have,” I doubt that he thought a wrecker could be a decisive weapon in information war. The issue of local stringers has reemerged in Iraq recently over an AP stringer arrested in compromising circumstances. The NY Times reports:
The photographer, Bilal Hussein, was part of an 11-member team that won a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography in 2005. He has been detained without charge since April 2006.
A spokesman for the American military in Iraq, Maj. Brad Leighton, said Mr. Hussein was held after soldiers found explosive devices, insurgency propaganda and surveillance photographs of an installation for American-led forces during a routine patrol when they entered his apartment in 2006.
Tom Curley, the president and chief executive of the AP no less, has come strongly to Hussein’s defense in the Washington Post:
We believe Bilal’s crime was taking photographs the U.S. government did not want its citizens to see. That he was part of a team of AP photographers who had just won a Pulitzer Prize for work in Iraq may have made Bilal even more of a marked man.
In the 19 months since he was picked up, Bilal has not been charged with any crime, although the military has sent out a flurry of ever-changing claims. Every claim we’ve checked out has proved to be false, overblown or microscopic in significance. Now, suddenly, the military plans to seek a criminal case against Bilal in the Iraqi court system in just days. But the military won’t tell us what the charges are, what evidence it will be submitting or even when the hearing will be held.
I have no objective idea if Bilal Hussein is innocent or guilty. I see his case against a background of information war being waged by both sides. Richard Landes asks a penetrating question in this post that reveals the massive tug of war going on over control of the narrative between the MSM and the military.
Assuming the allegations in the New York Times article are true, what is more disturbing- that the AP would be so careless with their background checking that they would employ Mr. Hussein, or that the work of an Iraqi insurgent does not immediately stand out among AP’s other reports? (Emphasis added)
While the press and the military properly have a partially adversarial relationship I think that since Vietnam it has been seen as the duty of the press to have a outright hostile attitude. The NY Times put Abu Ghraib on its from page 34 out of 37 days at one point. By way of contrast, I recently started reading First Into Nagasaki The Censored Eyewitness Dispatches on Post-Atomic Japan and Its Prisoners of War by George Weller.
It gives an eyewitness account by an American reporter who managed to sneak into Nagasaki against MacArthur’s prohibition. His got the story but it was censored. He was able to save his carbon copies and his son published them 60 years later in 2006. I think Weller’s decision to ignore MacArthur’s censorship and try to get the story out was a fine example of journalistic integrity. I believe what is happening all too often today is that the media are buying tainted goods from enemy propagandists masquerading as stringers because it supplies their commercial requirements and suits their domestic political objectives. In short I think our media has made itself vulnerable to fraud because it is too agenda driven. When you read truly balanced reporting from contemporary reporters such as John Burns of the New York Times or independent journalist Michael J Totten the difference is clear enough. Looking back in 1967 at the overwhelming human tragedy of the devastation in Nagasaki George Weller wrote:
I felt pity, but no remorse. The Japanese military had cured me of that….Had Japan got these weapons first, would they have been unfair, I asked? Was Pearl Harbor and act of Japanese chivalry? The crafty eyes under the peaked brown caps turned unblinking and blank. (p4).
Crossposted at Yankeewombat