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America's Matrix, Revisited

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Though some Americans switched to BBC or CNN 's international channels to find more objective war coverage, large numbers of Americans clearly wanted the "feel-good " nationalism of Fox News and MSNBC. Images of U.S. troops surrounded by smiling Iraqi children were more appealing than knowing the full truth.

The full story of the Iraq War demanded unsettling judgments about the slaughter of thousands of Iraqis and the maiming of children, like the 12-year-old boy who lost both his arms and his family to a U.S. bombing attack. Balanced coverage would have recognized that many Iraqis reacted with coldness and hostility to U.S. forces, a harbinger of the Iraqi resistance that was soon killing an average of one or two U.S. soldiers a day.

To some foreigners, the uniformity in the U.S. war coverage had the feel of a totalitarian state.

"There have been times, living in America of late, when it seemed I was back in the Communist Moscow I left a dozen years ago, " wrote Rupert Cornwell in the London-based Independent. "Switch to cable TV and reporters breathlessly relay the latest wisdom from the usual unnamed 'senior administration officials, ' keeping us on the straight and narrow. Everyone, it seems, is on-side and on-message. Just like it used to be when the hammer and sickle flew over the Kremlin. "

Cornwell traced this lock-step U.S. coverage to the influence of Fox News, which "has taken its cue from George Bush 's view of the universe post-11 September either you 're with us or against us. Fox, most emphatically, is with him, and it 's paid off at the box office. Not for Fox to dwell on uncomfortable realities like collateral damage, Iraqi casualties, or the failure of the U.S. troops to protect libraries and museums. " [Independent, April 23, 2003]

Punishing Dissent

But the U.S. cable news networks and talk radio went beyond simply boosting the war. They often served as the Bush administration 's public enforcers, seeking out and destroying Americans who disagreed with the war policy.

Because one of the Dixie Chicks criticized Bush, the music group faced an organized campaign to boycott their music and destroy their careers. MSNBC offered up a program hosted by Republican commentator Joe Scarborough asking why actors Sean Penn and Tim Robbins, who criticized the war, were whining about retaliation.
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"Sean Penn is fired from an acting job and finds out that actions bring about consequences. Whoa, dude! " chortled Scarborough.

As justification for depriving Penn of work, Scarborough cited a comment that Penn made while on a pre-war trip to Iraq. Penn said, "I cannot conceive of any reason why the American people and the world would not have shared with them the evidence that they [Bush administration officials] claim to have of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. " [MSNBC, May 18, 2003]

As it turned out, Penn 's pre-war comments were equally valid after the invasion, as the U.S. and Great Britain desperately sought confirmation of their WMD claims.

Many news executives might argue that their jobs go beyond simply telling the American people the truth. They also are concerned about national unity, especially at a time of crisis. And they don 't want to be accused of undercutting U.S. troops at war.

Yet, there is a grave danger to both troops and civilians when the news media sanitizes war. By keeping unpleasant images from the American people, the news media feeds the illusion that war is painless, even fun, something to be engaged in easily over slight or imagined provocation. This sort of lazy thinking gets people killed and can squander the wealth of the most powerful nations.
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Truth Delayed

Among U.S. politicians, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., was the most forceful in addressing the dangers to democracy and to U.S. troops that comes from pervasive government lying.

"No matter to what lengths we humans may go to obfuscate facts or delude our fellows, truth has a way of squeezing out through the cracks, eventually, " Byrd said on the Senate floor on May 21. "But the danger is that at some point it may no longer matter. The danger is that damage is done before the truth is widely realized. The reality is that, sometimes, it is easier to ignore uncomfortable facts and go along with whatever distortion is currently in vogue. "

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at

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