Leonard Lopate: The new documentary called “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death” looks at the strikingly similar patterns of government deception and media complicity that has preceded modern wars… It’s based on columnist and media critic Norman Solomon’s 2005 book of the same title. I’m pleased that it brings Mr. Solomon to the show today… I was surprised by how many of our most respected journalists have trumpeted various wars, at least in their earliest stages. There’s footage of Walter Cronkite raving about the latest jets as we headed into Vietnam. Jim Lehrer is promoting war… Tom Brokaw, Wolf Blitzer… Have there been any doubters? Or would a doubter have been punished for going against the mood of the country?
Norman Solomon: Well, the doubters are given respect in the media in retrospect. At the time, they’re shunted to the margins. And a lot of the mythology about media coverage tells us something that is not true – that the US news media were tough in challenging the Vietnam war while it was being escalated. Au contraire! The US news media were – and pardon the crudity of the metaphor here – licking the boots of the military and the commander-in-chief as they lied us into one war after another. The war in Vietnam, the invasion of Iraq: these are strikingly similar patterns, as you alluded to, and in many ways it’s fair to say if we look at the last half century, that the US is afflicted by what Martin Luther King quite properly called “the madness of militarism.” We have, you might say, a repetition-compulsion disorder! In our present day, they’ve replicated this impulse to serve stenographically for the people in power rather than do journalism. It spans from Fox News to NPR to the New York Times. We see the result now in Iraq.
LL: The film includes a lot of archival news footage. Looking at the news footage from 2003, making the case for invading Iraq, it’s kind of hard to watch knowing what we know now. Maybe we can listen to a little bit of that.
Audio clips, familiar administration and media voices: “Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa…” “There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction…” “…Weapons of mass destruction, Botulin, VX, Sarin, nerve agents …” “… Iraq and Al Qaeda… “….Iraq and Al Qaeda…” “…terrorism…” “…cyberattacks…” “…nuclear program…” “…biological weapons…” “…cruise missiles…” “…ballistic missiles…” “…chemical and biological weapons…” “…Iraq has weapons of mass destruction!…” “…President Bush has said Iraq has weapons of mass destruction… Tony Blair has said Iraq has weapons of mass destruction… Donald Rumsfeld has said Iraq has weapons of mass destruction… Richard Butler has said Iraq has they do… the United Nations has said they do… the experts have said they do… Iraq says they don’t… You can choose who you want to believe…”
LL: And then, at the end of the film the most fervent boosters of the invasion apologize:
Audio clip: “During the course of this war there was a lot of snap-to in press coverage. ‘We’re at war, the world’s changed, we have to root for the country to some extent.’ And yet there seems something missing from this debate: a critical analysis of where it was taking us…” “…Those of us in journalism never even looked at the issue of occupation…” “…Because?…” “Because it just didn’t occur to us. We weren’t smart enough. We’d have to have gone against the grain….” “Right, you’d also have been a kind of pointy-head trying to figure out obscure issues!… “Exactly!…” “Good guys vs. bad guys and negativism…”
NS: The new media, down the road, point out that there were lies about the Gulf of Tonkin, about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Audio clip: “…I’m sorry to say it, but certainly television and perhaps to an extent my station was intimidated by the administration and its foot soldiers at Fox News….” “…We should have been more skeptical…”
LL: So we heard there Chris Matthews talking with Jim Lehrer, Christine Ahmanpour with Wolf Blitzer … But why do you think, looking at their performance, they are all self critical – why do you think these experienced journalists weren’t asking those kinds of questions at the beginning?
NS: ‘Cause it’s easy! Taking the path of least resistance is best for the career. Then, later on, when history shows that journalistic talent has prostituted itself, you have the reenactment of what Mark Twain alluded to: “It’s easy to quit smoking. I’ve done it hundreds of times!” It’s easy to do a semi-mea culpa after the damage has been done. Napoleon put it well. He said, “It’s not necessary to censor the news. It’s sufficient to delay it until it no longer matters.” And the real news, largely unreported in real time and that matters most, is that these official sources are deceiving and often lying us into one war after another. It’s true. When you look at the “War Made Easy” film and you see the footage of the aggregate of the experiences -- as many viewers are starting to say – it’s kind of a “warnography.” The true obscenity that several thousand Americans are dead, many more maimed and injured psychologically and physically, certainly hundreds of thousand of Iraqis dead by this point, and those who were the most mendacious in government, by and large, and [those] going along with it in the news media, their careers are just hunky-dory.
LL: Just yesterday, a Pentagon report said that Saddam Hussein’s support of terrorism did not include any links to Al Qaeda. No weapons of mass destruction have ever been found in Iraq. So is it simply that hindsight is 20/20? Or…
NS: No. Not at all.
LL: Is the selling of the Iraq war so sophisticated that a lot of journalists couldn’t see through it?
NS: It’s one of the great myths that you had to be some sort of clairvoyant to understand that lies were being purveyed in 2002.
LL: Are candidates saying that?
NS: Well, when they’re trying to justify themselves. Certainly Hillary Clinton is saying that, trying to justify their craven lockstep opportunism in voting for war when, at the time, many, many people, including myself, were on the airwaves and writing – to the extent we could get on the airwaves – saying, “This case for war makes no sense! There is no evidence of ties between Al Qaeda and 9/11 and Saddam Hussein. There is no evidence of weapons of mass destruction.” I personally organized, through my Institute for Public Accuracy, three delegations to Baghdad in September and December of 2002 and January of 2003 – well before the war – and came back and talked about the lack of any clear evidence that there were weapons of mass destruction. And yet the news media on the whole, with few blessed exceptions, simply went along with the official story.
LL: And ignored Hans Blix and many others …
NS: Ignored him. Trashed him. You had not only the Wall Street Journal editorial page but many other sources saying that he was gullible, that like the French he was being bamboozled or was weak. And frankly, in 2008 here, there is some replication in terms of the Iran story and the way it’s being spun. Maybe they’re laying flagstones on a path to some sort of missile attack on Iran.
LL: Do you really think that it could succeed again? Haven’t people become rather skeptical?
NS: Well, people were skeptical – as the film goes into – in the aftermath of Vietnam, skeptical again and again. But the problem is that we seem almost to go back to square one with a new country that’s being targeted and a new propaganda campaign.
LL: Well, in the case of Iraq, wasn’t there also a changed climate as a result of 9/11?
NS: No doubt. There was an exploitation by the administration that had always wanted to go on the attack against Iraq. You go back historically and there are some very stunning footage, I think, in the “War Made Easy” film of Lyndon Johnson. He warned that to withdraw from Vietnam – in fact, to not escalate it – would be succumbing to terrorism and terrorists. He used those words. Of course, that’s been hugely magnified in the aftermath of 9/11, exploited by those who have succumbed again and promoted what Dr. King called “the madness of militarism.”
LL: The film shows a range of presidents of both parties – Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton, George Bush – all saying how reluctant they are to go to war but that it’s necessary to bring democracy and peace to the various places that they wanted to go into – Vietnam, Bosnia, and Iraq. Is that the standard line when you’re trying to sell a war?
NS: It is. There’s a set of motifs that are recycled – it’s the kind of recycling I’m very against! - from one war to another. And there’s a media spin cycle from agenda setting through the part we’re in now with Iraq. You can’t “cut and run” – Lyndon Johnson used that phrase, George W. Bush used that phrase – and so there are all sorts of postures that are adopted…
LL: We did cut and run from Vietnam!
NS: Well, I don’t know! We cut and run after slaughtering a couple million Vietnamese people, 58,000 Americans dying there, decimating the country with Agent Orange, cluster bombs, and not only that country but Laos and Cambodia. We now have this claim coming from the White House about how horrific it would be to withdraw. And yet that’s the same argument that kept US troops in Vietnam essentially for a full ten years and more. This is an all-purpose argument and a paradigm we’ve seen – the posture of a reluctant president when diplomacy is actually used as a ruse, as it was by the Bush administration before the invasion of Iraq. Just to lay the groundwork, the propaganda groundwork, for invasion and occupation.
LL: Did this begin with the Gulf of Tonkin? Is this something that people have been saying before wars for a very long time?
NS: Well, Mark Twain, who would have had great trouble getting airtime on cable news, denounced the assault on the Philippines in 1898 and he was very caustic about, in the name of Christendom, the horrendous atrocities that were committed. This is time-honored, if you will. Or time besmirched! But in the TV era, which really was marked by the beginning of the Vietnam war, it’s been ratcheted up. One of the things the “War Made Easy” film documents is the way in which the sophistication of the propaganda messages has utilized the technology of TV.
LL: But it is media’s role, at least in theory, to question everything. How did that not happen?
NS: At least in theory that is the role of journalism that’s independent and assertive and has a multiplicity of sources and deserves the word “journalism”! What we’re usually getting, frankly, is flackery with huge over-reliance on official sources. Near the end of the film we quote IF Stone who said, “All governments lie and nothing they say should be believed.” Stone was not saying governments lie all the time and he wasn’t conflating all governments. But he was saying that we have a responsibility -- the “we” included journalists – to question, to not take on faith, what the government tells us.
LL: Most people would say Fox News slants the news one way, perhaps. Air America is slanted the other way. But we’re talking about across-the-board here. We’re talking about CNN again and again. We’re talking about the New York Times and every other major newspaper.
LL: … Except, I guess, the Ritter newspapers which were the exception?
NS: It was good reporting by the Knight-Ritter chain but it seems to make almost no difference to the most powerful media in the country. It is a spectrum problem. And in many ways, frankly, what Fox News did – and there is a distinction with Air America because Fox News claims to be news! What Fox did, in terms of impact, was much less important than the New York Times or the News Hour with Jim Lehrer. People sort of put Fox in a category whereas many people give credence to these ultra-respectable mainstream, centrist – or supposedly liberal – outlets.
LL: …My guest is Norman Solomon whose book, “War Made Easy,” is now adapted into a documentary film using some incredible footage… You mention the reliance on official sources. Now, who should the news media have been talking to instead of the people who were making the major decisions?
NS: I would say “in addition to…” It’s legitimate to interview and quote and feature those who are in positions of power. At the same time, if we’re going to go beyond stenography for the powerful, then there should have been a wide range of other sources – former weapons inspectors such as Scott Ritter who was warning in real time in 2002 that the case made for war was bogus. There are many other experts as well in all walks of life: history, Iraqi sociology, weapons technology. And those who understood the geopolitics of the Middle East who were shooting basic holes in the entire fabric of argument coming from the administration. And yet very little that got through the clatter that was the mainstream media.
LL: The film reveals a CNN news executive going to the Pentagon with a list of military sources that could be used as talking heads during the invasion to get them approved! Did anyone criticize CNN for doing that at the time?
NS: Oh sure. My colleagues at the media watch group, “Fair,” criticized. There were others who said that it’s improper, as it certainly was, for an executive of CNN – a purportedly liberal network, by the way – literally going to the Pentagon with a list of possible hirees and saying, “We’re thinking of putting these people on the air, giving them a paycheck, so they can do analysis of the war as it begins and unfolds. And as Eason Jordan, who is shown in the film, says on the air, “It was very important to us that the Pentagon said that ‘this list is okay’ and used terms ‘thumbs up’.” So what kind of news media, including in this case CNN, goes to the Pentagon and requires – asks for – a thumbs-up for who they’re going to hire to do commentary – former government officials, Pentagon officials – before they go ahead and sign ‘em up?
LL: Didn’t CNN also issue a memo to its on-air new anchors saying that all images of bombing in Afghanistan should be accompanied by a reminder that it was in reaction to the 9/11 attacks?
NS: Yes. Frankly this would be the kind of thing you would expect from, for instance, an old Soviet outlet. And yet it was directed from Walter Isaacson who ran the news department at the time at CNN …
LL: … and who wrote the wonderful biography of Einstein!
NS: Yes – these are mixed-bag people who are often very insightful and yet, when push comes to shove and the pressure comes down in this case, he is giving directives. We have footage in the film of this. There are directives on the air of anchors saying, “It’s always in the context of America.” It’s a kind of jingo narcissism. Any time the US, in this case, was dropping bombs and killing civilians in Afghanistan, “always put it in the context of what was done to the US rather than the other way around”!
LL: Have we heard from these press sources that they recognize they may have screwed up. For example, in 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin attack was reported as fact. Anyone ever retract that story? New York Times? Washington Post?
NS: Well, I went and asked those newspapers if they had ever retracted their deceptions reported as front page facts at the time of the Gulf of Tonkin. I found that there had been no retractions. And in fact I interviewed the chief diplomatic correspondent for the Washington Post at the time, Murray Marder. I asked him, and he said, “I can assure you, Mr. Solomon, there was never a retraction of our fallacious Gulf of Tonkin reporting.” And I asked Mr. Marden, “Well, why not? Why wouldn’t the Washington Post retract?” And he said, “Well, if the news media were going to retract its reporting on the Gulf of Tonkin events, the news media would have to retract virtually its entire reporting on the whole Vietnam war!”
LL: [silence]… Would it? After all, the news media after a while was giving us a pretty balanced view of what was going on in Vietnam.
NS: Well, “balanced” after many, many years of the consequences and the killing. I would argue… And I’m asking this today, “What do you think of current coverage of Iraq in the US news media?” And I would say, “It’s gotten pretty good in 2008 when it covers what happened in 2002. But the real time coverage is still moving along largely to the sensibilities marching along Pennsylvania Avenue including very low coverage of the air war in Iraq, courtesy of the US taxpayers. The “War Made Easy” film really goes, as well, to the psychic numbing of what is being done in our names with our tax dollars – killing civilians out of sight and out of the media frame.
LL: The British press questioned Colin Powell’s testimony before the UN that Iraq had been trying to buy uranium from Niger. Did the American press look at what was going on in the rest of the world?
NS: The American press largely adulated Colin Powell’s speech to the UN in early February 2o03. Even the purportedly antiwar New York Times, in its editorial the next morning, said that Powell had “made a sober case” for war. And if you look at the supposed mea culpa from the New York Times – very belated and very partial rather than full – you see, for instance, them saying under Bill Keller’s name, “We fell for the falsehoods and errors of pseudo-information about weapons of mass destruction. Like the government, we at the New York Times fell for that information. Well, the New York Times didn’t fall for it. The New York Times jumped for it, on the front page.
LL: You also suggest that MSNBC let Phil Donahue go from his TV news show simply because he was opposed to the war.
NS: Yes. We have not just the supposition but evidence – a memo that was leaked out of NBC management just after the highly rated, high ratings Donahue show. This was three weeks before the invasion of Iraq. Although he was getting good ratings, Donahue and his show continued to bring on antiwar voices as part of the mix. As the memo from MSNBC management put it, “We don’t want to be in the position of criticizing Bush, criticizing the war, while our competitors are waving the flag.”
LL: Could they have feared and audience backlash because what he was saying was so much against the national mood at the time?
NS: Well, it’s a circular argument because the news media helped to create and sustain a particular national mood. If we want the news media to basically serve as sycophants for the powerful and to be afraid of people being angry at them, then the First Amendment becomes a fractionated, not full, amendment.
LL: Another thing that we see is the consistent way in which the media cover military technology. There’s amazing footage of Walter Cronkite boosting the Vietnam war at first because he was excited by a ride in a jet fighter. Later, of course, he condemned President Johnson’s policies on the air and said the US couldn’t win the war. He had real impact – partly because he had been a booster initially?
NS: Tremendous impact at the time, and prestige Even though in 1968 when he supposedly turned against the war, we have the footage in the film and it’s really stunning that he never said the war was wrong. He said it could not be won. And when we have that as the sort of standard, then the winability of war becomes front and center and the morality of the war is shunted aside and frankly we’re there in 2008 in terms of the Iraq war.
LL: The same kinds of arguments…
NS: … The same kinds of arguments that open the door to further escalation, further attacks, unwarranted violations of international law.
LL: I’ll bet if you ask a lot of people, they’ll say negative media coverage was the reason that public opinion was turned against the war in Vietnam.
NS: Another myth. You know, we point out in the film in 1968 the Boston Globe did a survey of 39 major US newspapers and couldn’t find a single one editorializing for withdrawal from Vietnam.
LL: What about praising the new technology, the smart bombs, and the like? What was the initial impact of the coverage of the “shock and awe” bombing of Baghdad at the start of the Iraq war?
NS: Elation! US journalists on the networks and front pages praising, lauding this use of technology. It’s this psychic numbing of the US population to cheerlead this use of technology for mass slaughter, really, that is part of the dynamic. We have this horrible situation where the news media that bring us these wars then filter out fundamental objections to the morality of the wars as they continue.
LL: You’re suggesting that it doesn’t matter what we’ve learned from this war, if there’s another war we’ll go through the same sort of process?
NS: Well, the news media seem to have this default position – I call it, the repetition-compulsion disorder! – but at the grass roots, I think, more and more people are concerned, angry, and wanting to prevent the repetition of this dynamic. That’s why I think the “War Made Easy” film has potentially great impact. I’m very appreciative that this low budget and very tough film has been welcomed to New York …