US Press: Lies and Damned Lies

The American news media is in an uproar over storytelling by NBC Television’s news anchor Brian Williams, who considerably aggrandized his adventures in Iraq by telling viewers a Chinook helicopter he was aboard in 2003 had been hit by RPG fire and that he had been forced to spend a few terrified hours on the ground.

It was one of several expanded stories of Williams’ derring-do that got him suspended from his job for six months without pay. But as far as can be told, except for misreporting the 12-year-old story on the 2003 incident, Williams’ on-camera reporting, has been relatively truthful. It was that remark, plus embellishing his bravado on talk shows and on the lecture circuit that got him into trouble. And there seems to be a considerable amount of hypocrisy out of synch with reality or the magnitude of Williams' transgressions.

Remember the Maine, Boys!

Journalists who have risked their lives to cover wars – including 63 who died in Vietnam, four of them from NBC News, and the 166 killed in Iraq, for instance – have a right to be outraged. But there are plenty of other questions that US news consumers should be asking. The fact is that supposedly impartial major newspapers and television networks have been lying to their readers and viewers for decades. None of these news outlets suffer for sins that many – soldiers and civilians – have paid for with their lives.

It is a tradition of sorts that dates back at least to the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898, an apparent accident that was amplified in the popular media. That drove the US into war with Spain, eventually leading the hawks of the day in Washington to acquire Puerto Rico and the Philippines in addition to occupying Cuba.

Plenty of other countries, if not most of them, slant their news. But the US media in particular likes to brag that America is the home of impartial news reporting, with a firewall between the editorial page and the news pages. But these are not just matters of a gullible press swallowing government propaganda, which is bad enough. This is often a matter of going out and creating lies. Fox News has been cited as the most egregious, beating the drums for the 2003 invasion of Iraq based on demonstrably false charges that Saddam Hussein’s government was storing weapons of mass destruction.

Fox is not alone

But Fox is far from alone. Too often, these are stories built by publishers to push a government into war. Going back to Vietnam, Charles F. Mohr and Merton D. Perry resigned from Time Magazine when their reports on military reverses in the Mekong Delta were disregarded by the editors in New York, who instead reported in the magazine that journalists were getting the bulk of their news from rumors in the Jerome et Juliet bar in the Caravelle Hotel in Saigon. The New York Times sidelined its reporter, Ray Bonner, for distinguished reporting on murderous regimes in Central America to the point where he eventually quit.

More recently, Fox, while the most blatant, has had plenty of company. The Times, ostensibly the US’s most respectable newspaper, allowed Judith Miller to report absolute falsehoods on weapons of mass destruction. Eventually the paper published a note saying many of its pre-war stories about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – a number of which were reported by Miller – misrepresented the situation. Miller ultimately left the paper and went to work for Fox News.

In blurring the line between fact and fiction, “credible” news has come at times to resemble unsourced blogs and twitter posts. On other occasions, the citizens of the ‘net have provided superior reporting to what is delivered by supposed professionals.

Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, in the lead-up to the war, described how Saddam’s enemies were being fed to wood-chippers in Abu Ghraib Prison. That should have been recognized as nonsense, conjured up out of a scene in the dark Coen brothers’ movie Fargo. But it fed the enthusiasm for a war that should never have happened, and which according to a Harvard research study is going to cost US$4 trillion to US$6 trillion when all the wounded are paid for, decades from now. That does not include the 5,000 plus servicemen who have died and the tens of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan dead, and the hundreds of thousands more displaced because a jingoistic American press helped the Bush administration beat the drums for war.

Last July, ABC News’ Diane Sawyer misidentified scenes of the aftermath of Israeli missile strikes in Gaza as destruction caused by Palestinian rocket fire in Israel. The cameras focused on a Palestinian family gathering belongings in the debris of a missile-hit home in Gaza as “an Israeli family trying to salvage what they can.” Sawyer apologized. But she has blithely gone on without missing a step.

Bad diet

The fact is that on a daily basis in the United States, especially in connection with news on Israel, viewers receive a steady diet of biased news and nobody is ever forced to answer for it. Brian Williams is paying a price mostly for bloviating on the banquet circuit. It is a question whether it is a disproportionate one, given pronouncements by the likes of O'Reilly or others masquerading as news people that have done real damage – including, for instance, an utter refusal to acknowledge the causes of climate change, which the denizens of low-lying lands in the Philippines, Indonesia and other Pacific regions will pay for.

When the press lord William Randolph Hearst sent the western artist Fredric Remington to Cuba in 1897, Remington is said to have cabled that "there will be no war." According to the story, Hearst cabled back: "You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war." Sounds sadly familiar.

John Berthelsen is the editor of Asia Sentinel