"Fahrenheit 9/11":The Press and Casualties of War -review by Jennifer Curry
Directed by Michael Moore
A middle-aged woman screams, standing in the wreckage that was once a home, maybe her own, crying over a lost family member. She screams in anger at the United States, shaking her arms in the air. She screams for Allah to have mercy on her and turns her face up to the sky. Wounded and dead children, families digging in the futile hope of finding survivors in the remains of a housing complex reduced to rubble by bombs: these scenes from Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 are the images of the war in Iraq that most Americans never see. The images of our own casualties -- much less the "collateral damage" -- never make it on to evening network newscasts. Our only evidence of the war dead so far has been a batch of photos of the flag-draped coffins slipped past military censors.
If freedom of the press exists to keep the government in check as Thomas Jefferson intended, why has mainstream media shielded the American public from the more horrifying effects of this administration's policies?
Moore, speaking to a crowd of supporters outside of the Democratic National Convention, said the "unstated villain" of his film was the nation's media. "The one thing I hear when people come out of the theater over and over again is 'I never saw that on the news. I don't hear from the amputees who sit in our hospitals, 5,000 or 6,000 of them.'"
In the mainstream media, the casualties of this war are represented only in the cold statistics of the American soldiers lost, and if Americans were not turning out in droves to see Fahrenheit 9/11, the Iraqi casualties would continue to remain faceless as well as uncounted.
Those who do air images of the brutal and bloody side of this war, such as Moore or the Arab news network Al-Jazeera, are labeled by this administration as propagandists or, as Donald Rumsfeld called Al-Jazeera, the "mouthpiece of Osama bin Laden". In Control Room -- a behind the scenes documentary about Al-jazeera produced by the Egyptian-American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim -- producers at Al-Jazeera defend their practice of showing civilian casualties and American POWs, maintaining that it is their responsibility to report the "human cost" of war.
In point of fact, the Pentagon has kept this human cost of war from the American public through the practice of "embedded reporting" -- not only controlling reporters' movements and encouraging them to see only from the soldiers viewpoint, but forcing reporters to rely on the soldiers they cover for their own survival. It is impossible to say at present exactly how much this practice has constrained reporting. Leon Daniel, a correspondent for United Press International during the first Gulf War recently wrote that "correspondents who covered the war failed to report some of its important aspects because the Pentagon's restrictive pool system kept us well to the rear of the allied thrust that achieved rapid and total victory." When Daniel arrived in the Neutral Zone between Saudi Arabia and Iraq in February 1991 shortly after the 1st Infantry Division had torn through the frontline, he immediately wondered why there were no bodies. Thousands of Iraqi soldiers had been buried, many still alive, in their trenches by plows attached to the front of advancing US battle tanks -- but the story didn't break in the mainstream press until 1992, after the war had ended.
The reporters and producers at Al-Jazeera -- native to the Middle East, though educated in the West -- mingle more freely with the Iraqi populace, and the results are strikingly different from what appears in the American press. When Baghdad fell, photographs and video footage of newly "liberated" Iraqis toppling Saddam Hussein's statue heralded American victory on every front page and led newscasts around the world. The film Control Room captures the cynical response of those in the Al-Jazeera newsroom, who deride the events as a farce, a scripted publicity stunt. Senior producer Samir Khader grew up in Iraq and notes that the men marching down the street neither look nor sound like Iraqis. Others in the newsroom point out that the handful of men on the otherwise deserted street are all the same age -- another clue they were planted. The footage in the movie of this tiny, homogeneous lot of men marching down the street, surrounded on all sides by cameramen comes across quite differently than the images that circulated in the American press.
Lieutenant Josh Rushing, a young Central Command press officer featured throughout the film, offers a surprisingly apt assessment of how news organizations operate during wartime: "It benefits Al-Jazeera to play to Arab nationalism because that's their audience, just like Fox plays to American patriotism."
Rushing has it half right; while Fox News plays to the patriotic crowd, it also generates support for this administration and its policies abroad. In Outfoxed - Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism, director Robert Greenwald cites internal memos from Fox management directing the staff how to place an administration-friendly spin on the news. The documentary also cites a study conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes revealing that Americans who rely on Fox News as their primary news source are more likely to have misperceptions about events in the war in Iraq. When asked whether we found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, a third of Fox News viewers responded "yes".
In light of such statistics, it is amusing to see Bill O'Reilly refer to Fahrenheit 9/11 as "rank propaganda" in his syndicated column. O'Reilly aside, critics and pundits who call Fahrenheit 9/11 "biased" neglect two important points. First, while the film is a documentary in the sense that it is a nonfiction piece, Fahrenheit 9/11 is more a cinematic essay than straight reportage. Moore is advocating for a re-analysis of facts that for the most part have already appeared in the mainstream media and are probably already familiar to people who pay close attention to the news. He simply chooses to place more emphasis on particular events that were either given short shrift or completely ignored -- such as the Iraqi civilian casualties or the protests of members of the Congressional Black Caucus over President Bush's "win" in 2000.
Which brings us to the second point Moore's critics neglect: all media is biased. As Marshall McLuhan noted long ago in Understanding Media, the news media "'color' events by using them or by not using them at all." Professional journalists in broadcast and print media cull through a tremendous amount of information and determine what information makes the cut and how much it should be emphasized. As Outfoxed illustrates, these determinations are influenced by their editors, their audience, their corporate employers and their own perspective (i.e. their personal assessment of the relative value of their sources). Reporting on human affairs is not a science, and objectivity is a goal for which journalists can strive but never truly attain.
Take for instance the New York Times recent mea culpa over their prewar coverage of Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction. In that instance, the Times essentially served as a public relations arm of the Bush administration, failing to scrutinize the administration's claims. In Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman predicted such outcomes, arguing that the press relies heavily on government officials as sources but lacks the means to investigate fully all of the information the government provides. Even when the reporters themselves question this information, the comments of officials are reported, considered inherently newsworthy because of the legitimacy that their office bestows.
Politicians are well aware of the influence they carry with the press and engage in concerted efforts to "manage" the news. In Errol Morris' Oscar-winning documentary Fog of War, Robert McNamara and President Lyndon Johnson are heard on White House tapes discussing their reservations about the war in Vietnam and how to paint a sunnier picture for the press, which seems as much their adversary as the Viet Cong. "Many of us in private say that things are not good, they've gotten worse," McNamara says on one tape. "Now while we say this in private and not public there are facts available that find their way in the press." Though Chomsky and Herman cite numerous examples of the failure of the press to cover fully the atrocities of Vietnam, many on the right contend the war was lost in large part because of dissention in the press. Networks had a policy of editing out the grislier scenes from Vietnam, but they still aired images of wounded American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians; the Pentagon has grown savvier about restricting access to such images in succeeding wars.
Information has also become more tightly controlled by corporate interests. All major media outlets have been absorbed by large corporate conglomerates -- of which many, like GE, also have financial interests in the military industrial complex. Individuals and organizations that challenge government and corporate interests find themselves increasingly marginalized, relegated to the alternative press.
Documentary film presents an alternative forum by which leftists can enter the debate, publicizing the grittier aspects of war and the darker machination of the establishment. Granted, distribution is still in the hands of large corporate entities, but grassroots movement can force such films into major theaters. MoveOn sponsored screenings of Outfoxed in homes and community spaces through out the United States, generating enough buzz to attract a distributor. Despite Disney's refusal to distribute Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore's celebrity status and popularity with audiences assured that it would reach theaters anyway. His film's phenomenal success proves that despite the establishment's attempt to limit the information available through the media, there are still Americans who prefer a larger perspective -- as bloody and disturbing as the picture may be.