Silencing War Criticism

Grisly photos that show war as it is, in this case a dead Iraqi from Desert Storm, are not shown by the U.S. media

Silencing War Criticism: The Iraq Invasion of 2003

W.J. Astore

Update (7/19/17): I posted this article at HuffPost, and the site added a video that shows the mainstream media gushing over Trump’s strike against Syria.  The video is well worth watching. or follow this link.

Jesse Ventura, former governor of Minnesota (1999-2003), was a hot media commodity as the Bush/Cheney administration was preparing for its invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Ventura, a U.S. Navy veteran who gained notoriety as a professional wrestler before he entered politics, was both popular and outspoken.  MSNBC won the bidding war for his services in 2003, signing him to a lucrative three-year contract to create his own show – until, that is, the network learned he was against the Iraq war.  Ventura’s show quickly went away, even as the network paid him for three years to do nothing.

I heard this revealing story from a new podcast, the TARFU Report, hosted by Matt Taibbi and Alex Pareene.  By his own account, Jesse Ventura was bought off by the network, which back then was owned by General Electric, a major defense contractor that was due to make billions of dollars off the war.

Of course, Ventura was hardly the only war critic to run afoul of GE/NBC.  Phil Donahue, the famous talk show host, saw his highly rated show cancelled when he gave dissenters and anti-war voices a fair hearing.  Ashleigh Banfield, a reporter who covered the Iraq war, gave a speech in late April 2003 that criticized the antiseptic coverage of the war (extracts to follow below).  For her perceptiveness and her honesty, she was reassigned and marginalized, demoted and silenced.

So much for freedom of speech, as well as the press.

As Phil Donahue said, his show “wasn’t good for business.”  NBC didn’t want to lose ratings by being associated with “unpatriotic” elements when the other networks were waving the flag in support of the Iraq war.  In sidelining Ventura and Donahue, NBC acted to squelch any serious dissent from the push for war, and punished Ashleigh Banfield in the immediate aftermath of the war for her honesty in criticizing the coverage shown (and constructed) by the mainstream media, coverage that was facilitated by the U.S. military and rubber-stamped by corporate ownership.

Speaking of Banfield’s critique, here are some excerpts from her speech on Iraq war coverage in April 2003.  Note that her critique remains telling for all U.S. media war coverage since then:

That said, what didn’t you see [in U.S. media coverage of the Iraq war]? You didn’t see where those bullets landed. You didn’t see what happened when the mortar landed. A puff of smoke is not what a mortar looks like when it explodes, believe me. There are horrors that were completely left out of this war. So was this journalism or was this coverage? There is a grand difference between journalism and coverage, and getting access does not mean you’re getting the story, it just means you’re getting one more arm or leg of the story. And that’s what we got, and it was a glorious, wonderful picture that had a lot of people watching and a lot of advertisers excited about cable news. But it wasn’t journalism, because I’m not so sure that we in America are hesitant to do this again, to fight another war, because it looked like a glorious and courageous and so successful terrific endeavor, and we got rid of a horrible leader: We got rid of a dictator, we got rid of a monster, but we didn’t see what it took to do that.

I can’t tell you how bad the civilian casualties were. I saw a couple of pictures. I saw French television pictures, I saw a few things here and there, but to truly understand what war is all about you’ve got to be on both sides.


Some of the soldiers, according to our embeds had never seen a dead body throughout the entire three-week campaign. It was like Game Boy. I think that’s amazing in two different ways. It makes you a far more successful warrior because you can just barrel right along but it takes away a lot of what war is all about, which is what I mentioned earlier. The TV technology took that away too. We couldn’t see where the bullets landed. Nobody could see the horrors of this so that we seriously revisit the concept of warfare the next time we have to deal with it.

I think there were a lot of dissenting voices before this war about the horrors of war, but I’m very concerned about this three-week TV show and how it may have changed people’s opinions. It was very sanitized. [emphasis added]


This TV show [Iraq invasion coverage] that we just gave you was extraordinarily entertaining, and I really hope that the legacy that it leaves behind is not one that shows war as glorious, because there’s nothing more dangerous than a democracy that thinks this is a glorious thing to do. [emphasis added]

War is ugly and it’s dangerous, and in this world the way we are discussed on the Arab street, it feeds and fuels their hatred and their desire to kill themselves to take out Americans. It’s a dangerous thing to propagate.


I’m hoping that I will have a future in news in cable, but not the way some cable news operators wrap themselves in the American flag and patriotism and go after a certain target demographic, which is very lucrative. You can already see the effects, you can already see the big hires on other networks, right wing hires to chase after this effect, and you can already see that flag waving in the corners of those cable news stations where they have exciting American music to go along with their war coverage.

Nothing has changed since Banfield’s powerful critique.  Indeed, the networks have only hired more retired generals and admirals to give “unbiased” coverage of America’s military actions.  And reporters and “journalists” like Brian Williams have learned too.  Recall how Williams cheered the “beautiful” U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles as they were launched against Syria earlier this year.

It’s not just that U.S. media coverage actively suppresses dissent of America’s wars: it passively does so as well, which is arguably more insidious.  Any young journalist with smarts recognizes the way to get ahead is to be a cheerleader for U.S. military action, a stenographer to the powerful.  Being a critic leads to getting fired (like Donahue); demoted and exiled (like Banfield); and, in Ventura’s case, if you can’t be fired or demoted or otherwise punished, you can simply be denied air time.

When you consider that billions and billions of dollars are at stake, whether in weapons sales or in advertising revenue tied to ratings, none of this is that surprising.  What’s surprising is that so few Americans know about how pro-authority and uncritical U.S. media coverage of war and its makers is.  If anything, the narrative is often that the U.S. media is too critical of the military to the detriment of the generals.  Talk about false narratives and alternative facts!

America’s greed-wars persist for many reasons, but certainly a big one is the lack of critical voices in the mainstream media.  Today’s journalists, thinking about their career prospects and their salaries (and who is ultimately their boss at corporate HQ), learn to censor themselves, assuming they have any radical thoughts to begin with. Some, like Brian Williams, even learn how to stop worrying and love the beautiful bombs.

And so it goes …

16 thoughts on “Silencing War Criticism

  1. Ken Burns documentary *War* finally showed us the dead bodies from WWII. We didn’t see them during the war. Sixty years later.


  2. Hypnotic Goose-stepping-USA Nuremberg Rally Mentality -2017

    Killing the poorest people on the earth systematically on a perpetual industrial scale. This is what the USA Military Industrial Complex does.This is what the big box corporate mega-churches surround their “places of worship” with hundreds of little Americans flags in support of every 4th of July i(whether they consciously realize it or not).

    Mindless, goose-stepping, unquestioning obedience to what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the demonic suction tube” of militarism, that takes away resources from the poor, the hungry, the oppressed, the sick and gives it to a massive ,diabolical killing machine.

    What a marvel of modern day propaganda achievements -to get a people en masse to narrow their perception of the real world down to a tiny pinhole view of “support the troops”,”American flag good’ “fighting evil doers”,etc.
    The broader details of multifaceted reality simply entirely eclipsed, quite commonly it seems, from collective consciousness.

    Talk about mass induced hypnotic delusions! Collectively focused on simple symbols like “support the troops”,the American flag ubiquitously placed……”you are getting sleepy’ says the hypnotizing system of military propaganda,”you will only admire all American military endeavors”,”you will question nothing”, ”you will associate our USA military endeavors with the utmost goose-stepping respect”,”you will view all doubts, skeptical inquiries about our USA military endeavors with the utmost, hostile suspicion and denouncements”.

    What a diabolical perversion of the basic Christian advocacy for peace and justice based on mercy and truth, compassion for the poor, the sick, the oppressed, etc. to support a vast USA military machine that torments, terrorizes and kills regularly many of the poorest people on the planet, criminally against the principles of international law and against any human sense of compassion or mercy.

    There are broader realities beyond flags and one-line slogans on bumper stickers.(yes, it’s true)

    Why let those hypnotic, pinhole views of reality occupy your consciousness to a hypnotic singular point ,thus eclipsing those vital to understand broader realities?

    If in fact we are via our USA military killing people unjustly on an industrial scale with no moral or legal justifications and we dismiss that whole reality in exchange for a little social approval derived from from the goose-stepping, slogan displaying ,unquestioning and flag waving patriotic herd, then what does that say of our moral and spiritual state of being?Does it say that we are approaching spiritual death, of being devoid of even a capacity to make moral decisions such as whether to support mass military slaughters or not?
    If we have no mind of our own-just heads full of unquestioned social conditioning and military industrial complex propaganda. then I think “spiritual death” is an apt description of such a state of consciousness.

    (Hey,The military industrial complex is a business and they got a lotta stuff to sell-business needs propaganda/advertising/public relations campaigns…get it?)

    Blind and zombie-like obedience toward supporting some of the most sadistic USA military campaigns of mass murder and terror (such as the “shock and awe” attack on Iraq, and a long list of others that just from Vietnam to the present are mind-boggling to behold) is quite commonplace in the USA today.A complete ho-hum routine.Perhaps the greatest evil is born out of simple unreflective indifference.One supports some of the most cruel, unjust, merciless and sadistic killing on a routine industrial scale of the poorest people on earth with the utmost and unquestioning blind obedience.

    (Oh dear, what would the neighbors think if they thought we were unpatriotic? By all means therefore “support the troops” and ignore the vast and horrific realities that lurk behind such slogans-excuse me while I hang old glory in front of my house)

    The endeavors of our military industrial complex is to service its own needs as a giant power and profit seeking behemoth-utterly out of control and awash in vast corruption-an unbridled diabolical beasts, so to speak.It needs perpetual expansion and justification to drain the peoples money-the tax filled USA treasury-for profits in armaments requiring the perpetual use of arms to justify perpetual building and upgrading of arms.This ,of course requires the perpetual brainwashing and propagandist hypnotizing of the masses of American people via the corporate monopolized media.

    So, we gain a world of petty social approval from the flag waving, goose-stepping, unquestioning troop supporting herd of people but surely “ lose our souls”,so to speak , of understanding the truths of reality that would give us the viable understandings to know the difference between noble patriotic acts and unjust, criminal wars of aggression in the service of a diabolically renegade USA military industrial complex.

    Wake up people, the hour is getting very late, very late indeed!


    1. I had a discussion with a much younger co-worker a few years ago, when I was still working. I am not sure how the subject came up, but she mentioned we needed a strong president that was willing to go after and bomb “those people” in the Middle East. I mentioned I was a combat infantryman (draftee type) in Vietnam. Before I could finish what I was going to say – She made what is now a Pavlovian Response – Thanking me profusely for my service. She said it in such way, that she almost seemed worried I would report her for a lack of home front enthusiasm for the Warrior Cult.

      Anyway, I said the best course of action we could take was, to get our big White Noses out of the Middle East. I could tell from her reaction it did not compute.


  3. Because of MSM’s silencing of War Criticism and Bush administration’s restrictions on media presence ( not allowed when remains of soldiers were brought home ), one had to depend on foreign media ( The Guardian, The Independent, BBC, Al Jazeera online etc ) to know what was REALLY happening in Iraq. Journalists like Dhar Jamail, Nir Rosen, Rajeev Chandrashekhar did a great job of informing the public…. some even got killed ( Tim Hetherington ) or died ( Anthony Shadid ). So, in spite of “warmongering” by the MSM, there was a way to know how “horrible” the war was specially for the local population.
    An article written by Robert Fisk on “Hotel Jounalism” was quite revealing in terms of how US media bosses were satisfied by “unverifiable reports” ( as Ms Banfield had mentioned ).
    In any war, the first casualty is “truth”…… by omission or commission. Sadly, ordinary citizens are too busy just surviving to go looking for facts.


    1. Yes. You have to read the alternative and foreign press to get a more balanced portrayal.

      As a historian, I was taught to consider all relevant sources. not just the ones that agree with your point of view. But in the USA, most people are encouraged to watch and read only those sources that confirm their POV.

      Most people want their biases confirmed, not challenged. And many people don’t want to be confronted or disturbed by “bad” news. The mainstream media are happy to oblige.


  4. I finished reading a book, Dark Alliance by Gary Webb. The book was about Iran-Contra and the Contra-Cocaine connection. The gorilla in the room was the linkage between the various parts of the US Government such as CIA, FBI, Justice Department, the DEA and the Contra-Cocaine connection. The cocaine that was sold in the USA could be converted into crack.

    Dark Alliance originally appeared as a series of investigative newspaper articles in August 1996. The story was also posted on the Web. The Web posting was a massive breakthrough in investigative reporting, no longer could the McMega-Media press pigeonhole or ignore a story. The Black community of Los Angeles was out raged, now the source of the crack cocaine scourge was identified.

    It did not take long for the Empire to strike back, without going into details that are in the book, the McMega-Media instead of following up, attacked the messenger, in this case Gary Webb. Bob Parry, an AP reporter who first broke the Contra drug story, sent a note of condolence after Webb quit the newspaper business in November 1997.

    Parry said in his note to Webb, “Like you, I grew up in this business thinking our job was to tell the public the truth.” “Maybe that was the mission at one time”, Parry wrote. “But something very bad happened to the news media in the 1980s. Part of it was the public diplomacy pressures from the outside. But part of it was the smug, snotty, sophomoric crowd that came to dominate the national media from the inside. These characters fell in love with their power to define reality, not their responsibility to uncover the facts. By the 1990’s the media had become the monster”.

    > Gary Webb commented below:

    “The government side of the story is coming through the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post,” he stated. “They use the giant corporate press rather than saying anything directly. If you work through friendly reporters on major newspapers, it comes off as The New York Times saying it and not a mouthpiece of the CIA.”
    If we had met five years ago, you wouldn’t have found a more staunch defender of the newspaper industry than me … And then I wrote some stories that made me realize how sadly misplaced my bliss had been. The reason I’d enjoyed such smooth sailing for so long hadn’t been, as I’d assumed, because I was careful and diligent and good at my job … The truth was that, in all those years, I hadn’t written anything important enough to suppress …

    I noticed this change in the reporting by the McMega-Media prior to Bush the Youngers invasion of Iraq. There were reporters that were around during the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and who should questioned the Bush the Youngers narrative. At the very least these older reporters that lived through the glowing government lies during Vietnam, should have provided institutional guidance to the younger reporters to question intensely the WMD Claims and bogus links to Iraq and Osama Bin Laden.
    There is a Velcro like linkage between the Wall Street-Security-Military-Industrial Complex, elected politicians and our McMega-Media. Howard Zinn has written – The whole Iran-contra affair became a perfect example of the double line of defense of the American Establishment. The first defense is to deny the truth. If exposed, the second defense is to investigate, but not too much; the press will publicize, but they will not get to the heart of the matter.


    1. That’s a devastating line: The truth was that, in all those years, I hadn’t written anything important enough to suppress


  5. This is a good article as far as it goes, but it is pretty much limited to discussing MSNBC.
    The title of the article should reflect that.
    But in reality the attacks on 2003 war critics was much broader and deeper than Mr. Astore indicates.
    It was routine for critics’ patriotism to be questioned, jobs were threatened as were the critics themselves . . .
    That story remains to be told


    1. Yes — there’s much more to the story here.

      One thing that troubles me is the mindset that criticism of America’s wars undermines the troops. That it could even be a form of betrayal. This mindset is very dangerous. It not only protects the decisions and actions of those at the highest levels of the military and government. It acts to prolong wars and to endanger the lives of the troops (and of their “enemies” as well).

      During the Iraq war, I recall instances of U.S. troops speaking clearly and frankly against the war. Their voices were heard, yet their advice was not taken. Instead, generals like David Petraeus were trotted out to assure the American people that the war was being won, even if the gains were characterized by weasel words like “fragile” and “reversible.” And so those gains have proved — even so, Petraeus remains in demand, and is still trotted out, now in mufti, to explain how we must stay the course and continue to defer to the military.

      There’s a powerful book to be written here, and it should focus in part on the silencing or marginalization of anti-war voices (even those that wear or wore the uniform), even as pro-war elements are given the main stage as the voices of probity and sanity.


  6. OHH, let’s not forget that subversive band the Dixie Chicks. From Wikipedia:
    During the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Dixie Chicks performed in concert in London on March 10, 2003, at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire theatre in England. During the introduction to their song “Travelin’ Soldier”, Natalie Maines, who along with Robison and Maguire is also a native of Texas, said:

    “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”

    Maines’s remark sparked intense criticism; media commentators claimed that she should not criticize Bush on foreign soil. Maines responded, “I said it there ’cause that’s where I was.”

    One exception to the list of Dixie Chicks opponents was country musician and vociferous Iraq war opponent Merle Haggard, who in the summer of 2003 released a song critical of US media coverage of the Iraq War. On July 25, 2003, the Associated Press reported him saying:

    I don’t even know the Dixie Chicks, but I find it an insult for all the men and women who fought and died in past wars when almost the majority of America jumped down their throats for voicing an opinion. It was like a verbal witch-hunt and lynching.
    Colorado radio station KKCS suspended two of its disc jockeys on May 6, 2003 for playing music by Dixie Chicks.
    There is more about the boycott against the Dixie Chicks, but I shall refrain.
    How about those Freedom Fries –
    French Minister of Foreign Affairs Dominique de Villepin made it clear France would neither support nor participate in the invasion. On March 11, 2003 Republican U.S. Representatives Bob Ney and Walter B. Jones directed the three House cafeterias to change all references to French fries and French toast on menus, and replace them with Freedom fries and Freedom toast.
    >> Side Bar: Ney was convicted on charges of corruption and sentenced to 30 months in jail.


    1. Thanks for the reminder about the Dixie Chicks. And I well remember Freedom Fries. We used to joke about Freedom Toast as well (none of that “French” toast!).


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