10/15/2005

Chronogram - Weapons of Mass Deception - Oct 2005

Lorna Tychostup [from chronogram] goes one on one with ..media critic Danny Shechter, who'd like to see progressives take a deeper role in forcing media accountability and responsibility... Schechter ..challenges the media's complicity with the Bush administration in framing the Iraq war. [In his] hard-hitting yet personal film [Weapons of Mass Deception], [he] looks at how the Pentagon helped shape media coverage and asks why the American audience lapped it up.

Weapons of Mass Deception
An Interview with Danny Schechter
Interview & Photos by Lorna Tychostup

.. radio news director turned CNN and Emmy Award winning ABC news producer, Danny Schechter is now an..independent investigative journalist and .. one of America's most prolific media critics who] takes on his own industry in Weapons of Mass Deception, a documentary film that takes viewers behind the scenes of the media coverage of the Iraq war.

Breaking through what Schechter calls "so-called 'objective reporting,'" he challenges the media's complicity with the Bush administration in framing the Iraq war. A hard-hitting yet personal film, WMD looks at how the Pentagon helped shape media coverage and asks why the American audience lapped it up.

Calling their nonstop coverage of the Iraq war their finest hour, American TV networks pointed to the use of embedded journalists and new technologies that permitted viewers to see a war up close for the first time. But Schechter charges the media promoted and acted as head cheerleader for a war in which some reporting was "sanitized, staged, and suppressed"; a war where Americans were given reasons for fighting that were never questioned by mainstream media; a war that was seen via the media differently in different countries. Schechter, author of Media Wars: News at a Time of Terror, The More You Watch The Less You Know and News Dissector, dared to ask "Why?"

"Self-embedded" in his living room, Schechter fastidiously tracked TV coverage of the Iraq war daily and wrote thousands of words about the coverage for Mediachannel.org, the world's largest online media-issues network. Collecting his columns, blogs, and articles, he published, Embedded: Weapons of Mass Deception (Prometheus Books). According to Schecter, when it became clear that Embedded was being "buried" by the media, he decided to make a film on the topic. Drawing back the curtain of the mainstream media and its democracy-threatening link to the government purveyors of information, WMD features footage from inside Iraq, the media, and tracks the media war through February 2004.

Schechter will be on hand to answer questions after a screening of Weapons of Mass Deception on October 9 at 1pm, at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck.

Chronogram senior editor, Lorna Tychostup, interviewed Schechter via phone at his Manhattan office at Globalvison, the television and film production company he co-founded 16 years ago.

Lorna Tychostup: Weapons of Mass Deception begins by discussing the difference between "journalism" and "coverage." Can you explain the difference?
Danny Schechter: Coverage can be pointing the camera at something, at a press conference, at a bomb going off, at a bunch of tanks rolling down the road and you can report on what you are watching and seeing. Journalism attempts to put information in context. It attempts to add a dimension of reporting so that you find out what else is going on, what is the back story to it, offer some assessment, analysis, context, etc. And that is what is often lacking.
LT: How would you define journalism?

DS: Journalism is an effort to report on news, on the news of the day. It is an effort to try to explain what is going on, to find out what is going on, first of all. Check the accuracy of the claims by government agencies and the like, and also to offer some perspective. Different countries have different styles of journalism, but ours tends to be a news story with the five W's and an H—who, what, where, when, why, and how. That is [our] classical approach to journalism—an effort by the press, which has been given a First Amendment protection to serve the public interest—to be a check on power. Not only tell us what is going on, not only to inform us, but also to bring out information that other people want hidden.
LT: What is "independent" journalism? How does it fit into the definition?

DS: We are living in an age of corporate domination of big media. Larger and larger companies controlling the information system—publishing, television, radio, print; often companies that are not really primarily committed to journalism but they are in the media business. They are into advertising, entertainment, and other forms of communication. Reporting is a small part of it. Sometimes their [business] priorities take priority over their journalistic interests.
LT: Independent journalism, how does it fit into this?

DS: In corporate hierarchies and structures, reporters report to their bosses. Priorities often are set at the top of a hierarchy. Independent journalists, can be but not always are, separate from those structures, initiate their own stories, work as freelancers, or work for publications that are not dominated by big media cartels. For example, the New Yorker is a corporate publication. It is owned by Condé Nast but has a reputation for independent writing. So journalists like Seymour Hersh appear in the New Yorker and they are a lot more critical in their outlook—which is another characteristic of independent journalists—than journalists who work for big corporate organizations. When you work in a big structure, you tend to conform to what is expected of you and the priorities. If someone says, "OK, we are going to spend 80 percent of our resources covering entertainment and only 5 percent of our resources covering the world, if you want to work in that organization, that is what you do. Journalists don't initiate a lot of their own stories. They're assigned to cover stories. They're told how much time they have, and how to do it. There are certain templates of coverage. That is why there is so much similarity in coverage, why it all sort of looks alike.
LT: From what I saw on the ground in Iraq, people I spoke to on military bases for example, some journalists who went there to do embeds were told by [their] editor back in the states, "This is the story we want, go out there and find it."

DS: Precisely, because there is a lot of conformity and uniformity in the media. Assignment editors in New York are watching what their competitors are covering. If their competitors are covering something, they want to be covering the same thing. They don't want to be nominally out-scooped [and] tend to cover the same stories in the same way. Often those stories are responding to initiatives of and spin by the government. There is not much room for independent investigation or critical analysis. Also, in America, there is supposedly a line drawn between commentary and reporting—"just the facts, ma'am," and not offer any perspective on it. In England and other countries, journalists are expected to offer perspective. Collecting the facts is not just the whole job. And of course, when you collect facts, sometimes you leave certain facts out. You decide what's important and what isn't important.
LT: In most recent American journalism they are tending to do the European thing—whether you are listening to Bill O'Reilly or Amy Goodman, you're getting someone's opinion, you're getting their agenda, their perspective—as opposed to the facts.

DS: It is not "as opposed to the facts." You are getting some of the facts, some of the news. It may not be possible to get all of the news. You're covering something that is breaking or a current story. All journalism makes decisions—influenced by culture, by corporate views, by the wisdom of editors and people running media organizations about what's important.
LT: What about Robert Fisk, or the Guardian—

DS: But Robert Fisk is a columnist, an opinion writer. His reporting is put in the perspective of commentary at the Independent. British journalists have a different tradition than our tradition. In the Telegraph, the Times of London owned by Rupert Murdoch, you tend to get more of a conservative spin. In the Guardian, more of a left liberal spin; [it] gives you diversity of perspective. In our country, if you look at the punditocracy, they're overwhelmingly white, male, older, based in Washington, DC, writing for elite media newspapers and publications, and other voices don't get heard as much.
LT: Does this have to do with ratings? With power? In Weapons of Mass Deception you say that the media sources before the war were 73 percent prowar and 3 percent antiwar.

DS: Why is it like this? People don't realize that there is a media industry [that] runs like an industry. It tends to settle on what the story is and cover it. We've seen an example in another direction where Katrina happens, reporters are in New Orleans and suddenly they're seeing that the government response is inept and improper. They're beginning to ask tougher questions about it. We begin to see discussion about race and class.
LT: Katrina is an excellent example, because reporters were actually there—seeing with their own eyes, hearing, smelling, touching, as opposed to the war in Iraq where [reporters] are holed up in hotels and driving around in armored vehicles. That is a bold and extraordinary thing to be doing in Iraq, but how much truth are they getting?

DS: There is a piece today in the LA Weekly that sees a shift underway. The initial [Katrina] reporting was seen as very feisty, uncontrolled and honest. It is now being replaced with a lot more politicians, "experts," government voices. And the voices of the victims/people who are actually suffering are shrinking in terms of overall coverage. There tends to be fashion in media. Media pulls you up—media pulls you down. For example, when the war in Vietnam started, most of the media were supportive of the war. But as journalists went out into the villages and the hamlets they began to see there was a big gap between what the government was saying and what they were seeing. We have the same thing today in Iraq—a big credibility gap [and] a lack of explanation. People really don't know how to interpret what they are seeing... There is very poor reporting on who is resisting the Iraqi government now. What do they want? What do they stand for? What is their leadership structure? Who is Zarqawi? How real is this? There is a lot of murkiness here. So things are labeled and defined in ways they turn out not to be accurate. When a war happens, there are often two sides to the war, but our coverage has been one-sided. We don't even attempt to get sound bites or comments from the "other" side. We don't even know who they are. There was a reporter for CBS who was covering the "other side." Because he covered them, he was accused of being part of [the insurgency] and is now in Abu Ghraib prison and CBS is trying to free him.

What I am looking at is the media coverage. If in the media, out of 800 experts on the air, only six are challenging the course of the war—aren't there other voices that could have been on the air? Of course there were, saying that this was a bad idea. There were 30 million people marching against the war. But what they were saying was not really given much airtime. You have the replacement of a journalistic approach by a propagandistic approach, jingoism displacing journalism. Media became an advocacy force for the war, justifying [but] not looking critically at it in any consistent way. The American people bought into it because of the fear, the chance that we were under attack because of 9/11, because Saddam was part of it, that we were at risk of nuclear attack, all the message points that the administration used to mobilize us to war. The question is: Does the media have any responsibility to look at any of these claims and to question them?
LT: Before the war, a producer from NBC came to interview me because I was going to Iraq. At some point when I returned she told me, "Soon this anti-war coverage will have to stop, because the war is more profitable to cover."
DS: Nobody in the corporate level will admit to that.

LT: Phil Donahue was on MSNBC. I received an e-mail from Jeff Cohen [senior producer of "Donahue" and until the year 2002, an MSNBC on-air contributor] asking that everyone please watch. Phil's first show, he had on former Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and he asked some really tough questions. Four or five days later, there is poor Phil sitting at a desk with two stacks of papers in front of him, one bigger than the other. Holding up the larger pile he says, "These are letters from the people who said I was rude to the former Prime Minister." He holds up the smaller pile and says, "These are letters from people who wrote thanking me for finally asking the tough questions never asked on TV." His message to me, was, "OK guys, start sending me the cards and letters." We keep blaming the media. But who is watching the media? The people who are happy with Phil's message aren't writing cards and letters. The "let's-burn-our-TV" folks didn't even know Phil was on. The squeaky wheel gets the oil and the people on the right seem to be very well oiled.

DS: The Netanyahu people—there is a whole lobby for Israel. They're very organized, monitor all media coverage, they complain about everything all the time.
LT: Yes, but it wasn't just that. In five months Phil is off the air.

DS: Phil had the highest ratings on MSNBC. According to Cohen, MSNBC and NBC became very nervous about the range of viewpoints on Donahue's show. They wanted to rein Phil in. They began to insist for every one antiwar person they wanted to have two prowar people. But even that wasn't acceptable to them. Their principle competition Fox, was doing much better. Phil was doing well vis-a-vis the other shows on MSNBC, but MSNBC wasn't doing very well on cable against Fox. So it began to try to outfox Fox—get rid of the liberals and bring in a bunch of conservatives—Scarborough, Michael Savage. [MSMBC] saw themselves as competing with Fox, that's why Phil was pushed out. They claimed his ratings were not doing well, but he was actually doing pretty well vis-a-vis the network; but [not] in terms of [MSNBC's] competitors. MSNBC's solution: Drop Donahue and pick up the flag. If you watched MSNBC before and during the invasion—after Donahue was terminated and several rightwingers were hired—no one waved the flag more than they did. They even outfoxed Fox News."

MSNBC has been the third cable network for a long time. It doesn't do well. Its programming philosophy keeps bouncing back and forth. Ashley Banfield [was] working for them, made a speech at Kansas State University critiquing the coverage of the war and her contract was not renewed. Peter Arnett worked for National Geographic, hired by NBC, reporting for MSNBC and NBC. A small group called Free Republic targeted him... made an extremely vicious email campaign... attacking him through the executives at NBC and MSNBC. It was effective because [the executives] buckled to the pressure. They claimed that all these e-mails were actually evidence of public concern when in fact there was concern by a self-interested, hard-right organization that uses this tactic and uses it effectively.
Most progressives don't watch television. They listen to Amy Goodman, read radical publications, find publications that they agree with, and aren't really involved very much in the larger media culture. That is one of the problems. As a result they are not aware of why public opinion is being influenced. Media issues are very central to our democracy. We have to become more aware of what is going on in the media to have more impact on the media. When I worked at "20/20," I would hear a lot more [often] from angry conservatives, because they mobilized mass mailings. Whereas, stories that I did that were progressive—very few people wrote [letters]. A story we did on Israel was called "Under Israel's Thumb." It was about the conditions of Palestinians where we only looked at three issues: water, land, and medical care. That was it. The guideline was: We will speak to Israeli officials to comment specifically on the points we are talking about. No ideological debate, no PLO, etc—just what exactly is happening on the ground. The show went on at 10 at night. At 8:30 mailbags began to arrive. I was in the front offices and a big truck came in—
LT: The next morning?

DS: No. That night before it aired thousands of letters arrived denouncing a segment that no one had seen! The right make media a priority, they train people to be on the media, they reinforce each other through what is called an echo-chamber effect. On the left [you have] 20 people/40 opinions.
LT: In the beginning of the antiwar movement people came out to these rallies. Middle America came out and all they heard was Vieques, this and that—a diluted message. You have antiwar people complaining they aren't getting any coverage by the media. But weren't they getting coverage by the media? Is there a clear message coming from the antiwar faction these days?

DS: There is a message. Cindy Sheehan, like her or not, is trying to get American troops withdrawn from Iraq. Her basic politics is: "troops out." A lot of people who supported her supported her as a dissenter against Bush. They put it into partisan terms: She is challenging Bush. But [they don't support] what she actually wants. The Democrats don't want what she wants either. The politics of her message weren't really clearly presented. A lot of people from antiwar groups, PR firms, and others have attempted to get perspectives into the media and they failed. The ombudsman from the Washington Post said, "We downplayed all the demonstrations. We put them into the back of the paper. We downplayed the amount of people that were there. We distorted the news, basically." This was an admission by their own media monitor—a former veteran Washington Post reporter. So yes, could the antiwar side do a better job of communicating its messages? Absolutely. Is it divided among different groups and different factions with different political ideas? Yes. Is there a basic consensus about opposition to the war? Yes. But if you look at the American left, over the last 20 years, they can get it up for two big mobilizations [each year]—the "March on Washington"—as if this is the most effective way to protest... Could it be more effective? I believe so. You have to look at why it is that progressives have very few media assets and very few ways to reach the public.
LT: How could it be more effective?

DS: We need investment. Look, I run an independent media company going on 18 years. A lot of our films get rejected on the basis of "its not for us." Not because the work is bad, but because the networks don't want to run them. I was lucky to get Weapons of Mass Deception on the Independent Film Channel. PBS rejected it with no explanation. It was nominated for an International Documentary Association Award—one of the top awards for documentary films makers. It won three film festivals, got a lot of great reviews, it's been seen in Japan, Australia, the Middle East, Europe, and we just sold it in France. But [it's tough] getting it out [in the US], getting support from progressives to distribute it. Look at Michael Moore's film Fahrenheit 9/11. Who got behind it? MoveOn.org. These groups [said], "Go see Fahrenheit 9/11 the first weekend, it is really important." I tried to get support for my film and it wasn't there. Why? Because my film was not partisan. It wasn't just Bush bashing. It was raising deeper questions about our media institutions. Many politicians are reluctant to criticize the media. They want to get on the media. They spend all their time raising money to buy ads. MoveOn raised $60 million [that] went into the mainstream media, not into independent media, not into building up voices on the other side to balance the disproportionate voices on right or center right. This is the problem.

Mohammed (last name withheld) holds a picture of his 7-year-old son, whom he claims was abducted by coalition forces after they were detained while driving in Baghdad.
Most people on the left see power in America as being the government, President Bush; that's who runs things in their view. But in the world of globalization the corporate world is really dominant. Who is the corporate world? The front face of it is the large media conglomerates. Our whole economy is driven by marketing and advertising. But most people don't see the importance of that. During the big demonstration in New York, there was a group that wanted to picket CNN—because of their unbalanced coverage. Organizers of the march said, "Don't do that." Why? Because "you will alienate them." They are already alienated, they are already not going to cover you, and they didn't. There was some coverage but it really didn't get into the ideas of what is animating the antiwar movement. I wrote my book to try to make this case: A: that this war could not have happened without the media; and B: that people who want to end the war and challenge the way things are have to get involved in the fight for media and democracy...

Much more at the source:
Chronogram - Weapons of Mass Deception - Oct 2005

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