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The War Drums of the New York Times

by RICHARD SCHIFFMAN

“Israel Vs Iran” reads Sunday’s cover of the New York  Times Magazine– the words written ominously in ashes from which smoke and flame still rise. Inside the magazine, Ronen Bergman a military analyst for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth argues that an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities in 2012 is inevitable, though he admits that, even if successful, such an operation might only delay the development of an Iranian bomb by a few months or at most years, and would open Israel to a devastating counterattack by Iranian rockets, some of which can hit Tel Aviv.

Once again, we are being presented with war as a fait accompli. But does such reporting function as a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Who can forget Judith Miller, the New York Times reporter whose stories, claiming falsely that Iraq had developed weapons of mass destruction, were used by the Bush administration as a pretext for invading that country in 2003 to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein. The failure of the news media to investigate the truth of these allegations is often cited as a key factor in leading our nation into a dubious war, which has claimed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and American casualties, and cost more in dollars (even after factoring in inflation) than World War II.

The news media professes neutrality in its coverage of war. Yet by routinely repeating government arguments and assertions as facts, journalists like Judith Miller make themselves accessories to the conflicts that they report on. Another Times pundit, Thomas Friedman, argued repeatedly in his influential column during the run up to the war that invading Iraq would bolster American influence in that crucial region and help “bring democracy to the Middle East”– giving the Bush administration the liberal cover it needed for its military adventure.

At the same time as reporters at the Times and other leading outlets were lobbying hard for a US invasion, MSNBC host Phil Donahue had his top rated show cancelled because of his progressive anti-war views. This according to a recently revealed internal NBC memo which stated that the Emmy winning TV personality should be fired because he would present “a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war.”  The rule in the national media nowadays apparently is– “only warmongers need apply.”

And never mind if these hawks get it disastrously wrong. Iraq under the increasingly authoritarian rule of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is hardly the shining democratic beacon on a hill that Thomas Friedman envisioned. And Ms. Miller’s weapons of mass destruction didn’t actually exist. Yet there is little evidence that the pundit class has learned any lesson from its grievous failure to report the facts.

Mainstream outlets like the New York Times are once again beating the tom toms of war, alleging that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, despite Tehran’s claims to the contrary, and indeed the assessment of the Director of the National Intelligence Service, James Clapper in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee last March that the intelligence community has a “high level of confidence that Iran has not made a decision as of this point to restart its nuclear weapons program.”

The point here is not to come down on one side or the other of the controversial debate about Iran’s nuclear intentions. It is merely to point out that for many in the news media the matter is already settled. Could this certainty– where there is none in fact– once more lead us down the path to war?

If so, it would only be the latest in a long string of historical provocations. During the 1890s journalists sensationalized and sometimes even manufactured incidents in a spate of articles published in the Hearst newspapers which helped to propel the United States into war with Spain in Cuba. The Spanish American War is sometimes referred to as the first “media war.” It was not the last. Since then, the press has routinely played a key role in stirring up fears and passions and preparing the public for armed conflict.

By over-simplifying complex narratives, bad journalism cheer-leads for simplistic solutions. And nothing is more simplistic than war, whose working assumption is that every societal ill can be cured by the application of lethal force. If you want to encourage democracy, secure America’s oil supply, prevent nuclear proliferation, defeat terrorism, or what have you, no need to grapple with thorny social and political realities. Just call in the marines!

War at root is a failure of imagination, a failure to think creatively about alternatives to violent conflict. Such is the argument of “Peace Journalism,” a field of study and practice which first emerged in the 1970s from the work of Norwegian sociologist, Johan Galtung.

Galtung, the winner of the Alternative Nobel Prize in 1987, believes that the media’s institutional bias toward reporting “official sources” in the government and military means that we generally only hear from those with a vested interest in the use of force, rarely from the people on the ground who will pay for their decisions in blood. The arguments for military action are framed in abstract geo-political terms and vague appeals to “the national interest” rather than focusing on the terrible human costs of organized state violence.

Galtung goes on to argue that government and the news media share a fondness for war because, to put it bluntly, war is good for business– albeit in quite different ways. The business of government, in its imperial mode, is to flex its muscle and project its power on weaker nations; the business of journalism, on the other hand, is to increase its ratings. What better way to get a larger audience than to pander to the public’s hunger for gore?

War coverage is dominated by graphic battlefield accounts and blood-soaked images. Analysis, if any, tends to focus narrowly on hashing over military strategy rather than examining the subtleties of the diplomatic road to peace. We are told the body count from the latest suicide bombing, but not the economic inequities, ethnic hatreds and historical grievances that have fueled the bomber’s rage. Peace marches are not news, explosions are.

The overheated coverage of terrorism and the “war on terror” creates the false impression that America is under siege and needs to strike back, however indiscriminately. It also means that we do not have to look at the motivations of “the terrorists,” because terrorists are by definition hateful actors whose deeds are senseless and beyond rational analysis. Peace journalists counter that if we don’t know “the enemy,” we won’t be able to make peace with him.

To explore the underlying causes for violent acts is not to excuse them, but to understand them. Reporters reflexively take refuge behind “the facts,” telling us the who, what, when and where, but leaving out discussion of the all-important “why,” the exploration of which is inevitably controversial and might open the journalist to accusations of bias. But without making an effort to examine the context in which conflict takes place, the bare bone facts will tell us little, and are often misleading.

Adding fuel to the fire, the news media habitually frames its war reportage in “good guys” versus “bad guys” terms. The good guys are the U.S. and its allies, and the bad guys are everyone else. But is it ever that simple? When I was growing up, my father would refuse to take sides in battles between my sister and I, saying “it takes two to make a fight.” He meant that the blame for our pubescent wars belonged to both of us. There are no innocents in war.

This common-sense wisdom gets lost by the press, which invariably adopts the U.S. point of view. Reporters who are “imbedded” in the units of the Armed Forces, tell their stories through a soldier’s eye, never from the perspective of an enemy combatant, still less the civilians who get caught in the crossfire.

Journalists talk about “our troops.” They employ Pentagon jargon such as Operation Iraqi Freedom, enhanced interrogation techniques, pacification, collateral damage and peace-keepers– the function of which is to conceal the real nature of the conflict behind an oddly calm and rationalized facade. They report the latest American casualties, and often tell us their names and home towns, but speak only anonymously and in passing of civilian deaths, as if their human value is less than our own.

Peace journalism says that we need to hear a different story told in a different way– one that acknowledges the whole and horrific cost of waging war. In a world that is getting more dangerous, rather than less, they argue, war is a bad idea that has just gotten a whole lot worse. An ill-conceived attack on Iran, for example, could spark a wider conflagration, or devastating mass-casualty act of terror. We can no longer afford to play Russian Roulette with our human future.

Australian reporter Jake Lynch writes: “Peace journalism is when editors and reporters make choices – about what to report, and how to report it – that create opportunities for society at large to consider and to value non-violent responses to conflict.”

Reporters don’t make wars. But neither are they the neutral observers that they make themselves out to be. By sticking to the largely unexamined conventions of war reporting, journalists fan the flames of violence, mouthing government propaganda, demonizing the enemy, and presenting simplistic stories about the nature of the conflict and its solution.

In the words of another self-styled peace journalist, nationally syndicated columnist Bob Koehler, “‘Nonviolent response to conflict’ is, simply put, the foundation of civilization, is it not? Conflict — between and among people, between species, with our planet and universe — is inevitable. Violent response belittles the conflict, shatters the complexity, perpetuates the problem, endangers the innocent and often blows up in our faces. But violence is an industry, shrouded in mythology and consensus. We’re stuck with it, apparently. To my mind, working to undo the mythology of violence is the most responsible act a writer can commit.”

If more conscientious reporters like Bob Koehler and Jake Lynch resolved to give peace a chance rather than continued to beat the drums of war with careless and criminally unimaginative reporting, who knows, the human race might yet make it through the 21st century intact.

Richard Schiffman is  the author of two biographies as well as a journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor and the Huffington Post. He was also a free-lance journalist for several years at NPR and Monitor Radio.

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