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Honesty: The Worst Policy

Honesty: The Worst Policy
When Telling The Truth Will Get You Fired From The Networks

by Doug Ireland
  
When NBC -- which is owned by General Electric, a prime military-industrial complex contractor -- decided to fire Peter Arnett for the thought crime of plain speaking, it was undoubtedly responding both to pressure from the White House (which accused Arnett of "pandering" to the Iraqis) and to the imperatives of its MSNBC ratings chase against the gung-ho, pro-war frothers of Fox News.

What provoked Arnett's defenestration? In an interview he accorded on Sunday to Iraqi television (which an MSNBC spokesperson initially described as a "professional courtesy"), Arnett allowed as how media reports of civilian casualties in Iraq "help" the "growing challenge to President Bush about the conduct of the war and also opposition to the war. The first war plan has failed because of Iraqi resistance. Now they are trying to write another plan."

Of course, these are rather commonsense observations of the sort that can be read daily in the pages of our newspapers, and which even find their way onto U.S. television. Yet when NBC snatched the mic from Arnett's hands, on Monday morning CNN 's Jeff Greenfield rushed to endorse the veteran war correspondent's firing. Greenfield dismissed the notion of an anti-war movement whose challenge was "growing" -- as if the millions who have taken to the streets of major U.S. cities and the some 5,000 American civil disobedients who have so far been voluntarily arrested in "die-ins" and other nonviolent forms of political action -- part of the rising crescendo of protest on a scale not seen since the Vietnam war -- were not energized by the heart-rending accounts of civilians shredded by American bombs and bullets in an unnecessary and obtusely-run war.

Greenfield accused Arnett of pro-Iraqi "propaganda." Well, Jeff, one should never judge a book by its reader -- and Arnett's matter-of-fact account of the effects of reports on civilian casualties revealed nothing not already known to your average news consumer, both here and abroad. Take Dexter Filkins' dispatch in the March 29 edition of The New York Times:

At the base camp of the Fifth Marine Regiment here, two sharpshooters, Sgt. Eric Schrumpf, 28, and Cpl. Mikael McIntosh, 20, sat on a sand berm and swapped combat tales. The marines said they had little trouble dispatching their foes, most of whom they characterized as ill-trained and cowardly. "We had a great day," Sergeant Schrumpf said. "We killed a lot of people.... We dropped a few civilians," Sergeant Schrumpf said, "but what do you do?" [In one incident], he recalled watching one of the women standing near the Iraqi soldier go down. "I'm sorry," the sergeant said. "But the chick was in the way."
The firing of Arnett is just one more example of the way in which the White House and Pentagon propaganda machines are trying to stifle independent reporting. Take the following account from Newsday, the respected large-circulation newspaper on Long Island, on how four reporters were arrested by American soldiers and expelled from the country after a harrowing period of custody in which they said they were mistreated and accused of being Iraqi spies.

The reporters -- Boaz Bismuth of the Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot, Dan Scemama of Israel's Channel One television, and Luis Castro and Victor Silva of Radio Televisao Portuguesa -- had been traveling independently of the Army when they were detained at gunpoint on March 25, 62 miles from Baghdad. "It was really unpleasant," Bismuth was quoted as saying on one of Israel's main Hebrew-language news Web sites. "The Americans don't want the independent journalists in Iraq."

The need for reporting by newsgatherers like these who are not "embedded" in the invasion is all the greater because U.S. television has been largely a megaphone for the invaders.

The homegrown TV nets have been oh-so-reluctant about showing to the American public the footage of civilian casualties which the rest of the world sees daily. Well, I'll give you a salient fact that you don't hear from the little screen's unquestioning American anchors: Baghdad is a city of children, for half of its population are kids under 15. Let me repeat: half of the 5 million-plus people in the city to which we are now laying siege are children. And they are dying, often unremarked. Like 14-year-old Arkan Daif, a boy who was "like a flower," as his father told The Washington Post' s Anthony Shadid. In a moving March 31 report, Shadid noted that that this boy, and the pair of cousins (both minors) killed with him, were buried in a "funeral [that] went unnoticed by a government that has eagerly escorted journalists to other wartime tragedies. Instead, Daif and his two cousins were buried in the solitude of a dirt-poor, Shiite Muslim neighborhood near the city limits." And how many more Arkan Daifs are dying anonymously in the eight other large Iraqi cities now encircled -- and about to be assaulted -- by the U.S./British invaders? We do not know, because there are hardly any reporters there. But the Iraqi civilians know.

War in the streets of the city of children that is Baghdad is "too awful to contemplate," as The Times of London's excellent Simon Jenkins pointed out in a must-read March 28 piece entitled "Baghdad will be near impossible to conquer." Jenkins sobering analysis of the urban warfare to come underscores why the American forces have been greeted not with welcoming smiles but with fear, distrust, bullets and suicide bombs: "Baghdad is not Kuwait or the Falklands. The captive Iraqi boy who was asked why he fought so overwhelming a foe merely muttered, 'It's my country.' The answer was worth a dozen Tomahawks."

(Speaking of the insistence by Rummy and the parroting CENTCOM briefers on the "precision" of our weapons, it now appears that those thousands of Tomahawks we've been firing from our ships in the Persian Gulf have been plopping down all over the place in Saudi Arabia, our "ally" -- to such an extent that the Saudis asked us to stop launching them until we could find out why. Asked about this on Sunday, the happy-face CENTCOM spokesman finally acknowledged a structural failure in the Tomahawk's guidance system, and said the Navy was "working on it quite a bit." Just a bit late for the civilians who've been the missile's unintended victims, wouldn't you think? And the rather startling admission didn't make American TV's summaries of the press conference.)

To comprehend why Iraqis who have little love for Saddam have no confidence in America's promises that this a "war for democracy," it is necessary to understand the history of U.S. relations in Iraq and the region for the last decade and a half -- neatly traced in a superb, heavily documented article by University of Richmond history professor Robert Blecher for the Middle East Report Online (Blecher also rightly calls attention to how "the drive to war could not have succeeded" without the assistance of establishment intellectuals and journalists like Fouad Ajami, Bernard Lewis and The New York Times' Tom Friedman).

And, as if to confirm the worst fears of the hapless Iraqis and their Arab neighbors, Bush has now named as the future military governor of Iraq a retired general named Jay Garner. The Observer on Sunday's Oliver Morgan revealed that the military-industrial company Garner has worked for until now, missiles systems contractor SY Coleman, has been making a lot of money from the technology used in the war on Iraq -- and has both financial ties to the Israeli military and political ties to the Israeli right as well. Sponsored by the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Perle cabal of hawks with whom he is closely linked, Garner is just one more hugely important reason why the American anti-war movement must insist that post-war Iraq be administered by the United Nations. And the fact that it was a British paper which uncovered the political significance of his background ought to shame the American news honchos who failed to assign someone to do so.

But, as the French man of letters Paul Valery once wrote, "Politics is the art of making people indifferent to what should concern them." And that's also the meaning of the firing of Peter Arnett.

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