Friday, April 15, 2005

Danny Schecter: Weapons of Mass Deception and Fighting for the Op-Edisphere

There were two wars going on in Iraq - one was fought with armies of soldiers, bombs and a fearsome military force. The other was fought alongside it with cameras, satellites, armies of journalists and propaganda techniques. One war was rationalized as an effort to find and disarm WMDs - Weapons of Mass Destruction; the other was carried out by even more powerful WMDs, Weapons of Mass Deception.

The TV networks in America considered their non-stop coverage their finest hour, pointing to the use of embedded journalists and new technologies that permitted viewers to see a war up close for the first time. But different countries saw different wars. Why?

For those of us watching the coverage, war was more of a spectacle, an around the clock global media marathon, pitting media outlets against each other in ways that distorted truth and raised as many questions about the methods of TV news, as it did the armed intervention it was covering-and it some cases-promoting.

WMD, a 100 minute non-fiction film, explores this story with the findings of a gutsy, media insider-turned-outsider, former network journalist, Danny Schechter, who is one of America's most prolific media critics. Schechter says he "self-embedded" himself in his living room to monitor media coverage, by fastidiously tracking the TV coverage on a daily basis. He wrote thousands of words daily about the coverage for, the world's largest online media issues network, and then collected his columns, blogs and articles in a recently published book, EMBEDDED: Weapons of Mass Deception (Prometheus Books) . He has continued his one-man investigation with WMD, a two-hour indie non-fiction film that asks the questions that his media colleagues refused to confront before, during and after the war. Featuring footage from inside Iraq, and inside the media, WMD tracks the media war through February 2004.

A Nieman Fellow in Journalism at Harvard University, and radio news director turned CNN and Emmy Award winning ABC News Producer, Schechter wears several hats at the same time. He is now an award-winning independent investigative journalist and filmmaker as well as an outspoken author. Danny Schechter is not afraid to take on his own industry. WMD busts through so-called "objective reporting" to challenge media complicity with the government and its cooperation in presenting the Iraq War the way it did. This is a hard-hitting, yet personal film that looks at the television war and asks why the American audience lapped it up and how the Pentagon helped shape media coverage.

The Documentary Weapons of Mass Deception

Fighting For The Op-Edisphere
Danny Schechter
Tom Paine

In the old days, the op-ed page of any newspaper was the place set aside for opinion, in part to preserve the myth that the rest of the paper was somehow objective and viewpoint-free.

Just as there was supposed to be a "wall" between the business and editorial functions in media organizations, the editorial pages were designed as the preserve of a "free" marketplace of ideas where pundits, commentators, columnists and advocates duked it out, debating the great issues of the day.

That has changed as the media system itself changes, with more media concentration and uniformity of approach influencing what we see and read. Just as the "news hole" in many newspapers shrinks, so does the space allocated for opinion. As a sometime contributor to the very diverse "Viewpoints" section of a Long Island-based daily, I have heard editors grumble about the cutbacks, which limit access by independents such as myself because of all the regulars they have to accommodate.

The prestigious NY Times op-ed page seems to be an exception, even though only l0 percent of Times readers actually read it; perhaps that is why they are launching a new section in the entertainment pages.

The experts chosen to contribute still tend to come from elite think tanks, universities and big publishers. Increasingly, PR firms, speechwriters and political consultants ghostwrite op-eds for big-name clients and then "place" them with the editors who they are always cultivating. The editors are invariably drawn to top pols and celebrity writers. Who really writes their words doesn't seem to matter—and is rarely disclosed.

Others bypass the editors alltogether and simply buy space on op-ed pages to showcase ads posing as editorials, further blurring the line between ideas and advertising. Exxon Mobil brags on its website: "ExxonMobil Op-Eds continue a tradition begun 30 years ago. Placed in The New York Times, The Washington Post and selected other periodicals, the Op-Eds present economic, political and social issues important to you and the company. It is our objective to encourage thought and dialogue by informing the public about our industry, explaining our views on key issues of the day and presenting responsible policy proposals."

Rest of the Essay

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