Iraq war and the media

November 10, 2009

The war in Iraq has been one of the more controversial wars in recent history since the reasons for it were very questionable. George W. Bush, along with his ‘partner in crime’ Tony Blair, was determined to incriminate Saddam Hussein and invade Iraq to save the world from terrorism. We can hypothesize that the real reason for going to Iraq was to “secure its oil supplies” (O’Shaughnessy, 2004; p. 211), but that is a different matter.


“If public opinion was to support a war with Iraq, it was essential for the Anglo-American alliance to utterly demonise Saddam and his regime.” (Ibid; p. 222) The media was therefore the principal tool used for reaching that goal. Saddam Hussein had to be made the primary enemy of the West. Due to the scepticism of the public and the widespread unpopularity of the idea of the coalition going into Iraq, “the propaganda war would be as critical as the physical war” (Ibid; p. 211), according to the British and US governments. Thus, “the propaganda operation was enormous and […] insidious.” (Ibid; p. 211) On the 20th March 2003 (the day of the invasion of Iraq), an article in the Daily Telegraph read: “The government has invested almost as much thought in winning the propaganda war as planning its military operation”. (Ibid; p. 211)

Indeed, the task was considerable: to get the public to surrender to, if not accept, two key myths: that Iraq possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) and that there was a close link between Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden. (O’Shaughnessy, 2004; p. 225-226) This was done through assertive headlines, reports loosely based on rumors and assumptions and the extensive worldwide influence of the Fortune 500, “an annual list of the five hundred most profitable U.S. industrial corporations” (New Oxford American Dictionary, 2005-2009). Nicholas D. Kristof from the New York Times mentioned that “the average Fortune 500 company is far more sophisticated at getting its message across abroad than the US government has been” (O’Shaughnessy, 2004; p. 211). Again we come across the idea that power lies where the money is.

Finally, the US decided it was time to take action and went ahead with the invasion, while the weapons inspectors were “establishing the fact that there were probably no WMDs in Iraq” (Powell, 2004). Furthermore, “without the backing of the UN Security Council the war was in effect illegal” (O’Shaughnessy, 2004; p. 211). Through propaganda and media influence, this illegal Iraq war could become a reality without too much resistance from the public.


The war in Iraq became “without a doubt the most widely and closely reported war in military history” (Powell, 2004). The problem for the governments involved is that “in war press reaction can never be controlled, only influenced” (O’Shaughnessy, 2004; p. 210). We therefore saw the introduction of ‘embedded’ journalism, which involves journalists or photojournalists traveling ‘under the wing’ of a military unit. The journalists then become directly involved with the military and experience soldiers’ emotional and mental turmoil alongside them. (Ibid; p. 212) “When the photographer became an embedded photographer, any sense of “objectivity” had to have become totally lost” (Meyer, october 2003). We can indeed assume that any bias will be towards the military. As O’Shaughnessy puts it: “When you wear the uniform you buy the values” (O’Shaughnessy, 2004; p. 210). This also involves a great deal of self-censorship, on top of the censorship already applied onto them by the military (to avoid the broadcast of sensitive information that could jeopardise the operation). (Ibid; p. 213.)

Orville Schell, Dean of the Journalism School, comments on the one-dimensionality of embedded journalism: “Getting coverage only from embedded reporters is like looking only into a microscope. What we need is something of the broader picture, and the chance to know other aspects of the whole enterprise” (Powell, 2004). What we get, therefore, is a compartmentalised view of what happens in the war, from a rather centralised source.

With the technological advancements of modern media equipment, the public could follow any news from the frontline in quasi-immediacy (with the use, for example, of satellite-linked cameras). Furthermore, since the information and images provided by the embedded journalists had to be shared with other newspapers and news networks (than the journalist’s employer) (O’Shaughnessy, 2004; p. 213), the propaganda system was even more facilitated and increased.


It seems that any photographs that benefit the war effort and give it a good name are perfectly acceptable and considered ‘ethical’ even if they don’t portray the truth as well as  some pictures considered ‘unethical’ do. Apparently it was discovered, six months into the war, that the US “”heroic welcoming” imagery were mostly photo-ops set up by the military establishment” (Meyer, october 2003). However, that did not create a scandal and no one got fired. The outcome for Brian Walski turned out to be slightly different.


The Iraq war has been more than just the most widely reported war, it has also certainly been one of the most propaganda-fueled and media-dependent wars. This could not have been made possible a few decades ago; present society is the perfect cradle for this kind of manipulation. As Maureen Dowd observed in the New York Times on the 9th March 2003: “A culture more besotted with inane reality TV than scary reality is easily misled” (O’Shaughnessy, 2004; p. 225).


Nevertheless, how credible does the public actually think news organisations are? With the  evolution of photographic tools, does photojournalism remain the most reliable source of information and evidence? Does the saying ‘seeing is believing’ still apply?




O’Shaughnessy, Nicholas Jackson (2004). Politics and propaganda, weapons of mass seduction, p. 210, p. 211, p. 212, p. 213, p. 222, p. 225, p. 226. Great Britain: Manchester University Press. [Accessed on 6 November 2009].


New Oxford American Dictionary (2005-2009). Version 2.1 (80). [electronic] Mac OS X, Apple Inc. [Accessed on 8 November 2009].


Powell, Bonnie Azab (15 March 2004). Reporters, commentators visit Berkeley to conduct in-depth postmortem of Iraq war coverage. [online] UC Berkeley, NewsCenter. Available from: <> [Accessed on 1 November 2009].


Meyer, Pedro (October 2003). In defense of photographer Patrick Schneider and the fictions of a “Code of Ethics”. [online] ZoneZero. Available from: <> [Accessed on 26 October 2009]