We’ve had a strange but persistent thought these past few days watching administration officials try to make the case that the U.S. is actually winning the war in Iraq as it enters its fourth year: George Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld actually need the media now more than ever.
Stick with us for a second. We know that the conventional wisdom — not to mention everything it happens to say about the subject — is that this administration views the press as vampires view garlic.
But if you look at how President Bush constantly refers to the press as an actor that distorts and muddles reality in Iraq, it’s apparent that those alleged distortions have become essential to the administration’s contention that progress is being made.
Thus, he tells us, there are two Iraqs: one, a country portrayed in images of blood and chaos, and another, rosier Iraq, where life goes on, schools are built, hospitals opened and whole towns mended after grievous disorder.
For a blunt example of how this works we turn to Vice President Cheney this past Sunday, appearing on Face the Nation. Bob Schieffer seemed to corner Cheney at one point, presenting him with a list of rosy predictions the veep had made that never came to pass. “I remember when you were saying we’d be greeted as liberators; you played down the insurgency 10 months ago, you said it was in its last throes,” Schieffer said. “Do you believe that these optimistic statements may be one of the reasons that people seem to be more skeptical in this country about whether we ought to be in Iraq?”
Cheney slipped the punch like a deft boxer and countered with a hard short right to Schieffer’s solar plexus: “No. I think it has less to do with the statements we’ve made, which I think were basically accurate and reflect reality than it does with the fact that there’s a constant sort of perception, if you will, that’s created because what’s newsworthy is the car bomb in Baghdad. [Emphasis added]. It’s not all the work that went on that day in 15 other provinces in terms of making progress towards rebuilding Iraq.”
Just like that, Cheney tells us that though we might think we know what is happening in Iraq, it is actually an illusion, a function more of a producer or editor’s need to sell newspapers or pump up ratings.
President Bush has been making the same argument via a subtler rhetorical device: He simply throws the word “images” in front of any uncomfortable information about Iraq. So, for example, in his March 14 speech to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies he described things in this way: “In the past few weeks, the world has seen very different images from Iraq, images of violence and anger and despair.” (Italics ours.)
We don’t think this is nitpicking on our part. Take a look at Bush’s speech yesterday in Cleveland: “The central front on the war on terror is Iraq. And in the past few weeks, we’ve seen horrific images coming out of that country.” He continues, “Others look at the violence they see each night on their television screens and they wonder how I can remain so optimistic about the prospects of success in Iraq. They wonder what I see that they don’t.” (Italics ours.) We’re not seeing car bombs ripping entire blocks apart and blowing dozens of Iraqis to bits. We’re seeing images of car bombs ripping entire blocks apart and blowing dozens of Iraqis to bits. This is simply an extension of what Cheney told Schieffer. Because the violence is only “on their television screens,” it’s as if it does not actually exist out there in the world; it is only the “image” of violence.
Take another example from Bush’s latest speech. First Bush spoke about the elections last December for the first Iraqi parliament: “[Iraqis] said loud and clear at the ballot box that they desire a future of freedom and unity.” He then followed up with this: “In the face of continued reports about killings and reprisals, I understand how some Americans have had their confidence shaken.” (Italics ours again.) That Iraqis want “freedom and unity” is presented as an uncontested fact, while knowledge that there are “killings and reprisals” only comes from “reports.” Because he can reference the media here — they may be reporting truth or falsehood, who knows? — Bush doesn’t actually have to address directly the chaos in Iraq. Like just another episode of The Sopranos, it’s just stuff on your television screen.
The president went on yesterday to “share a concrete example of progress in Iraq that most Americans do not see every day in their newspapers or on their television screens.” It was the story of Tal Afar, an Iraqi town that Bush said had been a stronghold of insurgents following the initial phases of the war, was recaptured and then lost in 2004, was retaken again in 2005 with the help of Iraqi soldiers, and now has been brought back to life.
This was the kind of Iraq narrative that Bush says we don’t hear in the media. (Actually, we do. We didn’t have to look very far to find at least two stories that told exactly that same story about Tal Afar, “Soldier Recounts How a Scared City Came Back to Life” in the Rocky Mountain News, and “Iraqis in Former Rebel Stronghold Now Cheer American Soldiers” in one of those infamously anti-American British papers, the Telegraph.)
But it doesn’t matter whether Bush is correct in claiming that this type of story doesn’t make the papers or evening news. That’s not the point. The objective is to create the impression that Iraq is filled with Tal Afars, that the chaos we see in the media is not reality — that we don’t know what reality over there is.
Bush went on to take this argument to its ultimate conclusion: “The kind of progress that we and the Iraqi people are making in places like Tal Afar is not easy to capture in a short clip on the evening news. Footage of children playing or shops opening and people resuming their normal lives will never be as dramatic as the footage of an [improvised explosive device] explosion or the destruction of a mosque or soldiers and civilians being killed or injured. “The enemy understands this, and it explains their continued acts of violence in Iraq.” (Emphasis ours.) And there’s the heart of it. Not only is the violence much more miniscule than we think — just a bunch of horrific images trapped in your television screen — but the media are its cause. If the cameras weren’t there to capture the work of terrorists, they would cease blowing things up. Apparently, a terrorist without a camera pointed at his work is a terrorist disarmed. According to this logic, the problem is cameras, not bombs.
We’re not talking conspiracy theory here. We are saying that all of us need to think more dynamically about how the Bush administration uses the media. The disdain and the aspersions thrown at the press are genuine, we’re sure. There’s no doubt the administration would love more images of Iraqi children playing in the street. But this same derision of the media also serves a purpose in itself in the administration’s campaign to win over the home front. If the media cannot be trusted, then we shouldn’t trust what we think we know about Iraq.
Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.
Instead, the administration is saying, just trust us.