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Strategic Information and the Fourth Estate
August 28, 2002
By Patrick Ennis

Hitler once said that propaganda made the third Reich. And that's why he so needed the genius of Josef Goebbels. Communist regimes from 1920's Moscow to present day Havana have been endlessly derided by western governments and "free" media for the shameless propagandizing, through state-controlled media sources, of their citizenry. During the Gulf War, Iraq's state-controlled media reported that the "infidels" were being routed by Iraqi forces, nevermind that this couldn't have been further from the truth.

Too bad the Germans under Hitler, the Communists under any of their authoritarian oligarchies, and the Iraqis under Saddam Hussein didn't have the constitutional guarantee of freedom of the press enjoyed by Americans, right?

Don't be so sure.

Old timers who can still remember "the last good war" recall the time as one of unity, of shared sacrifice, of unbridled patriotism. After all, America had been the victim of a murderous and unprovoked attack. What was there to protest? Contrast that universal support after Pearl Harbor with the divisiveness that tore the fabric of American society during the late 1960's and early 70's as war raged in Vietnam, and we can perhaps better understand the temptation that led the U.S. government to sharply curtail the freedom of the press during WWII, ensuring that all film footage and media dispatches from the front had to first be cleared for release by the War (Defense) Department. While propaganda was making the third Reich in Germany with the cooperation of the German fourth estate, fire was being fought hypocritically, perhaps with fire in the U.S., by presidential fiat, "in the interest of national security."

Last year, on Sept. 11, 2001, America was again the victim of a murderous and unprovoked attack. Predictably, state-run TV stations and newspapers in the middle-east reported that the attack was the clandestine work of Israeli intelligence, or that it was justice for the infidels that oppress the Palestinian and Iraqi people, and pervert the virtuous Islamic world with their decadent culture. But, at the same time, National Security Advisor Condolezza Rice was asking the American media to refrain from airing any of alleged terrorist mastermind Osama bin-Laden's "propagandistic" videos, ostensibly out of fear that they could contain subtle instructions for al-Qaeda operatives who are already here in the U.S.

Worse, in November, the Defense Department announced plans to open an office of "strategic information", which many charged would have been tasked with providing false information to foreign journalists and to officials of both friendly and hostile foreign governments. The controversy grew so hot that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld decided to cancel the plan unless the cancellation was itself an example of "strategic information". White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said "I think it's fair to say that the president would be troubled by any office that does not, as a matter of public policy, disseminate the truth and the facts."

It's hard to be sure. Recently, amid allegations that U.S. forces in Afghanistan were complicit in the asphyxiation deaths of several hundred captured enemy fighters being transported to a prison, we were shown disturbingly graphic video images of a dog dying an unspeakably painful death after being exposed to poison gas. We are told that the video is an al-Qaeda training video, and proves that the international terror organization already has weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps it is, but the timing sure is suspicious. And I don't recall any similar reaction to footage I remember seeing on the evening news during my cold-war era youth of a fluffy white rabbit dying a similar death in a U.S. defense lab after being exposed to a nerve agent.

I have long believed that the media in general is biased. Not to the Left or Right, as most people seem to believe and as Bernard Goldberg suggests in his best-selling expose Bias, but toward its own bottom line. The 1990's saw a series of blockbuster media conglomerations, consolidating the vast influence of the "fourth estate" into even fewer hands. In 1997, the fifth and most recent edition of Ben Badgikian's seminal report on the Media Monopoly revealed that the number of corporations controlling "almost everything we see, hear, and read" was down to ten, from an already disturbingly paltry 50 when Badgikian started tracking in 1983.

To accuse "Big Media" of political bias in either direction is to suggest that it puts principles ahead of profits. Of course, it does have its advertisers to worry about. And they can threaten to redirect their crucial advertising dollars if a particular media conglomerate puts anything, journalistic principles included, ahead of their own profits. That would be a violation of the corporate profit principle.

The most reliable and recent reports, including some foreign sources, available to us mere mortals lead us to believe that the U.S. stands at the threshold of another military campaign in Iraq. They lead us to believe that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein is in collusion with al-Qaeda and could share his weapons of mass destruction with them, to the ultimate peril of the U.S. and Israel. Nevermind that the Islamist al-Qaeda and the aggressively secular Saddam have little love for each other, or that the former apparently has such weapons already, as the suspiciously timed dog video indicates.

The last time this happened, under leadership of another president Bush, the media on the scene was made relatively comfortable, and pretty much kept in the dark. I recall a Doonesbury cartoon featuring Gary Trudeau's venerable newshound Roland Hedley, asking a military "spokesman" whether there had been any lessons learned thus far in the build-up to the actual war. The Captain glibly replied "Yes. We've learned that we can keep the reporters together in designated press pools, tell them basically squat, and there's nothing they can do about it." When Hedley half-heartedly asked if there had been other lessons, the reply was almost a foregone conclusion: "Yes, but they're all classified."

The coming conflict, in contrast to Gulf War I, will apparently feature strictly American forces arrayed - as opposed to a diverse allied coalition of forces - against a weakened Butcher of Baghdad, and how much, if anything, the Iraqis have learned since 1991 is an intriguing question. But if the military's own spinmeisters have learned anything in the interim, you and I may never know the answer.

Libertarians and conservatives alike love to invoke the revered - even deific, to some - name of Thomas Jefferson to buttress their political arguments, and are particularly fond of quoting his thoughts on liberty. Here is one I hope they will remember, as we ponder how much credibility and independence the American corporate media really has, and how much it should have:

"Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."


Patrick Ennis: articulating the voice of the secular, liberal, Midwestern working class because, frankly, somebody has to (and nobody else is).

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