War dissected: an interview with Danny Schechter


War d i s s e
c t e d

When it comes to the war in Iraq, Americans aren’t getting the whole story, Danny Schechter says. And he would know. Since the war in Iraq began in March 2003, he’s focused his daily News Dissector media criticism and analysis, posted at, on how that war was presented to Americans — and how most news organizations fell far short, acting more as salespeople for the government than as sleuths for the truth. His blog entries became a book, Embedded: Weapons of Mass Deception — How the Media Failed To Cover the War on Iraq. And now he’s made the book into a documentary, Weapons of Mass Deception, which highlights aspects of the war that were largely overlooked by American journalists — such as human-rights abuses, civilian casualties, and other issues that have more to do with them than with us.

On the phone from his New York office, Schechter talked about the war Americans never got the chance to see, why they need to see it, and why he’s the one to show it to them.

Q: Why did you decide to put the observations from your book and your blog into a film?

A: The war was sold with images, and that kind of integration of show biz and news biz on television — most people get their news from television. So I felt that you have to fight fire with fire in order to really convey the impact of how there was more selling than telling. And as a former network producer, I felt I was in a good position to illustrate the techniques that we used to promote the war as news.

Q: As narrator, you’re very much a part of the film. Why did you choose to put yourself in a central role?

A: It’s a personal film in the sense that I’m trying to confront, in a sense, a failure of journalism. I felt in order to make a credible case, I had to let the audience know who I was and what my background is — you know, that I’ve been in journalism for 30 years. That I worked at CNN and ABC News, that I’ve made many documentaries. Basically, I’ve been in the news business. So I’m bringing to the film an insider’s experience and an outsider’s perspective. I’m not trying to be another Michael Moore. On the other hand, I feel like one of the things I want to see in the media is personal responsibility by journalists, not hiding behind their corporate logos.

Q: Where did you get the footage for the film?

A: We filmed interviews all over the world, in the United States, with journalists, with people who have been to Iraq who could tell us more about what they saw and did. Then we reached out to broadcast organizations, and we were able to get a response of footage from the BBC, from the CBC in Canada, from Al-Jazeera, from Germany, from South African Broadcasting. We wanted to show Americans what other people saw that they didn’t see. And these other networks basically agreed and provided material. Then we went to independent filmmakers, like the Guerrilla News Network, Robert Young Pelton, Gwendolyn Cates, who was an embed working as a freelancer for People magazine. And they provided us with footage that, again, has not really been seen on television.

But then we used, under what we consider to be legitimate fair use, network footage in order to show what the networks did, how the news was packaged, compressed, and spun.

Q: When you compare the international footage with American broadcasts, what are some of the differences?

A: We have a Pentagon media adviser in the film who says there were five wars going on. One was the one the military saw, the other was the one Americans saw, the third was what Europe saw, the fourth was what the Middle East saw, and the fifth was what the rest of the world saw. And they monitored all this and found that they were never in sync. So basically five wars were happening, to which we added a sixth — the war within the media and between media outlets.

What it came down to is: in other countries, how people suffer in war was the focus; in our country, technology and our boys was the focus. In other countries, the policy of pre-emptive invasion was the focus; in our country, the WMDs and crimes of Saddam Hussein was the focus. In other countries, there was an effort to show, for example, prohibited weapons, cluster bombs, depleted uranium, and human-rights abuses by American forces. In our country, for the most part, there wasn’t until the Abu Ghraib scandal.

So by using this mix of independent sources, international sources, and kind of a critical approach, I think I’m able to show the war Americans never saw.

Q: Have you noticed any changes in how the media have covered the war since March 2003?

A: Well, first of all, the media never really prepared us for what was to come. When the statues of Saddam came down, for most in the media, it was game over, we won, mission accomplished — that was the media frame. Until we realized that it was just halftime and that the real war was beginning. So media coverage, however dramatic, of the invasion, failed to really report what was really happening, help us understand this war. It wasn’t a regular war, it was an irregular war. That’s part one.

Part two is that we then went through a period where incidents replaced any sort of assessment of what was happening. You know, eight dead today, five dead tomorrow, three dead the next day. Basically a catalogue of killings became the news frame.

Now, with the US invasion of Fallujah, we saw a return of embedded reporters. And again, the reporting was dramatically different. In England, they’re talking about napalm being used, and other prohibited weapons, and as many as 6000 dead. In the United States, the focus has been on insurgent, quote-unquote, attacks on our soldiers. So in a sense, the news frame hasn’t changed from the coverage of the war. It’s all about us. What’s happening to the Iraqi people and their lives and their country is sort of off the radar screen for most American journalists. Not all, but a lot.

In a sense, the template that I document in WMD is not just about the coverage of the war in Iraq, it’s about the way in which perceptions in America are managed, the way in which policy is sold through deceptive language imagery, and the way in which the media system has sort of been welded, if you will, to the political system. What we have, increasingly, is a kind of state-run media system. Not always on every story, not without exceptions by exceptional journalists, but by and large, the framework and pattern has been a continuity of what we were seeing.

What we’re seeing is a different kind of media system than we’ve ever had before — extremely polarized, extremely, quote, patriotically correct, failing to really analyze American policies in any kind of way.

Media is, in a sense, the central contradiction now in our culture. It’s the issue that touches a nerve for people throughout the political system, left and right. The right has been bashing so-called liberal media forever, and now people on the progressive side are beginning to recognize that we can’t have a democracy if our media doesn’t inform us. That’s why WMD is so relevant, in my point of view.

Q: The film has been compared with Fahrenheit 9/11. How do you compare with Michael Moore?

A: I like Fahrenheit 9/11. I admire him; I think he’s a success. You know, his film — half a billion dollars and counting — opened the market and opened the door for other documentaries as well, and I certainly admire him for that.

But I’m trying to go in a slightly different direction here. Michael has been more of a commentator on American life. I’m still trying to be, sort of, a journalist. And I think what I’m doing is reporting and analyzing, or as I call it, dissecting — which is something I started doing in Boston in 1970 and haven’t stopped yet.


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