‘Media and Government Excuses Are Basically Intertwined’ – CounterSpin interview with Norman Solomon on the Iraq invasion

“High-quality media outlets in the United States of America basically served as conveyor belts for pro-war propaganda.”

The post ‘Media and Government Excuses Are Basically Intertwined’ appeared first on FAIR.


Janine Jackson interviewed the Roots Action’s Norman Solomon about the 20th anniversary of the Iraq invasion for the March 24, 2023, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.



Janine Jackson: So here we are, 20 years after the US war on Iraq, and, to speak broadly, the popular understanding is that Iraq wasn’t behind the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and that they didn’t have weapons of mass destruction aimed at the US, weapons whose immediate threat, yes, was the vehemently argued premise for a grave assault on a sovereign country.

Atlantic: The Iraq War Reconsidered

Atlantic (3/13/23)

But somehow, in all of this talkity-talk, the idea of acknowledgement of wrong—forget compensation, forget apology—is nowhere in evidence.

The story has been made over such that the Iraq invasion was wrong, but still OK. Iraqis were harmed, but still helped. And all the advisors and experts that got it very wrong are still, somehow, right.

The 2003 war on Iraq is, most importantly, a story about imperialist violence. But it’s also about the web of lies and disinformation used to advance it, and the role that nominally independent journalists played—and play.

Norman Solomon has been thinking and working on these issues for decades. He’s been part of FAIR since the start. He’s co-founder of RootsAction.org and executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. His most recent book is War Made Invisible: How America Hides the Human Toll of Its Military Machine, out soon from the New Press.

He joins us now by phone from the Bay Area. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Norman Solomon.

Norman Solomon: Thanks, Janine.

JJ: There are so many places we could start. But I did want to stick a fork in one thing. Talking about media today, at the 20-year mark, the theme is missed signals, miscalculation, misunderstanding.

It’s hard to talk about what happened, and media’s role, without recognizing that the George W. Bush administration and its advisors wanted and intended to invade Iraq before the September 11, 2001, attacks. But that’s not a contention. That’s just a thing we know, based on evidence, right?

Guardian: Blogger bares Rumsfeld's post 9/11 orders

Guardian (2/24/06)

NS: Yes, Rumsfeld made a very clear statement in a memo, just in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, that they were going after Iraq. It was their “eyes on the prize,” in a grotesque sort of way.

And when we look back 20 years, I think there’s a consistent thread that the media and the government excuses are basically intertwined. Which sort of makes sense, since the disinformation messaging after 9/11, before, during and after the invasion of Iraq—all that was also intertwined between government and mass media.

And we think of and sometimes notice the revolving door of personnel, where someone is a press secretary for the president, then goes to a cable news network, or vice versa. George Stephanopoulos, and many others who followed him, just had this career path that was basically recycling between those in government who often deceive, and those in media who have a follow-up career. And they’re just in a different part of the deception chain, as it turns out.

And so I think it’s fitting, unfortunately, that 20 years after so many of the government officials and media mavens and so-called journalists—quite often not deserving the name—that they were basically singing out of the same hymn book. And now they’re being exculpatory for each other and themselves at the 20th anniversary.

One example that I think is just so profoundly grotesque is that in the months before the invasion of Iraq, you had people who were recycling falsehoods out of government sources, or government-designated, -anointed sources, into news media, like Judith Miller and Michael Gordon, onto the front pages of the New York Times.

Then you would have Dick Cheney, for instance, who would go on the Sunday talkshows, knowing that his own office had funneled the disinformation into the New York Times, then he would say, “Well, don’t just believe us. This is being reported by the New York Times.”

Intercept: The Architects of the Iraq War: Where Are They Now?

Intercept (3/15/23)

JJ: Right. And a number of folks have written recently—Jon Schwarz at the Intercept, Derek Seidman at Truthout, also Marjorie Cohn, Adam Johnson at Real News—about how these visible architects of the Iraq War, in government, but also in think tanks, and then also in media, they’ve all failed upward subsequently, haven’t they? Even knowing what we know, there’s been no comeuppance, no fallout, for those folks.

NS: That is something I think we could call a repetition compulsion disorder that completely gets a reward system to back it up. Whereas those who step out of line, who don’t conflate being pro-war with being objective, they are not going to find upward mobility in media anywhere near so smooth. And often they just hit a brick wall, forget glass ceiling, they hit a brick wall above their heads.

We have some examples that cry out for remembering and reminding people, that Phil Donahue, who had the temerity to actually have a variety of voices about the wisdom of invading Iraq in the months before in his primetime MSNBC program, we know because of a leaked memo that he was fired a few weeks before the invasion, precisely because people at the top of management—MSNBC, NBC News—they were worried that, as they put it in this, for a while, secret memo, that the flag-wavers at Fox and CNN would make MSNBC look bad because Donahue was allowing some anti-war voices onto the air.

And I know from having been reporting and visiting Iraq before the invasion a few times, and writing about this at the time, including for FAIR, that there was a tremendous amount of pressure going on from news media, and to the extent there was an opening for debate, say in the summer and early fall of 2002, the aperture continued to narrow, and so the more that a consensus was being promoted and forced, you might say, that a war and invasion was necessary, the less space there was.

Salon: The urbanity of evil: 20 years after the Iraq invasion, the lies continue

Salon (3/19/23)

I know personally, because I was able to go to Iraq with some delegations, a former senator and current member of Congress, and then with Sean Penn, and then with a UN official. I found in the late part of 2002 what was first a bit of an opening, where I would be invited on to CNN or MSNBC or even Fox. By the end of the autumn, that opening had pretty much closed, and certainly by the end of the year.

And the explanation I was given was that in October of 2002, when the House and Senate voted that an invasion of Iraq would be authorized, that became official policy, and some of the bookers and so forth at the cable news networks would say, “Well, you know, now this is the US government stance that an invasion is in the cards; it’s officially authorized by the legislative branch. So there’s less controversy here.”

JJ: And so now we need to close up any window of debate in the public conversation, because officials have decided what’s going to happen. And I don’t think that’s maybe everybody’s understanding of the way journalism works, or should work.

NS: Yeah, it’s a sort of an ersatz, pseudo-journalism that sets the standard for professionalism. And we, I guess, ought to face it that when people move into the journalism profession, they’re out of college or whatever, what defines professional standards? It’s the ambience, the content, the style, the attitude that’s inherent in what people who have already made it in the profession are doing every day.

Norman Solomon

Norman Solomon: “High-quality media outlets in the United States of America basically served as conveyor belts for pro-war propaganda.”

And so it’s an imitative quality that defines what journalism, or at least what passes for journalism, is. And part of that is not really apologizing, even later on. And I think this gets to what you were alluding to at the outset of our discussion, Janine, that when there’s an anniversary, or a look back, there’s really very little impetus for candor, least of all self-assessment or self-criticism, really, from these media institutions.

And so even in some of the most conspicuous, egregious cases like the New York Times distortions and serving up just bogus stories, the Washington Post as well, when they did sort of mea culpas, many, many weeks later, they were sort of equivocal. And they avoided really shedding harsh light on how it could be that these two purportedly most important, high-quality media outlets in the United States of America basically served as conveyor belts for pro-war propaganda coming from the top of the US government.

JJ: To me, the fact that when you look at the architects and the folks who are most prominent in mouthpiecing for this invasion, the fact that they are all still in high-paid and prominent positions, it underscores the fact that corporate media’s “debate,” it has a patina of rationality and of debate, but it’s really kind of just a club, right?

There’s just certain folks that they listen to and whose ideas they promote. And it doesn’t matter if those folks are wrong or right, or if they’re reliable or not, or if they’re lying or ignorant, they’re just on the list. And then there are other people who are just not on the list, whether or not their predictions turn out to be right, or whether or not they’re reliable.

And with Iraq, that was historians and regional specialists and human rights researchers. They’re just never going to be let into the conversation, no matter how correct they were.

NS: There really are tacit media boundaries that I think are well-understood, however consciously or not, and when a misassessment was later shown to be egregiously wrong, with a war or peace at stake, there’s later on a sense of a clean slate, let’s wipe the record clean, because, eh, we all make mistakes, and so forth.

And that goes to individuals and also to media organizations. And we might want to think the ones that are really top quality, they will cop to their mistakes, distortions, errors, even, or especially, when the errors were extremely important.

And yet, that’s not the case. One example, which at least has to do with history—and we’re told that journalism is the first draft of history; OK, later on, there should be a better draft. Of course, one would hope that the first one was accurate, given that that is the most important, while these events are unfolding.

So one example that comes to mind is the New York Times reported, early on in this whole 20-year span, that the invasion came after Saddam Hussein had kicked out UN weapons inspectors from the country in 1998. So this was the New York Times telling all of its readers that, hey, those UN weapons inspectors were pulled out of the country several years before the invasion, they were kicked out, Saddam Hussein did not allow them to inspect anymore.

And FAIR, Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, made the clear and accurate point, and mobilized some messaging to the New York Times, that that’s an interesting story which happens to be false, and that Saddam Hussein did not kick out the UN weapons inspectors in 1998.

They were withdrawn by the United Nations because the government of, under that point, President Bill Clinton had made clear it was about to bomb Iraq in what became known as Operation Desert Fox.

And so it was because the US government announced, essentially, it was about to bomb the country that the UN thought it was prudent to save the lives, perhaps, of the UN inspectors, to withdraw them.

And so that was something that FAIR activists were able to get the New York Times to publish a subsequent correction.

New York Times: 20 Years On, a Question Lingers About Iraq: Why Did the U.S. Invade?

New York Times (3/18/23)

Fast forward many years, to the time of the 20th anniversary that we’ve just gone through, and the New York Times again publishes the falsehood that Saddam Hussein kicked out the weapons inspectors from the country in 1998, which reminds me of something that George Orwell wrote in 1984: “Those who control the present control the past. Those who control the past control the future.” And I think that’s a good cautionary note to anybody who thinks, well, this is just history, why talk about it now?

Because all of this is prefigurative; it is actually reinforcing mindsets. These distortions are messaging to people, subtly and not so subtly, that at the end of the day, I think as you put it at the beginning of our discussion, Janine: The US government can be wrong, but it’s still OK.

We can go into war and, OK, we made mistakes, etc., etc., which is easy for us to say, while other people experience it with more suffering by far than those in the US. But still the pretense, subtly or not, is it’s OK, because we mean well.

There was a short story written 100 years ago called “Editha,” and there’s a character in it, and this is in about 1905, when it’s published, which is in the aftermath, really, of the US slaughter of people in the Philippines. And there’s a character who says: what a wonderful thing it is to live in a country that might be wrong, but when it’s wrong, is right anyway.

JJ: And that’s the water that elite news media carry, and to folks who could think smarter, to a population that could handle reality, and react accordingly.

And I guess that’s what makes me so angry, is that people pick up the paper thinking that they’re being addressed as an intelligent person who’s trying to make decisions about what they support and what they don’t support. And it’s just not what they’re getting. It’s not what they’re getting.

And there were a few things that stand out to me, Norman, because I know that some of CounterSpin listeners weren’t born in 2003. And so they’ve only heard the remix, as it were. But there are things that stand out for those of us who were there.

And one of them is a massive demonstration in New York, with thousands of other people who were opposing an imminent invasion of Iraq, who were pulled out of their apartments, people who don’t usually go out in the street, who don’t usually demonstrate. But we were very aware that this was a war that was going to be called in our name, specifically, like, look at what happened to New York on September 11. And it was supposed to be in our name.

NYT: Rally in Washington Is Said to Invigorate the Antiwar Movement

New York Times (10/30/02)

And as I’ve said many times before, the most prominent message here in New York City was “our grief is not a cry for war,” and the desire to not turn the horror and loss of September 11 into more horror and loss for other people.

And what I remember was coming home from this massive demonstration, and reading the New York Times saying, well, not a lot of people showed up, it wasn’t as many people as organizers thought, and so wrong, so wrong, that the Times had to go back and re-report the story later.

And so I guess what I’m trying to get at is that the erasing and the denigrating of anti-war voices was key in 2003, and it’s key in 2023.

NS: Absolutely. It’s the erasure of those who are either suffering under the US bombs, erasure from media coverage of substance and let alone empathy, and also erasure, as you say, of anti-war voices in our own communities in the United States, and the tremendous quantity, really, and depth of anti-war feeling and understanding. It is infuriating. It should be infuriating.

And often, when I read even the best, what we’re told are the best, mass media outlets in the United States, it seems that there’s an effort in effect to infantilize the readers, to almost like what was in school called the Weekly Reader, where things were really, if not dumbed-down, it’s just simplified, and the lens on the world, the window on the world, is so tinted red, white and blue. We’re being assumed to be either naive, gullible or simply blindly (what passes for) patriotic.

And the staying power of people who are in the upper reaches of editorial decision-making is really quite stunning. It’s hard to think of anyone who was in a major position 20 years ago, propagating and fomenting and spreading the lies to grease the path, the skids, for the war on Iraq, it’s hard to think of many who suffered at all from their careers. They simply did fine, the ones who did all that, just went right along, often rising into the profession’s upper reaches.

New Yorker: Making a Case

New Yorker (1/26/03)

I think, for instance, of David Remnick, who was already the editor of the New Yorker magazine during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in March of 2003, and he wrote a de facto editorial calling for the invasion of Iraq. It was quite vehement. And that was a couple of months before the invasion.

But even worse, under his editorial leadership, David Remnick ran a magazine, the New Yorker, that published one article after another that was absolute distortion, claiming without any evidence—and it certainly turned out to be false—that Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi government had ties to Al Qaeda, had ties to what happened during 9/11. These were very powerful messages.

And many people, naively, gullibly assumed, well, it’s in the New York Times, or it’s in the New Yorker, or it’s in the Washington Post, that these kinds of stories were true, or had credibility.

In fact, they were disinformation of the most dangerous and ultimately destructive kind.

JJ: And finally, and following from that, it’s work, isn’t it, to resist the confusion and the cognitive dissonance that elite media enforce, for a person who’s just trying to inform themselves about the world.

The messages you get—sovereignty matters, except when we say it doesn’t. Invasion is horrific, except when we do it. Look how they oppress their own people; that’s reason enough to force regime change. Oh, but don’t talk about that in the US, you freaking commie.

Forget your political stance—it just breaks your brain to try to pretend to follow elite media’s, what they call rationality. And I guess, above all, it makes you feel confused and alone.

And what I want to ask you is, what do you see as the antidotes to that? Where do you see the place for folks to go who recognize how brain-breaking and how wrong this is?

NS: As you say, the effort is so important, because if we’re simply passive and let it wash over us, that’s not going to work.

I think recognizing that the essence of propaganda is repetition, and that if we are immersed in this constant waterfall, this flood of corporate-driven media coverage and what passes for analysis and so forth, that we’re in the deluge, and that we need to swim, so to speak, in a very different direction.

And that includes, of course—I don’t mean this as a cliche—thinking for ourselves, and also availing ourselves and supporting media outlets that are very much willing to swim upstream to challenge the conventional media wisdom that is so driven by, among other things, the military industrial complex and corporate power.

And so that should mean including supporting FAIR, subscribing to the newsletter Extra!, going to FAIR.org, supporting CounterSpin; going to outlets like Truthout and Common Dreams and the Intercept and elsewhere, Democracy Now!

These are very important outlets, because if we don’t sustain them, we will simply be overwhelmed by the disinformation machine.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with longtime FAIR associate Norman Solomon of RootsAction.org and the Institute for Public Accuracy. His latest book, War Made Invisible, will be out soon from the New Press. Thank you so much, Norman Solomon, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

NS: Thanks a lot, Janine.


The post ‘Media and Government Excuses Are Basically Intertwined’ appeared first on FAIR.

This content originally appeared on FAIR and was authored by Janine Jackson.

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Janine Jackson | Radio Free (2023-06-04T20:45:07+00:00) » ‘Media and Government Excuses Are Basically Intertwined’ – CounterSpin interview with Norman Solomon on the Iraq invasion. Retrieved from https://www.radiofree.org/2023/03/29/media-and-government-excuses-are-basically-intertwined-counterspin-interview-with-norman-solomon-on-the-iraq-invasion/.
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