Remember the toppling of that Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad (4/9/03) that signified the “end” of the Iraq War? At the time, there were critics who pointed out that the extensively televised images of a jubilant crowd of Iraqis were misleading.The sense of media excitement was unmistakable; as FAIR pointed out, the Los Angeles Times ran a headline the next day, “Iraq Is All but Won; Now What?”
The incident is rehashed and examined in the New Yorker this week by Peter Maass, who was reporting from the scene that day.He states early on that both sides of the war debate got the event wrong:
The toppling of Saddam’s statue turned out to be emblematic of primarily one thing: the fact that American troops had taken the center of Baghdad. That was significant, but 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. Yet the skeptics were wrong in some ways, too, because the event was not planned in advance by the military.
This struck me as an example of a sort of media “false balance,” where blame must be assigned to both sides, even when one side isclearly more blameworthy. That’s unfortunate, because Maass’ report pretty clearly demonstrates that war propaganda need not be orchestrated by clever military censorship or clever public relations–corporate media are eager to misconstrue and distort events on their own.
So what did the “skeptics” get wrong? They believed an Army report that credited the statue operation–from the placement of an Iraqi flag on the statue’s head to the pulling down of the statue itself–to an Army psychological operations unit. Maass notes that this report
was picked up by the news media (“Army Stage-Managed Fall of Hussein Statue,” the headline in the Los Angeles Times [7/3/04] read) and circulated widely on the Web, fueling the conspiracy notion that a psyops team masterminded not only the Iraqi flag but the entire toppling.
The report got very little attention when it was released. (I actually remember a prominent journalist asking me to help him find it.)It’s strange to call it a “conspiracy notion,” unless you believe that a government report taking credit for a particular action qualifies as a conspiracy.
What Maass reports is that a handful of military personnel, some of whom had a keen understanding of the sort of imagery that would appeal to the press corps working from Baghdad, decided largely on their own to deliver a spectacle that would attract substantial media coverage. And they were right. If anything, they were slightly quicker than the psyops unit that was on the scene that day, broadcasting messages in Arabic. Maass wrote:
But problems with the coverage at Firdos soon emerged, including the duration, which was non-stop, the tone, which was celebratory, and the uncritical obsession with the toppling.
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.”
Maass writes that reporters and executives watching back at home “were ready to latch onto a symbol of what they believed would be a joyous finale to the war”:
Wilson Surratt was the senior executive producer in charge of CNN‘s control room in Atlanta that morning. The room, dominated by almost 50 screens that showed incoming feeds from CNN crews and affiliated networks, was filled with not just the usual complement of producers but also with executives who wanted to be at the nerve center of the network during one of the biggest stories of their lives. Surratt had been told by the newsroom that Marines were expected to arrive at Firdos any moment, so he kept his eyes on two monitors that showed the still empty square.
“The climax, at the time, was going to be the troops coming into Firdos Square,” Surratt told me. “We didn’t really anticipate that Hussein was going to be captured. There wasn’t going to be a surrender. So what we were looking for was some sort of culminating event.”
On that day, Baghdad was violent and chaotic. The city was already being looted by swarms of people using trucks, taxis, horses and wheelbarrows to cart away whatever they could from government buildings and banks, museums and even hospitals. There continued to be armed opposition to the American advance. One of CNN‘s embedded correspondents, Martin Savidge, was reporting from a Marine unit that was taking fire in the city. Savidge was ready to go on the air, under fire, at the exact moment that Surratt noticed the tanks entering Firdos Square. Surratt vividly recalls that moment, because he shouted out in the control room, “There they are!”
He immediately switched the network’s coverage to Firdos, and it stayed there almost non-stop until the statue came down, more than two hours later. I asked Surratt whether, by focusing on Firdos rather than on Savidge and the chaos of Baghdad, he had made the right call.
“What were we supposed to do?” Surratt replied. “Not show what was going on in the square? We did the responsible thing. We were careful to say it was not the end. At some point, you’ve got to trust the viewer to understand what they’re seeing.”
That problem of reporters being told to go find the news that was on TV, as opposed to the things they were actually seeing firsthand, was apparently common:
A visual echo chamber developed: Rather than encouraging reporters to find the news, editors urged them to report what was on TV. CNN, which did not have a reporter at the Palestine, because its team had been expelled when the invasion began, was desperate to get one of its embedded correspondents there. Walter Rodgers, whose Army unit was on the other side of the Tigris, was ordered by his editors to disembed and drive across town to the Palestine. Rodgers reminded his editors that combat continued and that his vehicle, moving on its own, would likely be hit by American or Iraqi forces. This said much about the coverage that day: Rodgers could not provide reports of the war’s end because the war had not ended.
Anne Garrels, NPR‘s reporter in Baghdad at the time, has said that her editors requested, after her first dispatch about Marines rolling into Firdos, that she emphasize the celebratory angle, because the television coverage was more upbeat. In an oral history that was published by the Columbia Journalism Review, Garrels recalled telling her editors that they were getting the story wrong: “There are so few people trying to pull down the statue that they can’t do it themselves…. Many people were just sort of standing, hoping for the best, but they weren’t joyous.”
[Newsweek photographer] Gary Knight…had a similar problem as he talked with one of his editors on his satellite phone. The editor, watching the event on TV, asked why Knight wasn’t taking pictures. Knight replied that few Iraqis were involved and the ones who were seemed to be doing so for the benefit of the legions of photographers; it was a show. The editor told him to get off the phone and start taking pictures.
And Maass reports the same happened to at least one newspaper reporter:
Robert Collier, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter, filed a dispatch that noted a small number of Iraqis at Firdos, many of whom were not enthusiastic. When he woke up the next day, he found that his editors had recast the story. The published version said that “a jubilant crowd roared its approval” as onlookers shouted, ‘We are free! Thank you, President Bush!” According to Collier, the original version was considerably more tempered. “That was the one case in my time in Iraq when I can clearly say there was editorial interference in my work,” he said recently. “They threw in a lot of triumphalism. I was told by my editor that I had screwed up and had not seen the importance of the historical event. They took out quite a few of my qualifiers.”
Given all the evidence he collects, it’s odd for Maass to spend any time at all on how “skeptics” believed in a conspiracy that the statue toppling was a manufactured event. It most clearly was; as he documents,it was manufactured primarily by major U.S. media outlets. In a way, that’s far worse than blaming it on official military propaganda efforts.