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March 28, 2008

NPR News: National Pentagon Radio?


by Norman Solomon

While the Iraqi government continued its large-scale military assault in Basra, the NPR reporter's voice from Iraq was unequivocal on the morning of March 27: "There is no doubt that this operation needed to happen."

Such flat-out statements, uttered with journalistic tones and without attribution, are routine for the U.S. media establishment. In the War Made Easy documentary film, I put it this way: "If you're pro-war, you're objective. But if you're antiwar, you're biased. And often, a news anchor will get no flak at all for making statements that are supportive of a war and wouldn't dream of making a statement that's against a war."

So it goes at NPR News, where – on Morning Edition as well as the evening program All Things Considered – the sense and sensibilities tend to be neatly aligned with the outlooks of official Washington. The critical aspects of reporting largely amount to complaints about policy shortcomings that are tactical; the underlying and shared assumptions are imperial. Washington's prerogatives are evident when the media window on the world is tinted red-white-and-blue.

Earlier in the week – a few days into the sixth year of the Iraq war – All Things Considered aired a discussion with a familiar guest.

"To talk about the state of the war and how the U.S. military changes tactics to deal with it," said longtime anchor Robert Siegel, "we turn now to retired Gen. Robert Scales, who's talked with us many times over the course of the conflict."

This is the sort of introduction that elevates a guest to truly expert status – conveying to the listeners that expertise and wisdom, not just opinions, are being sought.

Siegel asked about the progression of assaults on U.S. troops over the years: "How have the attacks and the countermeasures to them evolved?"

Naturally, Gen. Scales responded with the language of a military man. "The enemy has built ever-larger explosives," he said. "They've found clever ways to hide their IEDs, their roadside bombs, and even more diabolical means for detonating these devices."

We'd expect a retired American general to speak in such categorical terms – referring to "the enemy" and declaring in a matter-of-fact tone that attacks on U.S. troops became even more "diabolical." But what about an American journalist?

Well, if the American journalist is careful to function with independence instead of deference to the Pentagon, then the journalist's assumptions will sound different than the outlooks of a high-ranking U.S. military officer.

In this case, an independent reporter might even be willing to ask a pointed question along these lines: You just used the word "diabolical" to describe attacks on the U.S. military by Iraqis, but would that ever be an appropriate adjective to use to describe attacks on Iraqis by the U.S. military?

In sharp contrast, what happened during the All Things Considered discussion on March 24 was a conversation of shared sensibilities. The retired U.S. Army general discussed the war effort in terms notably similar to those of the ostensibly independent journalist – who, along the way, made the phrase "the enemy" his own in a follow-up question.

It wouldn't be fair to judge an entire news program on the basis of a couple of segments. But I'm a frequent listener to All Things Considered and Morning Edition. Such cozy proximity of worldviews, blanketing the war-maker and the war reporter, is symptomatic of what ails NPR's war coverage – especially from Washington.

Of course, there are exceptions. Occasional news reports stray from the narrow baseline. But the essence of the propaganda function is repetition, and the exceptional does not undermine that function.

To add insult to injury, NPR calls itself public radio. It's supposed to be willing to go where commercial networks fear to tread. But overall, when it comes to politics and war, the range of perspectives on National Public Radio isn't any wider than what we encounter on the avowedly commercial networks.


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