Truth management

Published : Jun 20, 2003 00:00 IST

Private Jessica Lynch arrives at the Andrews air force base, near Washington, on April 12. - JASON REED/REUTERS

Private Jessica Lynch arrives at the Andrews air force base, near Washington, on April 12. - JASON REED/REUTERS

The U.S. media's role as the purveyor of `facts' that the Bush administration wanted the world to believe has shattered their image as the standard-bearer of free and unbiased journalism.

TIME was when to the media - in countries where they were free - the one principle that was most sacred, and totally non-negotiable, was the reporting of facts, the truth, no matter how terrible or unpleasant it was. That, after all, was the media's job, reporting the truth. And if any one entity placed great store by it, and patted itself continually on the back for being the standard-bearer of this maxim, it was the media - print and electronic - of the United States.

That time is now over, for the Americans at least. After the attack on Iraq, their role as standard-bearer of free and unbiased media has collapsed. The U.S. media have emerged, on such a comprehensive scale that nobody ever believed was possible, as the agent and mouthpiece of the U.S. government propaganda machine, the willing, if unknowing (at least in some cases) purveyors of facts as the U.S. government wanted them to be seen by the world. And those indeed would have been the facts the world would have accepted, given the gigantic size and reach of the U.S. print and electronic media; and the fact that the media of many lesser networks and publications depended on the facts given by the giant U.S. media machine.

But there were other networks and agencies at work, those not under the spell of the U.S. government, and thanks to them we now can see the `facts' as the U.S. media have reported them about Iraq for what they really are. And the metaphor for all this is the reporting of the dramatic rescue of Jessica Lynch, the blonde, pretty and young U.S. private who was wounded in the fighting. The facts are well known, but a brief recap will set the context.

Private Lynch was a part of the U.S. Army's 507th Ordnance Maintenance Company, and her unit was ambushed near Nassiriyah. Nine of her comrades were killed and she was taken by Iraqi soldiers to the local hospital. It is what happened subsequently that constitutes the metaphor.

John Kampfner, writing in The Guardian on May 15, describes in detail how correspondents were summoned in the early hours of April 2 and told that Private Lynch had stab and bullet wounds, and was slapped about in her hospital bed and interrogated. A `courageous' lawyer, Mohammed Odeh al-Rehaief, risked his life, the correspondents were told, to alert the Americans about Private Lynch's condition. Just after midnight, U.S. Army Rangers and Navy Seals stormed the Nassiriyah hospital, shouting "Go! Go! Go!" in true Hollywood style, and `rescued' Private Lynch, taking her by helicopter to safety and freedom. All this was captured by night-vision television cameras of the military.

Kampfner says in his article, "Her rescue will go down as one of the most stunning pieces of news management yet conceived. It provides a real insight into the real influence of Hollywood producers on the Pentagon's media managers, and has produced a template from which America hopes to present its future wars."

The whole episode, he goes on to reveal, was a hoax, something that was staged for television, for the gullible audiences in the U.S. Private Lynch had no stab or bullet injuries - she had a broken arm, a broken thigh and a dislocated ankle, injuries which the doctor who treated her in the hospital, Dr. Harith al-Houssona, categorised as RTA, or road traffic accident. When the U.S. forces stormed the hospital there were no Iraqi soldiers there; they had all left two days earlier, and the Americans knew that. When the advance U.S. party landed in Nassiriyah, their Arabic interpreter asked a waiter in a local restaurant, Hassan Hamoud, where the hospital was. "Are there any fidayeen there?" he was asked. Hamoud says "I told them no". But the Americans stormed the hospital anyway, with their night-vision television cameras, recording the event for posterity.

They stormed the building shouting the regulation "Go! Go! Go!" like all American soldiers in all war films, restrained a doctor and even hand-cuffed a patient to a bed-frame and, of course, got Private Jessica Lynch out. This by itself sounds grotesquely funny, but it gets even funnier.

Dr. al-Houssona had actually tried to return Jessica Lynch to the Americans two days earlier. She was taken to an American check-post in an ambulance. Ambulances are usually marked prominently with a red cross on both sides and on the roof, the bonnet and the back door, and there is no reason to believe that this ambulance was not. The Americans opened fire on it, forcing the driver to flee back to the hospital!

Well, it is not the first time that news has been manipulated; we have had our moments of managing the truth in Kargil, notorious among them being a television shot of soldiers moving resolutely up a mountainside, arms at the ready. For a moment the camera of one news team panned a little too much to the left, and we saw (only for a moment, I grant you) the battery of television cameras and reporters for whose benefit the `advance' was being staged. The Russians have not done badly either, managing the truth in Chechnya, but in the most basic manner possible - they simply kept every correspondent out and issued official versions of events to whoever wanted them.

But the compromise made by the U.S. media becomes much more momentous as it is the media in that country that have done more to uncover the truth behind events and expose cover-ups and witch-hunts than anywhere else. The exposure by Ed Murrow of the sadistic, cold-blooded inquisition by Senator Joseph McCarthy, Walter Cronkite's revelation of the Vietnam campaign for the bloody, cruel and senseless slaughter that it was, and the unwavering investigation by Woodward and Bernstein into the Watergate scandal which made President Nixon resign - all these made the U.S. media appear to be not merely committed to the truth, whatever the cost, but incapable of being drawn into any kind of publicity campaign by any authority, whatever the pretext. And that has been lost in Iraq, a loss of which the `rescue' of Private Jessica Lynch is a metaphor.

But that is also all her rescue is, a metaphor. In itself it is just an instance of news manipulation that has been exposed. Far more has been happening, and from much earlier - in fact, from shortly after 9/11. As the U.S. government prepared itself militarily, it clearly did no less in terms of its management of news and the latent fears in the people. In the name of patriotism a xenophobic hysteria swept the country; there were many who were unaffected, true, but there were those who killed foreigners, or attacked them merely because they looked foreign. It would be too much to ascribe it all to unstable minds; something had induced those feelings. That same something made radio and television stations black out the songs of a group of female singers called the Dixie Chicks, because they said that they were sorry to have been born in Texas, the state to which George W. Bush belongs.

This is the real management of truth, of facts. It is this `managing' which successfully dismisses Edward Said as a hysterical, unbalanced person; it is this that dismisses the protests by hundreds of thousands of people across the U.S. and Europe against the attack on a weak, defenceless country like Iraq as the activities of `some focus groups'. Iraq has a dictator who must be removed, the managers of truth successfully convinced even discerning columnists; they also persuaded them completely that other dictators are reliable friends.

Some years ago a shrewd political leader who wanted absolute power realised that to get it he had first to control the purveying of truth without seeming to do so. He did it so well that one wonders if the managers in Washington did not study his methods. His name was Adolf Hitler.

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