The Role of the Media in Shaping Public Perception
Stephen Pelletiere speaks at the CPAP

With a PhD in Political Science, a background in journalism, and a current position as professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Army War College, Stephen Pelletiere brought his expertise to a discussion of the media at a 13 September 2001 Center lecture. He focused on press coverage of Iraq, Palestine, and the current situation following the 11 September plane hijackings and attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in the U.S.

Pelletiere began by addressing the media campaign against Iraq following the Iran-Iraq war. The U.S. did not expect Iraq to win, and when it did, U.S. leaders were “dumbfounded.” As Iraq sought to “rebuild itself” after the war, the U.S. attempted to prevent this restructuring through a number of avenues, focusing on damaging Iraq’s “credit worthiness.” Despite the accumulation of a large debt, Iraq “was good for the money” considering its oil resources. Still, in the spring of 1988, Iraq did not have the cash reserves necessary and wished to reschedule its debt payments. The media in the U.S. began running stories on Iraq, “the tone of which was extremely hostile.”

“All of the stories were slanted against Iraq,” which by itself is suspicious. In addition, some of the stories were simply “phony,” such as the report that 80,000 to 100,000 Kurds were gassed to death by Iraq. “You can’t kill that many people using gas, in a concentrated period, in terrain such as exists in northern Iraq.” Irrational stories do appear in the media on occasion, but not usually so extensively in the established press. It seemed to Pelletiere that “this was a campaign.” At the time, Congress was debating sanctions on Iraq and may have been trying to prepare the public. When sanctions were eventually declared, Iraq could no longer reschedule its debts.

Moving to the issue of how the media has covered Israel and Palestine, Pelletiere explained that Israel’s current military activity in the Occupied Territories is “coming dangerously close to ethnic cleansing.” Nonetheless, the press presents the conflict as relatively balanced and argues that both sides are equally responsible for the violence. Pelletiere takes a different approach. He explained that at the Camp David negotiations, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered a deal “that was no deal at all.” Barak hoped the Palestinians would accept it and be “saddled with an entity that was not viable,” a so-called state that would fall apart. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat refused. “The pro-Israeli forces . . . had to find a way of retreating from the exposed position they found themselves in, because in the process of setting Arafat up, . . . they had dignified both him and his movement by appearing to take the idea of Palestinian statehood seriously.” They choose to “criminalize” the Palestinians.  Israeli leader Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the Haram al-Sharif, which Barak allowed, started the uprising, then the Israeli army responded to subsequent protests with “unusual ferocity.” “Once a cycle of violence had been created, one could simply nurse it along.”

Pelletiere urged the public to “pay special attention” to the fact that journalists who are focusing on these stories and opinions are conservative, as are the newspapers publishing them, mainly The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. The line between news and opinion has become blurred, mainly through the op-ed pages of the newspapers. “Spurious” ideas start there and then filter into the news. This is not only the case regarding Israel/Palestine, but with other issues as well. The role of the press is to “serve special interests.” Pelletiere urged those concerned with these issues to confront to media. The “peace movement faced the same challenges” in the 1960s and managed to overcome them. They can be overcome now as well, “but it does take innovative thinking.”

“There is a cadre [in the government] that knows what’s going on” and who are “fairly astute,” but if their opinions are heard at all, they are labeled “alternative.” During his work with the army and Central Intelligence Agency, Pelletiere met those like him who had alternative viewpoints but “never got a hearing until there was a crisis,” such as during Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. 

Despite his encouragement of innovative thinking, Pelletiere was keenly aware of the challenges involved. As he explained, conservatives are “in the ascendancy” now. He already sees trends developing following Tuesday’s attack. These trends include the perceptions that: (1) “We’re at war.” (2) America will never again be the same. However, Pelletiere asserted, “I don’t think we’re any different” than before. The U.S. is still nearing a recession, the information technology industry is still failing, President Bush is still untested. (3) Osama bin Laden is guilty of the attack. Pelletiere does not believe bin Laden had the resources to organize such a campaign, but whether or not he is guilty, the U.S. will use him as a scapegoat. (4) The United States will likely attack Afghanistan. The administration is already preparing the public for it through news coverage and government briefings.

This is “not a classic conspiracy,” Pelletiere pointed out. Government and media leaders do not get together and decide what these “lines” or trends will be. Rather, there is a “distillation process” from “thinks tanks” and policy institutes. Certain approaches seem more plausible than others, are repeated often enough, and are easier to defend than other arguments, and they become the “line.” Pelletiere also urged the audience to watch the stock market and observe how it affects U.S. policies. The only times he has witnessed “real changes made” were when business interests were affected. As for what the U.S. leadership will do now, Pelletiere said, “All they want to do is get themselves through this period. If it develops into a real exploitation where the administration begins to single out certain areas for repression-then we’re in for a very bad period. I don’t see any signs of that now.” Nonetheless, “there’s a tradition of using incidents like this... to point American society into a very conservative direction.” This has occurred “over and over again” in the past. “Whether that will happen this time, I don’t think anyone has a way of knowing, but it’s a possibility.”

The above text is based on remarks delivered on 13 September 2001 by Stephen Pelletiere, Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Army War College. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine or The Jerusalem Fund. This “For the Record” was written by Publications Manager Wendy Lehman; it may be used without permission but with proper attribution to the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine.

For The Record
Number 82
18 September 2001

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