By Kalinga Seneviratne
In late March and early April, people around the world may have watched in shock and awe the so-called precision-guided missiles destroying Baghdad and the sudden collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. But, while Iraq’s infrastructure was crumbling under this onslaught, what they may not have realised was that the much-cherished Western liberal media tradition—the fourth estate—was also finally crumbling as the ‘embedded’ American journalists led the cheer leading for the Pentagon and its boss Donald Rumsfeld.

‘One can’t fault the White House for trying to sell the war and the president,’ noted Dr James Zogby, President of the Arab American Institute. ‘What is troublesome, however, is the way the American media has been such an uncritical conveyor of the White House message. Selling is what politicians always do, but never before has an administration been blessed with such willing buyers,’ he added in a recent column for the Palestine Chronicle.

Today, over the ruins of this fourth estate, its main landlords—the CNN, Fox TV and the BBC—are all accusing one another of the destruction of its credibility.

In late April, addressing a London media conference, BBC’s director general Greg Dyke criticised the American media for its ‘gung-ho patriotism’ and slammed the coverage of the Iraq war in the US media for being unquestioningly patriotic and lacking in impartiality. He singled out the Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox TV channel and Clear Channel Communications Inc, the owner of over 1,200 radio stations in the US, for special criticism. ‘We are still surprised when we see Fox News with such a committed political position,’ he observed.

Throughout the war, Fox TV’s coverage carried the on-screen headline ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’, the same name given for the campaign by the Pentagon. Clear Channel radio stations in Atlanta, Cleveland, San Antonio, Cincinnati and a number of other cities around the US have organised pro-war rallies attended by up to 20,000 people in the lead upto the war. While this did not violate any of the US broadcasting laws, former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) member Glen Robinson described this action as ‘borderline manufacturing of news’.

CNN founder Ted Turner has even gone as far as suggesting that Murdoch helped to start the war against Iraq by using his media outlets such as Fox TV to advocate an invasion. In a speech in San Fransisco on 24 April, he said that media ownership in the US is too concentrated with five companies, including Murdoch’s News Corporation, controlling ’99% of what you see and hear’. Turner argued that these big media companies ‘don’t have the public interest at heart’.

Murdoch and his executives have so far avoided responding to these criticisms. Thus, while the big boys fight over their ruined credibility, can the rest start a peasants’ revolt to build a fifth estate over the ruins of the fourth?

The Arabic television channel Al-Jazeera has already shown how a challenge could be mounted with comparatively very little money. Can other Arabic, Asian, Latin American, African and perhaps French and German channels join the revolt to take on the empire-builders?

The alarm over the demise of the fourth estate has been raised for some time now—ever since the Gulf War of 1991 when American television ditched their objectivity to cheerlead the US-led coalition which bombed Iraq. The alarm was raised from within the US itself by such eminent academics and social activists as Noam Chomsky and Robert McChesney.

In the introduction to his 1998 book Global Media and The New Missionaries of Capitalism, McChesney warned of the power of US media conglomerates towering over the global market. ‘Such a concentration of media power in organisations dependent on advertiser support and responsible primarily to shareholders is a clear and present danger to citizens’ participation in public affairs, understanding of public issues, and thus to the effective working of democracy,’ he argued.

There is no better illustration of this danger than what happened this year, when, in spite of overwhelming opposition to a war on Iraq around the world, the Bush administration went to war cheered by many of those big media companies Prof McChesney was referring to.

These media companies were willing accomplices in promoting the Bush administration view that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were a threat to the world, when there seem to be none. As Dr Zogby noted when UN weapons inspectors challenged US information, the media ignored them, and when US intelligence analysts questioned Secretary of State Colin Powell’s assertions of Iraqi weapons, these were dismissed by the same media. ‘The major American media seemed more inclined to beat the drums of war than to investigate the White House’s claims,’ noted Dr Zogby.
The fourth estate was supposed to do exactly that, to be the watchdog of the government and oppose the decisions of the government that would have harmful effects on the people. This is what is enshrined in the cherished first amendment to the American constitution guaranteeing free speech.

New IraqUnfortunately the fourth estate no longer has this power in an environment where big global media companies are huge conglomerates such as Time Warner (which owns CNN), Disney and CBS. These companies are sometimes economically more powerful than governments and control large economic assets such as arms manufacturers, oil companies, banks and financial institutions.
Thus, who is going to be the watchdog of these corporations who, as we have seen recently, work hand in hand with powerful governments to protect and promote each other’s political and economic interests. Now that the war is over, debates have begun about the need for an alternative.

The system of embedded reporters was the last straw for supporters of the fourth estate. It was a scheme drummed up by the Pentagon public relations machine, where journalists were allowed to accompany troops into battle with their television cameras, which has been described by US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as ‘breathtaking’ and ‘accurate’ reporting. But, it has come in for much criticism by media analysts.

Researchers at the Washington-based think-tank Project for Excellence in Journalism found that although the reports were live and factual, they lacked perspective. Some 600 journalists have been embedded with the US and British troops during the war, and each of them had to sign a contract agreeing to what they can report and what they cannot. One embedded BBC journalist, Richard Gaisford, was quoted in the Christian Science Monitor as saying that they had to check every story with the military’s media liaison officer who may sometimes send it right up to the Brigade headquarters for approval.

The greatest untold story of the war remains to be told. That is, who was behind the toppling of Saddam’s statue in Baghdad? There are reports circulating in credible Internet publications and many newspapers around the world today that this was a staged event, where the US troops provided cover for militiamen of Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress to perform the act which could be beamed around the world as the ‘defining moment of the war’ where the American liberators were greeted by the grateful Iraqis.

Australian ABC television’s Media Watch programme recently showed a zoomed-out view of the square, which was basically deserted except for those few Iraqis who were pounding the statue for the close-up angles of American television cameras whose reporters claimed that thousands were ‘celebrating the liberation’. At the same time, these same channels ignored the screams of pain and suffering of thousands of Iraqis just across the roads in hospitals and in the streets who were victims of the American bombings and shootings.

This is what the Arabic channel Al-Jazeera preferred to show to the world and Al-Jazeera believes that it has played a leading role during the war to highlight to the world that the Arab media have come of age and they are a major factor in shaping world public opinion. For that, it was bombed by US precision-guided missiles and one of its journalists was killed.

Paul de Rooij, a London-based Dutch economist and a long-standing Palestinian rights activist, argues that there are lessons to be learned by all human rights activists from the current experience. ‘We must realise that we are dealing with extremely cynical people who think that entire populations can be herded and cajoled,’ he warns. ‘Democracy, freedom of speech and peace are under threat if these groups are not challenged vigorously now.’

‘For those seeking to avert future wars, there must be a realisation that organising marches or using the political process is not enough,’ says Rooij. ‘Besides these means, it is essential to obtain independent media outlets, so that the power of the establishment media conglomerates may be challenged.’. —Third World Network Features.

About the writer: Kalinga Seneviratne is a Sri Lankan journalist and media analyst currently teaching International Communications at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia.