The coverage of this war in the press and on television has been disgusting. North American reporting, and in particular on the US television stations, has been cravenly submissive to the Pentagon and the White House.
The worst culprit was also the one with the most “embedded” reporters and the most exciting live footage, and so it was, sadly, the one that I watched most of the time: CNN, the voice of Centcom.* CNN was more irritating than the gleefully patriotic Fox News channel because CNN has a pretense of objectivity. It pretends to be run by journalists. And yet it dutifully uses all the language chosen by people in charge of “media relations” at the Pentagon. It describes the exploding of Iraqi soldiers in their bunkers as “softening up”; it describes slaughtered Iraqi units as being “degraded”; some announcers have even repeated the egregious Pentagon neologism “attrited” (to mean “we are slowly killing as many of them as we can”). I don’t know if I’m more offended by the insidiousness of this euphemism or by the absurdity of its grammar.
To recite from a Pentagon press release that an Iraqi division has been “degraded by 70 percent” is an astounding abdication of journalistic responsibility. A journalist these days must not just report the facts, but also explain the news, give it color and significance. The graphic reality of “degradation” is a large pile of dismembered bodies. Surely some picture or explanation of what the wiping out of an entire division with high explosives actually looks like is called for.
Many readers and watchers of the news were baffled as the battle for Baghdad came suddenly upon us without any large-scale engagement with the dreaded Republican Guard. What happened to those three or five divisions that were supposedly ringing the city? The facts of their destruction were grudgingly mentioned almost in passing. They were destroyed from the air. This did not make a glamorous or even central story to anyone’s coverage of this war, because there were no embedded reporters with the Iraqi troops. It’s hard to get a TV camera into a line of trenches that is being puréed by bombs. Instead of reporting that this peripeteia in the war’s narrative was happening, and that it entailed thousands of deaths leading to the rapid collapse of the Iraqi regime, the television and the press simply downsized the story. No pictures, no story. This is the real meaning of “degradation.”
The same thing happened in the first Persian Gulf War. Nobody seemed to mind the failure to report the extent of Iraqi casualties then; we don’t mind it now. We’d rather have a twelve-hour cycle of interviews with one parent of one rescued POW. The story came out later. In Anthony Swofford’s memoir, Jarhead, he describes coming upon trenches of dead Iraqis: “Some of the corpses in the bunkers are hunched over, hands covering their ears, as though they’d been waiting in dread. Many seem to have died not from shrapnel but concussion, and dried, discolored blood gathers around their eyes and noses and mouths….” He is describing the effects of the Daisy Cutter, the smaller version of the Massive Ordnance Air Blast that the US now uses. That language is not degraded.
The Canadian press and television have not been immune from patriotic lapses in objectivity. A day after the fall of Baghdad, a CBC Radio reporter on the evening news gave his breathless analysis of the significance of this event. He concluded that General Franks had just run “one of the most brilliant campaigns in military history.” This is nonsense. General Franks couldn’t possibly have lost. He had complete air superiority, massive technological advantages, a better-trained, better-equipped, better-paid force, and a limitless budget. He was fighting an isolated, impoverished, demoralized conscript army which was already decimated by bombing. If he had not been able to take Baghdad swiftly and decisively he would be regarded as an incompetent.
Why are Canadians so terrified to contradict or even interpret the Pentagon publicity machine? Are we afraid of bullies like the US ambassador to Canada, Paul Cellucci? Or of bullies at home—are we all so terrified of being accused of “anti-Americanism” that we forget basic journalistic principles? Who are we afraid of?
May 29, 2003