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Behind the News Coverage of Bombing and Bombast

By Norman Solomon


At the end of a year that has culminated with the bombardment of Iraq and the impeachment of President Clinton, we can draw some important conclusions about America's news media. For instance:

* Euphemisms are as common as ever in American reporting of U.S. military actions.

Typically, on the third night of the bombing, CNN's Christiane Amanpour repeatedly told viewers that Baghdad was having a "dramatic" night. When the smoke cleared, she was one of many journalists who spoke of "collateral damage" without mentioning dead Iraqi civilians.

* The U.S. news media, along with the White House and Congress, have no moral authority to condemn terrorism.

During four long nights, while cruise missiles exploded in Baghdad and other populated areas of Iraq, millions of children were among those who lay awake wondering if they would survive till dawn. This terrorism on a grand scale was depicted by major U.S. media as an exercise in righteousness.

* When America's war machine roars and America's media machinery spins, the teeth mesh.

With few exceptions, news reports portrayed the bombing as virtuous, even if a bit unpleasant for some Iraqis.

* After the shooting starts, denunciations of U.S. actions get little ink or air time.

Three months ago, the head of the U.N.'s "oil-for-food" program, Denis Halliday, quit in protest of the sanctions against Iraq. On Dec. 18, while the missiles were flying, he made a statement that wasn't fit for inclusion in media coverage: "The military strikes constitute a futile and short-run irrational action of desperate men."

* In the world according to U.S. mass media, the United Nations is crucial when the U.S. government says it is crucial and irrelevant when the U.S. government says it is irrelevant.

In 1991, when the U.N. Security Council authorized the Gulf War, the American news media elevated the U.N. to the status of Earth's ultimate arbiter. But in 1998, when the United States was unable to get Security Council approval for launching missiles against Iraq, the U.N. was beside the point.

* More than ever, U.S. policy-makers and media elites agree that public debate prior to military action is a risk not worth taking.

Last February, when CNN joined with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and two other top officials to hold a "town hall" meeting in Columbus, Ohio, their weak arguments for attacking Iraq met with effective opposition. This time, they avoided any such mistake -- preferring a mere pantomime of democracy -- as mass media and officials went through the motions of open discourse. Likewise, in Congress, substantive debate was somewhere between muted and non-existent.

* Media outlets mirror White House efforts to portray a U.S. military assault as a conflict with one individual despot.

There was much media enthusiasm for the line that the attacks would "send a message" to Saddam Hussein. But the bombs sent the clear message that the U.S. government views civilian lives as expendable. Rather than impeding the cycles of murderous violence, Washington has insisted on leading the way.

* The news media generally confine themselves to the narrow choices presented by Democratic and Republican leaders.

Benefitting from a carefully crafted media image, Bill Clinton has become a great president for Americans who want the killing sugar-coated and sanitized by liberal piety. Meanwhile, during the six years of the Clinton administration, harsh sanctions against Iraq have been responsible for the deaths of several hundred thousand people in that country.

* Like the politicians they cover, most American journalists seem to assume that the United States is the center of the universe.

To hear the news media tell it, the recent assault on Iraq was profoundly significant because of possible impacts on partisan power struggles inside the Beltway. In sharp contrast, the people under the bombs were trivial to the punditocracy.

* In medialand, the anguish of Washington's powerful men is much more important than the lives of the human beings they are in the process of killing.

News coverage prompted Americans to shed tears over Clinton's impeachment or Rep. Bob Livingston's resignation -- but not over the suffering of Iraqi people.

Now, media outlets are awash in drivel about the crying need for politicians to be nicer to each other.

Write to Norman Solomon c/o this newspaper or by electronic mail at [email protected]

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