CRUMBLING OF THE FOURTH ESTATE
In late March and early April, people around the world may
have watched in shock and awe the so-called precision-guided missiles destroying
Baghdad and the sudden collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. But,
while Iraq’s infrastructure was crumbling under this onslaught, what they
may not have realised was that the much-cherished Western liberal media tradition—the
fourth estate—was also finally crumbling as the ‘embedded’ American
journalists led the cheer leading for the Pentagon and its boss Donald Rumsfeld.
‘One can’t fault the White House for trying to sell the war and the president,’
noted Dr James Zogby, President of the Arab American Institute. ‘What is
troublesome, however, is the way the American media has been such an uncritical
conveyor of the White House message. Selling is what politicians always do,
but never before has an administration been blessed with such willing buyers,’
he added in a recent column for the Palestine Chronicle.
Today, over the ruins of this fourth estate, its main landlords—the
CNN, Fox TV and the BBC—are all accusing one another of the destruction
of its credibility.
In late April, addressing a London media conference, BBC’s director general
Greg Dyke criticised the American media for its ‘gung-ho patriotism’ and
slammed the coverage of the Iraq war in the US media for being unquestioningly
patriotic and lacking in impartiality. He singled out the Rupert Murdoch-owned
Fox TV channel and Clear Channel Communications Inc, the owner of over 1,200
radio stations in the US, for special criticism. ‘We are still surprised
when we see Fox News with such a committed political position,’ he observed.
Throughout the war, Fox TV’s coverage carried the on-screen headline ‘Operation
Iraqi Freedom’, the same name given for the campaign by the Pentagon. Clear
Channel radio stations in Atlanta, Cleveland, San Antonio, Cincinnati and
a number of other cities around the US have organised pro-war rallies attended
by up to 20,000 people in the lead upto the war. While this did not violate
any of the US broadcasting laws, former Federal Communications Commission
(FCC) member Glen Robinson described this action as ‘borderline manufacturing
CNN founder Ted Turner has even gone as far as suggesting that Murdoch
helped to start the war against Iraq by using his media outlets such as
Fox TV to advocate an invasion. In a speech in San Fransisco on 24 April,
he said that media ownership in the US is too concentrated with five companies,
including Murdoch’s News Corporation, controlling ’99% of what you see and
hear’. Turner argued that these big media companies ‘don’t have the public
interest at heart’.
Murdoch and his executives have so far avoided responding to these criticisms.
Thus, while the big boys fight over their ruined credibility, can the rest
start a peasants’ revolt to build a fifth estate over the ruins of
The Arabic television channel Al-Jazeera has already shown how a challenge
could be mounted with comparatively very little money. Can other Arabic,
Asian, Latin American, African and perhaps French and German channels join
the revolt to take on the empire-builders?
The alarm over the demise of the fourth estate has been raised for
some time now—ever since the Gulf War of 1991 when American television ditched
their objectivity to cheerlead the US-led coalition which bombed Iraq. The
alarm was raised from within the US itself by such eminent academics and
social activists as Noam Chomsky and Robert McChesney.
In the introduction to his 1998 book Global Media and The New Missionaries
of Capitalism, McChesney warned of the power of US media conglomerates
towering over the global market. ‘Such a concentration of media power in
organisations dependent on advertiser support and responsible primarily
to shareholders is a clear and present danger to citizens’ participation
in public affairs, understanding of public issues, and thus to the effective
working of democracy,’ he argued.
There is no better illustration of this danger than what happened this
year, when, in spite of overwhelming opposition to a war on Iraq around
the world, the Bush administration went to war cheered by many of those
big media companies Prof McChesney was referring to.
These media companies were willing accomplices in promoting the Bush administration
view that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were a threat to the world,
when there seem to be none. As Dr Zogby noted when UN weapons inspectors
challenged US information, the media ignored them, and when US intelligence
analysts questioned Secretary of State Colin Powell’s assertions of Iraqi
weapons, these were dismissed by the same media. ‘The major American media
seemed more inclined to beat the drums of war than to investigate the White
House’s claims,’ noted Dr Zogby.
The fourth estate was supposed to do exactly that, to be the watchdog
of the government and oppose the decisions of the government that would have
harmful effects on the people. This is what is enshrined in the cherished
first amendment to the American constitution guaranteeing free speech.
Unfortunately the fourth estate no longer has this power in an environment
where big global media companies are huge conglomerates such as Time Warner
(which owns CNN), Disney and CBS. These companies are sometimes economically
more powerful than governments and control large economic assets such as
arms manufacturers, oil companies, banks and financial institutions.
Thus, who is going to be the watchdog of these corporations who, as we
have seen recently, work hand in hand with powerful governments to protect
and promote each other’s political and economic interests. Now that the
war is over, debates have begun about the need for an alternative.
The system of embedded reporters was the last straw for supporters of the
fourth estate. It was a scheme drummed up by the Pentagon public relations
machine, where journalists were allowed to accompany troops into battle
with their television cameras, which has been described by US Defence Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld as ‘breathtaking’ and ‘accurate’ reporting. But, it has come
in for much criticism by media analysts.
Researchers at the Washington-based think-tank Project for Excellence in
Journalism found that although the reports were live and factual, they
lacked perspective. Some 600 journalists have been embedded with the US
and British troops during the war, and each of them had to sign a contract
agreeing to what they can report and what they cannot. One embedded BBC
journalist, Richard Gaisford, was quoted in the Christian Science Monitor
as saying that they had to check every story with the military’s media
liaison officer who may sometimes send it right up to the Brigade headquarters
The greatest untold story of the war remains to be told. That is, who was
behind the toppling of Saddam’s statue in Baghdad? There are reports circulating
in credible Internet publications and many newspapers around the world today
that this was a staged event, where the US troops provided cover for militiamen
of Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress to perform the act which could
be beamed around the world as the ‘defining moment of the war’ where the
American liberators were greeted by the grateful Iraqis.
Australian ABC television’s Media Watch programme recently showed
a zoomed-out view of the square, which was basically deserted except for
those few Iraqis who were pounding the statue for the close-up angles of
American television cameras whose reporters claimed that thousands were
‘celebrating the liberation’. At the same time, these same channels ignored
the screams of pain and suffering of thousands of Iraqis just across the
roads in hospitals and in the streets who were victims of the American bombings
This is what the Arabic channel Al-Jazeera preferred to show to the world
and Al-Jazeera believes that it has played a leading role during the war
to highlight to the world that the Arab media have come of age and they
are a major factor in shaping world public opinion. For that, it was bombed
by US precision-guided missiles and one of its journalists was killed.
Paul de Rooij, a London-based Dutch economist and a long-standing Palestinian
rights activist, argues that there are lessons to be learned by all human
rights activists from the current experience. ‘We must realise that we are
dealing with extremely cynical people who think that entire populations can
be herded and cajoled,’ he warns. ‘Democracy, freedom of speech and peace
are under threat if these groups are not challenged vigorously now.’
‘For those seeking to avert future wars, there must be a realisation that
organising marches or using the political process is not enough,’ says
Rooij. ‘Besides these means, it is essential to obtain independent media
outlets, so that the power of the establishment media conglomerates may
be challenged.’. —Third World Network Features.
About the writer: Kalinga Seneviratne
is a Sri Lankan journalist and media analyst currently teaching International
Communications at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia.