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Mohawk: Faith-based war coverage

It's mid-summer, Qusay and Uday Hussein are dead, and the American occupation of Iraq has settled into a low-intensity guerrilla war with no announced exit strategy. The national affliction, Adult Attention Deficit Disorder, is in such full force around the topic of the war that the American people don't seem to remember how things came to be the way they are.

To recap: Saddam and Iraq were widely viewed as among the world's worst headaches because of past acts of international aggression, internal genocide and political repression, murder, torture, and weapons mongering. Beginning with the 9/11 attack by a separate unrelated group, al Qaeda, a Bush doctrine emerged which emulated what until then had been a neo-con foreign policy fantasy focused on four points: marginalize the UN, avoid nation-building, avoid peace-keeping, and avoid military action for humanitarian purposes. Failure to follow these principles were among what neo-cons thought to be the sins of President Clinton, who they thought was a liberal.

The Bush administration's agitation for war was, in substantial ways, disingenuous. The UN agreed Saddam was in breach of the conditions that brought an alleged end to Gulf War and they seemed poised to go beyond sanctions to military intervention similar to the last war. But they wanted to exhaust all other remedies first. The United States insisted that Saddam was so close to being able to mobilize weapons of mass destruction (within 45 minutes he could launch a chemical attack) that he had to be stopped immediately, with or without the UN. So the U.S. and its only real ally, Tony Blair, raced to war with solemn statements about how everybody will see that there are WMD all over Iraq when American and Blair forces capture them.

Once the war was under way, there were two primary activities undertaken by the administration and its allies: find WMD and keep criticism about the commitment to nation-building and peace-keeping and even the rationalizations for war under control until the WMD are found.

The administration's best ally is the notorious previously mentioned AADD. For example, few outside of academia will remember the 2003 Iraq war for the credibility meltdown of the American media. Even the stalwart New York Times would suffer a scandal when one of its reporters was found to be filing inaccurate and sometimes fictitious reports, but a far more serious problem was the Times joined the other press "poodles" as disseminators of Pentagon spin stories as fact, especially on the issue of the potential for WMD in Iraq.

Nothing better illustrates what a media enterprise with a glaring lack of interest in responsible reporting can be than Rupert Murdock's Fox Network's coverage of the war. This wasn't a matter of getting the facts wrong, but of reporting that was willfully wrong. It was enough to urge passage of a Truth in Media Reform Act (TMRA) which would require, under penalty of law, that reporters check their sources and that networks like Fox be required to include comments from a public interest (non-profit) media commentator to provide balance.

Here is how the scenario might have looked:

On March 14, Fox Network reports Saddam Hussein has plans to blow up dams causing floods and drowning "coalition" forces. TMRA watchdog Francis Counterpoint interjects on the air: "Dare I mention there's not a single confirmed source for this armchair speculation?" Fox heatedly repeats the prediction.

On March 23 Fox reports that a facility at An Najaf produces chemical weapons. Counterpoint replies: "Didn't the UN weapons inspectors check this out? What did they say?" Within a day, a former UN inspector says they knew about the site and no weapons were ever produced there. But Fox keeps repeating the story a full day after it had been debunked. Counterpoint added: "Gees, don't you guys get embarrassed blathering nonsense?" Apparently not.

The next day, Fox carried a story by Oliver North reporting that the French, who resisted joining the war effort because they were not persuaded by the Bush administration's bogus information campaign about the danger of imminent attack, were shredding documents in their embassy. Counterpoint: "North? His credibility was shredded years ago. How many felons are reporters here, anyway?"

On April 7, Fox breathlessly reports missiles were found near Baghdad containing poison gas. "Got any proof," asks Counterpoint. "Pictures? Affidavits? Eyewitnesses?" Fox quietly abandons this un-story. Turns out there were no missiles. There was no retraction either.

On April 9, Fox joins other news agencies showing images of a crowd toppling Saddam's statue in Baghdad. At last, the grateful crowd of Iraqis cheering American liberators - a favorite pre-war neo-con prediction - had materialized. Or did it? Counterpoint: "Could we get a better shot of the crowd? Looks small." Small indeed.

The next day Fox reports finding a bioweapons lab. Counterpoint: "How do we know it's a lab?" From Fox, no answer.

The next day, to illustrate that Saddam and the French are "embedded," Fox is airing newsclips of a trip by Saddam to Paris in 1975. (That's not a typo.) There were no newsclips of a March 24, 1984 trip by Rumsfeld to Iraq. It was the same day that Saddam's guys used mustard gas and nerve agents against Iranian soldiers. WMD, war crimes and Rumsfeld. That kind of footage might just confuse people.

By April 15, Fox reporter Mansoor Ijaz tells us the top 55 (remember the deck of cards?) in Saddam's regime have fled Iraq and are holed up in Latakia, Syria. Counterpoint: "The Nixon White House had an insurmountable credibility problem, but you should stamp your reporting 'Inoperable at Birth.'" As a matter of fact, no evidence has ever emerged that even one member of the Iraqi regime went to Syria. In time, most of them are captured or killed. On April 22 O'Reilly (of the O'Reilly Factor) warns that if no WMD are found within a month, this could spell big trouble for Bush.

By May 20 the news is full of a scandal involving the details around the rescue of Private Jessica Lynch. The Los Angeles Times and the BBC have reported that the story of a daring and dramatic rescue including gunfire was a fraud. Fox's O'Reilly turns to military "analyst" Colonel David Hunt who assures us the Army would never lie. Hunt: "They're the best soldiers in the world. Why would they make this up?" Counterpoint: "Is it that hard to find an 'analyst' who knows that sometimes people in the Army make up stories. HELLO! Earth to Fox! Anybody there?"

By August 12, the only WMD in sight go to the Fox Network as a prize: Worst Media for Dummies.

John C. Mohawk, Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is an author and professor in the Center for the Americas at the State University of New York at Buffalo. With thanks to Dale Steinreich, "Fibbing it Up at Fox" on from which information about Fox's reporting was gleaned.