Propaganda not Journalism
The American journalist John MacArthur on the PR-strategies of the US military in Times of Crisis and the Patriotism of the American Media
[This interview on war reporting is translated from the German in: Der Spiegel 41/2001. John MacArthur, 45, is editor of the American intellectual journal "Harper's Magazine".]
Spiegel: In your book "The Battle of Lies", you sharply criticized the reporting on the Gulf war. How are the American media handling the current conflict?
MacArthur: The reporting about the attacks themselves was very good and very professional. Now we experience a completely overheated patriotism. Well-known journalists have declared in public they will not criticize the government and the president in this situation. Even serious papers describe divergent voices and criticism of the actions of our government as "immoral". Dan Rather, one of our best-known newscasters, said: "George Bush is the president. If he calls me to duty, I am ready." Our media is full of this spirit.
Spiegel: You are also in a special situation. Unlike the Iraq situation with its attack on Kuwait eleven years ago, the terror attacks have struck America's heart.
MacArthur: Therefore we need nothing more now than clear analyses, different voices and a broad discussion about what should be done. Instead our journalists outdo one another in loudly acclaiming every average speech of our president. Two reporters of smaller newspapers were even fired because they dared to criticize Bush. This is a disgrace and embarrassment for the American media who make propaganda, not journalism.
Spiegel: In your book, you describe how the US government "sold" the Gulf war with PR-methods. Is this being repeated?
MacArthur: This began a long time ago. From the beginning, the crisis was described as a "war" by the Bush administration and the media. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were immediately termed warlike or belligerent acts, not crimes. The Bush administration has driven the expectations of the American public so high that they now urgently need corroborating pictures.
Spiegel: Where should the pictures come from? The Pentagon already announced that it will not allow any journalists at the fighting this time.
MacArthur: The military wants to do journalism. As at the Gulf, the Pentagon seeks pictures and disseminates success reports of precisely destroyed buildings and killed or captured terrorists. No one can check whether this information is correct or not.
Spiegel: After the Gulf war, the Pentagon and the media agreed on new rules for reporting, the so-called ground rules. The military must grant access to journalists according to these ground rules.
MacArthur: That has long been rubbish. According to everything we know in the past, access will be more difficult than at the Gulf. At that time selected media representatives from the so-called pool were allowed to report. This time there will be no independent witnesses. President Bush said that many of our victories will remain invisible. This obviously means conversely that no one learns anything about our defeats and mistakes.
Spiegel: The military argues that the security of journalists cannot be guaranteed. They could reveal military secrets.
MacArthur: This is a great myth. None of the American reporters with the Green berets in Vietnam ever divulged military secrets or endangered the lives of American soldiers. On the other side it is essential in a democracy that the general public learns through the media what politicians and the military do in their name. Voters must learn when they are commanded by an incompetent commander-in-chief.
Spiegel: In your book you claim the media gives a "careful styling" and an aestheticizing design to the war reporting. Do you see something similar now?
MacArthur: Absolutely. This is a war of the Logos and symbols. The television stations outdo one another with slogans like "War on Terrorism", "America at War", "America Strikes Back" etc. This Logos and symbols become increasingly important since there is no real information.
Spiegel: How are your objections received in the US?
MacArthur: Questioning the choice of words "war against terrorism" is presently not allowed. This questioning is already regarded as unpatriotic. I recently criticized Fox and CNN for constantly showing an American flag on the screen since the terror attacks. Government organs were not ultimately involved. I proposed replacing the flag with the "Bill of Rights". The next day I received at least 100 E-mails to the effect: What a shame you were not in the World Trade Center on September 11.