Hearts and minds

It was to be «the mother of all battles,» the new Stalingrad, the ultimate showdown in which hundreds, if not thousands of tired and demoralized coalition troops were bound to meet a certain death inflicted upon them by the staunch supporters of the Iraqi regime. Or so the Greek media, and others, had it. It turned out that US forces met with light resistance in the Iraqi capital. Much to our surprise, some residents gave them a warm reception. We saw locals going ecstatic as Saddam’s statue was pulled down, hurling shoes and stones on the replica of their deposed despot. Their celebrations were too real to cast off as a sham. Even for the most biased media. It’s a cliche that when war is declared, truth is the first casualty. And so it was. The machines of propaganda were in full throttle on both sides. The outcome was nothing less than a theater of the absurd. We saw US military officials disputing reports of damage to their forces and of misguided missiles, while Iraqi television played footage of distressed American POWs and of wrecked civilian targets. Also, in the face of Western media footage showing coalition tanks rumbling into the Iraqi capital, the grinning Iraqi information minister assured reporters that Saddam’s loyalists would put the infidels to flight – the absurdity of his claims garnering him a measure of support even in the West, despite his sinister role as spokesman for the Iraqi regime. Indeed, watching the reports of some of our correspondents, one got the impression that they presented the Iraqi government’s side without reservations. Like all war correspondents, Greece’s showed an admirable level of concern. It takes a lot of courage to do your job amid missiles and gunfire. But some Greek reporters seemed more keen to express their own views about the war than to describe what was going on. The lines between reporting and editorializing got blurred. We saw images of reporters with ethnic neckerchiefs cuddling awe-struck children. We did not see their Information Ministry «minders» who controlled what reporters saw. Unlike the major international news agencies, whose worldwide market focus and keen rivalry mandates that they maintain high standards of quality and objectivity or lose a share of their market, competition among national television stations for the domestic audience very often throws them into the familiar, aggressive sentimentalism that elevates feeling and image over reason and reality. And although destruction and suffering are a condition of warfare, they are not the only aspect of it. True to form, as they do with local stories as well (such as the Tempe bus horror on April 13), our media were unrestrained in their depiction of human suffering – and there was plenty of it. Their persistent focus on grieving men and women, on crippled bodies and maimed children seemed to be less an indication of sympathy for the innocent victims and more a sign of a bizarre schadenfreude. Some reporters appeared to show the bloody results of coalition failures as a reason to express solidarity with the side they felt was in the right. This was inevitable, given that behind every journalist there is an ordinary human being who is moved by suffering and injustice. The problem is that in broadcasting just one side – even if one does so unconsciously – one is distorting the story. Misinformation has so strong an effect that it actually becomes part of the event that is to be analyzed or described. As a reporter of the, admittedly more restrained, state television remarked recently, «thousands of rumors end up acquiring news status merely because they were broadcast as news.» On the other hand, many of the reporters of major international news media who were «embedded» with US or British military units got to see and to present only their limited side of the story. Neither side, on its own, is right. (It is up to editors back home to put the whole story together, otherwise viewers or readers have to select a broad range of channels and newspapers themselves to get as much of the story as possible.) The Greek reporters sounded in good voice back here – a country where neutrality has become a synonym for unquestioning suspicion of US intentions. And questions remain over the war’s legality and necessity. The true success of the removal of Saddam Hussein has to be weighed against the human suffering caused by the war. The ostensible cause of this war – Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction – has not been proven. Washington’s geostrategic calculations, disguised as these may be behind the mantle of a campaign to bring democracy and prosperity in the broader Mideast region, remain. However, given the unmatched military superiority of the US, one should have hoped for this war to be as short as possible. As it was. In the light of American promises about Iraq’s postwar reconstruction, the real test for the US has just begun. Most of our reporters, on the other hand, returned amid loud celebrations, with few questions on their success. It’s not certain what drives the domestic media’s penchant for hyperbole and misinformation. However, it’s probably the same incomprehensible urge that drove them to take clear sides in the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Is this a case of the media giving the people what they think they want, or is it a lack of reporters’ courage to break the mold when their editors demand that they give them what the other channels have?