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
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
Naturally, Gen. Scales responded with the language of a military man.
"The enemy has built ever-larger explosives," he said. "They've
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.