Friday, January 7, 2011

Weekend Must Read: The Toppling

Peter Maass has a devastating piece in the New Yorker, The Toppling, on the media's complicity in spreading the myth that the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein's statute in Baghdad's Firdos Square was a spontaneous celebration of the Iraqi people rather than an event staged by U.S. military.  As Maass explains:  "The media have been criticized for accepting the Bush Administration’s claims, in the run-up to the invasion, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The W.M.D. myth, and the media’s embrace of it, encouraged public support for war. The media also failed at Firdos Square, but in this case it was the media, rather than the government, that created the victory myth."

“Primed for triumph,” members of the mainstream press “were ready to latch onto a symbol of what they believed would be a joyous finale to the war.”  Maass describes this as “an unfortunate fusion: a preconception of what would happen, of what victory would look like, connected at Firdos Square with an aesthetically perfect representation of that preconception.”

Maass quotes various TV anchors who uncritically gushed at the images, and states that “a visual echo chamber developed:  rather than encouraging reporters to find the news, editors urged them to report what was on TV.”  Maass then documents how destructive this was, citing a study by George Washington University, which concluded that the coverage had “profound implications for both international policy and the domestic political landscape in America.” As Maass summed up the study’s findings: “ the saturation coverage of Firdos Square fuelled the perception that the war had been won, and diverted attention from Iraq at precisely the moment that more attention was needed, not less.”

The GWU study and other analyses of this iconic moment suggest, according to Maass, that “the bullishness of the post-Firdos era stemmed, at least in part, from the myth created at the square."

Without the erroneous finality of the statue falling, this argument goes, the notion of ‘Mission Accomplished’ would have been more difficult to assert; the Bush Administration would have had a harder time dismissing an insurgency that, for a fatal interlude, it all but ignored. Conventional wisdom blames the failure in Iraq on the Coalition Provisional Authority, which has been heavily criticized for its inept management of the occupation. But if the C.P.A. inherited a war rather than a victory, the story of what went wrong after Firdos needs to be revised.

Read the whole article.  It is well worth it.


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