Media Failing to Provide Substantive Debate on ISIS
Deepa Kumar and Peter Hart say the mainstream media is working to manufacture consent for further military action in Syria and Iraq
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
If 9/11 and al-Qaeda was the justification for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and later Iraq, 13 years later we have the Islamic State providing another justification for yet another war on Iraq, and now Syria.
In the leadup to President Obama’s ISIL speech last week, one could not ignore the role that the mainstream media played in warmongering–in Noam Chomsky’s words, manufacturing consent among the general public that an imminent threat is just around the corner; therefore we must protect ourselves by destroying them before they destroy us. And, of course, they repeated again and again the beheading of the two Americans, and now the British aid worker. This only to intensified the fear.
Last week we also saw many opinion polls referring to this public fear in anticipation of President Obama’s announcement to go to war.
Today we have General Dempsey, chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admitting in a Senate hearing that if the coalition against ISIS fails, he will be urging President Obama to send U.S. ground forces.
To talk about all this today we have two guests, Deepa Kumar and Peter Hart.
Deepa’s coming to us from New Brunswick, New Jersey, and she’s an associate professor of media studies and Middle East studies at Rutgers University. She is the author of Islamophobia and The Politics of Empire and Outside the Box: Corporate Media, Globalization, and the UPS Strike.
Also joining us is Peter Hart. He’s coming to us from New York. And he is the activism of director at FAIR, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.
Thank you both for joining us.
DEEPA KUMAR, ASSOC. PROF. MEDIA STUDIES, RUTGERS UNIVERSITY: Thanks.
PETER HART, ACTIVISM DIRECTOR, FAIRNESS AND ACCURACY IN REPORTING: Thank you.
PERIES: Let me start with you, Peter. You did a very detailed demonstration of the warmongering in a FAIR article last week. Tell us what you found.
HART: Well, I think there’s a couple of categories of things we have to look at. The first and most obvious, of course, is the widespread notion that ISIS poses a direct threat to the homeland, that there will be a terrorist attack on the United States. And we’ve seen this across the television networks, on the Sunday chat shows, and so forth. There isn’t any good intelligence linked to a plot or a threat from ISIS. Most experts on the region, and certainly experts on the group, suggest that their intentions lie elsewhere.
But when you fearmonger this way alongside the overwhelming media attention paid to the beheadings of two Americans and one British aid worker, as you mentioned before, you do drum up interest in not only doing something, which is, I think, what media were talking about in the early stages of this, but doing something militarily. And that’s where we are now. The public opinion shift has been quite dramatic, and I think it’s been dramatic because of the messages from the media. We hear over and over again that Barack Obama is reluctant to strike, reluctant to use the military. News reports drop this in as if it’s a fact when, if you look at the Obama record, it’s been one of constant military threat and military action, from Pakistan to Yemen to Afghanistan, a massive escalation of the war in Afghanistan, to Libya. So this is not a president who’s been reluctant to reticent to use military force.
These, I think, are two of the most important and pernicious themes that you’re seeing in the media coverage right now. So when you put them together, it’s no wonder that you have a public that is now primed to support some kind of military action. One of those fascinating things about the opinion polls that came out this week: people support this idea of attacking ISIS, but they don’t think it’s going to work. That suggests that the support is weak or muddled or just contradictory. What it does, I think, underline or underscore very clearly is that media have driven the public to this feeling that the United States military must take some kind of action right now and it’s a very dangerous time that we’re living in.
PERIES: Let me switch over to you, Deepa. President Obama was supposed to be the peace president, able to handle Islamophobia because of his own family background and living in Indonesia. And you recently wrote an article in Mondoweiss about this topic as well and the topic that we’re discussing today. What did you have to say?
KUMAR: I’ll start with your last point, and that is we have seen an escalation of anti-Muslim racism and anti-Arab racism over the course of the summer. [Of course, (?)] it starts with Israel’s attack in Gaza and the sort of relentless propaganda that Israel unleashes against Palestinians, the wholesale demonization, so as to justify the slaughter of over 2,000 Gazans.
And what you’ve seen as a result of that, as well as what Peter mentioned mentioned earlier, the kind of excessive attention to the grisly murders of the two American journalists, has really elevated into the mainstream a very negative attitude towards Muslims and towards people who are seen to be Muslims. So today a Zogby poll actually found that only 27 percent of Americans actually have a favorable attitude towards Muslims. And what you’ve seen in New York City, for instance, is a Sikh man who was dragged underneath a vehicle after being accused of being a terrorist, of being bin Laden, and so on. Sikhs are not Muslims. They follow a religion that requires them to wear a turban, which, you know, people–racists–associate with Osama bin Laden.
So, I guess to your point about Obama’s own record, Obama was elected really by a public that was fed up with Bush’s warmongering, that was fed up with Bush’s lies, the lies in Iraq and so on. And increasingly over the last few years you have seen greater and greater war weariness. So, last year, when Obama proposed an intervention into Syria it was largely scuttled because the public was not prepared to actually engage in yet another war.
There are people who put forward the theory that the United States created ISIS, and I don’t actually accept that. But I do think that ISIS plays a role, a very useful role for U.S. imperialism, in that it justifies interventions abroad, whether it’s striking Iraq, or Syria now, and in terms of justifying the counterterrorism policies right here in the United States, which systematically violates our civil liberties.
PERIES: So, then, let me ask the both of you. It is no surprise that the corporate media plays this role. Many polls have documented the disbelief Americans have about their own media. Yet they submit to the coverage. Why?
HART: Well, to pick up on something Deepa said about Gaza, one of the most striking things about the conversation about Obama’s war policies is the idea that he’s reluctant to use force or to do something to stop violence, when in Gaza he had a perfect opportunity to stop the killing and the bloodshed there. But there were no pundits going on TV demanding that Obama do something to stop suffering in Gaza. So it’s a very instructive standard. There is suffering going on in Syria, obviously. And the answer overwhelmingly from pundits is we must bomb there somewhere now, preferably as much as we can. So I think the media have played an intimate role in choosing the worthy wars to engage in for the United States and excluding the possibility that the United States could play a proactive role elsewhere. That’s the essential function of the media in wartime. If you watch television news for any length of time, you see a parade of generals and former generals and former military officials who are only there to talk about what kind of war we might wage in Iraq and in Syria, not whether this is a good idea, not whether this will achieve any particular goals, not whether it will bring about a peaceful resolution. So in a sense the media have skipped past the point of debating whether or not this war would make any sense and were getting to the point of how much war, whether or not there will be ground troops, how many ground troops. This is how you manufacture consent for U.S. warmaking.
In many respects it’s exactly the same as it was in Iraq in 2002 and 2003, or even Afghanistan back in 2001 and into 2002. The techniques are exactly the same: to scare people about the threat posed by a particular group of people on the homeland, manufactured or not, and then to present the only alternative as being a military strike. So it’s not even a debate that we’re having about a war. It’s a debate only in the sense that we’re talking about what type of warmaking the United States will begin. And, again, that’s what makes this such a very dangerous moment.
You brought up Syria and Obama’s failure to launch a war last year. If you listen carefully and read closely the media coverage of Syria, that is considered a grave mistake, an embarrassment. An NPR reporter called it a “body blow” to Obama. The failure to launch military attacks by an American president is seen as a real liability. And I think that’s a very profoundly telling thing that you can see in the U.S. media. The failure to attack is something that you must answer for and you must be held accountable for.
KUMAR: Peter spoke about the last decade or so, the last 13 years, and the way in which the media have created a frenzy and almost a sort of knee-jerk response that the appropriate response to political violence should be war. So what I want to do is expand that framework a little bit more and go back to late 1970s and ’80s, because in fact this idea of the terrorist threat gets cultivated in the late 1970s and in the 1980s, because prior to that period, if you look at some of the studies around the news media, the term terrorism is not used to actually discuss things like hijackings or kidnappings or what have you. These people were called sky pirates, air pirates, or bandits, or rebels, or what have you. But in fact there’s a systematic process by which sections of the political elite manufacture a menacing terrorist, who is then seen as responsible for all of these acts. And through the course of the 1980s, this terrorist is then racialized, in the form particularly of the Arab terrorist, and then later the Muslim terrorist, against whom policy action must be taken.
So one dominant theory in the 1980s is that the Soviet Union is the key sponsor of terrorism, and therefore the West should actually not only fight the Cold War, but should also be engaged in a fight against terrorists. And so what you’ve seen is that by the time you come to the Oklahoma City bombing, it’s now very clear that when acts of political violence like this occur, the U.S. should react and respond with incredible military might. And, therefore, when 9/11 occurs, it’s a no-brainer in terms of actually whipping up a media frenzy that the U.S. should go off and make war, first in Afghanistan, and then, of course, in Iraq, even though Iraq had nothing to do with the events of 9/11.
PERIES: The kind of videotapes that ISIS has released with the beheading and the al-Qaeda’s recorded messages to the American people and so on, these messages have a intensifying effect on the public. What do you think of the responses of the general public to these kinds of depictions?
KUMAR: Yeah, if you look at the research on terrorism in the media, right, scholars have always said that groups who want to commit political violence, groups who have a certain aim, use the media to get their message across. And today we’re seeing that in the social media in the form of ISIS’s apparently very well edited and well put together videos. I haven’t actually seen them. I don’t have the stomach to watch these kinds of things.
But certainly one of the goals that ISIS has in making these videos and in making them available to people in the West is actually twofold. One is to put forward the idea that they have power, that they actually can push back against what the U.S. has done in the Middle East. In Iraq, for instance, in the 2003 war, the U.S. was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. One estimate puts it over 1 million people who’ve been killed because of the U.S. war in that region–in Iraq. I’m sorry. And the ISIS video says, look, we can punish the U.S., and therefore you should join us. So it’s partly a recruitment tool.
But it’s also, I think, an incitement to the U.S. to get involved in a war that it cannot win. And, again, that’s grounds for recruitment. If you lead what–you know, various former jihadists who’ve been writing about why they join these kinds of forces, usually people are motivated by the suffering of ordinary people. And the U.S.’s response now is to create more suffering, in the form of airstrikes, and possibly ground forces, as you said earlier. You know, Dempsey is calling for ground forces and so on. So the very thing that allows these groups to grow is exactly what the U.S. is doing.
PERIES: Let me go to a point that Peter made earlier, which is the lack of debate and discussion and fair conversations about what we’re seeing. So even if you see this depictions of the beheading and the mainstream media just continually reports on these and repeats them again and again and again without proper context, without proper discussion, and whether even a war is actually appropriate, bombing Iraq and Syria is actually appropriate, as a response to a beheading of one, two, now three people. These questions are never discussed and debated. And how do you think the mainstream media can better handle these issues? I’ll go to Peter first.
HART: Well, I think you’ve seen some print coverage that was reasonably skeptical, stories here and there in the The New York Times. In The Washington Post, there was a piece that actually had an anonymous U.S. military official saying that the idea that you could come up with a coherent plan to defeat the Islamic State was more difficult than anything they had attempted in Iraq or Afghanistan, which I think is a very sobering comment, since neither of those wars achieved anything close to their stated goals. So we do have, I think, among military planners and officials some skepticism. And when you have skepticism at that level, it often filters into the conversation. You know, the decision not to attack Syria, there was a debate about that that I think was a little more robust than usual last year because there was such overwhelming public opposition, and official opposition as well. Many congresspeople and elected officials didn’t think that this was good idea. So you need that in order for the media to permit a kind of reasonable debate.
And right now we have calls for Congress to get involved, but it doesn’t look like Congress is going to apply any reasonable skepticism or breaks to the Obama plan, such that it is. So you have a kind of an ironic situation where there’s a call for more congressional discussion or debate, but there’s not going to be much substantive debate. I don’t think if you’re watching any of the partisan cable channels you’re seeing a tremendous amount of debate either. If anything, the criticism of Obama, as it has been for years now, much of the criticism is from the right, that he’s not strong enough, he’s not tough enough, he’s not bombing soon enough. CBS host Bob Schieffer was complaining that there weren’t enough airstrikes already. This is the state of the discussion right now. And the media’s failure to present any kind of rational spectrum of analysis or discussion about whether war is the appropriate answer to these obvious provocations from ISIL is a tremendous failure. But it’s a failure we are accustomed to, I think, from past experience.
There is–I think there’s plenty of grounds to be very skeptical about any number of things regarding the planning or the rationale behind this war, but you’re not hearing a lot of that, particularly on television, with a few exceptions in the print arena, I think the media has overwhelmingly bought the idea that there’s really nothing else to be done. There was no other option, as PBS liberal Mark Shields said about a month ago. So I think there’s never much appetite for an antiwar perspective in the corporate media, and I think we’re at a point right now where there’s even less than usual.
PERIES: So, Deepa, let me have your take on what you think the media could be doing.
KUMAR: Now, ideally in a democratic society the media function as the fourth estate, that is, they are meant to act as a check and a balance on other branches of government. But, unfortunately, the corporate media that we have in this country do not function in that way, and that’s because they rely very heavily not only on corporate sources of funding in the form of that advertising, but also because they rely on the government to actually not only provide free information–you know, the White House press briefings and press releases and so on–but because they rely on the government to make law, legislation, and policy that actually pads their coffer and makes them more and more profitable, both in this country and around the world. So we don’t have a watchdog media; we have a lapdog media.
And, in fact, there was a piece in The Nation magazine which shows that most of the people who are being invited as experts and commentators–ex-generals, current generals, and so on–actually have direct ties to defense contractors, defense firms. So, for instance, Jack Keane, a retired general, is connected to all sorts of defense industries, including General Dynamics, which makes tanks and aircraft. And, by the way, last year he got $258,000 in cash and stock options.
And the fact of the matter is that this story goes on to point out how it’s different mentioned that the people who come onto our television screens who are making the case for war actually have some very direct interest in making that kind of case, right? And certainly people like myself or any number of other professors, intellectuals, who have written about all sorts of issues, that could provide an alternative framework, almost never are invited to participate and therefore broaden the mainstream discussion.
The only way that that happens, as Peter said earlier, is when there is antiwar sentiment on the ground among people, which therefore causes political leaders to then voice other kinds of opinions. And certainly in the case of the Vietnam War we saw coverage of the media undergo a dramatic shift only after 1968. This was for a number of reasons, but one of them most certainly is the fact there was a robust antiwar movement that actually challenged the lies coming out of the White House.
Well, here it The Real News, both of you are welcome anytime you like to come and make your commentaries and explicit what is going on in the mainstream media.
KUMAR: Thank You.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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