Media Propaganda in the War on Iraq: A Critique of U.S. Broadcasting Networks
2003 Iraq war was a major global media event constructed very differently by
varying broadcasting networks in different parts of the world. While the U.S.
networks framed the event as "Operation Iraqi Freedom" (the Pentagon
concept) or "War in Iraq," the Canadian CBC used the logo "War
on Iraq," and various Arab networks presented it as an
"invasion" and "occupation." In this study, I provide
critique of the U.S. broadcasting network construction of the war that I
interpret as providing a conduit for Bush administration and Pentagon
2002 unfolded, the Bush administration intensified its ideological war against
Iraq, advanced its doctrine of preemptive strikes, and provided military
build-up for what now looks like an inevitable war. Whereas the explicit war
aims were to shut down Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction," and thus enforce
UN resolutions which mandated that Iraq eliminate its offensive weapons, there
were many hidden agendas in the Bush administration offensive against Iraq. To
be re-elected Bush needed a major victory and symbolic triumph over terrorism
in order to deflect from the failings of his regime both domestically and in
the realm of foreign policy.
ideologues within the Bush administration wanted to legitimate a policy of
preemptive strikes and a successful attack on Iraq could inaugurate and
normalize this policy. Some of the same militarist unilateralists in the Bush
administration envisage U.S. world hegemony, the elder Bush's "New World
Order," with the U.S. as the reigning military power and world's policeman
(Kellner, 2003b). Increased control of the world's oil supplies provided a
tempting prize for the former oil executives who maintain key roles in the Bush
administration. And, finally, one might note the Oedipus Tex drama, where
George W. Bush's desires to conclude his father's unfinished business and
simultaneously defeat Evil to constitute himself as Good helped drive Bush to
war against Iraq with the fervor of a religious Crusade.
all these agendas in play, a war on Iraq appears to have been inevitable.
Bush's March 6, 2003 press conference made it evident that he was ready to go
to war against Iraq. His handlers told him to speak slowly and keep his big
stick and Texas macho out of view, but he constantly threatened Iraq and evoked
the rhetoric of good and evil that he used to justify his crusade against bin
Laden and Al Qaeda. Bush repeated the words "Saddam Hussein" and
"terrorism" incessantly, mentioning Iraq as a "threat" at least
sixteen times, which he attempted to link with the September 11 attacks and
terrorism. He used the word "I" as in "I believe" countless
times, and talked of "my government" as if he owned it, depicting a
man lost in words and self-importance, positioning himself against the "evil"
that he was preparing to wage war against. Unable to make an intelligent and
objective case for a war against Iraq, Bush could only invoke fear and a
moralistic rhetoric, attempting to present himself as a strong nationalist
rhetoric, like that of fascism, deploys a mistrust and hatred of language,
reducing it to manipulative speechifying, speaking in codes, repeating the same
phrases over and over. This is grounded in anti-intellectualism and hatred of
democracy and intellectuals. It is clearly evident in Bush's press conferences
and snitty responses to questions and general contempt for the whole procedure.
It plays to anti-intellectual proclivities and tendencies in the extreme
conservative and fundamentalist Christian constituencies who support him. It
appears that Bush's press conference was orchestrated to shore up his base and
prepare his supporters for a major political struggle rather then to marshal
arguments to convince those opposed to go to war with Iraq that it was a good
idea. He displayed, against his will, the complete poverty of his case to go to
war against Iraq, he had no convincing arguments, nothing new to communicate,
and just repeated the same tired cliches over and over.
discourse also displayed Orwellian features of Doublespeak where war against
Iraq is for peace, the occupation of Iraq is its liberation, destroying its
food and water supplies enables "humanitarian" action, and where the murder of
countless Iraqis and destruction of the country will produce "freedom" and
"democracy." In a pre-war summit with Tony Blair in the Azores and in his first
talk after the bombing began, Bush went on and on about the "coalition of the
willing" and how many countries were supporting and participating in the
"allied" effort. In fact, however, it was a Coalition of Two, with the U.S. and
UK doing most of the fighting and with many of the countries that Bush claimed
supported his war quickly backtracking and expressing reservations about the
highly unpopular assault that was strongly opposed by most people and countries
in the world.
March 19, the media spectacle of the war against Iraq unfolded with a dramatic
attempt to "decapitate" the Iraqi regime. Large numbers of missiles were aimed
at targets in Baghdad where Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi leadership were
believed to be staying and the tens of thousands of ground troops on the
Kuwait-Iraq border poised for invasion entered Iraq in a blitzkrieg toward
Baghdad. The media followed the Bush
administration and Pentagon slogan of "shock and awe" and presented the war
against Iraq as a great military spectacle, while triumphalism marked the
opening days of the U.S. bombing of Iraq and invasion.
Al Jazeera network live coverage of the bombing of a palace belonging to the
Hussein family was indeed shocking as loud explosions and blasts jolted viewers
throughout the world. Whereas some Western audiences experienced this bombing
positively as a powerful assault on "evil," for Arab audiences it was
experienced as an attack on the body of the Arab and Muslim people, just as the
September 11 terror attacks were experienced by Americans as assaults on the very
body and symbols of the United States. Whereas during Gulf War I, CNN was the
only network live in Baghdad and throughout the war framed the images,
discourses, and spectacle, there were over twenty broadcasting networks in
Baghdad for the 2003 Iraq war, including several Arab networks, and the
different TV companies presented the war quite diversely.
Jazeera and other Arab networks, as well as some European networks, talked of
an "invasion" and an illegal U.S. and British assault on Iraq. While Donald
Rumsfeld bragged that the bombings were the most precise in history and were
aimed at military and not civilian targets, Arab and various global broadcasting
networks focused on civilian casualties and presented painful spectacles of
Iraqis suffering. Moreover, to the surprise of many, after a triumphant march
across the Kuwaiti border and rush to Baghdad, the U.S. and British forces
began to take casualties, and during the weekend of March 22-23, images of
their P.O.W.s and dead bodies of their soldiers were shown throughout the
world. Moreover, the Iraqis began fiercely resisting and rather than cheering
for British and U.S. forces to enter the southern city of Basra, there was
fierce resistance throughout southern Iraq.
after, an immense sandstorm slowed down the march on Baghdad and images of
Iraqi civilians maimed or killed by U.S. and British bombing, accounts of mishaps, stalled and
overextended supply lines, and unexpected dangers to the invading forces
created a tremendously dramatic story. The intensity and immediacy of the
spectacle was multiplied by "embedded reporters" who were accompanying the U.S.
and British forces and who beamed back live pictures, first of the triumphant
blitzkrieg through Iraq and then of the invading forces stalling and subject to
great debate emerged around the embedded reporters and whether journalists who
depended on the protection of the U.S. and British military, lived with the
troops, and signed papers agreeing to a rigorous set of restrictions on their
reporting could be objective and critical of their protectors. From the
beginning, it was clear that the embedded reporters were indeed "in bed with"
their military escorts and as the U.S. and Britain stormed into Iraq, the
reporters presented exultant and triumphant accounts that trumped any paid
propagandist. The embedded U.S. network television reporters were gung ho
cheerleaders and spinners for the U.S. and UK military and lost any veneer of
objectivity. But as the blitzkrieg stalled, a sandstorm hit, and U.S. and
British forces came under attack, the embedded reporters reflected genuine
fear, helped capture the chaos of war, provided often vivid accounts of the
fighting, and occasionally, as I note below, deflated propaganda lies of the
U.S. or U.K. military.
U.S. and British military discourse was exceptionally mendacious, as happens so
often in recent wars that are as much for public opinion and political agendas
as for military goals. British and U.S. sources claimed the first days into
Iraq that the border port of Umm Qasar and major southern city of Basra were
under coalition control, whereas TV images showed quite the opposite. When
things went very bad for U.S. and British forces on March 23, a story
originated from an embedded reporter with the Jerusalem Post that a
"huge" chemical weapons production facility was found, a story allegedly
confirmed by a Pentagon source to the Fox TV military correspondent who quickly
spread it through the U.S. media (BBC was skeptical from the beginning).
U.S. officials denied that they were responsible for major civilian atrocities
in two Baghdad bombings the week of March 24, reporters on the scene described
witnesses to planes flying overhead and in one case found pieces of a missile
with U.S. markings and numbers on it. And after a suicide bombing killed four
U.S. troops at a checkpoint in late March, U.S. soldiers fired on a vehicle
that ran a checkpoint and killed seven civilians. The U.S. military claimed
that it had fired a warning shot, but a Washington Post reporter on the
scene reported that a senior U.S. military official had shouted to a younger
soldier to fire a warning shot first and then yelled that "you [expletive]
killed them" when he failed to do so. Embedded newspaper reporters also often
provided more vivid accounts of "friendly fire" and other mishaps, getting
their information from troops on the ground and on the site, instead of from
military spinners who tended to be propagandists.
the embedded and other reporters on the site provided documentation of the more
raw and brutal aspects of war and telling accounts that often put in question
official versions of the events, as well as propaganda and military spin. But
since their every posting and broadcast was censored by the U.S. military it
was the independent "unilateral" journalists who provided the most accurate
account of the horrors of the war and the Coalition of Two military mishaps.
Thus, on the whole the embedded journalists were largely propagandists who
often outdid the Pentagon and Bush administration in spinning the message of
the U.S. broadcast networks, on the whole, tended to be more embedded in the
Pentagon and Bush administration than the reporters in the field and print
journalists. The military commentators on all networks provided little more
than the Pentagon spin of the moment and often repeated gross lies and
propaganda, as in the examples mentioned above concerning the U.S. bombing of
civilians or the checkpoint shooting of innocents. Entire networks like Fox and
the NBC cable networks provided little but propaganda and one-sided patriotism,
as did, for the most part CNN. All these 24/7 cable networks, as well as the
big three U.S. broadcasting networks, tended to provide highly sanitized views
of the war, rarely showing Iraqi casualties, thus producing a view of the war
totally different than that shown in other parts of the world.
dramatic story of "Saving Private Lynch" was one of the more spectacular human interest
stories of the war that revealed the constructed and spectacle nature of the
event and the ways that the Pentagon constructed mythologies that were
replicated by the TV networks. Private Jessica Lynch was one of the first
American POWs shown on Iraqi TV and since she was young, female, and attractive
her fate became a topic of intense interest. Stories circulated that she was
shot and stabbed and was tortured by Iraqis holding her in captivity.
Eight days after her capture, the U.S. media broadcast footage of her dramatic
rescue, obviously staged like a reality TV spectacle. Soldiers stormed the
hospital, found Lynch, and claimed a dramatic rescue under fire from Iraqis. In
fact, several media institutions interviewed the doctors in the hospital who
claimed that Iraqi troops had left the hospital two days before, that the
hospital staff had tried to take Jessica to the Americans but they fired on
them, and that in the "rescue" the U.S. troops shot through the doors,
terrorized doctors and patients, and created a dangerous scene that could have
resulted in deaths, simply to get some dramatic rescue footage for TV
Fox network was especially gung ho, militarist and aggressive, yet Fox footage
shown on April 5-6 of the daring U.S. incursion into Baghdad displayed a road
strewn with destroyed Iraqi vehicles, burning buildings, and Iraqi corpses.
This live footage, replayed for days, caught something of the carnage of the
hi-tech slaughter and destruction of Iraq that the U.S. networks tended to
neglect. And an Oliver North commentary to footage of a U.S. warplane blasting
away one Iraqi tank and armored vehicle after another put on display the
hi-tech massacre of a completely asymmetrical war in which the Iraqi military
had no chance whatsoever against the U.S. war machine.
military commanders claimed that in the initial foray into Baghdad 2,000-3,000
Iraqis were killed suggesting that the broadcasting networks were not really
showing the brutality and carnage of the war. Indeed, most of the bombing of
Iraqi military forces was invisible and dead Iraqis were rarely shown. An
embedded CNN reporter, Walter Rogers, later recounted that the one time his
report showed a dead Iraqi the CNN switchboard "lit up like a Christmas tree"
with angry viewers demanding that CNN not show any dead bodies, as if the U.S.
audience wanted to be in denial concerning the human costs of the war.
April 6 interview on Fox with Forbes magazine publisher and former
presidential candidate Steve Forbes made it clear that the U.S. intended to get
all the contracts on rebuilding Iraq for American firms, that Iraqi debts held
by French and Russians should be cancelled, and that to the victors would go
all the spoils of war. Such discourse put on display the arrogance and greed
that drove the U.S. effort and subverted all idealistic rhetoric about
democracy and freedom for the Iraqis. The very brutality of Fox war pornography
graphically displayed the horrors of war and the militarist, gloating, and
barbaric discourse that accompanied the slaughter of Iraqis and destruction of
the country showed the New Barbarism that characterized the Bush era.
American broadcasting networks with the BBC, Canadian, and other outlets as I
did during the opening weeks of the U.S. war against Iraq, showed two different
wars being presented. The U.S. networks tended to ignore Iraqi casualties, Arab
outrage about the war, global antiwar and anti-U.S. protests, and the negative
features of the war, while the BBC and Canadian CBC often featured these more
critical themes. As noted, the war was framed very differently by various
countries and networks, while analysts noted that in Arab countries the war was
presented as an invasion of Iraq, slaughter of its peoples, and destruction of
the whole, U.S. broadcasting networks tended to present a sanitized view of the
war while Canadian, British and other European, and Arab broadcasting presented
copious images of civilian casualties and the horrors of war. U.S. television coverage
tended toward pro-military patriotism, propaganda, and technological fetishism,
celebrating the weapons of war and military humanism, highlighting the
achievements and heroism of the U.S. troops. Other global broadcasting
networks, however, were highly critical of the U.S. and U.K. military and often
presented highly negative spectacles of the assault on Iraq and the shock and
awe hi-tech massacre.
a sense, the U.S. and UK war on Iraq found itself in a double bind. The more
thoroughly they annihilated Iraqi troops and conquered the country, the more
aggressive, bullying, and imperialist they would appear to the rest of the
world. Yet the dramatic pictures of civilian casualties and harrowing images of
U.S. bombing and destruction of Iraq made it imperative to end the war as soon
as possible. An apparently failed attempt to kill Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi
leadership on April 7th, destroyed a civilian area and killed a
number of people, followed by the killing of journalists in two separate
episodes by the U.S. military on April 8, produced an extremely negative media
spectacle of the war on Iraq. But the apparent collapse of the Iraqi regime on
April 9, where for the first time there were significant images of Iraqis
celebrating the demise of Hussein, provided the material for a spectacle of
the destruction of a statue of Saddam Hussein on live global television
provided precisely the images desired by the Pentagon and Bush administration.
Closer analysis of this spectacle revealed, however, that rather than
displaying a mass uprising of Iraqis against the Baath regime, there were
relatively few people assaulting the Hussein statue. Analysis of the pictures
in the square revealed that there was only a relatively small crowd around the
statue of Saddam Hussein while most of the square was empty. Those attacking
the statue were largely members of the U.S.-supported Iraqi National Congress,
one of whose members shown in the crowd attempted to pass himself off as the
"mayor" of Baghdad, until U.S. military forces restrained him. Moreover, the
few Iraqis attacking the statue were unable to destroy it, until some U.S.
soldiers on the scene used their tank and cable to pull it down. In a semiotic
slip, one soldier briefly put a U.S. flag on top of Hussein's head, providing
an iconic image for Arab networks and others of a U.S. occupation and take-over
images of looting, anarchy and chaos throughout Iraq, however, including the
looting of the National Museum, the National Archive that contained rare books
and historical documents, and the Ministry for Religious Affairs, which
contained rare religious material, created extremely negative impressions.
Likewise, growing Iraqi demonstrations over the U.S. occupation and continued
violence throughout the country put on view a highly uncertain situation in
which the spectacle of victory and the triumph of Bush administration and
Pentagon policy might be put into question, domestically as well as globally.
weeks after the fall of the Iraqi regime negative images continued to circulate
of clashes between Iraqis and the U.S. forces, gigantic Shia demonstrations and
celebrations that produced the specter of the growing of radical Islamic power
in the region, and the continued failure to produce security and stability. The
spectacle of Shia on the march and taking over power in many regions of the
country created worries that "democracy" in Iraqi could produce religious
fundamentalist regimes. This negative spectacle suggests the limitations of a
politics of the spectacle that can backfire, spiral out of control, and
generate unintended consequences.
in Gulf War I, the Iraqi flight from its occupation of Kuwait and apparent
military defeat of the Iraqi regime was followed by images of Shi'ite and
Kurdish uprisings and their violent suppression by the Saddam Hussein regime,
ultimately coding the Gulf War as ambiguous and contributing to George H.W.
Bush's defeat in 1992. Likewise, while the September 11 terror attacks on the U.S.
by the Al Qaeda network appeared to be a triumph of the Islamic radicals,
worldwide revulsion against the attacks and the global and multilateral
attempts to close down its networks ultimately appear to have seriously
weakened the Al Qaeda forces. Politics of the spectacle are thus highly
ambiguous and unstable, subject to multiple interpretations, and generate
ambiguous and often unanticipated effects, as when the Republican attempts to
use Bill Clinton's sexual escapades to promote his impeachment backfired and
created sympathy and support for him.
spectacles can backfire and are subject to dialectical reversal as positive
images give way to negative ones. Spectacles of war are difficult to control
and manage, and can be subject to different framings and interpretations, as
when non-U.S. broadcasting networks focus on civilian casualties, looting and
chaos, and U.S. military crimes against Iraqis rather than the U.S. victory and
the evils of Saddam Hussein. It is obviously too soon to determine the effects
of Bush Junior's Iraq war but the consequences are likely to be complex and
unforeseen, thus rendering claims that the adventure represents a great victory
premature and possibly quite erroneous.
Douglas (1992) The Persian Gulf TV War. Boulder, Co.: Westview Press.
(2003a) Media Spectacle. London and New York: Routledge.
(2003b) From 9/11 to Terror War: Dangers of the Bush Legacy. Boulder,
Co.: Rowman and Littlefield.
 On May 29, 2003, CBS News
reported that no bunker, bodies, or evidence that Saddam Hussein or his family
was at the site bombed the opening night of the war was found.
 Soon after, British and then U.S.
military sources affirmed that the site was not a chemical weapons production
or storage facility. For a critique of a series of "smoking gun" discoveries of
weapons of mass destruction facilities and their subsequent debunking, see Jake
Tapper, "WMD, MIA?" Salon (April 16, 2003) and "Angry Allies" Salon
(May 30, 2003).
 On the Baghdad bombings, see the
reporting of Robert Fisk in the London Independent and for the story
that questioned official U.S. military accounts of the checking shootings of a
civilian family, see William Branigin, "A Gruesome Scene on Highway 9," Washington
Post (April 1, 2003).
 A Washington Post April 3 story
headlined "She was fighting to her death" based on unnamed military sources
claimed that Lynch "continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained
multiple gunshot wounds," and claimed that she was also stabbed by Iraqis
who captured her. In fact, Lynch's vehicle took a wrong turn, overturned, and
she was hurt in the accident not fighting Iraqis.
 See Mitch Potter, "The real Saving Pte.
Lynch," Toronto Star (May 5, 2003); the Associated Press also
confirmed this story, as did the BBC on May 15 and CBS News on May 29.
 Rogers was interviewed on Howard Kurtz's
poorly named CNN media review "Reliable Sources" on April 27, 2003.
 For systematic analysis of the New
Barbarism accompanying and in part generated by the Bush administration and
their hardright supporters, see Kellner, 2003b. See also Jim Rutenberg,
"Cable's War Coverage Suggests a New Fox Effect' on Television" (New York
Times, April 16, 2003). Rutenberg provides examples of Fox's aggressively
opinionated and biased discourse, as when anchor Neil Cavuto said of those who
oppose the war on Iraq: "You were sickening then, you are sickening now."
Fox's high ratings during the war influenced CNN and the NBC networks to be
more patriotic and dismissive of those who criticized the war and its
 Evidently, the museum community thought
it had an understanding with the US military of the need to preserve Iraqi
national treasures which were allowed by the US military to be looted and
destroyed while they protected the Petroleum Ministry; see
On the looting of the Ministry for Religious Affairs, see http://www.nytimes.com/2003/04/16/international/worldspecial/16BAGH.html?pagewanted=print&position=. Later reports indicated that some of the museum
artifacts believed destroyed were hidden, but there were also reports of continued
Iraqi archaeological sites throughout the country that were not protected by
the U.S.; see Edmund L. Andrews, "Iraqi Looters Tearing Up Archaeological
Sites," New York Times (May 23, 2003).