The Media: Weapons of Mass Deception
An Interview with Danny Schechter
By Alexander M. Dake

 
“…we no longer live in a traditional democracy but rather a media-ocracy, a land in which media drives politics and promotes the military…”

That’s one of the controversial statements Danny Schechter makes in his book Embedded: Weapons of Mass Deception: How the Media Failed to Cover the War on Iraq (2003, Prometheus). Danny Schechter is an award winning journalist, writer, and filmmaker on media issues. He is also a founder of Globalvision, Inc., an award-winning media company formed in l987, and the executive editor of MediaChannel.org, a website dedicated to media issues. His broad experience includes being the news director and principal newscaster for WBCN-FM and working as a news program producer and investigative reporter at CNN and ABC. His articles have appeared in many publications such as Newsday, Boston Globe, Columbia Journalism Review, Detroit Free Press, Village Voice, and others. Alexander Dake spoke with Danny Schechter about Embedded and his upcoming documentary of the same title, as well as the state of the US media.

The Media & Iraq

AD: In your book Embedded: Weapons of Mass Deception you describe the media coverage of the war in Iraq in a critical way: “Mainstream media coverage helped America prepare for this war, and it was promoted through uncritical reporting….The media was a communication collaborator…and functioned as weapons of mass deception.” How did you come to these conclusions?

DS: When the war began, I embedded myself in my living room and began watching television coverage, which is how most Americans are informed about the news and the war in Iraq. I began to compare coverage among the American networks and overseas channels: the BBC, CBC, CNN International and several other international channels. I began to see that there was a great gap between the American channels and other channels. The American channels had a uniformity of perspective toward the war. They basically supported the war and they replaced journalism with jingoism. They were selling the war instead of telling people about the war. While we used to know the media as the Fourth Estate, US commander of the war on Iraq, General Tommy Franks spoke of the media as the fourth front in the war, acknowledging that in order to get support for the war and sustain that support, public opinion needed to be organized along the military’s themes of the war. Those themes were: inevitability of the war; that the US was at immediate risk; and the implicit links between Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden. American viewers bought this message. My response to this was that I wanted to show what was going on on a daily basis, and how the media and the government were often acting together. I first published this in my book, and now also released a documentary WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception.

AD: Could you give an example of how the US media influenced the war coverage?

DS: Before the war the polls in the US showed a tremendous divide in public opinion. On February 15, 2003, the New York Times described this by saying there were two major forces at play: one, the power of the American military, and the other, the power of global public opinion. This divide was not at all reflected in the TV coverage: out of the 800 experts interviewed on TV only six opposed the war. People in other countries compared this to old-fashioned state media; only in our case it’s not state media, but private media that has an interest in going along with the government. Many media felt they would lose viewers if they were not patriotic enough. But it is also because many media are part of an increasingly concentrated media structure, which is not conducive to diversity. When Ben Bagdikian wrote his first edition of his classic The New Media Monopoly 20 years ago 50 companies were controlling the media, and now that number is down to probably five companies.

AD: You quote Christina Lamb of the London Times saying that “embedded journalists with the military…are giving a more positive side, because they are with the troops and they’re not out in the streets or out in the countryside seeing what’s actually happening there.” Do you think that embedded journalists offer any benefits to news reporting?

DS: If the “embeds” were also embedded with the CIA, also embedded with the Red Cross, or also embedded with other institutions. If they made some attempt to have relationships with Arab broadcasters so that other points of view could be heard, then I would say fine. Being embedded with the military gives you a very good perspective inside the military and much more graphic war reporting. But if you are only doing one-sided coverage and not covering anything else, such as the civilian casualties or other impacts to Iraqi culture and society, then your reporting is very limited.

AD: How do the latest developments in Iraq confirm your earlier observations?

DS: The military campaign as we now know was successful in reaching its initial objective of reaching Baghdad and toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime. But it didn’t win the war: the war is still going on. We were told that this was going to be a quick war and everybody signed up for that. The American media were not interested in the country of Iraq: they were only interested in one person, Saddam Hussein. Even though the Iraqis didn’t like Saddam, the media didn’t know that the Iraqis wouldn’t like a foreign invasion either. Now that has become abundantly clear.

The State of the US Media

AD: Looking at the big picture of the US media landscape, how do you see the media-ocracy developing? Do you expect further consolidation of the media?

DS: I think there is going to be further concentration. Rupert Murdoch made the prediction that by 2010 only three media companies would be left. We are already in what I call a post-journalism environment, where news is merging with entertainment. Time magazine for example is talking about “militainment” in terms of the war or “electotainment” in terms of the elections. Most of the coverage of the presidential elections is no longer on the main channels, but has moved to cable channels. On cable, pundits are replacing journalists. Cable is reacting much more to advocacy groups like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, but do only very little investigative reporting. The paradigm of the war coverage is becoming the ongoing characteristic of our media system.

AD: What do you think should be done about this development?

DS: The main issue is that many people don’t recognize this situation and should be made aware that this is happening. Journalist Michael Wolff describes our political system as a subset of our media system. He says that political parties are primarily media organizations. Their main focus is generating coverage for their candidates. Because the changing character of our media is changing the character of our democracy, this discussion about the media is so important. This is not just an academic or historical discussion; it’s about what is going on right now. It is a media system, which is subservient to commercial interests, making our media system one of the most conservative in the world. When I joined the media I did that to spotlight the problems of the world, but now I see that the media are one of those problems.

AD: Could you elaborate a bit more on why the US media are so conservative?

DS: First of all, you need to understand that the US has a conservative culture and a conservative political system, so to a large extent that is also what the media reflect. However, at the same time there is also a fragmentation of the media happening: there are more single-theme channels with sports, films, sex, and reality entertainment. The audiences are also fragmenting. You see, for example, young people turning to the comedy channels for their news. In other words, people are opting out of the mainstream news. Although conservative channels, such as Fox News, are creating a disproportionate amount of attention, they do not draw huge audiences. So even though it looks like one media system, people are increasingly looking for and finding their own sources for news and information.

AD: Do you believe there is a role for liberal media networks such as Air America Radio with Al Franken or others in countering the conservative media bias?

DS: The left wing is notoriously fragmented and that’s reflected in how they approach the challenge of a biased media system. The left wing follows the so-called Salvation Army approach: “help the poor, go out and feed the people” -- basically a diversified message. The conservatives follow the Marine Corps approach: “attack, seize the hill” -- basically one slogan. This does not just reflect a different political approach; it is a clash of cultures and of ideas. However, more and more progressive people start recognizing that the media are an issue worth fighting for. Three million people wrote to the FCC opposing plans for media deregulation. Websites like MediaChannel.org are attracting audiences interested in what is going on with the media. When we announced plans for “a media for democracy” movement to monitor mainstream news coverage of the 2004 elections, we attracted 65,000 members in a few months. This all shows that besides the political debate going on in this country, now increasingly a media debate is gaining attention.

Alternative Media Sources

AD: What did you mean with your statement that “making sense of the news in America requires that you leave America, if only through the Internet to seek out information and perspectives missing in the TV news accounts”?

DS: This is what I alluded to earlier, that because of the one-sidedness of the mainstream media, I went looking for other news sources. These were foreign news channels and the Internet. From various research it is clear that I am being joined by an increasing audience that is using the Internet as a frequent news source. [AD: see for example the Pew Research Center’s Biennial News Consumption Survey.]

AD: How do you view the role of the newspapers in this whole media debate?

DS: All newspapers are terrified, as they are losing readers at a fast pace. The average age of readers of newspapers is in the sixties. Young people don’t read newspapers anymore, so the advertising base is shrinking. If this trend continues, there will be a day soon when newspapers no longer exist. That’s where 24-hour cable news, the Internet, and other new information technologies are taking over.

AD: Although you are describing some worrisome developments in the major media, you also sound quite optimistic about the increased interest in the media. Why?

DS: Well, it’s like Antonio Gramsci spoke about “optimism of the will, pessimism of the intelligence.” Analytically, I’m terrified about many issues which are getting worse -- in the media, in politics, increased inequality, dangers of war, the militarization, etc. On the other hand, several years ago only small audiences were aware of some of these developments, and now that number is growing. That’s how change happened with the civil rights movement, with the Vietnam War, with apartheid in South Africa, and hopefully now with the state of the media. I invite your readers to go to our websites and become better acquainted with the issues and see for themselves how they could get involved.

AD: Thank you.
 

Books by this author
Embedded: Weapons of Mass Deception, How the Media Failed to Cover the War on Iraq
Media Wars: News at a Time of Terror
News Dissector
The More You Watch, the Less You Know: News Wars/Submerged Hopes/Media Adventures

Other books about the media
The New Media Monopoly by Ben Bagdikian
Our Media, Not Theirs: The Democratic Struggle Against Corporate Media by Robert McChesney and John Nichols 
Into the Buzzsaw by Kristina Borjesson et al.
The Copycat Effect by Loren Coleman

See for more books on the media: http://www.mediachannel.org/bookcorner

Relevant websites
MediaChannel
Media for Democracy
WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception, the film the major media do not want you to see
Pew Research Center’s Biennial News Consumption Survey


© 2004 Alexander M. Dake

 

 

 
 

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