Book Essay:"Watchdogs of War? Books on Media and 'Operation Iraqi Freedom'"

By Ralph D. Berenger

An accepted theory regarding the relationship of the mainstream US news media to government says they may be strange bedfellows but more likely than not they are in the same bed ideologically since they are both elite institutions.

Extended internationally the same shibboleth applies. Media everywhere follow the elite in business and government. What was valid for C. Wright Mills (The Power Elite) in the 1960s is valid today: elites rule and media are members of the power elite. The new wrinkle in the theory concerns the role of transnational broadcasting media and whether they reflect the biases of their home countries. More interesting is whether audiences perceive those alleged biases.

The 2003 Iraq war brought this aspect into focus because global audiences for the first time could choose the media they regarded as most credible and least propagandistic. In other words, audiences chose the information channels they believed were telling them the truth about the war.

One of the enduring myths of American journalism is that news media are "watchdogs" on government-snarling, barking, and clawing at the door to call attention to what they perceive (or in rare cases, prove) to be wrong-doing by the policy makers and players. More often than not, however, they are lap dogs, fawning for favor and chasing whatever news sticks the elites may throw.

Research into media behavior during the 2003 Iraq war supports the premise that, when the chips are down, media and government elites join in a symbiotic relationship that moves down a single path, the one favored by government in the first place.

Scholars have traced the phenomena in different cultures and geographical regions, so it is not peculiar to the United States. While the American press believes it is adversarial to government, most Middle East media have no such illusion.

Transnational television broadcasters, who will have much to say in coming months about the fifty or so books on the continuing Iraq conflict that examine media roles and personal experiences during the war and which either embrace the Bush/Blair administrations ideologically or admonish them for the way the war was started and conducted. While the current offerings only obliquely reference the major Arabic-language transnational broadcasters, books zeroing in on Arab coverage of the war cannot be far behind. In fact, for the first time ever, war books by Arab writers are hitting the bookstands at the same time as those of Western writers.

Aided by today's technology, books had flown off the presses and onto shelves even before the battlefield smoke had cleared, and before the current insurrections broke out in Iraq. Since a huge majority of Americans know about the world only from what they see from the networks and satellite news channels, audiences are swayed by debate and interviews with book authors. In that sense the television viewers' war is not only a satellite TV war, a newspaper war, a documentary war, or a radio war, it is a mixture of all of them, a convergence of media images and commentary. What people read in books will be transferred eventually to television images in discussions, interviews, and references. Such is the stuff of public opinion formation.

A check of books on the war's first anniversary (March 20, 2004) shows scores of books listed on Amazon.Com. All these books were published in mid to late 2003 and early 2004. No doubt by mid-summer that number will swell. So far, these books seem to fall into the following categories:

1. The American Military Machine: books by former generals, current military experts, and a spate of journalists and broadcasters chronicling the war for history. One must keep in mind that history is always written by the victors, and this war likely will be no exception. Some of the critical choices include Ray L. Smith and Bing West (The March In: Taking Baghdad with the 1st Division), which contains an interesting transnational broadcasting nugget. According to the authors the general in charge of the First Marine Division gave the go-ahead for the dash into Baghdad after he saw an intercepted CNN report from embedded journalists showing Iraqis gleefully welcoming the Marines outside the capital. Others that covered the military angle were David Zucchino's Thunder Run: The armored strike to capture Baghdad; Rick Atkinson's In the Company of Soldiers: A chronicle of combat; Anthony H. Cordesman's The Iraq War: Strategy, tactics and military lessons, and Karl Zinsmeister's Boots on the Ground: A month with the 82nd Airborne in the Battle for Iraq. A half dozen other books each follow some aspect of the war, usually from the soldier's or military command's point of view, such as Walter J. Boyne's authoritative Operation Iraqi Freedom: What went right, what went wrong, and why, and Williamson Murray and Robert H. Scales, The IraqWar: A military history. These books generally take a politically neutral view of the war, through they are solidly pro-military.

2. Reporters' Reflections on the War. Who better to write about media's behavior in the war than journalists on the ground themselves, although some took the occasion to weave their personal ideologies or political views through their books? Perhaps the best of the recent lot was Bill Katovsky and Timothy Carlson's Embedded: The media at war in Iraq. The authors interviewed 60 embedded and independent reporters for international news organizations for their views on the invasion. News anchor Dan Rather and CBS news reporters teamed up for America at war: The battle for Iraq, a view from the frontlines, while NBC weighed in with Operation Iraqi Freedom: The insider story. National Public Radio's international correspondent Anne Garrels reported on the difficulty of filing stories as the only American network reporter in Baghdad at its fall in Naked in Baghdad: The Iraq war as seen by NPR's correspondent Anne Garrels. Howard Tumber and Jerry Palmer in Media at War: The Iraq crisis and Stephen Hess and Marvin Kalb in The media and the war on terrorism offer thoughtful criticism of news coverage, especially by broadcast organizations embedded with military units. The careful reader can find clues in these offerings to support the primary thesis of this article: that working journalists generally adopt the ideology of the government about which they report and which they depend upon for access.

3. The Picture Book War. A half dozen "coffee table books" were produced almost immediately after the "official end" of the war in May. They included: Reuters' 21 Days to Baghdad: A chronicle of the Iraq war; Life's LIFE: The war in Iraq with an introduction by Walter Cronkite; Marcel Saba's Witness Iraq: A war journal, February-April 2003, Time Magazine's 21 days to Baghdad: Photos and dispatches from the battlefield, Regan Books The war in Iraq: A photo history, and National Geographic's 21 days to Baghdad (on DVD).

4. Humanity in Time of War: One of the more curious international news stories to come out of the war was the capture, rescue, and rehabilitation of a 19-year-old American girl from West Virginia. Pulitzer Prize journalist Rick Bragg tries to set the record straight in the highly regarded biography, I Am a SoldierToo: The Jessica Lynch story. While Mohammed Odeh al-Rehaief, the lawyer who reported Lynch's whereabouts to the US military, gives his own account in Because Each Life is Precious: Why an Iraqi man came to risk everything for Private Jessica Lynch. The reader is left to ponder which version is correct on some points, but the Al-Rehaief book has drawn excellent critical reviews for its poignant portrayal of life in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. A third offering, and the second by an Iraqi, is Salam Pax: The clandestine diary of an ordinary Iraqi; a collection of these weblogs, written in English, quickly assembled in print for the many "fans" of Salam Pax (not his real name) who followed his diaries before, during and after the war.

5. The Sound and Fury. Since 2004 is an election year in the United States, dozens of books critical or supportive of the Bush Administration are expected to hit the shelves, giving comfort or discomfort to those on either side of the political spectrum. While several books like Christopher Hitchens's A Long Short War: The postponed liberation of Iraq supported the war from a socialist's point of view, several others clearly favored the administration's efforts from a conservative perspective. James Daalder and James Lindsay's America Unbound: The Bush revolution in foreign policy, Oliver North's War Stories: Operation Iraqi Freedom, Sam Pender's Iraq's Smoking Gun, and Victor Hanson's Between War and Peace: Lessons from Afghanistan to Iraq unabashedly give favorable treatment to the Washington policymakers. Many others, however, are less kindly. Anti-war books abound, and include Paul Rutherford's Weapons of Mass Persuasion: Marketing the war against Iraq, David Miller's Tell Me Lies: Propaganda and media distortion in the attack on Iraq, Norman Solomon's Target Iraq: What the news media didn't tell you, William Rivers Pitt's War on Iraq: What Bush team doesn't want you to know, Tariq Ali's Bush to Babylon: The recolonization of Iraq, Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber's Weapons of mass deception: The uses of propaganda in Bush's war on Iraq (see review in this issue); and Christopher Scheer's The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us about Iraq.

The purpose of the latter category of books is to sway voters in America who have not already made up their minds whether the 2003 Iraq war was legitimately prosecuted, and whether the war is sufficient reason not to support Bush's re-election.

For Iraqis, there's little doubt what they think about the war: they're glad Saddam Hussein is gone (61%) and now a high percentage (57%) want the Americans to leave too, according to a Gallup Poll in early April 2004. (However, 93% of the Kurds polled favored the US staying a while longer).
The American elections will be huge marketing efforts by both major political parties, and the war gives "red meat" to both administration detractors and proponents. How this will play in the Arab world with its new love affair with the once-forbidden satellite dish is unknown. For thousands of Iraqis the American elections will be something new, and they will be watching them over Arabic satellite channels.

According to Gallup, 95% of Iraqis say they have access to television sets. Most (74%) watch al-Iraqiyya from Baghdad, although only a fifth find it unbiased; Al-Arabiya draws 28% of the viewers edging Al Jazeera at 27%. Almost four out of ten viewers say these transnational channels are more credible and less biased than either CNN or BBC World, which they agree are still hard to receive in Iraq today.

Most certainly these Arabic channels will carry stories of the U.S. elections from the Arab perspective. TBS

Prices from Suggested List Price on Amazon.Com.

al-Rehaief, Mohammed Odeh (October, 2003) Because Each Life Is Precious: Why an Iraqi Man Came to Risk Everything for Private Jessica Lynch. Hardcover. 224 page. HarperCollins: New York. ISBN 0-060590548.

Atkinson, Rick. (March 15, 2004) In the Company of Soldiers : A Chronicle of Combat. Hardcover. 319 pages. Henry Holt & Company, Inc.: New York. ISBN 0-80507-5615. $25.

Boyne, Walter J. (November 15, 2003) Operation Iraqi Freedom : What Went Right, What Went Wrong, and Why. Hardcover. 304 pages. Forge: Belmont, CA. ISBN 0-76531-0384. $25.95.

Bragg, Rick. (November 11, 2003) I Am a Soldier, Too: The Jessica Lynch Story. Hardcover. 207 pages. Knopf: New York. ISBN 1-400042577. $23.95.

CNN (July 15, 2003) CNN Presents - War in Iraq - The Road to Baghdad. Rated: NR Studio: Wea Corp DVD, VHS. ASIN: B00009MECP. $15.00.

Cordesman, Anthony H. (September 2003) The Iraq War: Strategy, Tactics, and Military Lessons. Paperback. 592 pages. Praeger Publishers: New York ISBN 0-89206-4323.

Daalder, Ivo H., and James M. Lindsay. (October 2003). America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy. Hardcover. 246 pages. The Brookings Institution: Washington, D.C. ISBN 0-81571-6885

Garrels, Anne (September 3, 2003) Naked in Baghdad. Hardcover. 222 pages. Farrar Straus & Giroux: New York. ISBN 0-37452-9035. $22.00.

Hanson, Victor. (February 2004). Between War and Peace: Lessons from Afghanistan to Iraq. Paperback. 304 pages. Random House Trade Paperbacks: New York, NY. ISBN 0812972732, $41.45,

Hess, Stephen and Marvin Kalb (Eds.). (July 2003) The Media and the War on Terrorism. Paperback. 307 pages. The Brookings Institution: Washington, DC. ISBN 0-8157-35812. $22.95.

Hitchens, Christopher. (June 3, 2003). A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq. Paperback. 112 pages. Plume: New York. ISBN: 0-452284988. $9.95.

Katovsky, William and Timony Carlson. (August 2004). Embedded: The Media at War in Iraq, An Oral History. Paperback. 448 pages. The Lyons Press, New York, NY. ISBN 1-59228-2652, $23.96.

Life (Editor). (June 2003) LIFE: The War in Iraq with Introduction by Walter Cronkite. Hardcover. 176 pages. Time: New York.; ISBN: 1932273131. $25.95

Miller, David (Ed.) (March 2004). Tell Me Lies: Propaganda and Media Distortion in the Attack on Iraq. Paperback. 256 pages. Pluto Press: London. ISBN 0-745322018. $19.95.

Murray, Williamson and Robert H. Scales. (October 2003) The Iraq War: A Military History. Hardcover. 368 pages. Belknap Press: ISBN: 0674012801. $25.95.

National Geographic (July 1, 2003) National Geographic - 21 Days to Baghdad. Rated: NR Studio: Warner Home Video DVD. ASIN B00009RXI5. $20.

NBC Enterprises. (September 1, 2003) Operation Iraqi Freedom : The Insider Story. Hardcover. 256 pages. Andrews McMeel Publishing: New York. ISBN 0-74074-0598

Pax, Salam. (October 2003). Salam Pax: The Clandestine Diary of an Ordinary Iraqi.
Paperback. 206 pages. Grove Press: New York. ISBN 0-802140440. $13.

Rather, Dan and The Reporters of CBS News. (September 8, 2003) America at War : The Battle for Iraq: A View from the Frontlines. Hardcover. 176 pages Simon & Schuster: New York. ISBN 0-7432-57863. $29.95.

Regan Books. (May 30, 2003). The War in Iraq: A Photo History. Hardcover.352 pages. ISBN 0-06058-2863.

Reuters. (June 9, 2003). 21 Days to Baghdad: A Chronicle of the Iraq War.
Hardcover 128 pages. Reuters Books: London. ISBN 013143165X

Rutherford, Paul. (June 2004). Weapons of Mass Persuasion: Marketing the War Against Iraq. Paperback. 160 pages. University of Toronto Press: Toronto. ISBN 0-80208995X. $40.

Saba, Marcel (Editor), (July 2003). Witness Iraq: A War Journal, February - April 2003. Hardcover. 208 pages. powerHouse Book: New York; 1st edition ISBN 1-57687-2009.

Smith, Ray L. and Bing West. (September 9, 2003) The March Up : Taking Baghdad with the 1st Marine Division. Hardcover. 320 pages. Bantam: New York. ISBN 0-55380-376X . $25.95.

Time Magazine (Editor). (June 2003). 21 Days to Baghdad: Photos and Dispatches from the Battlefield. Hardcover. 176 pages. Time: New York. ISBN 1-93227-3123 $24.95.

Tumber, Howard and Jerry Palmer. (April 2004). Media at War: the Iraq Crisis. Hard cover. 192 pages. Sage Publications: Belmont, CA. ISBN: 1-412-901812, $102.00.

Zinsmeister, Karl. (September 2003). Boots on the Ground: A Month with the 82nd Airborne in the Battle for Iraq. Hard cover. 224 pages. Truman Talley Books: ISBN 0312326637. $17.47.

Zucchino, David. (March 11, 2004). Thunder Run: The Armored Strike to Capture Baghdad. Hardcover. 320 pages. Atlantic Monthly Press. New York. ISBN 0-87113-9111. $24.00.

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