It had to be heard to be believed! Jonathan Carl, a CNN correspondent who was standing in for a regular programme anchor, was commenting on American reaction to North Korea since Pyongyang embarked on a course of outright confrontation with the United States of America on the nuclear issue.
He named the North Korean leader as King Jong the second! How could it be' North Korea was so much in the news and how could a CNN correspondent who handled important beats in Washington get it wrong' But once again, Carl said it in his report: Kim Jong II.
Then it dawned on the more discriminating viewers. This CNN correspondent who was authoritatively commenting on the developing crisis between the US and North Korea did not have a clue to the name of the man who rules the world’s only remaining Stalinist state. Perhaps, he had heard that North Korea is a communist dynasty' That Koreans, for a good part, are all Kims' That the founder of the North Korean state was a Kim too' Then surely, in the Marxist dynasty, his son and successor must be King Jong the second'
One of the more dangerous aspects of the current countdown to war with Iraq is the role of the US media.
With rare exceptions, American television has taken upon itself the task of selling president George W Bush’s war against Saddam Hussein.
In this propaganda effort for the White House, it does not offer readers any adequate choice of views or news. It openly dismisses those who speak up against the coming conflict even on the few occasions when they are called to appear on television screens. It long ago gave up the pretence that as a free media, it was offering viewers enough balance and variety so that they could independently make up their minds on the question of overthrowing Saddam Hussein through an invasion.
The role of the print media in the US has been slightly better, but not significantly different as to claim that its coverage of Iraq-related developments is truly free.
The countdown to the second Gulf war led by the US is a fascinating story of diplomacy. Whether the US invasion of Iraq takes place or not, it will have ramifications which will dominate the rest of this decade because of the diplomacy which has attended the progress of the war preparations. It is clear now that even if war is avoided in Iraq without a regime change, Saddam Hussein will never again be Saddam Hussein — as Iraqis and the rest of the world knew this cruel dictator, who, without doubt, has been the worst enemy of his people. It would be futile to look for any of this in the US media.
A recurring theme in the American media — including the print media — these days is that the majority of European nations supports the war against Iraq and that France and Germany are isolated on the Continent. This assessment is based on the letter written by Britain’s Tony Blair and seven other European leaders which was published last month in The Times of the United Kingdom, The Wall Street Journal and some other European newspapers. This letter, which is being quoted ad nauseum on American TV and print media as being supportive of Bush, was followed by a second statement on similar lines signed by leaders of 10 former Communist states of Europe.
A very large section of the US media may be given the benefit of doubt for trumpeting the alleged isolation of France and Germany because a majority of American newspaper editors and TV anchors, insular as they are, would not be able to tell themselves or their staff, without consulting an atlas or an almanac, that Europe has 46 sovereign states.
After all, many viewers watched in disbelief when CNN’s Darryn Kagan asked her correspondent in Europe why the Libyan accused of bombing a Pan Am flight was not sentenced to death when the verdict in the case was delivered. She did not know that the European Union states do not have the death penalty.
But when learned and experienced columnists from the academia, the strategic community and diplomacy are given space in print or time on the screen to create the myth that Europe — except France and Germany — is lining up behind Bush, the reality that is being ignored is that in spite of the two separate statements by leaders of Europe, 28 of the continent’s 46 heads of state or government are unwilling to say anything at all supporting the White House on Iraq.
Or take the EU. It has 15 members of whom Britain, Spain, Italy, Denmark, Portugal and the Netherlands are backing Bush. They make only two fifths of the EU states. A majority of nine members of the group, including France and Germany, is opposed to the war which the White House is contemplating.
One geographically crucial EU member, Austria, told the Americans last week that it would not allow US troops proceeding to Iraq for an attack to pass through its soil. Nor would it allow any US plane to use its air space as part of the war preparations. Austria is geographically crucial for these preparations because the Alpine passes are the quickest route for the large number of US troops stationed in Germany to be moved east, if and when necessary.
When an EU summit was held on Monday, it became clear that Tony Blair’s efforts on behalf of Washington to drum up support in Europe for regime change in Baghdad by force had changed the politics of Europe, at least for the foreseeable future.
On Wednesday last week, when EU ambassadors met in Brussels, Britain and Denmark suggested that 13 candidate countries for EU membership should be invited for Monday’s summit. Most of them have signed one or the other of the two European statements claimed by Washington as evidence of the continent’s support for Bush.
The Greek presidency of EU shot down the proposal on the ground that they were outsiders yet and had no place at the summit. However, Greece and the majority of EU members favoured the presence of the United Nations secretary-general, Kofi Annan, at the meeting.
The message, therefore, was that it was all right for the EU to have a peace envoy like Annan at their summit, but not those states which were lining up behind Washington for war.
That the idea of a single Europe, which was to formally unite both its former communist East and the democratic West had receded, at least in the short run, became apparent when the French president, Jacques Chirac, warned East Europeans that they were not yet in the “family” and may find it difficult to be accepted if their beacon was Washington and they had no hesitation about splitting Europe to serve America’s objectives.
It is futile to look for all this news or analysis on TV, which is the main source of news for most Americans. Or in the bulk of the American print media. Instead of incisive comment or intelligent analysis, what is dished out in the name of news and current affairs, with rare exceptions, is a mixture of militaristic innuendo, bigotry and xenophobia. It has led to mass hysteria.
On Monday, 21 people died and 57 others were injured in a stampede in a night club in Chicago. The stampede was caused by panic after security guards at the club used pepper spray to separate a group of brawling women. As the pepper spray spread, someone shouted that the club was under a terrorist attack, which in turn, triggered the exodus.
In the last fortnight, America’s media has readily gone along with theories by the Bush administration that their country is under threat of an imminent terrorist attack, possibly on the scale of the destruction of the World Trade Centre’s twin towers.
The administration has encouraged people to buy duct tape, plastic sheets and the like and prepare “safe” rooms in their houses in the event of a biological weapons attack. The recent track record of American intelligence does not lend any credence to these alarmist warnings. Indians may remember that during their preparations for the 1998 nuclear tests, they outwitted both US satellites and human intelligence.
A terrorist attack may well occur in the US if Bush invades Iraq, but that does not require any intelligence. It only requires the application of logic. But the American media, which takes pride in having brought down a president over Watergate, has been unwilling to investigate the hysteria whipped up by the state, presumably because it suits the administration’s war plans.
Because America’s mass media, by and large, has abdicated the responsibility to report the truth and gone along willingly with the administration’s plans for war, there is confusion in the minds of Americans what the conflict with Iraq is all about.
It is not unusual to find Americans who equate Saddam Hussein with al Qaida. Or those who believe that Iraqi citizens were at the controls of hijacked planes which slammed into the WTC and the Pentagon. If it were not for such confusion, Bush would have been in the same boat as Blair whose people are now beginning to question the legitimacy of his policies.
Bush is more vulnerable in some ways than Blair because the White House has an additional worry: the state of the US economy. Last year, after a joint press conference with China’s president Jiang Zemin, Bush joked that he wished he could deal with the American media the way Jiang treated China’s captive media. Little did America’s 43rd president know that his wish would be granted so soon, at least on the policy challenge of dealing with Iraq.