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Media Spins 'Success' of Iraqi Troops in Bush War

Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release October 31, 2005

Media Spins 'Success' of Iraqi Troops in Bush War Plan

Interview with John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper's magazine, conducted by Scott Harris

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The White House, now embroiled in a major scandal involving the most senior White House aides, Karl Rove and Lewis Libby, still struggles to paint an optimistic picture of the war in Iraq. But with the death toll of US soldiers now reaching the 2,000 mark, and a solid majority of the American people believing that the war was a mistake, President Bush has an ever-tougher job selling his "stay the course" Iraq policy.

Despite the apparent passage of a draft constitution for Iraq in the Oct. 15th referendum, the insurgents capitalizing on ethnic and religious polarization continue to launch deadly attacks on military and civilian targets. Three suicide bombs carried in vehicles exploded in quick succession October 24th near the Palestine and Sheraton Hotels, the base for many foreign reporters. The blasts killed an estimated 20, but would have been far more deadly had one of the bombs, concealed in a cement mixer, reached its intended target, the Palestine Hotel.

Critics of the Bush administration's pre-war campaign to win support for the Iraq invasion point to the complicity of the media as cheerleaders rather than skeptics when the policy could have been challenged and reversed. Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with John R. MacArthur, author of a book covering the 1991 Iraq War titled, "Second Front, Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War." MacArthur, publisher of Harper's Magazine, assesses the U.S. media's coverage of the Iraq War and the unfolding CIA leak scandal.

JOHN MACARTHUR: I've written a piece inspired by the uncut version of "Apocalypse Now." I urge people to sit through the whole thing, because some of the things that were cut years ago and restored whenever it was, two or three years ago, are remarkable. And the most remarkable scene is where Marlon Brando tortures Martin Sheen -- who has been sent to catch him and kill him -- by reading these awful Time Magazine dispatches or articles about the light at the end of the tunnel of Vietnam and how their latest expert sources tell them that the United States has turned the corner and the Vietnamese Army is becoming self-sufficient and "Vietnamization" is working and so on. And I notice the parallels with the New York Times coverage of what I call the "Iraqization," where you'll probably notice not just in the Times but in all the media lots of upbeat stories about how the Iraqi army is really getting its act together and killing a lot of guerrillas or insurgents -- as they call them. And it just sounds like the

It's bad news in the sense that it means that we're going down the same path and a lot more people are going to get killed for no reason. It may be good news in an odd way because it may be the preface to a withdrawal, that the United States is really thinking about getting out. Because otherwise, why would they sell these nonsensical stories about the Iraqi army getting its act together when we know they don't have their act together? The Iraq army, such as it is, is shot through with spies, insurgent plants, people with divided loyalties who will sit by and watch a firefight rather than participate on the side of the Americans.

BETWEEN THE LINES: How big is the gulf, in your view, between the "happy face situation" in Iraq being spun by the White House and the Pentagon, and the realities there on the ground. And, how much do you think the American people know about that gap, if they do at all?

JOHN R. MACARTHUR: I don't think they know that much. You know, there's wishful thinking right now in the anti-Bush camp that Hurricane Katrina and the constant flow of bad news from Iraq is going to somehow turn things around and push Bush out or force him to withdraw from Iraq. But, I am not persuaded enough people have seen enough American dead or American failure to actually pull the plug on the occupation. Of course, the Democratic party is doing its level best not to address the issue. So there is no organizing focal point for anti-war people. But in terms of just ordinary folks getting the information they need, it's very hard to say that they're getting what they need. First, reporters are justifiably terrified to go out and do their job. I wouldn't do it if I were there; I wouldn't go. It's just absolutely hair-raising. They're not making distinctions between pro- or antiwar journalists or journalists who say, "Don't worry I'm trying to tell your side of the story.” They just grab whoever is availab

BETWEEN THE LINES: When you look at the propaganda campaign that was launched to justify the Iraq war against Iraq and the target being the American people, what do you think the media in this country should be focusing on in terms of the larger story of this scandal involving Lewis Libby and Karl Rove because it's not just about Joe Wilson and it's not just about Valerie Plame?

JOHN MACARTHUR: Oh, well, the real story is, "How did they manufacture this story?” Who did they get to promote it for them? Was Judith Miller their prime spokesman? Or did they have other people at the New York Times and the Washington Post at higher levels? Did they brief the publishers? It's perfectly possible.

In the 1960s, when JFK or Nixon or Johnson had something they wanted to get in the papers, they would call the publisher or the editor or one of the top columnists. And then, the publisher's flattered that the president or whomever has called them, and the word goes down the line, "Government is telling the truth, the White House is telling the truth." Don't contradict it. And I think maybe something like that happened. But that requires a kind of internal affairs unit like the police department has in most cities to bust the people within newspapers. We don't have any such thing. I've done it myself, but believe me, it takes a lot of work to get inside a newspaper and to get the higher ups to tell you what really happened. But that's the kind of reporting that needs to be done.

John R. MacArthur's book, "Second Front, Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War," published by University of California Press. Visit Harper's magazine website at


Scott Harris is executive producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 35 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending Nov. 4, 2005. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Anna Manzo and Scott Harris.

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