Dueling defense chiefs fight the war of spin

For both sides, the case made in briefings can often be checked by media on ground.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

At a recent press briefing, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld painted a vivid picture of coalition troops closing in on Baghdad like a "circle."

But just one hour later, Iraqi Defense Minister Sultan Hashim Ahmed was telling reporters a very different story. Iraqi forces were inflicting "huge losses" on the enemy and forcing it to "halt its advance," he said. " [Coalition] leaders are misleading their people through lies and deception."

Of all the clashes taking place in Iraq, one of the most critical is being fought not with weapons but with words. With claims and counterclaims about the war's progress flying across the airwaves - often multiple times in one news cycle - each side is struggling to frame the conflict so as to showcase its own strengths and build public support.

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In this battle of the briefings, the US has relentlessly emphasized the coalition's power, and the inevitability of its ultimate success, in an attempt to persuade Iraqis to rise up against their leaders. Iraq, in turn, has highlighted the war's toll on the civilian population, and lauded those citizens fending off the "aggressors," as a way of building support in the Arab street.

Of course, propaganda and spin have been critical components of wars throughout history. But the media juggernaut surrounding this war has provided each side with new opportunities - and new pressures - to get its message out. It's also putting a new premium on accuracy, say analysts, since things alleged in a briefing often can be instantly confirmed or contradicted by reporters on the ground.

"The nature of the information age is changing the nature of propaganda," says Chris Hanson, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland. Not only is everything "speeded up," but, "the more opportunity there is to probe the veracity of claims, the harder it is to have completely false propaganda."

Successes, missteps

Both sides have had successes and missteps. In the early stages of the war, the US made the mistake of overselling its plan, says Mr. Hanson, creating an expectation that the Iraqi forces would crumble almost instantly. As a result, when journalists embedded with troops began reporting attacks on coalition supply lines and less-than-warm receptions from Iraqi civilians, it undercut the message from the podium.

"The Iraqi side played off this," Hanson notes, casting the US operation as bogged down and even arguing that it could win. In addition, he says, the Iraqi Defense Minister gave several briefings early on that were notably detailed and factual, and on occasion, surprisingly accurate. His denials that the coalition had secured the port of Umm Qasr early on, or that there had been a massive uprising in Basra, for example, were confirmed by reporters.

But in recent days, as coalition forces have speeded toward Baghdad, the Iraqi claims have rung increasingly hollow. Perhaps most damaging has been their insistence that Saddam Hussein is still alive, even as he remains conspicuously absent from view.

In some ways, the Iraqis have had a built-in advantage in the spin war, because the state is a dictatorship. Message control hasn't really been a problem, whereas the US has lately struggled with internal leaks and verbal sniping between field commanders and Defense officials.

The Iraqis have also managed to stick with one story line - that of a plucky nation fending off a bullying aggressor. The US narrative has meandered from one of uncovering weapons of mass destruction to rooting out terrorists to liberating the Iraqi people.

"This sort of tinkering with the message is very characteristic of the nature of propaganda in a democracy," says Nancy Snow, a communications professor at California State University at Fullerton, and the author of "Propaganda, Inc."

Double standard?

Perhaps unfairly, she adds, the two nations have also been held to different standards of credibility - and this has generally worked to the Iraqis' advantage.

"With the Iraqis, there's an expectation they're going to lie," says Ms. Snow, so they get more credit when they tell the truth. The Iraqis have shrewdly used the media to document civilian casualties. But patently false assertions have often generated little more than eye-rolling.

By contrast, the US has at times come under fire when its claims have differed, even slightly, from those of embedded reporters. When coalition troops fired on a family in an SUV after it failed to stop at a checkpoint, US officials said 7 civilians had been killed. But a journalist on the scene reported the number dead as 10, and gave a somewhat different account of how the incident unfolded, a distinction the media was quick to note.

Still, the embedded reporters may prove more useful to the US than the Iraqis in the end. Perhaps the most effective element of the program has been to "change the messenger," so that it's not the military but journalists telling the story, says Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution. As a result, he says: "It's no longer George W. Bush's war - it's the GIs'."

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