PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) – It is one of the most famous images of the war in Iraq — a U.S. soldier scaling a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad and draping the Stars and Stripes over the black metal visage of the ousted despot.
But for Harper’s magazine publisher John MacArthur, that same image of U.S. military victory is also indicative of a propaganda campaign being waged by the Bush administration.
“It was absolutely a photo-op created for (U.S. President George W.) Bush’s re-election campaign commercials,” MacArthur said in an interview. “CNN, MSNBC and Fox swallowed it whole.”
In 1992, MacArthur wrote “Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War,” a withering critique of government and media actions that he says misled the public after Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
In MacArthur’s opinion, little has changed during the latest Iraq war, prompting him to begin work on an updated edition of “Second Front”. U.S. government public relations specialists are still concocting bogus stories to serve government interests, he says, and credulous journalists stand ready to swallow it up.
“The concept of a self-governing American republic has been crippled by this propaganda,” MacArthur said. “The whole idea that we can govern ourselves and have an intelligent debate, free of cant, free of disinformation, I think it’s dead.”
White House spokesman Scott McClellan denied the existence of any administration propaganda campaign and predicted the American public would reject such notions as ridiculous.
A Pentagon spokesman also denied high-level planning in the appearance of the American flag in Baghdad. “It sure looked spontaneous to me,” said Marine Lieutenant Colonel Mike Humm.
In fact, a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that Americans were happy with Iraq war coverage, though many wanted less news coverage of anti-war activism and fewer television appearances by former military officers.
But MacArthur insists that both Gulf wars have been marked by phoney tales calculated to deceive public opinion at crucial junctures.
On the eve of the 1991 Gulf War, Americans were asked to believe that Iraqi soldiers tossed Kuwaiti infants from hospital incubators, leaving them to die. Not true, he says.
This time, MacArthur says the Bush administration made false claims about Iraqi nuclear weapons, charging Baghdad was trying to import aluminium tubes to make enriched uranium and that the country was six months from building a warhead.
The International Atomic Energy Agency found those tubes were for artillery rockets, not nuclear weapons. And MacArthur says a supposed IAEA report, on which the White House based claims about Iraqi weapons-making ability, did not exist.
“What’s changed is that there’s no shame anymore in doing it directly,” MacArthur, 46, said of what he views as blatant White House and Pentagon propaganda campaigns.
Cynthia Kennard, assistant professor at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism, said the Bush administration has mastered the art of building favourable public images and shaping messages to suit its own interests.
“It’s put the journalism profession in somewhat of a paralysis,” said Kennard, a former CBS correspondent who covered the 1991 Gulf War. “This is not a particularly glowing moment for tough questions and enterprise reporting.”
As Harper’s publisher, MacArthur oversees a 153-year-old political and literary magazine he helped save from financial ruin 20 years ago with money from the foundation named after his billionaire grandparents, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur.
While MacArthur accuses news outlets generally of avoiding opposition stands, his own magazine has been vitriolic towards Bush, describing the president in its May issue as a leader who “counts his ignorance as a virtue and regards his lack of curiosity as a sign of moral strength.”
But MacArthur is not troubled by the thumping patriotism displayed by cable television news outlets like Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel, which leads CNN and MSNBC in viewer ratings.
“All that means is that Murdoch knows how to run a circus better than anyone else. War and jingoism always sell. But the real damage was done by the high-brow press,” MacArthur said.
“On the propaganda side, the New York Times is more responsible for making the case for war than any other newspaper or any other news organisation.”
He blames the Times for giving credence to Bush administration claims about the aluminium tubes. And when Bush cited a nonexistent IAEA report on Iraqi nukes, he says, it was the conservative Washington Times — not the New York Times or Washington Post — that wound up disproving the assertion.
The New York Times also reported that an Iraqi scientist told U.S. officials Saddam had destroyed chemical and biological equipment and sent weapons to Syria just before the war.
The only trouble, MacArthur says, is that the Times did not speak to or name the scientist but agreed to delay the story, submit the text to government scrutiny and withhold details — facts the Times acknowledged in its article. “You might as well just run a press release. Let the government write it. That’s Pravda,” he said.
New York Times spokesman Toby Usnik dismissed MacArthur’s claims regarding the newspaper’s war coverage as a whole: “We believe we have covered the story from all sides and all angles.”
Fox had no comment on his remarks.
Editors across the nation also worked hard to avoid the grisly images of war, especially scenes of dead Iraqi civilians and Americans, while Europeans saw uncensored horrific images.
The Pentagon’s decision to embed journalists with U.S. forces produced war footage that the 1991 war sorely lacked. But the coverage rarely rose to the standard MacArthur wanted.
“Ninety percent of what we got was junk…I think probably five or 10 percent of it was pretty good,” he said.
MacArthur says the character of the news media, and the government’s attitude toward it, was best summed up by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at a Pentagon “town hall” meeting.
Asked by an audience member what could be done to reverse the media’s “overwhelmingly negative” war coverage, Rumsfeld said: “You know, penalise the papers and the television…that don’t give good advice and reward those people that do give good advice.”
MacArthur said that translated as: “You punish the critics and you reward your friends. That’s what he means. That’s the standard currency of Washington journalism…To show reality becomes unpatriotic, in effect.”
The Pentagon’s Humm said Rumsfeld had not been talking about unfavourable reporting but about inaccurate reporting.