John Burns’ “ministering angels” and “liberators”

A new investigation of the media's false reporting of the Saddam-statue story reveals ugly truths about the press

Topics: Media Criticism,

John Burns' "ministering angels" and "liberators"People gather Wednesday, April 9, 2003, in this image from video, as U.S. Marines help bring down a giant statue of Saddam Hussein in a square in central Baghdad. (AP Photo/APTN)(Credit: Associated Press)

In this week’s New Yorker, Peter Maass — who was in Iraq covering the war at the time — examines the iconic, manufactured toppling of the Saddam statue in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, an event the American media relentlessly exploited in April, 2003, to propagandize citizens into believing that Iraqis were gleeful over the U.S. invasion and that the war was a smashing success.  Acknowledging that the episode demonstrated that American troops had taken over the center of Baghdad, Maas nonetheless explains that “everything else the toppling was said to represent during repeated replays on television — victory for America, the end of the war, joy throughout Iraq — was a disservice to the truth.”

Working jointly with ProPublica on this investigation, Maass describes the hidden, indispensable role the U.S. military played in that event — which has long been known — though he convincingly argues that the primary culprit in this propaganda effort was the Americans media.  That is who did more than anyone to wildly distort this event.  As usual, the Watchdog Press not only happily ingests and trumpets pro-government propaganda, but does so even more enthusiastically and uncritically than government spokespeople themselves.

The reason there’s so little government censorship of the press in America is because it’s totally unnecessary; why would the government even want to censor a media this compliant and subservient?  Recall the derision heaped upon the media even by Bush’s own former Press Secretary, Scott McClellan, for being “too deferential” to administration propaganda.  As soon as an entity emerges that provides genuinely adversarial coverage of the U.S. Government — such as WikiLeaks, whistleblowers, or isolated articles exposing its malfeasance — the repressive measures come fast and furious.  But in general, it’s no more necessary for the U.S. Government to censor the American media than it would be for Barack Obama to try to silence Robert Gibbs.

In describing the military-subservient mentality that dominated how most American establishment reporters covered the Saddam-statue incident, Maass includes these highly revealing anecdotes, including one about The New York Times‘ lead war correspondent, John Burns:

The media have been criticized for accepting the Bush Administration’s claims, in the run-up to the invasion, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The W.M.D. myth, and the media’s embrace of it, encouraged public support for war. The media also failed at Firdos Square, but in this case it was the media, rather than the government, that created the victory myth.

One of the first TV reporters to broadcast from Firdos was David Chater, a correspondent for Sky News, the British satellite channel whose feed from Baghdad was carried by Fox News. (Both channels are owned by News Corp.) Before the marines arrived, Chater had believed, as many journalists did, that his life was at risk from American shells, Iraqi thugs, and looting mobs.

“That’s an amazing sight, isn’t it?” Chater said as the tanks rolled in. “A great relief, a great sight for all the journalists here. . . . The Americans waving to us now — fantastic, fantastic to see they’re here at last.” Moments later, outside the Palestine, Chater smiled broadly and told one marine, “Bloody good to see you.” Noticing an American flag in another marine’s hands, Chater cheerily said, “Get that flag going!”

Another correspondent, John Burns, of the Times, had similar feelings. Representing the most prominent American publication, Burns had a particularly hard time with the security thugs who had menaced many journalists at the Palestine. His gratitude toward the marines was explicit. “They were my liberators, too,” he later wrote. “They seemed like ministering angels to me.”

The happy relief felt by some journalists on the ground was compounded by editors and anchors back home. Primed for triumph, they were ready to latch onto a symbol of what they believed would be a joyous finale to the war.

It’s not surprising that war journalists who feel endangered would be grateful to the U.S. military for protecting them.  Indeed, that’s the whole premise of the embed program:  having American journalists dependent upon U.S. forces for everything — from their safety to their sustenance — will render them grateful and will cause them to identify not as independent journalists but as members (and dependents) of the invading force.  However understandable that might be, seeing the invading American army as “ministering angels” and “my liberators, too” cannot but shape and distort one’s “reporting” on the war.  

Maass details that deliberately propagandistic pro-war “reporting” around this event infected every precinct of The Liberal Media.  As but one example, NPR‘s Baghdad reporter Anne Garrels expressly told her editors that they were getting the statue story wrong, but she recounted how NPR ”editors requested . . . that she emphasize the celebratory angle.”  The article described numerous examples of editors similarly distorting the statue-toppling coverage, as well as TV journalists gushing falsehood-based awe which — even seven years later — makes one cringe with embarrassment and disgust.  For instance, CNN‘s Bill Hemmer intoned:  ”You think about seminal moments in a nation’s history . . . indelible moments like the fall of the Berlin Wall, and that’s what we’re seeing right now”; Wolf Blitzer described the toppling as “the image that sums up the day and, in many ways, the war itself“; Brit Hume on Fox News said: “This transcends anything I’ve ever seen. . . . This speaks volumes, and with power that no words can really match.”  And on and on and on.

But, though Maass doesn’t say so, it was Burns’ dutiful pro-U.S. agitprop in The New York Times on behalf of the war fought by America’s “ministering angels” — “his liberators, too” — that played a major role in shaping how this story was ultimately perceived.  On April 20, Burns wrote:

In the late afternoon of Wednesday, April 9, Marine Corps tanks entered eastern Baghdad from the south and took control of the district by the river that encompasses the Palestine and Sheraton hotels. Within three hours, after attempts by Iraqi men with sledgehammers and ropes had failed, the marines brought up an M-80 recovery tank with a long boom to assist in hauling down a 30-foot cast-iron statue of Mr. Hussein in Firdos Square, behind the hotels.

If any one moment marked the end of Mr. Hussein’s rule, it was the sight of the statue’s legs cracking, its torso tumbling, and the severed head and body being pelted with garbage and shoes — the ultimate Arab insult — by the hundreds of Iraqis who had gathered to celebrate their freedom.

To be in the square at that moment was to know, beyond doubt, that Iraqis in their millions hated Mr. Hussein, that the truth about Iraq was the diametric opposite of all that he and his acolytes had maintained, and that all else that was said about him in the years that went before was the product of relentless terror.

“Good, good, Bush!” the crowds chanted. “Down, down, Saddam!” Men and women wept, and reached out to shake the hands of the marines, or simply touch their uniforms. “Thank you, mister!” they cried, again and again. Hours later, the crowds still milled about the fallen idol, spitting and mocking. 

That is the most revered and most decorated war reporter in America’s Liberal Media.

The Washington Post‘s Richard Cohen today has an uncharacteristically insightful column arguing that reverence for the U.S. military is sustained by the fact that most Americans have  no experience serving in it and thus idealize its actions and those who lead it.  That’s certainly true, but it’s journalists — especially the ones who cover the Pentagon and its wars — who succumb to that worship dynamic far more than any other class of people.  In October,  John Parker — the former military reporter and fellow of the University of Maryland Knight Center for Specialized Journalism-Military Reporting — mocked Pentagon reporters for uncritically spouting the military’s line about WikiLeaks (he singled out NPR’s Tom Gjelten) and explained the key dynamic as follows:

The career trend of too many Pentagon journalists typically arrives at the same vanishing point: Over time they are co-opted by a combination of awe — interacting so closely with the most powerfully romanticized force of violence in the history of humanity — and the admirable and seductive allure of the sharp, amazingly focused demeanor of highly trained military minds. Top military officers have their s*** together and it’s personally humbling for reporters who’ve never served to witness that kind of impeccable competence. These unspoken factors, not to mention the inner pull of reporters’ innate patriotism, have lured otherwise smart journalists to abandon — justifiably in their minds — their professional obligation to treat all sources equally and skeptically.

Too many military reporters in the online/broadcast field have simply given up their watchdog role for the illusion of being a part of power.

This dynamic infects most establishment journalism:  political reporters come to revere the most successful political operatives (and thus worship in Jay Rosen’s “Church of the Savvy”), economic reporters come to admire the most powerful financial officials, etc.  But for so many reasons, including the ones Parker describes, this psychological capture — blindly gushing over the subjects one covers — is most severe when it comes to reporting on military leaders.  

Recall how Burns — when attacking Michael Hastings on The Hugh Hewitt Show for the crime of making Gen. Stanley McChystal look bad — boasted, as though he himself is a combatant, of the “long, informal periods traveling on helicopters over hostile territory with the generals chatting over their headset, bunking down for the night side by side on a piece of rough-hewn concrete” and how this “builds up a kind of trust” that should shape what the public learns and does not learn about these officials.  Or recall the embarrassingly glowing paean to McChrystal Burns penned upon the General’s firing, or the even more gushing McChrystal profile published by his fellow NYT reporters upon his hiring.  Or Lara Logan’s snide, lapdog-like defense of The General (“Michael Hastings has never served his country the way McChrystal has”).  When it comes to how they speak and think of the military officials they cover, they sound like giddy teenage fan club Presidents rather than critical, independent reporters.  Could anyone imagine David Halberstam describing American generals in Vietnam as “ministering angels” and “his liberators, too”?

Maass has written a very good article, but the one bothersome aspect of retrospectives like this one is that some perceive that the failings they describe are confined to a discrete historical event or matters of the past.  It’s vital when discussing the American media’s failings during the Iraq War to remember that — aside from Judy Miller — most of them believe they and their industry did nothing wrong (Richard Wolffe:  “the press here does a fantastic job of adhering to journalistic standards and covering politics in general”; David Gregory:  ”there are a lot of critics who think that . . . we didn’t do our job. I respectfully disagree. It’s not our role”; Charlie Gibson:  rejecting criticisms of the American media on the ground that “there was a lot of skepticism raised” by journalists about Bush’s case for war; see also: Brian Williams righteously defending the honor of the retired Generals in the Bush Pentagon’s propaganda program).

They haven’t changed in the slightest since the Saddam statue incident because they don’t think they did anything wrong, don’t believe there are any lessons to learn.   Maas’ article isn’t about what the American media did.  It’s about what the American media is.

* * * * *

Quite related to all of this:  The New York Times‘ Stanley Fish reviews a new book to be released shortly by a variety of law professors — including Cass Sunstein and Martha Nussbaum — arguing that more legal restraints on the Internet are needed to prevent and punish misinformation enabled by online anonymity.  Right:  unlike for our establishment media outlets, which are Beacons of Informed, Accountable and Objective Truth.  Along those lines, Newsweek today has a darkly and unintentionally hilarious article purporting to explain why most American journalists refuse to defend WikiLeaks and the government’s assault on its press freedoms.  It contains this line:  ”American journalists, unlike many of their foreign counterparts, have a strong commitment to objectivity and nonpartisanship.“  The level of self-delusion necessary to produce such a claim is unfathomable.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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