Media Bias in Presenting Wikileak's Iraq Files
Oct 23, 2010

Media Bias in Presenting Wikileak's Iraq Files

Wikileaks has just released nearly 400,000 military documents pertaining to the Iraq war that paint a fairly unappetizing view of the Iraq war just as the Afghanistan documents did back in July. What I look at is the administration's handling of these documents, both before, during and after (the after we only currently have the Afghanistan case for) their release, as well as the level to which the media goes along with the administration's narrative. The general approach is very similar in both cases and turned out to be very successful from the administrations perspective in Afghanistan and so will likely be the same with Iraq.

It should be made clear at the start that this is legitimately a very big story. Some of the highlights include that the administration had widespread knowledge of prisoner abuse at the hands of the Iraqi military with directives not to investigate these further, as well as the fact that despite frequent claims to the contrary the military was keeping track of death tolls to the tune of over 100,000 direct casualties. Within the 400,000 documents there are many individual stories and relevant facts that can and should be discussed and indeed a national discussion about what is going on in Iraq given the new information would be a good thing. Al Jazerra writes a good introduction to the leak.

The problem in presentation is the large amount of attention not to what the documents contain but to the politics around releasing the documents such as whether Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder, ought to have released them, troubles with his organization and the like. I should be clear that I am not intending to imply the media is not covering the actual story. The story is so big they essentially have to cover. However there is far too much attention on the politics and not the content. A large part of the reason so much emphasis remains on the politics of the story is because this is the singular narrative being presented by the administration.

The administration's narrative is as follows. In the days leading up to the inevitable release, the administration made many comments talking about the supposed danger of releasing the documents (despite the Afghanistan case being heavily redacted for relevant information that could endanger people and with not a single example presented where they have caused harm since July). The NATO chief was among those that spoke against the danger. Already the release is being cast in a negative light and as something that ought not to be done. Those that argue for its release (and this view was not uncommon in opinion articles) were forced to do it within this "endanger" framing presented by the administration. This narrative was repeated immediately after the release and yields articles like this BBC article which are headlined and included sections about this "endanger" issue with quotes from Hilary Clinton and the British Ministry of Defense. Thus, there are far too many headlines with "Wikileaks defends Iraq war leaks" and not on the actual content of the leak.

One thing is clear from the Afghanistan case and remains true with the Iraq case: the administration is refusing to discuss in a meaningful way the content of the documents. There will not be an apology for the lies and abuses nor, more importantly, a meaningful national discussion led by the administration on how to change its policies or practices to avoid the kind of things discussed in the report. At best we could hope for some platitudes about striving for Iraqi freedom and possibly a chance to give a needle to the Bush Administration. As a result, after the initial condemnations on a safety perspective, there simply isn't any input from the administration to maintain the talk about the actual content.

The other way the politics is discussed is done not by the administration but largely by the media and is the discussion about Julian Assange himself, his legal difficulties, difficulties at Wikileaks and other almost tabloid discussion around him. Such considerations are of course entirely irrelevant to the release of documents. They present, at best, a mild human interest story but for the most part are mainly a distraction from the real story. As we saw in the Afghanistan case, there was the initial discussion of the content mixed with the "endangering" discussion as presented by the administration but following that with no discussion of content from the administration the narrative switched almost entirely over to these political aspects of the organization Wikileaks and that was what remained in the following weeks until the story petered out entirely.

One might ask why the media goes along with the administrations endangering narrative? Largely this demonstrates the innate pro-administration bias within the media. It isn't a direct or enforced bias, but it exists in an indirect way nonetheless. One of the ways it works is that the administration remains a very cheap, highly authoritative and relevant source of information. When Hilary Clinton says something the media can easily present her comments because people know who she is, already think of her as a relevant authority whose opinion matters. Contrast this to the comments from, say, a prominent peace activist who the media would have to spend a lot of money to even discover (opposed to just going to white house press releases), that nobody knows, would have to fact check their claims and spend some lines establishing them as a relevant authority figure and even then few might care what they think. Thus this is just one of the ways in which an innate pro establishment bias gets formed where what the administration says is automatically a key factor in the framing of the narrative. The tabloid issues are of course not fed into the media by the administration, but they do comment on how incapable the media is of maintaining an important discussion for any length of time without the administrations input. Certainly it is capable of running with an issue for a few days when something of such magnitude breaks, but to maintain the issue it almost by necessity needs to be one being led by the administration in today's media world.

There are some differences between Iraq and Afghanistan, namely that Iraq is spun as entirely the fault of Bush and we are all supposed to agree that it is bad while Afghanistan is the war being fought by Obama currently. While we have not seen it yet since the story is so new, I would not be surprised if the Iraq story has slightly more lasting power in the political rhetoric than the Afghanistan story simply because it will be pointed to via democrats as a way of vilifying the Bush heritage. The Obama administration has been fantastically asymmetric in its condemnation of past abuses in Iraq while ignoring systemic problems in Afghanistan.

This story is enormously important. It confirms and even extends some of the many fears and complaints being leveled by the opposition to the Iraq war for a long time. Yet, I suspect the story will receive a brief blip on the radar where it is heavily obfuscated by the administrations narrative and then fall off into oblivion with little serious discussion about its findings.

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