Anglo-US invasion of Iraq (2003): A study of sociological and political economic theories of news production

The invasion and occupation of Iraq since 2003 is a classic example of the power and effectiveness of propaganda campaigns. For some people, subsequent revelations about the lack of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) might have come as a surprise. But even before the invasion took place, many people across the world (including Americans) took part in mass protestations against what they sensed to be an illegitimate war carried out for unjust reasons. This is a reflection of the general public disillusionment with the functioning of government institutions. More importantly, it is an indication of the distrust of mainstream media sources and the information (misinformation) being generated by them. Sadly, though, such expressions of disagreement and distrust only account for a politically aware minority, whilst a large majority of the population are subject to government propganda, orchestrated and implemented by major media institutions. Indeed, the ruthlessness and brazenness with which the Bush Administration went about achieving its strategic goals can be learnt from the following quote:

“The issue of whether the Pentagon was waging an orchestrated domestic propaganda campaign was first openly acknowledged in the fall of 2002. Donald Rumsfeld was asked whether the Pentagon was engaged in propagandizing through the Defense Department’s Office of Strategic Influence (strategic influence is military jargon for propaganda). Military officials said they might release false news stories to the foreign press, but they had to retract that when news organizations expressed concern that the bogus stories could be picked up in the domestic press. Mocking concerns about propaganda blowback, Rumsfeld informed the media on November 18, 2002, that he would eliminate the program in name only. (Goodman & Goodman, 2004, p.253)

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One might wonder why such a nexus between apparently two different kinds of institutions should exist and what benefits would its leaders attain in the process. There are a few sociological and political economic theories of news production that attempt to answer this most pressing question of modern democratic societies. The rest of this essay will try to encapsulate the essence of such theories and find out if they resonate in the case of the Iraq War.

One of the major contributions to the subject of government-media propaganda is made by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman. Their seminal work titled Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of Mass Media is perhaps the most illuminating work on this subject, alongside Ben H. Bagdikian’s another path-breaking work ‘Media Monopoly’. In Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky and Herman layout a template for how propaganda works. This they called the Propaganda Model. In it they identify a set of five key factors that contribute to the functioning of propaganda machinery. These are: 1. Ownership of the medium 2. Medium’s funding sources 3. Sourcing 4. Flak and 5. Anti-Communist Ideology. (Mcchesney, 1989, p.36) It should be remembered that during the time of the book’s publication, Soviet Union was still in existence and Anti-Communist ideology comprised the dominant American foreign policy paradigm. In the context of the ongoing occupation of Iraq, one could replace it with such contrived fears as Terrorism and Islamophobia. (Edgley, 2000) What follows is a brief overview of these five factors that helped propaganda efforts in the lead-up to the Iraq war to be successful.

First, mainstream media outlets in the United States (a fact that is equally applicable to most capitalist countries) is largely privately owned. Let us take the case of Television news. The facade of diversity created by hundreds of news channels breaks down with the realization that most channels are owned by a few major media houses such as CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox. These television networks are in turn owned by bigger business corporations such as General Electric, Time Warner, AOL, etc. Some of these major business corporations also have sister concerns that serve directly or indirectly as military contractors to the American government. The massive deployment of military weaponry and equipment had undoubtedly resulted in windfall profits for these companies (even as the economy was reeling under an acute recession). In the case of the Bush presidency, his Administration had several former energy company employees such as Dick Cheney and Condaleeza Rice, whose loyalties were stronger with former employers than with majority of American citizens. Also, for media conglomerates such as NBC, CBS, etc, bolstering their bottom lines is of primary importance, for after-all they are privately owned and are driven by the profit motive. (Leahey, 2004, p.281) In this framework, it is easy to see why their editorial policies and news selection guidelines would relfect these imperatives and preoccupations. This analytic framework makes it easy to see how major media companies in the country implicitly aided (if not prompted) the government to invade Iraq and take control of its energy resources. As a result of this inherent advantage, a list of misconceptions were perpetrated by the Bush Administration during the war. For example,

“The administration encouraged the public to believe Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and forged a rhetorical link between Iraq and the al-Qaeda terrorist group. Much of the public and press accepted these false assertions and utilized these “facts” as justifications for war…Ideally, news media act as a filter, sifting and sorting information in a manner that ensures a reliable and accurate source from which citizens can base judgments about war. The news media fell far short of this ideal and exacerbated the spread of misinformation about Iraq. Major television news coverage of Iraq was overwhelmingly pro-war. Indeed, leading news organizations emphasized. Administration information over contrary information to the extent that two prestigious newspapers later apologized to their readers because they “lost focus on other voices.” The news media did not do their job protecting the public against political propaganda.” (Johansen & Joslyn, 2008, p.591)

Coming to media’s funding sources, we see that major advertisers are themselves business corporations whose profit-motive makes little allowance for issues of propriety and justice. This is why the business community largely remained silent in the lead-up to the Iraq war. Sourcing of news content is another key filter that aids propaganda efforts. Since the misinformation campaign about the presence of WMD in Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq was hosted by Bush Administration officials, the permanent presence of correspondents and reports in government offices like the White House, Capitol Hill and the Pentagon made it difficult for alternative views to be presented to the citizenry. (Kampfner, 2003, p.12) For example, while all major newsmedia outlets gave extensive coverage to the utterances of Bush Administration members such as Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, etc, none of them gave an iota of newstime to dissident views such as those offered by Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Robert Fisk, John Pilger, Amy Goodman, etc. From news production point of view, it is cost-efficient and less cumbersome to station correspondents in major government centers as opposed to places like academic departments and public squares. More importantly, getting information from such obscure places is not going to serve the interests of the government or media corporations; and hence editors reflexively avoid alternative or dissident points of view. (Edgley, 2000, p.78) It should also be observed that once myths and lies are established as noble truths, no amount of dissident activitism can eradicate its unsavoury effects. The power and lasting impact of initial impressions are nowhere more clearly evident than in those directly involved in the war, as they have emotionally invested in the justifications for the war. Even those who are only tangentially involved in the war become glued to the contexts in which they first assented to the war proposal. In other words,

“The efficiency of the myth and malevolence of the mythmakers become apparent when we consider the impact on those rendered most vulnerable by war: members of the military, veterans, and the families who have lost loved ones. After having experienced the moral ambiguity of guerilla or counterinsurgency warfare–in their efforts to maintain their moral integrity, self-esteem, and to recover from the trauma of war–many veterans feel compelled to staunchly defend the Iraq war. They find comfort in it and embrace the myth because of a dread, perhaps unconscious, that unless the war they fought be remembered as just, and the threat as real, readjustment-living with the memories of the horrors of combat–would be even more unendurable. Consequently, history must be changed to record the invasion of Iraq as a justifiable response to the attacks of 9/11. And this revisionism is as integral to the war against global terrorism and, of late, to the freedom and democracy of the Iraqi people.” (Bica, 2006, p.20)

This brings us to the manifestation of the notion of ‘flak’ in the build up to the Iraq War. Those criticising the government initiative were either branded as unpatriotic or trecherous or siding with the evil. This includes dissident intellectuals mentioned above. But prominent popular cultural icons are not excepted either, as the case of the shunning of Dixie Chicks clearly shows. Immediately after their open criticism of Bush Administration’s imperialist policy, Dixie Chicks band was ostracized and outcast in most of the radio and television stations; so much so that their music careers have been derailed in the process with little scope for a comeback. By making such outspoken icons into scapegoats, the government-media nexus deters such tendencies among prominent celebrities and intellectuals. So flak had proved to be a major disincentive for those who disapproved of the Iraq war. Consequently, the government was able to proceed with its plan to secure oil resources in Iraq at the cost of tax-payer funding and the cost of innocent civilian lives in Iraq. (Casey, 2010, p.565)

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