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A question of media coverage

A memo to the media

Dear Editor, Publisher, Producer, Reporter:

We are writing to convey a level of heightened expectation in your forthcoming coverage of the US-Iraq situation.

War coverage and coverage of the period preceding war test the reliability of our news media. Access to truly independent sources of information is essential, given the government's control of knowledge, data, pictures and other information during this period. The media's display of all significant points of view is especially important because of the tendency of our top officials to equate patriotism with uncritical support of official policy. Precisely for this reason, the public expects its media to meet this challenge by maintaining its independence for the good of the country. It is your professional duty and your obligation to our democratic ideals.

Unfortunately, objectivity and critical questioning of official sources, which is a measure of your separation from officialdom, have not been true in war-time reporting during Gulf War I and during the present proposals for Gulf War II.

Our experience as readers, viewers and listeners of print and electronic media has given us concern for a repetition of the following patterns.

The horserace syndrome: Highlighting tactics over political analysis

In the period before and during war, newspapers and the electronic media tend to cover the diplomacy and military engagements as if they were covering a horserace. In the questions about a possible war, the media too frequently limit themselves to details of tactics, weapons and military manoeuvres, abandoning the critical balance that is journalism at its finest. The government has exploited this tendency, providing graphic material and features that limit reporting to battlefield tactics.

This tendency is already discernible in current media coverage of the crisis over warmaking decisions, particularly among the electronic media. Endlessly repeated news features with titles like "Showdown with Saddam" present a grave matter as though it were a high-stakes sports contest. The result has been to obliterate broader concerns of consequences over security within the United States and globally. There are numerous examples of the confrontation with Iraq that the media have underplayed. To name three:

(1) Heightened risk of terrorism due to a war. The October CIA letter to Congress received little more than one-day's coverage in most news outlets. The letter had a startling message: Iraq poses little if any terrorist threat to the United States, but a war would pose a real risk of inciting such terrorist activities. This alone should be the topic of far more reporting and analysis. This is a real threat to the security of the United States - brought on, not prevented by war. Surely, this demands further inquiry by the Fourth Estate.

(2) Oil and the war. While it is surely an oversimplification to say a war with Iraq would be only about oil, it also is misleading to deny the fundamental importance of oil to the present conflict. It is not credible that there would be such a strong push for war if there were no oil in Iraq. Nonetheless, there has been very little reporting focused on the extent to which obtaining control of oil has motivated the administration or informs their geopolitical strategizing, the posture of the oil industry toward a war, possible discussions between the administration and the oil industry related to Iraq and scenarios for how Iraqi oil would be controlled in the event of a US invasion and who would benefit.

(3) US transfer of weapons of mass destruction materials to Iraq. The process by which the United States edited the December Iraqi 12,000 page submission to the United Nations before permitting it to be shared with all of the members of the Security Council - and edited out references to US corporate transfers of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) materials to Iraq - received very little attention in the United States. By contrast, the editing and the transfer of WMD materials to Iraq by Western firms was a major story in Europe, and a German newspaper released the names of the US companies that sold these materials. A 1994 Senate banking committee report also documented US transfers of biological agents - including stock for anthrax and E coli - to Iraq. Saddam Hussein's use of chemical and biological weapons against Kurds and Iranians was criminal, but surely more present-day references to these acts as justification for a war in the media should be accompanied by reference to the US role in facilitating Iraq's acquisition of such weapons. We understand, of course, that some outlets have done some digging in these areas. For every issue we highlight in this letter, there are exceptions. But, in general, we believe it is safe to say - and Lexis searches confirm - that there has been relatively very little reporting and analysis in these areas.

Protesting government control of information

As Pulitzer Prize winner Pat Sloyan has written, the government's information policy during the Gulf War was to freeze out the media both logistically and substantively from what was going on. This pattern was repeated during the military operations in Afghanistan. The media cannot allow this to recur without sustained and high-level protest.

One key issue is the number of Iraqi casualties in event of war, particularly but not only among civilians. The Pentagon resists releasing its estimates of combatant and non-combatant casualties, but journalistic challenges to this practice are rarely heard. One legacy of the media coverage of the Gulf War is that many Americans believe only a very small number of people died in the conflict - when in fact a small number of US soldiers died, but tens of thousands of Iraqis perished.

Maintaining an arms-length relationship with government

The media must keep an objective, arms-length relationship with the government. A separation of state and the fourth estate was lost in 1990 to 1991, most notably with the presence of government-approved retired military and intelligence consultants shoulder-to-shoulder with network anchors. State-controlled media comes in many garbs.

Questioning the official story

During the Vietnam war, for example, the finest journalists were the ones who trusted their public to know the truth and who refused to repeat misleading, false and manipulative allegations transmitted from official sources. The media should never confuse patriotism with obeisance and a rubber-stamp mentality. Patriotism in reporting the news is searching out and conveying what is factual, relevant and true.

In the lead-up to the Gulf War, manufactured and widely publicized stories about Iraqis throwing babies out of incubators in Kuwait helped build support for war. Those stories were later shown to be fabrications.

During the Gulf War, the media repeated the US military claims of its high-tech weaponry success - replaying videotapes showing targets being hit, as part of its high-tech coverage - though the alleged accuracy of the Patriot and success of other "smart" weapons was later shown to be untrue.

In the present run-up to war, there has been as well more than the standard reliance on unnamed "officials," an always undesirable practice that is even more questionable in war or during wartime preparations. Quoting anonymous officials conveys to readers that these sources are trustworthy and authoritative, without equipping the reader with any basis for independent determination, and moves the reporter closer to the role of simply reporting the government's press releases. Unless government employees are offering views that are contrary in some way to the government's official line, there is no justification for quoting them anonymously.

Presenting a diversity of viewpoints

Because any attack on Iraq would be a pre-emptive one rather than our country responding to an attack, there is an increased obligation of the news media to report the variety of dissenters from a wide variety and massive numbers of citizens of our country. The media must not march in lock-step the moment military action begins. Such a dismissal of the public's right to know in a full and timely manner weakens the meaning of the First Amendment and the pride a democracy has in keeping open channels of public response.

Probing coverage is not achieved alone by having the intrepid reporter on the scene. It also requires courageous and independent editors and publishers who conform to the importance that Thomas Jefferson placed on a free and inquiring press in times of strain, crisis or governmental officiousness.

What is required is not just a matter of covering the antiwar movement, or reporting on demonstrations, advertisements and other signs of public opposition to the war. There is a duty to seek out and quote the many experts who express scepticism about claims by the state, rather than simply to rely on the same pundits repeatedly. There are numerous retired diplomats and high-ranking military officers who are expressing deep reservations about the Bush administration arguments, but who are receiving little media attention. Many critical experts, though by no means all, are identified by the Institute of Public Accuracy on its Web site.

It is incumbent on editors, publishers and producers to see that their op-ed pages, letters-to-the-editor sections and talk shows are open to a vigorous diversity of viewpoints.


Radio, in particular, has sunk into a pronounced pattern of bias and ideological performance. This extends beyond the opinion of the talk show host to the choice and rude treatment of the occasional guest with an opposing viewpoint. "Shout" radio should remember that it is using public property - the public airwaves - and that the 1934 Communications Act that guarantees this public ownership is still the law. Years ago, radio actually acknowledged the concept of orderly debates with widely varying viewpoints. It should do so again.

What we are requesting in the final analysis is a journalism that rises to the occasion and satisfies the finest journalistic standards and practices. This requires considerable review and introspection, with due regard to the fine and insightful advice of your own colleagues who know how "better and best" can be defined. This is no time for relying solely on official sources and their supporters. Now is the time to do your duty to our democratic society. Too much depends on which course you pursue.


Patricia Aufderheide (Professor of Journalism, American University) Ben Bagdikian (former Dean of Graduate School of Journalism at University of California at Berkeley and author of Media Monopoly) David Bollier (Author) Robert Boynton (Professor of Journalism at New York University) Pat Choate (Author and Economist) Susan Mango Curtis Phil Donahue (Journalist/Talk show host) Mark Dowie (Investigative Reporter) Ben Franklin (Editor of The Washington Spectator) Saul Friedman (Columnist) Amy Goodman (Host of Pacifica Network's "Democracy Now!") William Greider (National Affairs Correspondent, The Nation) Edward S Herman (Professor Emeritus of Finance, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania) Nicholas Johnson (Former FCC Commissioner) David Kairys (Professor of Law, Temple University) Naomi Klein (Author) Barbara Koeppel (Washington-based freelance journalist) Nick Kotz (Journalist and Author) Arno Mayer (Dayton/Stockton Professor of History Emeritus, Princeton University) Robert McChesney (Professor of Communication, University of Illinois, Urbana, Champaign) John Moyers (Editor, Ralph Nader (Consumer Advocate) James Ridgeway (Reporter, Village Voice) Matt Rothschild (Editor, The Progressive) Jon Rowe (Writer) William Serrin (Faculty, New York University School of Journalism) Patrick J Sloyan (Reporter) Carol Sternhell (Associate Chair, New York University Department of Journalism) Studs Terkel (Author) Nina Utne (Chair, UTNE Magazine) Gore Vidal Robert Weissman (Editor, Multinational Monitor) Mary Ann Weston (Associate Professor, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern U.) Tom Wicker (Retired) Ellen Willis (Professor of Journalism, New York University)


This letter is reproduced from, which encourages readers to republish and circulate the original material found on its site, and where it was first published on 3 March 2003.


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