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Last Updated:  Wednesday, 26 February, 2003, 12:31 GMT
US media's war challenge
By Louisa Lim
BBC analyst

There have been widespread complaints that the US media is, at worst, openly partisan in favour of President Bush and, at best, cowed into withholding criticism of his administration - and policy towards Iraq.

So how true is this?

One of the nation's most respected television anchormen, Dan Rather, said that the patriotic fervour that swept the country after 11 September is preventing the media asking difficult questions.

President Bush addresses a press conference
The White House is eager to influence the media's war coverage
In the United States there is already a war going on - the battle for public opinion.

It is being waged through the pages of the print media and over the airwaves.

But despite the saturation coverage of the Iraq crisis, a large number of Americans feel their voices are not being heard.

They showed their numbers in a huge anti-war protest a week ago on the streets of New York.

Among them was Danny Schechter, who runs a website called mediachannel.org, and monitors the mainstream media.

Mr Schechter believes that since 11 September, many journalists have been nervous about appearing unpatriotic by being too critical of the government.

In many cases, objectivity - rather than truth - has been one of the casualties of a war that has not yet begun

"You have a sort of news slant in favour of the administration and the way the administration defines what news is," he says.

"It's not so much that journalists don't want to cover the other side. But the way that they see the other side is it's the Bush administration versus Saddam Hussein. Those are the two sides."

"In fact, there are many other sides; there is all of Europe, and there is all of the American people who are dissatisfied with all this."

But what the White House is doing to manage the news is not called censorship, Mr Schechter says. It's called "spin".

"It's called trying to get your story out first and define the news agenda. So you have coverage of events like Afghanistan for example, with a tremendous amount of hoopla - but no assessment of what was really accomplished there and what wasn't accomplished.

"This is true in all these stories; the news media moves in, and it moves on."

Complete control

The White House briefing is a ritualistic and almost daily opportunity for journalists to get the presidential view.

But how easy is it to get the real, inside story from the administration?

Dana Milbank, who covers the White House for the Washington Post newspaper, says the White House media managers have been almost 100% effective in controlling leaks from the administration.

"Things are held very close to the vest in the sense that maybe four or five or six people on any given subject actually know what's going on in the White House," he says.

"You have this large complex with hundreds and hundreds of people, but the only ones who know enough to leak, you can generally count on the fingers of one hand. And they are perfectly loyal."

By and large most of the White House press corps and most of the American media have gone along with the White House plan.

So journalists trusted to see things the way the White House does get the story first.

The story is defined in those terms in the mind of the public before organisations which see events differently have a chance to modify it.

And by that time the story may have moved on.

'Big media' attacked

The Fox News Channel is famous for its hawkish tone.

Cal Thomas hosts a show on the channel, and his opinion pieces appear in 550 newspapers.

It is good for the press to be sceptical about their political leadership, but when scepticism becomes cynicism, I think that's bad for the media
Cal Thomas, Fox News

He's used his columns to attack what he calls "big media" for being too negative about the Bush administration.

"When I speak of the big media I'm talking of those which attract the most viewers - the broadcast networks, of which we have three in the United States - ABC, NBC, and CBS - which most people watch and get their news from.

"They all seem to come from a similar perspective. But ABC's anchor Peter Jennings has been especially critical and sceptical of everything the administration says."

The press should act as a watchdog on the executive, Cal Thomas says.

But a watchdog should not bite without provocation.

"It is good for the press to be sceptical about their political leadership, but when scepticism becomes cynicism, I think that's bad for the media and its bad for the government. I believe it over steps its role at that point."

Thirst for news

Indeed, there seems to be an increasing lack of trust in the media from all sides of the political spectrum - and among the population as a whole.

Large sections of the media seem to see their role as preparing the US for war

But in fact ratings for news programmes are improving, according to media analyst Jack Myers, albeit for some more than others:

"During the build up to war the more conservative commentators, such as those on the Fox News Channel, do extremely well. There is a little more of a rabid fever to get opinion and analysis," he says

As the first bombs fall, then viewers go more for the hard news and they tend to move back towards CNN, towards the more traditional news channels, the more trusted news sources for information as opposed to opinion."

Large sections of the media seem to see their role as preparing the US for war.

Much less time is spent questioning the reasons and examining the consequences of any military action.

And in many cases objectivity - rather than truth - has been one of the casualties of a war that has not yet begun.

This feature is based on a BBC World Service Analysis programme originally broadcast on 20 February 2002.


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