And now they're poised to do it again. A journalist reflects on the dangerous disinformation of wartime reporting, and the threat of history repeating itself.
It was March 2003 when I got the call. “The war has started,” my boss said. “You’d better come back in.” I had just arrived home and fallen asleep, but we had known that this was coming for some time. All hands were expected to be on deck. So I sleepily got up, took a shower, and drove back to work. The push to Baghdad had begun, and the network I worked for was running with it. I had tried to stop it. I failed.
But let me back up first, to the days and weeks leading up to the conflict, during which we were pummeled with a long, overwhelming, disorienting stream of information and disinformation. We were already exhausted, especially those of us who were junior members of the network’s staff. Back then, I was among the most junior: 26 years old, restless and idealistic, a radio anchor who wanted to be a reporter and change the world.
A mere 18 months earlier, the September 11, 2001 attacks had shattered the self-satisfaction of a country that had thought its place at the very top of the global power structure was secure, and shocked Americans, who had never experienced such visible and destructive attack on American soil nor even considered it possible. We were terrified of what was to come. Instead, we received unprecedented solidarity and sympathy from the world after that day, which could have been used as a foundation to build a lasting diplomatic framework for peace. Instead, American political leaders quickly shredded that goodwill in the name of “security.”
Lies and corrosive rhetoric ruled the day; almost immediately after the planes hit the World Trade Center buildings, propaganda was used to weaponize the justifiable fear and grief felt by Americans and our allies. Comments from hawks like Newt Gingrich and Dick Cheney appeared daily in respected publications and serious interviews on broadcast networks to cheer on the bombs, which were then whitewashed by Rush Limbaugh and other talk-show hosts. Ari Fletcher, then a spokesman for George W. Bush’s administration, held regular press briefings where he openly sneered at reporters on live television and rolled his eyes at questions he judged to be too peacenik to ask as he lied to the nation through his veneered teeth. Disgraced New York Times reporter Judith Miller, now a darling of Fox News “analyses,” broke a shocking story about weapons of mass destruction that we now know was completely false.
It’s difficult to accurately evoke the repressive atmosphere around the topic of Iraq for those who did not live through it. To criticize the war was to be labeled unpatriotic or un-American— you were relentlessly smeared and mocked. The rhetoric filtered through to the micro-level, dividing and breaking apart friendships, marriages, good working relationships, poisoning even the most casual conversations.
But what especially frightened me was how quickly the nation’s pundits pivoted to get behind a war based on false intelligence and dragged the rest of us along behind them, because we were expected to incorporate what these important newsmakers were saying into our stories.
That’s when things got really strange. We knew the 9/11 hijackers were mostly from Saudi Arabia. Yet despite this, somehow, suddenly, Iraq was being fingered as the culprit to make the case for war. But making the distinction between the two nations was suddenly a political statement. Everything else unspooled from there until it felt like those of us who cleaved to facts were existing in an alternate universe.
Once I thought about it, I realized what was happening. In 1991, Operation Desert Storm had come and gone so quickly and with so little cost to the United States that many Americans had regarded the Gulf War as an “easy” war, a “good” war, even a just and merciful war that started and ended cleanly and surgically. (Now I know what a lie that was, and how these lies have been used against the public to great effect time and again; but back then I was just a child in California, in a city that could not have been more removed from the conflict, and perceived everything through that lens.)
But that was the line we were fed and the line that we swallowed, and if the television networks knew anything at all, it was that it was really great for ratings. Plus, technology had come far enough along that networks could do something completely unprecedented: broadcast conflict scenes live through videophones. They bought up this new technology in anticipation of the war and were not inclined to let them go unused.
So I decided to try to do what I could, as a low-grade anchor, before the war began. I thought that I could stop it, that if I just brought the proper arguments and evidence, that people would understand. I took stories to the national and international desks at my network. I escalated my requests and concerns as much as I could. I earned myself nicknames: The Mouth. The Voice. I chafed against my colleagues. I made scenes. I broke stories.
And then something even more curious began to emerge: I noticed a pattern. I’d get blown off by producers when I’d bring a story to the national desk that I thought might help Americans understand what they were not seeing: the historically huge anti-war protests in nearly every major American city that barely got airtime; or the strange story of British weapons expert David Kelly who called the intelligence reports about Saddam Hussein’s purported weapons of mass destruction “sexed up,” and after he was outed as BBC’s government source, purportedly slit his own wrists following a walk in the dead of night, with no witnesses. Or the fact that the United States was spying on—and snubbing—allies who’d refused to support the war, in an apparent attempt to intimidate or blackmail them into diplomatic compliance. Editors would repeatedly tell me, sometimes with an incredulous laugh, dismissing me as if I were naïve: “There’s no general interest in this.”
Those of us who were not covering the violence, but watching the feeds back home, discovered a new, hideous form of secondary trauma: We watched civilians and soldiers and contractors die violent and graphic deaths live, by videophone, helpless to do anything at all—who could we call? how could we help?—and these scenes were then looped over and over again for affiliates. We could not change the channel. We could not turn it off. We could only lower our eyes as we saw it starting again. But we already knew what would happen.
In the end, none of it mattered. We got into an endless quagmire of a war. I got a call from my boss. I went in. I worked. I went home. I drank, and drank, and drank some more. I watched my friends go off to war, get blown up, return in physical and emotional bits and pieces, if they returned at all. I spoke to them about it if they would let me, but many would not speak to me, the traitor, at all. They knew where I stood, and I stood nearly alone. And amid all of this, I watched the rhetoric’s dark bloom as it overwhelmed the anti-war movements, the calls for diplomacy and democracy, and metastasized into the conflicts we are still deeply embedded in today, as we all knew it would.
Every conversation became a virtual minefield, every bar a battleground. “What do you do?” people would ask me, and eventually I started to lie because journalists had been so smeared by that point that it was easier to say I was an accountant, or a baker, or had no job at all. Many of us media people did, if we went anywhere at all, which further isolated us.
But we news people didn’t talk about it, because to admit that we were traumatized by battlefields that we were nowhere near and to criticize rhetoric and propaganda in which we were complicit every day was too much to bear, and while I had the will to be one of a very few dissident voices among my peers and colleagues, I was unable to admit what I saw as a terrible personal failing. It is only now, in January 2020, that we are finally beginning to talk about how it profoundly affected us. Many from my former cohort no longer even work in news. A few drank themselves to death. Some just got cynical about “the masses” and sold out.
Here is what we must learn so that we can escape the death waltz into still more warmongering. Here is how journalists can show that we have learned from our nation’s mistakes.
That year was the first time that technology allowed so many people not on the actual battleground to watch these horrors take place live. Now technology has turned that the experience of watching hell rain down on human beings in real-time and being unwilling participants in the mass dehumanization of millions of people into the norm, with social media “engagement” taking the place of ratings almost seamlessly and in exactly the same way, pushing disinformation every step of the way for exactly the same reasons: power and profit. We all know the costs of perpetuating this violence by now, with a whole generation of broken men and women returning to the United States from Iraq and Afghanistan and sons fighting in the same wars as their fathers did—and for what? But as it turns out, watching ultraviolence and cruelty without having an ability to stop it or help its victims does something to you, too. It greys out parts of yourself and takes away from your ability to experience joy. Is it permanent? Even if you are not fighting or covering conflicts, our current culture and technology all but ensures it will be your fate, too.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can take control of our national mindset. We can push back. We now know what happens when we take a knee to “prove” that we are patriotic enough; we know what happens when we allow the military-industrial complex to direct the national conversation; we know what happens when people like Rush Limbaugh and John Bolton cheerlead for war and dehumanize millions as they do so, and the press allows them to normalize it. What happens is endless war. What happens is a culture of ultraviolence and divisiveness that began in 2001 and is culminating now, here, in the Trump administration and the lies of its enablers. That does not have to be our fate, Americans; but we all have to push back now. Speak up, talk back, and do not allow the lies and dehumanization to win. We already know how that story ends. It’s already been written.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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