July 24, 2003
Sheldon Rampton, Co-Author of "Weapons Of Mass Deception: The Uses Of Propaganda In Bushís War On Iraq"
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, of the Center for Media Democracy and PRWatch.org, co-wrote "Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq." Let us tell you, this is BuzzFlash's kind of book (and, of course, we will be offering it as a premium next week). Rampton and Stauber analyze how the Bush Cartel created a "show war" through the use of propaganda, lies, half-truths and Hollywood imaging techniques. The authors dissect how the Bush spin masters seared "the big lie" into the collective sub-conscious of the American public in order to achieve the Bush-Cheney administration's economic and world view goals.
We adapted the following background information from the Penguin Group publisher's preview:
As we ponder the timing and the large scale of the attack on two men who were allegedly Saddam's sons (plus one other man and a teenager), it is fitting to consider a book on how the Bush Cartel uses propaganda to distract and mislead the public: both in a proactive and reactive way. After all, the "Sons of Saddam" attack occurred on a day that the White House had an aide admit that the CIA HAD indeed warned the Bush administration, twice in writing, about the phony Niger documents. Also accusations relating to the Bush Cartel's multiple lies and deliberate "outing" of a CIA agent were starting to enter the mainstream press. So what could be more effective as a distraction from the truth than mounting a "Jessica Lynch" rescue style assault on four men isolated in a house? It got the headlines for a few days, right?
BuzzFlash was pleased to interview co-author Sheldon Rampton.
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BUZZFLASH: In your book, "Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bushís War on Iraq," you quote a comment by the Nazi Hermann Goering. Some people might see it as inappropriate to quote a Nazi in reference to any activity undertaken by an American president. But weíve used this quote before in BuzzFlash at least a couple of times.
During the Nuremberg trials, Goering was interviewed by a psychologist and talked about how they convinced people to go to war. He pointed out that people naturally donít want to go to war, but itís up to the leaders of the country who determine the policy to persuade them that the war is necessary. "It is always a simple matter to drag the people along," he said, "whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship."
Goering's interviewer challenged the Nazi deputy Reich Führer. He told Goering that there is one difference: in a democracy, the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States, only Congress can declare war.
Goering responded, "Oh, that is all well and good. But voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them that they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism in exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."
You include this quote in your book. How do you think it applies to what happened after September 11th?
SHELDON RAMPTON: We used that passage as part of a chapter in "Weapons of Mass Deception" entitled "The Uses of Fear," in which we examine the ways that fear played a role in the buildup to the war with Iraq. We begin by discussing Osama bin Laden's use of fear as propaganda. Obviously, fear is his main weapon with which to confront the United States. They call him a terrorist for good reason.
And terrorism as a form of warfare is rather striking because itís an approach to fighting that begins with the assumption that you donít have the physical resources with which to confront your enemy on the battlefield, so instead you have to attack him emotionally. Terrorism is the only form of warfare we know of in which controlling the emotions of your adversary is the primary goal of the combatants. In most other forms of warfare, including even guerilla war, your goal ultimately is to control territory, to control productive resources and other physical assets. By controlling or destroying those assets of the enemy, you destroy their physical ability to wage war. But terrorism as a form of warfare targets primarily the emotions of the adversary and attempts to defeat them psychologically rather than through combat.
One of the striking things about the past half-century is the rise of this sort of thing, largely as a result of the growing significance of the mass media in our lives. A century ago, a terrorist attack like the one carried out by Osama bin Laden would not have had the emotional resonance that it has today, because today we watch it live on television. The images are seen by millions if not billions of people, and the visceral gripping, emotional quality of the attacks becomes much more significant. And terrorists have learned to exploit that.
But theyíre not the only ones, of course, who use emotions such as fear to manipulate people. In "The Uses of Fear," we talk about other uses of fear by various parties ranging from commercial marketers, like the automobile industry, whoíve used the heightened military sensibilities of the American people to promote the idea that people should be driving around in these huge, oversize SUVs. The auto industry itself, in its marketing strategies, says that it is intentionally marketing SUVs to the public as "urban assault vehicles." What theyíre doing is capitalizing on our fear of terrorism, telling people that they can feel safer from their fears by driving around in a big, aggressive vehicle. In a similar fashion, you can bring people to do the bidding of politicians and go to war by telling them that they will feel safer if they do something aggressive. Thatís the point, of course, that Goering was making, and on this particular point, he knew what he was talking about.
Fear is one of the most primitive emotions that people have. If you can induce fear in people, you bypass their more rational thinking facilities and can get them to respond and behave in predictable ways. Thatís always one of the goals of a propagandist: to be able to motivate people to behave in ways that you can predict. Itís not that easy to do, because people are fairly complex creatures, and we have a lot of intelligence and diversity in the way we look at the world. There arenít that many ways of pushing peopleís buttons that get people to respond in a uniform, predictable way. Fear is one of the emotions that has the ability to do that, and thatís why itís such a powerful propaganda tool.
BUZZFLASH: Weíll play a little devilís advocate here. The Bush administration would argue: Look, this horrific act occurred on September 11th. More than 3,000 people were killed -- Americans and foreigners -- in this attack on our home soil. And so we took all appropriate responses, including wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. What essentially is your claim that this administration used weapons of mass deception to lead us through a propaganda campaign into the war?
RAMPTON: To justify the notion that the war on Iraq is an appropriate component of the struggle against terrorism or that it is a response to the events of September 11, you have to make certain claims, which in fact the Bush administration did make. First, they claimed that there were ties between Iraq and Al-Qaeda. Second, they claimed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that could be used in future terrorist attacks against U.S. citizens on U.S. soil. Those were the two primary claims that provided the rationale for saying we had to go to war.
There is a third claim -- that this was a war to liberate the people of Iraq, but this was really made up as an afterthought. Itís a claim that I donít think would ever have been terribly persuasive to the people in the United States. The reality is that people in the United States donít care that much about the people of Iraq. You can see that fact reflected every day in the type of news coverage we get, where thereís very little attention paid to even attempting an estimate of the number of Iraqis who have been killed thus far in the war, whereas we get fairly frequent updates on the number of U.S. soldiers who have been killed in combat.
There isn't any basis, either in history or in recent news coverage or discussions, to support the idea that the American people are so motivated by concern for the people of Iraq that they would send their own sons and daughters into danger to try to liberate them. Thatís not the reason we went there. The reason people were willing to accept the war is that the American people were persuaded by the Bush administration that Saddam Hussein was in cahoots with Al-Qaeda, and that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was willing to carry out even worse attacks on American civilians if we did not invade.
We go into quite a bit of detail in Weapons of Mass Deception to show how each of those claims was false, and had to have been known to be false, by the Bush administration at the time that they made those claims.
BUZZFLASH: As we speak, the Bush administration, in an unprecedented admission for them, yesterday quietly acknowledged that the uranium claim in relation to Niger of a potential uranium transfer to Iraq was indeed a false claim. And thatís the first time theyíve admitted that, although they didnít admit that it was done intentionally.
RAMPTON: Something very similar is happening in the United Kingdom. The claim that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger is a good example of how both the United Kingdom and the United States worked as an echo chamber so that claims could be repeated without anyone having to take responsibility for them. That claim from Niger was first made by the United States and was then cited in British intelligence briefings. The United States in turn cited the British as its source for the claim that Iraq was seeking uranium in Niger. By the time you unravel where this fabrication originated, no one has to take responsibility for the fact that itís a completely unsupported claim and that the documents upon which it was based were known to be forgeries at the time that Bush and Blair made their claims.
BUZZFLASH: You point out in your book, as others have done, that if one were to want to come to terms with the financiers, chief supporters, mentors, and harborers of Al-Qaeda, one would have to look at Saudi Arabia rather than Iraq. One of the pieces of propaganda that floated out there was the erroneous notion that some of the hijackers were Iraqi, in fact none were, and that, indeed, 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals. Among many other facts that you note in your book, you point out a little piece of information, the type that gets lost in an avalanche of news every day, namely that the wife of the Saudi ambassador to the United States had financially supported a roommate of one of the hijackers.
The Bush administration responded to this disclosure by saying that the financial support provided by the Saudi Ambassador's wife was simply an act of benevolence on her part, that she had no idea that there might be any connection to the terrorist plot. This response was emblematic of how the Bushes have actually protected Saudi Arabia whenever any evidence of possible Saudi involvement with terrorism comes up. By contrast, the administration took every hint or vague relationship that might link Iraq to terrorism and blew it up into an exaggeration or lie. They said Saudi Arabia is our great buddy in the war on terrorism, but they did just the opposite with a country that seemed to have far fewer, if any real ties to Al-Qaeda.
What was the Bush administrationís motivation in not really dealing with the country thatís the spiritual, religious and family home of Al-Qaeda, and actually protecting people who seem to have some relationship to the financing of the terrorists? Thatís a betrayal of the war on terrorism.
RAMPTON: We go into quite a bit of detail about the double standard employed with respect to Saudi Arabia vs. Iraq. Saudi Arabia, of course, is an important source of oil. The oil industry is obviously very influential within the Bush administration, and top officials in the first Bush administration, including the Presidentís father, have personal financial relationships with companies like the Carlyle Group that have business dealings with top Saudis, so they donít want to go after those people. They basically look the other way when evidence of Saudi connections to Al-Qaeda appears.
On the other hand, they didnít have those kinds of ties with Iraq by the time that the Bush administration decided to go to war, so it was easy to stigmatize and single out Iraq and try to turn them into the instigators of the September 11 attack. I think the financial motive is the primary explanation for the double standard.
BUZZFLASH: And the American oil companies have an excellent relationship with Saudi Arabia. But in Iraq, it was Russia and France that were primarily responsible for oil, and the British and the Americans now will have the Iraqi oil concession.
RAMPTON: Right. And thatís certainly one factor Ė- not the only factor, but an important factor in explaining the decisions that have been made by the Bush administration.
BUZZFLASH: You deal with propaganda in its broadest sense here. You have an interesting section on the failed Bush attempt -- which, of course, is going largely unnoticed in the press -- to convince the Arab world that America is really promoting democracy for them and is not conducting a war against them. And the woman who was appointed to run that campaign, Charlotte Beers, resigned after just a year because her efforts had been a catastrophic failure.
We interviewed Naomi Klein last year, and she said the whole idea of trying to brand democracy, which is what the Bush administration was trying to do, was doomed to failure, because democracy, by its very nature, should be celebrating a diversity of voices, not a uniform, branded product. Whatís your take on that?
RAMPTON: I think Naomi Kleinís insight is really very good. In fact, we quote her on that point in our book -- I think we may have quoted her from the BuzzFlash interview. The point that she makes underscores the historical relationship that has existed between commercial advertising and propaganda.
Commercial advertising, like public relations and other forms of propaganda, is ultimately about controlling the message. Thereís an emphasis on ensuring consistency and uniformity of messages, which is very much at odds with the democratic model of communicating. The democratic model aims at ensuring a diversity of voices and that different points of view get heard. When they try to apply branding techniques to deliver the message -- and the main message that they were trying to deliver was that America stands for freedom -- then the very technique they were using to deliver the message contradicted the message itself. And thatís part of the reason for its failure.
The other reason for the failure of the message is that the Arab and Muslim worlds simply are not prepared to believe that the United States stands for freedom and democracy in their region. Theyíre basing that belief on their own experience. One of the long-standing and interesting facts about propaganda is that it is often much less effective than the propagandists think itís going to be, especially at influencing the thinking of hostile populations. The reason is that those people are not predisposed to believe it, and they have their antenna up, looking for the propaganda. And they tend to detect it and dismiss it quite easily.
Weíve seen that very strikingly in the case of U.S. propaganda connected to the war on Iraq. The propaganda has mostly been successful within U.S. borders. If you step across the border into Canada, you find a very different environment, let alone if you step into the Arab and Muslim world where the net effect of Charlotte Beersí campaign and U.S. policy has been to drive the U.S. image even lower than it was before they began.
I think the decline in U.S. standing in world opinion, especially in Arab and Muslim countries, is unprecedented. This failure is largely a result of the fact that the Bush administration has been selling a message that no one is prepared to buy. You can only do so much with propaganda, and often times what happens is that propagandists end up mostly indoctrinating themselves. I think thatís what has happened here.
BUZZFLASH: Fear was used to do everything, as you point out, from selling SUVs to arguing that we should drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Fear was used even to justify tax cuts. Itís almost as though the Bush administration and the Republican majority in Congress just got carried away and they couldnít stop themselves. They were using terrorism to achieve any and almost every unpalatable domestic goal, in addition to trying to persuade people to go to war against Iraq. They were besotted with peddling fear to achieve their radical goals.
RAMPTON: One of the stories we tell in Weapons of Mass Deception is the attempt by Arianna Huffington awhile back to use similar propaganda to criticize SUVs (See: LINK). The United States attempted to use a fear appeal as part of its war on drugs by running those TV ads with people saying, "I bought drugs and I funded a terrorist." Huffington created some very similar ads that showed people saying, "I bought an SUV and I funded a terrorist." While the anti-drug advertisements were broadcast widely on U.S. television, a number of stations actually refused to broadcast the Arianna Huffington ads, saying that they were inappropriate, that she hadnít proven her case that buying an SUV funds terrorism.
Thereís at least as much basis for believing that buying SUVs supports terrorism as there is for believing that buying marijuana supports terrorism. But thereís a double standard in the type of propaganda thatís acceptable. If it happens to be something that supports U.S. policy objectives -- in this case, the drug war -- then it goes through without critical scrutiny. But if itís something like the Arianna Huffington ads, the stations say thereís a much higher standard of evidence that has to be met, and they won't even let her buy the right to broadcast her message to the American people.
BUZZFLASH: We should point out, as we have on the BuzzFlash website, that Afghanistan, since the U.S. invaded it, is now back to being the largest opium producer -- a dubious distinction for a war that was supposed to wipe out terrorism and drugs. If drugs are the motherís milk of terrorism, then Bush has allowed Afghanistan to once again become the big cow, as far as funding terrorism is concerned. And yet heís running ads that say buying marijuana promotes terrorism, and it seems to be a bit hypocritical.
RAMPTON: Consistency between words and reality has never been his strong suit, has it?
BUZZFLASH: You have a section here on the opinionated press. Itís been said that what has happened with cable television, in particular Bill OíReilly, Chris Matthews, and Fox in general, is that Americans are now getting more opinion than news. OíReilly doesnít really tell you news. Heís like a guy, as Joe Conason has said, whoís drunk on a barstool and is just telling you what his gripes are. At Fox, even the news division is more opinion than news, and itís opinion that is almost invariably consistent with the White House propaganda.
And itís not just Fox: There are, of course, the rather well-documented allegations that Judith Miller of the New York Times basically became a stenographer for the Pentagon in reporting prematurely that two rather threadbare and skeletal tractors were really mobile germ laboratories. Mainstream reporters also seemed to be consciously or unconsciously doing the bidding of the Pentagon. Today there are polls that show nearly 40% of Americans believe that weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq. Whatís the role of the media in terms of being a conveyor of the propaganda?
RAMPTON: Well, frankly I think the media in just about any country -- and the United States is no exception -- tends to follow the lead of its government, especially when covering topics related to foreign policy. It happens for different reasons in different countries. Sometimes thereís explicit censorship and control. Sometimes itís through more subtle means of influence, like advertising or various forms of political pressure, which is mostly the way the agenda gets set here. But in most countries, youíll find a certain amount of correspondence between the policies of their government and the way information gets presented to the public.
However, in the United States post-9/11, the degree of media conformity to the government line became much more pronounced. Thereís a sort of a filter of hyper-patriotism put on everything, to the point where you have fluttering American flags and the Star Spangled Banner playing in the background of war coverage. And thereís also a very hostile, vitriolic tone when dealing in any way with the views of people who dissent from the administrationís position. Itís possible to be biased in favor of your government without necessarily shouting someone down or calling them names, or, ordering your producer to turn off someoneís microphone in the middle of an interview, which is what Bill OíReilly did to one of his guests in an interview that we quote in our book.
A level of emotional cheerleading has taken over -- most noticeably in cable television, but itís affected a lot of the rest of the media as well. It tends to break down rationality. Instead of examining arguments on their merits, people take up sides and they cheerlead. The question isnít whether someoneís arguments are factual or internally consistent; the question is which side are you on. A lot of television like Fox News has more of the character of a wrestling show or a sports show than any sort of attempt to engage in factual consideration of the issues at hand.
We quote a number of Bill OíReillyís fans after that exchange in which he basically shouted down his guest Ė- screamed at him to shut up, and then had his producer cut off the guyís microphone. And OíReillyís viewers, on a web-based discussion forum, were saying things like: "This is great entertainment. He should have punched the guy. He should have spat on him. He should have had his security people physically throw the guy out of the studio." They had all sorts of ideas for things that OíReilly should have done to literally physically injure and humiliate his guest. And thatís a level of intensity of hostility that goes well beyond disagreeing with someone or wanting to debate them. What youíre really watching is combat television in which Bill OíReilly as the interviewer becomes a combatant whose mission is not simply to interrogate the guest about his views, but literally to defeat him in some sort of battle. Thatís what people are tuning in to watch: the entertainment of the combat.
BUZZFLASH: The guest in question during the interview you're describing was the relative of someone who was killed on September 11.
RAMPTON: Right. O'Reilly's guest was the son of a Port Authority worker who died at the World Trade Towers, but he opposed the war.
BUZZFLASH: The Bush administration and the right wing claims to be acting on behalf of the victims of 9/11, but when the son of one of those victims differs from their perspective, OíReilly psychologically brutalizes and humiliates him on national television.
RAMPTON: One of O'Reilly's fans wrote that if she had been in the studio, she would have killed this guy -Ė literally killed him. And she went on to state, "No jury in the land would have convicted me."
BUZZFLASH: This was in reference to killing someone who had lost a relative in the 9/11 terrorist attack.
RAMPTON: He lost his father.
BUZZFLASH: And yet theyíre saying kill the guy because he disagrees with Bill OíReilly about the war.
RAMPTON: Right. Thereís something in all of this thatís rather reminiscent, I think, of the old Roman gladiator days where the audience is watching the combat and waiting for the moment when they get to give the thumbs signal to say OK, now kill the guy.
BUZZFLASH: Have we reached the point in our society where, in a perverted sort of way, the Bush administration is the perfect administration for the moment when news and entertainment have combined to the point where you canít distinguish between them? The Iraq war was really, in some ways, a form of info-tainment in which we had a Hollywood type of propaganda scripting. We had the Jessica Lynch story. And it was all as if it were from a "B" studio script. People seem to have a hard time distinguishing between the reality and the entertainment qualities of the event.
RAMPTON: And the Bush administration has certainly been very successful in exploiting the historical moment, and the mood of the American people following September 11. But the Clinton administration was also very successful at doing propaganda and exploiting images to its own advantage. I rather prefer the Clinton administrationís propaganda because we were living in a bubble economy with an illusion of prosperity, but at least we had the illusion of it. One of the striking successes of the Clinton administration in retrospect is that worldwide hostility to the United States did not coalesce, whereas the Bush administrationís international propaganda has been a striking failure. The cost and consequences of that are going to be increasingly felt by the American people. They are already.
We're seeing a growing chorus of reports coming out of Iraq saying that the troops that remain stationed there are experiencing morale problems. Word is trickling back to their families at home. There was a report recently in the New York Times about a shouting match that occurred at a U.S. Army base where some 800 wives of soldiers stationed in Iraq basically started screaming at a hapless officer saying: Bring our men home.
So the consequences of the Bush administrationís policies do get felt and do have an impact on people's feelings and perceptions. I think that will ultimately be their undoing. The question is how long it will take for that realization to set in with people at home. But itís hard to remain permanently entertained by the spectacle of watching Bill OíReilly beat up people on Fox News, when simultaneously youíre worried about your son or daughter who is sleeping in a ditch somewhere and being shot at by Iraqis. Itís not so entertaining anymore when itís your son or daughter over there. The propaganda can do a certain amount to influence people, but ultimately I think Abraham Lincoln was right when he said that you can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you canít fool all of the people all of the time.
BUZZFLASH: Well, letís end with a final follow-up question to that. Karl Rove, who is the acknowledged Svengali of the Bush administration, seems to believe that you can fool the people indefinitely. In the book "Bushís Brain," Rove is quoted as saying that he devises events for television thinking about how the images will look to people who might watch television with the sound turned off, so events become visually crafted to convey the message of the day. He sells the visual image of the smiling, confident George Bush surrounded by soldiers so that he can brand Bush as the hero of the war on terror, a great leader, a man who put money back in your pockets. The branding identity will be so consistent and so overwhelming with nearly a half-billion dollars in campaign funding to put the desired images on television, that other niggling points wonít matter in 2004. The selling of the brand identity of George Bush will be so strong that anything that tries to detract from that image simply will not stick.
RAMPTON: Thatís Roveís theory, and Rove is currently being fairly successful with it, but the real question is how this is going to play out over the long term. If you look at past wars, the war in Vietnam was initially a popular war in the United States and remained that way for a number of years. News coverage in the United States of the war in Vietnam was initially sanitized and full of celebration and unquestioned acceptance of the Johnson administrationís goals, much the same way that current coverage of the Bush administrationís war in Iraq has been sanitized.
Over time, as morale disintegrated among U.S. soldiers and as the American people began to raise questions independently of the media, their concerns were eventually reflected in a more critical type of coverage that appeared in the media. The media certainly play a big role in influencing the way people think about the world, but people still have minds of their own, and the force of reality ultimately does intrude on people's consciousness. If the U.S. occupation of Iraq continues for an extended period of time, which appears increasingly likely, I think youíre going to see growing dissent and growing questioning of the administrationís policies and motives.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
otherwise noted, all original