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Media Coverage of Possible War Raises Question of Balance - 2003-02-27

As the forces of war continue to gain momentum in the Persian Gulf, the scenario is a familiar one. Another call to arms took place in 1898, in the buildup of what became known as the Spanish-American War. Before the United States declared war on Spain, the battle for public opinion had already begun.

In the weeks before the first shot was fired, the popular New York Journal newspaper pushed for immediate war with Spain.

Publisher William Randolph Hearst accused the Spanish of setting off a deadly explosion that sunk the warship the USS Maine while it sat at port in Cuba. Illustrations in the paper showed what it called Spanish saboteurs planting an underwater mine on the bottom of the ship. This provocative reporting -- termed "yellow journalism" -- rallied the American public behind the war effort. The war slogan became "Remember the Maine, To Hell with Spain."

In three short months, the United States defeated the Spanish and liberated Cuba. Historians to this day differ on what really caused the USS Maine to explode. Some believe an internal spark was to blame.

Terrence Moran, Professor of Communication at New York University, is writing a book called "Selling War in America, the Informed Buyer's Guide." He says times have changed, and people today have a vast array of media choices compared to those living in 1898.

"The Spanish-American War is famous in media history," he says. "The war was promoted by newspapers and certainly that pushed the government into it. It was the beginning of the power of the popular media to form government policy. But it is also true that in almost every U.S. war that newspapers, radio, television and magazines all contribute to war efforts."

But have the media gone too far in supporting war with Iraq? Professor Moran also recruits for the U.S. Marine Corps. He says in some cases, they have. "I am not opposed to war," he says. "I have a military background and a military perspective, but I find how The Wall Street Journal, and other mass media are beating drums of war, when they themselves know nothing about war, to be disturbing."

The Wall Street Journal, with a distribution of nearly two million, is considered a top U.S. newspaper.

Georgie Ann Geyer, veteran columnist on international affairs and author of 10 books, agrees The Wall Street Journal, and other publications have simply become voices for war. "I think The Wall Street Journal is a great paper, but on this subject, it has been absolutely overtaken by far-right editorship, and it has become almost like the 1890's, like the press that was crying for the Spanish-American War," she says. "It's clear the policy of the paper is to get this war going."

In a recent article, The Wall Street Journal criticized U.S. government officials who support a moderate approach to the war on terrorism. It said they will not be taken seriously until they drop all 'the socio-babble about root causes and complaints, and declare that we'll kill them (the terrorists) before they kill us.'

Paul Gigot, The Wall Street Journal's Editorial Page Editor, defends the right of the publication to express its opinions. "I have always thought an editorial page existed to have a point of view," he says. "And in this case, our point of view is that we support the liberation of Iraq and the deposing of Saddam Hussein as a threat, not just to the Middle East but also to Americans. We don't make any apologies for that view. We've had this view much longer then this President Bush has had it."

Mr. Gigot also believes the U.S. media have provided a diversity of viewpoints on the Iraqi question.

Matthius Rueb, Washington Bureau Chief for the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, agrees. "I don't agree with the argument that there is a bias in the American media in presenting the build-up towards a possible war on Iraq," he says. If you have an interest in being informed as to what is going on, you have the opportunity to know everything that's interesting both in the U.S. and Europe."

"The media not only serves the public opinion, it also reflects the public opinion," says the journalist. "So you have more of the arguments for invading Iraq and liberating the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein in the United States compared to Europe. But you still find all the arguments favoring an alternative to a military solution in the American media."

Professor Moran disagrees. He says the American media have not emphasized alternatives to war and hasn't criticized the government for fear of appearing unpatriotic. "One must go back to September 11," he says.

"Those of us who live in New York know it better than perhaps anyone in America. September 11 was an attack on us. The World Trade Center is exactly one mile from my office. I saw those planes hit. I saw the buildings fall. I do not have to be persuaded that there is a war on terrorism. Americans understand that. That underlying thing plays very much like Pearl Harbor did in World War II. It is the underlying justification for everything. If it had not been for September 11, Bush would not be able to push his program for Iraq."

Journalist Georgie Ann Geyer laments that the U.S. media did not respond with more criticism of the Bush administration's shift from al-Qaida to Iraq. "So the Afghan war was going along and suddenly Iraq comes up out of nowhere and simply most people were not analyzing it. They are now, but frankly, it's too late. The war is planned. The war is going ahead. It is too late," she says.

If war comes, as seems likely, the media will cover it, and undoubtedly with the same amount of controversy.