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April 2005
Dissecting the Media
The Satya Interview with Danny Schechter

Danny Schechter the “news dissector” is a seasoned journalist who has worked in various forms of media—corporate and now independent—for many years. Schechter closely monitors the news media, sifting through national and international, mainstream and alternative sources, and produces a daily weblog, or blog, on MediaChannel.org. With fellow journalist Rory O’Connor, he co-founded Globalvision, an independent, international media company specializing in information, entertainment and educational programming.

Schechter’s new documentary, WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception, explores the corporate media’s coverage of the current war on Iraq. WMD shows how the news media failed to do its job-—to give balanced or fair reportage during the time period leading up the war—and instead, served as a cheerleader for the Bush administration’s military aggression against Iraq.

On the eve of its DVD release, Danny Schechter spoke with Catherine Clyne about WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception and on the media in general and his hopes for democracy.

As the “news dissector,” what do you do?
I’m a journalist. I’ve worked in all forms of media—print, radio, local television, cable TV, network TV. Now I work in an independent media company called Global Vision, and I produce videos, films and TV shows. I also edit MediaChannel.org, which is a network of 1,100 organizations trying to reform and improve our media. I also write books and my latest one, Embedded, is about the media coverage of the war in Iraq. This became the basis for WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception, a personal film about the failures, in my view, of the media in covering the war in Iraq.

What did you set out to accomplish with WMD?
We had a big debate about the war, most of which focused on the role of the Bush administration and whether their policies were legal or not, moral or not, or worthy of justifying the war. There’s been a debate flowing out of that about intelligence failures and policy failures. I’m trying to get at what I call media failures. I believe that we wouldn’t have had this war if the media didn’t rally behind it and sell it in the guise of telling us about it, with a kind of patriotically correct coverage that was more jingoistic than journalistic.

What do you think are some of the most troubling problems with corporate media’s coverage of the war against Iraq?
First of all, the grounds for the war, the basis of the war, was articulated by the Bush administration but not questioned or reported on in a balanced way by the media. So the media was involved in actually promoting a war, not simply covering one.

Second, it’s marginalized dissent and has not allowed other voices to be heard. Of 800 experts on the air, from the run-up to the war to the statues coming down in Baghdad, only six opposed the war. There’s a tremendous imbalance and lack of debate, and a lack of coverage of people who are challenging the war; and this contrasts sharply with the coverage in other countries.

Third, because of reliance on embedded journalists there was a feeling of cheerleading for our boys, our troops. There was a lot of “us,” people talking about “we” in the media, as if the media was in the war, not simply reporting on it. So a lot of what was reported on was inaccurate and lacked perspective. That’s why, when the statues came down and then President Bush said ‘mission accomplished, military operations are over,’ he was a little premature because one phase of the war ended and another began, which was the resistance and the battling that’s still continuing in Iraq. Our media really didn’t prepare us for that in its initial coverage.

Since Bush declared “mission accomplished,” how do you feel the media has covered Iraq?
I think the essential templates of coverage have remained the same. That is to say, we have a media that identifies with our troops and substitutes support for the troops with support for the war. It’s kind of a code term for supporting the administration’s policy. Essentially, there’s an identification with the military, an identification with Americans being in danger. Beyond that, there’s a lack of scrutiny, of why we went to war in the first place. What’s behind all this? There’s been very little investigative reporting about it. And also about the conduct of the war—how the war was really fought. We’re now learning, for example, about the use of prohibited weapons: napalm, mustard gas, and pretty vicious treatment—not just at the Abu Ghraib prison, but the conduct of the campaign itself, in terms of more than 100,000 civilian casualties, according to The Lancet medical journal in Britain—that hasn’t been reported here. The administration said ‘We don’t do body counts’ and the media seemed to go along with that.

But there’s a deeper problem. This is not just about the media or media criticism. This is about democracy. If a public is not informed, doesn’t have access to reliable information, how can it participate meaningfully in a democratic society? It really can’t. So what we see is the growth of authoritarianism, of bullying, of intimidating critics, a shutting off of debate. There’s a lack of tolerance of other points of view.

Local news shows are notorious for showing the day’s most violent events—if it bleeds, it leads in other words. Yet, while watching WMD, I was confronted with the rhetorical question: Why is it that a stabbing at my local deli or a celebrity murder or scandal is “newsworthy,” but as you just pointed out with the 100,000 civilian casualties, those killed by the war are not?
Well, that’s exactly right. That’s because the coverage is sort of tilted to justify the conflict and to accept the essential view that is enunciated by the Bush administration—are you with us or against us? This is part of the war on terror. Well, Richard Clark, who ran the war on terror, has said it’s actually a diversion from the war on terror. The main claims about WMDs and the link between Saddam and Osama: none of that was true. Deception has been at the heart of all this. That’s why my film is called WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception, because I believe the media functioned as a weapons system, except it targeted us, and many of us weren’t even aware of it.

Do you have some tips for regular Americans so they can be more discerning about the news that they “consume”?
Clearly, what we’re seeing today is a growing backlash against the media. As many as 70 percent of the American people say they don’t trust the media. Kids are watching the comedy channel, not the news channel. There’s a kind of a dropping out, a turning towards online journalism, turning towards other forms of information. And that’s because of a lack of integrity in the media and a growing dissatisfaction with it.

Obviously, we have to take responsibility for our media choices. Secondly, we have to be able to have some critical skills, of asking questions: What are the sources for this claim? How balanced does this seem to be? Are there other sources that are not being used that you know about? Do the people who are presenting you with this information have an agenda? For example, in my film I show that many of the media companies were trying to get the FCC to pass new rules that would enable them to expand their companies. So there was a kind of quid pro quo: you, the FCC, waive the rules; we, the media, we’ll wave the flag. This is all behind the scenes. But it takes somebody with a skeptical eye and some sort of recognition of how media techniques work to be able to discern all this. That’s why I made WMD.

What are some of the things journalists have done right in reporting on Iraq?
First of all, not every reporter, not every media outlet is guilty of the criticism I’ve been raising. There are journalists of conscience and journalists who have given their lives to try to get the story out. I’m not painting them all with a broad brush. You know, the media is plural. That means there are a lot of different outlets and people, so we can make choices. We can seek out alternative and independent sources as well as mainstream sources.

And it’s not just them that’s the problem. It’s our own passivity as individuals, often, our own laziness, our lack of willingness to make a little effort now and then. In the age of Google, making an effort is not that big a deal. Still, a lot of people don’t do it. For example, the Abu Ghraib prison story was on CBS in April 2004, but I found the report from July of 2003—a year earlier—that Amnesty International did about the same prison, which wasn’t being followed-up by the media. So we have a right to demand that the media do its job, that there be some accountability, some responsiveness when people challenge.

I think there’s a lot of good professional people and what we do know we’re getting through the media. But often it’s distorted.

What do you consider your most trustworthy news sources?
Well, I’m a fanatic. [Laughter.] In other words, since I’m setting myself up as a news “dissector,” covering the media and covering the coverage, I try to look as widely as I can. In the blog that I do every morning, I usually cite a wide range of sources from all over the world, in and outside the industry. I try to get at the story behind the stories. And that requires a little bit of digging.

Various mainstream media folk seem to be paying attention to bloggers as a reliable news source. What are your thoughts on this?
The whole news environment has been transformed. First there was a merger of show biz and news biz—entertainment values are informing a lot of media coverage. Secondly, there’s the growth of what’s called the punditocracy, more opinion than reporting. So on every channel there’s three times as many pundits as journalists. That’s partly for two reasons: to fill the available time in the expanse to 24-hour channels; and it’s cheaper to have somebody mouthing off than to have somebody really reporting. So there’s an economic factor, too. In this environment, the bloggers who are doing opinion journalism are often digging and have time to do it that many of the mainstream media people don’t. The consequence is there’s a very vital, robust debate within what’s called the bloggersphere.

It seems that one of the things you’re trying to do with WMD is just get the discussion going out there. How is your film getting out there?
Several different ways. We were able to get into a limited number of theaters. We’ve gotten some distribution on television, particularly around the rest of the world, hopefully in the U.S. as well. And we are now releasing a DVD, which is available in video stores and through the website WMDthefilm.com.

Are you also organizing community screenings?
Yes, we are. In fact on the anniversary of the end of the war, March 20th, we’ll have at least 300 screenings around the world.

You know, something I’d like to add for your readers is that peace is not just the absence of war. Peace is a state of mind, it’s a consciousness, and we need more journalism about peace-making, about the people who are standing up for peace and trying to challenge the idea that war is the answer.

It seems like there are some people out there covering that: you’ve got Amy Goodman and Democracy Now, and many of the people on Air America and whatnot.
Right. But you are still reaching a very small audience unfortunately. And as media companies consolidate, merge, purge, you get fewer and fewer, and bigger and bigger. We went from 50 companies running the media about 15 years ago to five today. And it’s shrinking. Rupert Murdock says that soon there’ll be only three companies left.

For a media access toolkit, to learn more about media activism or read Danny Schechter’s daily blog, visit www.mediachannel.org. To organize a community screening of WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception or order a copy ($19.95), go to www.wmdthefilm.com.

 

 



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