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Staring into the Journalistic Abyss
Disinformation and Propaganda at the New York Times

by Kim Petersen
September 1, 2004

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In the aftermath of Shock and Awe, New York Times White House correspondent Elisabeth Bumiller admitted that reporters were overly soft on President George Bush in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq because they were afraid to do their job.


I think we were very deferential because ... it's live, it's very intense, it's frightening to stand up there. Think about it, you're standing up on prime-time live TV asking the president of the United States a question when the country's about to go to war. There was a very serious, somber tone that evening, and no one wanted to get into an argument with the president at this very serious time.


Chris Mooney at the Columbia Journalism Review concurred: “None of the [news]papers, in fact, held the Bush administration to an adequate standard of proof when it came to launching not just a war, but a preemptive war opposed by most of the world. … And in so doing, they failed to bring even an elementary skepticism to the Bush case for war.”


Given that the corporate media miserably failed to monitor the centers of power and instead functioned as mouthpieces for the government when the US was poised to unleash violence on another nation, one might think that the self-same media would regard the occupation in a more skeptical light and seek to avoid a repetition of the same mistake.


Despite the persistent disinformation from Times writer Judith Miller on the mythological Iraqi weapons-of-mass-destruction, the Times editorial collective opposed the launching of an attack on Iraq. If the initial attack was deemed to be wrong then by logical inference an occupation born of the invasion must be wrong.


If one has read recent articles in the Times on the occupation in Iraq, it would be clear that little has changed at the “newspaper of record” on coverage of the Washington regime’s agenda.


The expectation of a semblance of impartiality on the recent standoff at the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf suggests otherwise. The Times directs blame for the turmoil at Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his followers: “The upstart cleric began his latest uprising on Aug. 5, when his men attacked a Najaf police station after the arrest of one of his aides. The August uprising was his second; in April, he called on his followers to expel the Americans after the closing of his newspaper.”


Careful scrutiny of Times reporting plainly indicates that actions by occupation authorities precipitated the al-Sadr-led uprisings with his “cannon fodder” forces. One Times article noted, “It was the arrest of another Sadr aide that led to the seizure of the shrine by the Mahdi Army on Aug. 5.”


In an apparent bid to legitimize the occupation the occupiers have seized on the personage of the ailing Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Early in the occupation, while waiting for the promised fair elections to take place, al-Sistani appeared to be pragmatic. It seems that al-Sistani is perhaps a poor judge of character or too trusting.


Carpe Diem


In August 1991 erstwhile Russian President Boris Yeltsin, for all his flaws, recognized an opportunity and seized it when he mounted a tank in front of the Russian White House during the attempted coup by Communist insurgents. It signaled the impending political end for Soviet President Mikhail Gorbasjov and the ascent of Yeltsin. Al-Sadr read the sentiment of beleaguered Iraqis and rose to the challenge. Through his actions al-Sadr has catapulted himself to prominence that more-and-more eludes the hitherto immobilized al-Sistani, except for the Times’ propagandistic attempts to project increased prominence upon al-Sistani.


Herein lies the problem, as seen by the occupation forces: al-Sadr could serve as a firebrand for Iraqi hatred of the occupation. Consequently, his role is as an enemy to be demonized.


Yet al-Sadr, whose pronouncements receive scant media exposure in the US, appears to be someone quite different from the US corporate media rendering. Hazem al-Amin describes al-Sadr as a “bashful, tongue-tied young man” who is “not very self-possessed.” He recounts how al-Sadr found himself “catapulted” into a leadership role through great personal tragedy; there are many recent martyrs in the family.


US-installed Iraqi dictator Iyad Allawi and the occupation forces were determined to undermine the popular authority that al-Sadr had accrued. Al-Sadr’s defense was an untouchable historic mosque and his so-called Mahdi army. The dilemma for Allawi and the US was “how to expel Mr. Sadr and his fighters without damaging or destroying one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam, and without adding to his popularity in Iraq’s teeming Shiite slums.”


The disparaging remark about “teeming Shiite slums” is important only insofar as it reflects a prejudiced view at the Times. That Al-Sadr’s followers are poor does not diminish him; on the contrary, it should elevate him as someone willing to fight for the downtrodden in society. The repeated references to the penury of Iraqis underlines that the Times is playing the class card. These citizens suffered under Saddam Hussein and now under the Americans. How can they be expected to prosper under such circumstances? Revelatory is that, despite their miserable circumstances, repeated occupation assaults against them, and the withholding of reconstruction means as punishment by the occupation authorities, the inhabitants of Sadr City continue to choose to support their underdog cleric.


The Times has seized upon the “moderate” al-Sistani. It considers that al-Sadr “is widely disliked -- by the Allawi government, by senior clerics and by the main Shiite religious parties.” According to anonymous Times’ sources, al-Sistani also “loathes” al-Sadr “and, like Allawi, is concerned about his growing power among Iraq's dispossessed.” Further coloring the Times portrayal of the loathing, envious al-Sistani is his tacit but implied approval for US occupation forces to take on “Sadr’s forces, even at risk of damaging the shrine.” The Times is unsubtly alluding to the aphorism that the enemy of one’s enemy is one’s friend. In other words, it is implied that al-Sistani is in league with the occupation. The actual strategy is more at divide et impera.


Al-Sistani’s importance to the occupiers is that his stature among most Iraqis still reputedly outstrips that of al-Sadr because of having a higher religious rank.


Apparently al-Sistani, at this later juncture in the occupation, is “seizing an opportune moment” to regain some of the thunder stolen by the “upstart” al-Sadr. Such is the Times’ depiction of the situation.


Al-Sistani is presented as an agent of occupation. It is stated that al-Sistani demanded the “reassertion of Iraqi government control, symbolized by the entry of the police.” Al-Sistani even drew praise for his collaborative role from the unlikely, and probably unwanted, corner of US Secretary-of-State Colin Powell.  


Wise to this attempted media co-optation of his major religious authority, al-Sistani’s spokesman Hamid al-Khafaf issued a denial that the Shi’a authority was opposed to armed resistance.


The Propaganda of the Absurd


The Bush administration’s claims that the resistance consisted of a few Ba’athist remnants loyal to Saddam Hussein and subsequently foreign intruders has been adduced to be blatantly untrue. Al-Sadr’s Shi’a resistance movement has exposed this. Yet the shameless serial mislabeling of the enemy by the US continues; not only is the enemy anti-American but Centcom now also refers to the enemy as “anti-Iraqi.” The Iraqi resistance is supposedly comprised of self-haters. The logical inference being: to hate the enemy is to hate oneself.


An injection of sanity is required here by way of an analogy. If a foreign country, say that great threat from the not-so-distant-past Nicaragua, were to make the two-days march to Texas and begin the conquest, how would these attackers be labeled? If not suicidal lunatics then invaders, right? When the Nicaraguan occupation begins, are they not occupiers? It is really quite simple. Now when groups of Americans start fighting the Nicaraguan occupation forces, are they not a resistance force? Wouldn’t most people scoff with unconcealed scorn at the US resistance movement being accused of being anti-Nicaraguan? Labeling the Americans fighting to liberate their country from foreign occupation as anti-Americans raises the preposterousness of the analogy. Clearly it is blatantly ludicrous. What kind of journalist worthy of being called a journalist would write such nonsense? In fact it is too absurd to even pose as slipshod propaganda, and surely it is an affront to the intelligence of any readership (or so one hopes).


Even some people who are notoriously slow-on-the-uptake can seemingly grasp this. Bush recognized what fuels the Iraqi resistance, when he exclaimed, “They’re not happy they’re occupied. I wouldn’t be happy if I were occupied either.” Yet to act against the source of that unhappiness makes one a self-hater. This is the conundrum Iraqis face: either be content with unhappiness under occupation or become a self-hater.


The agreement among the combatants exculpated the US war machine from responsibility for the carnage wreaked in Najaf. This was even though the US was cited as the principal cause of the devastation. The Times wrote of the “horrific violence” and how the US fighters “barraged the Old City.” US jets and helicopters “pounded” the vicinity of the Ali Mosque and “bombs and were rockets [were] rained down … over the Old City.” More than 80 percent of Iraqi security collaborators ordered into the Najaf offensive were reported to have deserted.


The US forces wielded their superior firepower in warped proportionality to that of the enemy. The Times reported the one-sidedness thusly:


For every shot they took, American troops returned scores or hundreds. For every mortar round the guerrillas lobbed, the gunners at the Marine base here responded with a 100-pound artillery shell. The insurgents had donkey carts loaded with rocket-propelled grenades, the Americans 70-ton tanks that can survive direct hits from mortars and grenades. The American advantage was especially large at night, when night-vision goggles allowed troops to see in the dark.


The two sides have caused uncounted civilian casualties and inflicted tremendous damage on Najaf's Old City. The area stinks of sewage and soot, and its streets are filled with rubble from bombed-out buildings. Even the mosque has been slightly damaged.


Overwhelming American firepower has caused nearly all of the structural damage, although it is unclear whether guerrillas or American troops are responsible for more civilian casualties.


Unlike the guerrillas, American troops generally appeared to make an effort not to fire at random, but when fired upon they responded with overwhelming force. They joke that they are living bait, luring guerrillas out of their holes to be killed.


The Times elaborated on the “scene of devastation.”


Hotels had crumbled into the street. Cars lay blackened and twisted where they had been hit. Goats and donkeys lay dead on the sidewalks. Pilgrims from out of town and locals coming from home walked the streets agape, shaking their heads, stunned by the devastation before them.


Indeed, the Times concedes, “The Americans met limited resistance.”


The US military failed for the second time to take out al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army much as they failed to quell the resistance in the town of Fallujah, the US military can also be accused of learning little from its mistakes. Claims that can’t be backed up are best not made.


Warped Perspectives


Some American military commanders seem to operate in an ether of warped priority. There was great concern shown for human structures. Major Doug Ollivant instructed his battalion: “Don't shoot the mosque.” This contrasts with the US brass’ admitted disregard for the number of Iraqis that they kill. As Powell once callously remarked, “That’s not really a number I’m terribly interested in.”


The Times has been likewise callous in its characterization of Iraqis. The use of an animal metaphor to describe al-Sistani’s followers as “flocking toward Najaf” was most inappropriate, but provided a glimpse into the mindset of some Times.


The Mahdi Army resistance fighters were referred to as “diehards … on the brink of disintegration.” Many “seemed visibly reduced by the siege,” “hollow-eyed and hunted-looking,” and “in various states of physical and emotional distress.”


It is the picture of a resistance on the verge of defeat. In 1919 the Times painted a similar, but false, picture of “devastating Red Army defeats” when meddling western and Japanese imperialist forces invaded Bolshevik Russia and unsuccessfully tried to bring down the people’s revolution. Frequent Times headlines foretold of a looming White Russian victory under the command of collaborationist Admiral Alexander Vassilievitch Kolchak:










(In Michael Sayers and Albert E. Kahn, The Great Conspiracy: The Secret War Against Soviet Russia, Little, Brown and Company, 1946, p 92)


The Times does acknowledge that there was no surrender by the Mahdi Army forces and neither did they give up their weapons. Furthermore, “for most of the Mahdi fighters still standing, morale seemed undiminished.” This undiminished Mahdi resistance morale is undermined as a fanciful “mythic tale about themselves, as the stalwart defenders of the shrine against a foreign army and its local satraps.” The Times points out: “It mattered little that they were vacating the place they had sought to defend or that the city had been destroyed in the event.” One might have added that neither did it seem to matter much that the occupation-quisling operation, despite overwhelmingly superior firepower, failed to defeat the Mahdi fighters or take over the mosque.


Censure is focused away from US sources. Even the US puppet Allawi is a suitable scapegoat. The Times writes of an unbalanced man who “wavered between bellicose threats and offers to negotiate.”


A rationale was offered to explain the failure to subdue al-Sadr and his resistance forces: “Indeed, the decision to allow Mr. Sadr to go free seemed to be based on the hope that the young leader, who commands a large following in Iraq's Shiite slums, could be coaxed into the political mainstream.” Much as the Times presents al-Sistani as being in collusion with occupation authorities, a co-optation of al-Sadr is hinted as being in the offing. This, however, represents wishful thinking as al-Sadr’s repeated pronouncements call for the continuation of struggle until the end of the occupation.


During the Middle Ages Arab civilization represented the pinnacle in learning, science, and culture. It illuminated the way for the European Renaissance. If the Iraqi resistance does not prevail now, then not only does it bode ill for Iraqis but it also bodes especially ill for other small, poorly armed nations that find themselves in the gun sights of corporate imperialism. An Iraqi victory would have important repercussions that would likely reverberate throughout the Arab world and beyond.

Kim Petersen is a writer living in Nova Scotia, Canada. He can be reached at:

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