Media coverage of the February 1998 showdown with Iraq highlighted subtle but significant changes in the relationship between the mainstream media and US foreign policymaking. Although the major media — despite some alleged soul searching by media professionals [1] after the Gulf war — have changed little since the pro-war hysteria of 1991, activists are discovering more ways to obstruct the media juggernaut and influence policymaking — sometimes by actually using the mass media.

Three Dead in Ohio

A prime example of activists’ use of the media to critique and influence US foreign policy — and one of the most stunning media events in recent memory — was the “town hall meeting” at Ohio State University transmitted live by CNN on February 18. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Defense Secretary William Cohen and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger fielded questions from citizens that they rarely hear from the Washington press corps. The Ohio State activists’ questions underscored the subservience of the mainstream media to US foreign policy in the Middle East. Who could imagine Ted Koppel asking a high administration official whether “the US has the moral right to attack the Iraqi nation?” Or Dan Rather asking: “If nobody is asking us for help, how can you justify further US aggression?” Or Peter Jennings wondering aloud whether the US should be “responsible for making financial reparations to Iraq?” Or Jim Lehrer questioning “why bomb Iraq when other countries have committed similar violations?” — then following up with a pointed observation: “You’re not answering my question, Madame Albright!” None of these queries — all posed during the Ohio State town meeting — employ the language of contemporary mainstream journalism.

Jon Strange, the student who told Secretary Albright that she had not answered his question, recounts how the media/policy machine had stacked the odds against the activists’ success:

Two types of tickets were issued: Approximately 1,000 red tickets were given to Ohio State University faculty, ROTC cadets, veterans, other military personnel and local politicians. Approximately 5,000 white tickets were made publicly available. Though the town hall meeting was billed as a democratic forum, only red-ticket holders were permitted to pose their questions to the panel…. White-ticket holders were excluded from the microphone, and therefore, from public discourse…. It’s important to explain that we only chose rude and disruptive behavior because we had no other choice…. After we explained to [a CNN producer] that we had no voice in the town hall meeting unless we took it ourselves, she offered a bargain we couldn’t refuse. She told us that we could send someone down to ask a question at the microphone if, in exchange, we would quiet down. Since I had a list of prepared questions…and since I was wearing a tie, I was the perfect candidate for CNN’s pretty TV picture needs. [2]

Troubled by the sudden eruption of participatory democracy in Columbus, much of the media denounced the event as a “disaster.” [3] Others insisted that the event simply illustrated what America is all about — free speech and democracy — all the while barely hiding their distress that such a fiasco had happened.

Media Morality

On January 21, 1998, some papers ran small articles about a letter 54 US bishops had sent to President Clinton expressing their profound moral concerns about the US-led sanctions against the people of Iraq. [4] Later that day, however, the Monica Lewinsky story broke, proving that the media know a real morality tale when they see one. While journalists scrutinized every utterance of government officials concerning the intern sex scandal, they scarcely raised a serious question about the military buildup in the Gulf, despite the irony of administration claims to be working tirelessly for “Mideast peace” while preparing to launch deadly missiles. The media became watchdogs — occasionally even attack dogs — concerning Clinton’s personal life while remaining lap dogs with respect to his Iraq policy. Any moral questions raised by the possible killing of thousands of Iraqi children paled in comparison to the issues raised by the Lewinsky affair.

It is possible that the international media, including an effective and functioning Arab press (if it existed), could ask US leaders tough questions, thereby influencing domestic and foreign policy making. Independent national and international media, utilizing the skills of several full-time reporters, could actually change the course of events, particularly if reporters consistently asked thought-provoking critical questions at news conferences carried live by C-Span. Given the trivial nature of much press coverage and the persistent focus on scandal, the public would probably welcome substantial questions about policy issues.

Unfortunately, the current media present a very different picture. Major US media outlets sometime resort to lies in depicting the Middle East. The New York Times’ Doug Jehl and Serge Schmemann, dismissing the contention that the US applies a double standard concerning Security Council resolutions directed at Iraq and Israel, wrote that “the parallel is untenable, not least because Israel is not demonstrably in violation of Security Council decrees. But the theme played loudly in Palestinian demonstrations and elsewhere in the Arab world.” [5]

Apparently not loudly enough. Letters to several editors and columnists at the Times quoting from some of the UN Security Council Resolutions that Israel has violated (e.g., 509 and 465) yielded neither a retraction nor a response. [6] In fact, the New York Times rejected every op-ed piece submitted by Arabs and Arab Americans during the entire crisis. [7] Anthony Lewis, an occasional bastion of sanity at the Times, sat out the entire affair, not writing the word “Iraq” once during the first six months of 1998. [8]

Litany of Lunacy

As the US was gearing up for war in February 1998, renewed interest in Iraqi deaths was evident on “60 Minutes” and elsewhere — not deaths resulting from US-led sanctions, but deaths caused by Saddam Hussein’s gassing of the Kurds a decade previous. Inside the media fun house, the fact that Saddam Hussein killed his own people seemed to give the US carte blanche to finish off the rest. As if the blood-soaked record of the Iraqi regime was not bad enough, a long litany of supposed “threats” by the Iraqi regime was trotted out to justify an imminent US attack against Iraq.

Just because the Iraqi regime makes a claim does not mean it is automatically false. A stream of dubious allegations about human experimentation by the Iraqi regime flooded the airwaves, particularly on NBC news. [9] These recalled the fabricated 1990 story about Iraqi soldiers brutally removing Kuwaiti babies from their incubators during the invasion of Kuwait. Iraq denied that this heinous act had ever occurred. Although it subsequently became clear that it never had, the damage had already been done.

Another improbable tale was that Iraq had stored weapons of mass destruction in other Arab countries. [10] The source for this suspect story, doubted even by the White House, was the House Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, set up by a small group of right-wing Republicans and directed by Yossef Bodansky, a native Israeli with an Arab and Muslim-bashing record. After the fact, the story and its source were scrutinized by Washington Jewish Week, which reported that Bodansky’s claims lacked “verifiable substantiation and logic.” [11]

“100-Hour War”

Other than a few marginal and typically underplayed stories on the sanctions, the only time Iraqis were visible in the media was when they “congregated” at Hussein’s “palaces.” When the possibility of Iraqi casualties was brought up, the word “propaganda” was usually sure to follow. The term “propaganda” itself became an instrument of propaganda. Charles Krauthammer denounced the Clinton administration’s “absurd pinpricks — e.g., bombing an empty building at night,” [12] apparently indicating that he prefers that the US bomb buildings when they are full of people at high noon. Krauthammer’s colleague, Jim Hoagland, wrote that “except for the 100 hours of Desert Storm in 1991, the US and its allies have treated Saddam’s regime as an acceptable evil.” [13] The following day, Richard Cohen echoed this view: “The war lasted, you will recall, just 100 hours,” [14] joining Hoagland in the falsification of history and the minimization of pain inflicted by the US on the Iraqi people. Forgotten were the nearly 40 days and 40 nights that the US rained down 80,000 tons of explosives on Iraq — more than all the conventional bombing of Europe in World War II.

There was so little media attention to the effects of the sanctions on the Iraqi people that at times they were literally forgotten. When it seemed that US strikes were unlikely, Jonathan Alter of Newsweek moaned that the US was doing “nothing” against Iraq. The genius of the Ohio State chant, “1-2-3-4! We Don’t Want Your Racist War!”, was that it drew attention to the anti-Arab racist undercurrent in US policy and media coverage.

There was a distinct lack of curiosity about the actual impact of the sanctions. The little reporting on offer was low-key. Few reports cited UNICEF’s estimate that 4,500 Iraqi children were dying every month as a result of the sanctions. [15] In contrast, nearly every pronouncement of the US government was taken at face value by the major media. The suggestion that US policy was murderous to the people of Iraq was frequently refuted by the comment that this accusation was tantamount to a defense of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The pro-war crowd thus bought into the very same flawed logic — confusing leader and country — that has kept Saddam Hussein in power for so long.

In spite of the aforementioned deficiencies in US media coverage of events in the Gulf, it is clear that there has been some change since 1990-1991. The media regularly featured “experts” from predictable think tanks, such as the pro-Israel Washington Institute on Near East Policy, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Brookings Institute. With three all-news networks competing for viewers, however, there is now a wider “market” for genuine debate on MSNBC and the Fox News Channel, allowing critics of US policy (this writer included) to call on the political establishment to “drop the sanctions, not the bombs.” Yet the occasional dissenter could make little impact given the packaging of TV news. The rare discussion of the devastating human impact of the sanctions was likely to be accompanied by images of Saddam Hussein wielding a sword, not pictures of emaciated Iraqi children.

Effective Activism

A key difference this time around was the Internet. Organizations and activists were able to respond quickly to events as they developed, distributing action alerts and talking points, analyzing policies and disseminating useful articles, frequently culled from the foreign press. In addition, anti-war activists were keen to succeed in 1998 where they had failed in 1991. Substantial spontaneous protests took place throughout the country during the height of the crisis. [16] Some 3,000 protesters in Washington demonstrated wit and a depth of popular analysis rarely seen, such as the lively performance of the “Wag-the-Dog Precision Drill Team,” featuring a 20-foot cardboard dog and chants of “No Blood for Monica.”

Opportunities for media activism in Washington were particularly rich. A vocal group of activists protested in front of network news studios each Sunday morning as Secretaries Cohen and Albright arrived to deliver sound bites on “This Week” and other mainstream news programs. Activists were able to confront administration officials as they attempted to use the media to disseminate the administration’s message, publicly challenging them at the starting point of the disinformation lifeline. Protesters effectively denied administration officials an opportunity to make comments to reporters staked out in front of the studios. On separate occasions, Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts noted, on air, the presence of anti-war protesters outside their studios. After one such Sunday morning, a protester recalled that the church Clinton regularly attends was nearby, so the protesters quickly relocated to greet the president after the service. Their chanting could be heard inside the church. A resulting AP story began with the observation that “while a preacher was inside urging President Clinton to face up to ’the bullies of the world‘, about two dozen people stood outside the Foundry Methodist Church on Sunday and reminded the president…’Hey Mr. Bill, thou shalt not kill‘.”

Lessons Learned

Most journalists prefer to report on real stories, not the concoctions of spin doctors and media consultants. Struggling against deadlines and enjoying little room for maneuver, they are eager to present a compelling and nuanced story to the public if they can obtain the facts and background quickly. Activists protesting US foreign policy should help journalists do the right thing. As Jon Strange, one of the questioners at Ohio State, noted:

After the town hall meeting, I realized that the debate between working within the system [or] outside of [it] is moot. You have to do both. I learned that it’s important to do what you can, and to use all the resources and tactics available. Make allies and use them, from professors to riot grrrls to skinny white kids willing to wear a tie, because each of these voices can say things that the others cannot, and be heard in ways that others cannot…. Make the media think that they’re using you, and use as many tactics as you can. One of them is bound to work. [17]


[1] For example, Anthony Lewis of the New York Times on May 6, 1991, well after the war, denounced the press as “a claque applauding the American generals and politicians in charge.” Also, Washington editors of major news outlets wrote a letter to Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney complaining that they had been used by the Pentagon. For further details about coverage of the Gulf war and its aftermath, see Jim Naureckas and Janine Jackson, eds., The FAIR Reader (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996).
[2] From MaximumRockNRoll, April 1998, reprinted in Z Magazine, May 1998.
[3] See Niel Demause, “No Way to Sell a War,” Extra (May/June 1998).
[4] “Bishops Criticize Embargo against Iraq as Immoral,” The [Florida] Times-Picayune, January 21, 1998.
[5] New York Times, February 27, 1998.
[6] Charles Glass, “The Art of Hypocrisy: Biased Position of the UN on Iraq,” The New Statesman, March 13, 1998.
[7] I submitted an article, which was rejected by the New York Times. (It later appeared in Newsday and other papers.) A few weeks later, upon discovering that the New York Times had not run a single piece by an Arab or an Arab American, I called to complain: “Are we going to go to war with an Arab country without the Times publishing a single piece by an Arab or Arab American? Is this the ’diversity‘ of your opinion pages?” They responded that they would be happy to look at a piece, so I wrote another one. It, too, was rejected. When I concluded, “So, we will go to war with an Arab country without the Times publishing a single piece by an Arab or Arab American,” I was told that I sounded like I was upset that I hadn’t “cracked their pages.”
[8] In fairness, Bob Herbert of the Times did write two pieces condemning both Iraqi and US government policies (February 19, 1998 and February 22, 1998).
[9] NBC News, January 14, 1998. Tom Brokaw amplified allegations made by US UNSCOM inspector Scott Ritter: “Is it possible that just three years ago he [Saddam Hussein] was using live humans to test his biological and chemical weapons arsenal? This is at the heart of this latest showdown in Iraq, and NBC’s David Bloom at the White House was the first to uncover the unsettling suspicions of the UN team.’
[10] It was also carried by the New York Times, February 16, 1998. The Times did run a correction the following day — noting that they had misspelled Yossef Bodansky’s name.
[11] Washington Jewish Week, cited in a Council on American Islamic Relations Press Release, March 17, 1998. CAIR notes that Bodansky had accused Iran of involvement in the 1996 crash of TWA 800 and the 1993 shootings outside CIA headquarters in Virginia.
[12] Washington Post, November 28, 1997.
[13] Washington Post, November 5, 1997.
[14] Washington Post, November 16, 1997.
[15] A host of UN reports are listed at
[16] “A New Peace Movement: Demonstrations Made US Reconsider Bombing Iraq in February 1998,” The Progressive, April 1998.
[17] Jon Strange, quoted in Z Magazine (May 1998).

How to cite this article:

Sam Husseini "Short-Circuiting the Media/Policy Machine," Middle East Report 208 (Fall 1998).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This