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Jules Siegel: Death by Public Relations

Death by Public Relations

Book Review By Jules Siegel

How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death
By Norman Soloman
$24.95 314 pages John Wiley & Sons ISBN 0-471-69479

In "War Made Easy" Norman Solomon demolishes the myth of an independent American press zealously guarding sacred values of free expression. Although strictly focusing on the shameless history of media cheerleading for the principal post-World War II American wars, invasions and interventions, he calls into question by implication the idea of the press as some kind of institutional counterforce to government and corporate power.

The utter idiocy of many of the examples he has compiled in this impeccably documented historical review will be familiar to readers who follow the news on the Internet. They achieve fresh impact because of the way Solomon has organized and analyzed them. Each chapter is devoted to a single warhawk strategy ("America Is a Fair and Noble Superpower," "Opposing the War Means Siding with the Enemy," "Our Soldiers Are Heroes, Theirs Are Inhuman") illustrated with historical examples for the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Kosovo, both Iraq wars, and other miscellaneous conflicts in which the media were almost universally enthusiastic accomplices.

"War Made Easy" should really be subtitled "War reporting doesn't just suck, it kills." It makes you feel like demanding a special war crimes tribunal for corporate media executives and owners who joined the roll-up to Shock and Awe as non-uniformed psywar ops. To be sure, this would raise the issue of whether or not following orders might suffice for the defense of obedient slaves such as Mary McGrory and Richard Cohen who performed above and beyond the call of duty.

"He persuaded me," she gushed the morning after Powell spoke at the United Nations. "The cumulative effect was stunning." In the same Washington Post edition Richard Cohen wrote, "The evidence he presented to the United Nations -- some of it circumstantial, some of it absolutely bonechilling in its detail -- had to prove to anyone that Iraq not only hasn't accounted for its weapons of mass destruction but without a doubt still retains them. Only a fool -- or possibly a Frenchman -- could conclude otherwise."

Solomon demonstrates how this kind of peppy pre-war warm-up degenerates into drooling and heavy breathing once the killing begins. As if observing a heavy metal computer game, the pornographers of death concentrate on the exquisite craftsmanship and visual design of the murder machines, and the magnificence of the fiery explosions they produce.

"When the Gulf War's massive bombardment began," he writes, "a CNN correspondent remarked on the 'sweet beautiful sight' of bombers leaving runways in Saudi Arabia. CBS correspondent Jim Stewart told viewers about 'two days of almost picture-perfect assaults.'"

Los Angeles Times reporter Jacques Leslie was invited onto a helicopter to watch a B-52 strike in Vietnam. "Suddenly gray clouds took shape on the ground in front of us and billowed to a height of a thousand feet or more," Leslie later wrote in a memoir. "I was surprised to feel so little: no horror, no pain, just marvel at the dubious wonders of technology. Had men been killed beneath the smoke? Did they mean anything to me? I knew I should be appalled, but I felt only numbness: it was like watching people die on television."

Skepticism only emerges when it is clear that a given war is not going well, Solomon observes. Otherwise, the media mostly report the war the way the government tells it. They become, in effect, merely another psychological warfare asset. The authorities not only employ public relations firms to assist them, but also discuss the information management strategies in public sessions at think tanks and academic institutions.

"War Made Easy" is a definitive historical text that belongs in every serious library as an indispensable record of the real relationships among government authorities and media outlets. The book should be required reading for journalists and journalism students. It will dispel many illusions about the true reach of freedom of the press and replace them with a much more appropriate and healthier professional cynicism.

Perhaps if Gary Webb had somehow been made aware of all this before writing "Dark Alliance," he might not have committed suicide in the sodden ashes of his ruined career, because he would have known in advance what he was really up against.


Jules Siegel's writings have been published in Playboy, Best American Short Stories and many other publications. He administers newsroom-l, a news and issues discussion list for journalists.

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