The First Cut Is The Deepest

Around 1991, just before the launch of Operation Desert Storm (aka the Persian Gulf War, First Gulf War, Kuwait War, First Iraq War, or Iraq War), which began in January of 1991, the US military seduced the US media into a Faustian bargain: It would give them access to its frontline troops, senior commanders, facilities, and logistics. In exchange for this gift, the military asked that the journalists let it set the terms for what constituted journalism.

It wasn’t the first time for such a request. Previously, the army had taken more unilateral action and locked the media out of its “adventures” in Grenada and Panama. The journalists could do little but protest. The war was more significant, brighter, and publicly popular this time. The media could not stay away. They knew that by not covering the “show,” they would lose significant business. They also knew covering it as independents would probably be riskier, more expensive, and go against the nation’s mood. It did not take long, but all the major US media corporations signed the deal without as much as a protest or a fight.

That is slightly unfair; there was a minor scuffle.

In 1991, a group of newspapers sued the Pentagon. The case, Nation Magazine vs. US Dept. of Defense, 762 F. Supplement 1558 (S. D. N. Y. 1991), was filed once it became clear that the Pentagon, drunk from its success in muzzling the American press during the Panama invasion some years earlier, was now going to make it standard policy as it prepared for Operation Desert Storm. A “pool system” would be used in which a few journalists, carefully selected by the military, would be given military escorts and taken to cover various stages of the war. Those left out of the pool would have to work from the reports filed by their luckier colleagues. [Nation Magazine v. US Dept. of Defense, 762 F. Supplement 1558 (S. D. N. Y. 1991), US District Court for the Southern District of New York – 762 F. Supplement 1558 (S. D. N. Y. 1991) May 2, 1991, last accessed April 4, 2020 here: (last accessed November 2020)].

Unfortunately, none of the major media organizations joined the action, although they were invited to do so. The most significant, most influential media corporations choose instead to stay away. They sat on the sidelines, waiting to see what would happen and ensuring not to damage their privileges and relations with the military. War was too lucrative an opportunity to ruin because of petty principles.

The case was dismissed. The military won.

The media raised no further legal challenges against the Pentagon, perhaps because of the increasingly conservative priorities of the judiciary at that time and the growing sense that success was improbable. In the coming months, representatives of major media organizations negotiated “reasonable ground rules” for future military-press relations, and this question never came up again. [Military Law Review, Volume 154, October 1997:24; Gary Sturgess, “Media Powers Oppose War Rules But Shun Suit,” Legal Times, February 4, 1991 in Military Law Review, October 1997:154-155].

By 2003, the US media had either consented to the military and covered the war as they ordered or found a more complex, riskier, perhaps more expensive, demanding, and independent route into the war zone and the aftermath. Most chose the former.

I remember the excitement with which a group of journalists I met at a safety training course in the UK spoke about the upcoming war. Over drinks at the bar, they expressed their frustration at the delay in the start of hostilities, laughed at Saddam Hussein’s antics, shared details of local fixers, and spoke in conspiratorial tones about their strategies for securing access across the Iraqi border. Others sat hunched over their laptops, ordering the latest armored vests and camera gear and arranging flights. There was excitement, anxiety, and bucketloads of bravado on display. They were ready for the show.

As I sat, fearing for what lay ahead for Iraq and its people, the others seemed to be far away in another world where the war offered new opportunities for career advancement and adventure. They appeared oblivious and uninterested in the criminality of what was to come and the lies used to lead up to it. It seemed a distraction if my colleagues thought about the war’s underlying causes.

They wanted the shooting to begin.

This pattern was repeated with even more gusto and enthusiasm before the start of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Robert Fisk, the war correspondent for The Independent, commented how Western reporters were “pouring into Kuwait to cozy up to the US military, to seek those coveted ‘pool’ positions, to try on their Army or Marine costumes and make sure that—if or when the day comes—they will have the kind of coverage that every reporter and every general wants: a few facts, good pictures and nothing dirty to make the viewers throw up on the breakfast table.” [Robert Fisk, “War Reporters Should Not Cosy Up To The Military”, The Independent, January 22, 2003].

Corralling the media into the embed program also required violence.

In 1983, during the Grenada invasion, to make it clear that it intended to control the press, the US military fired upon a group of journalists attempting to reach Grenada by speedboat. Admiral Metcalf asked. “I know how to stop those press boats.” Admiral Metcalf boasted during a meeting with the press. “We’ve been shooting at them. We haven’t sunk any yet, but how are we to know who’s on them?” [Associated Press (AP), “Admiral Says It Was His Decision To Tether The Press,” New York Times, October 21, 1983]. He would later state that had the press boats not turned back when they had, “We would have blown you right out of the water.” [Phillip Knightley, The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Iraq, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004:484].

The military improved the pool system for the next US military adventure, the invasion of Panama in 1989. It was a huge success; the correspondents who traveled with the US military were denied access and returned home. Subsequently, American citizens believed it was a “bloodless” war and were welcomed by the Panamanians. The Central American Human Rights Defense Commission (CODEHUCA) and the Peace and Justice Service of Panama claim that between 2,000 and 3000 people died. The Panamanian National Human Rights Commission and an independent inquiry by former Attorney-General Ramsey Clark argued that over 4,000 were killed. [The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (Commission) admitted Petitioners’ case. (Salas et al. v. United States, Case 10.573, 1993 Inter-Am. C.H.R. 312, (last accessed November 2020)].

The “successful” muzzling of the press during the invasion of Panama would “change forever the ways wars would be reported in the West.” [Phillip Knightley, The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Iraq, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004:485]. It would soon become the norm and implemented effectively in America’s many invasions, occupations, and covert operations.

By the time the first Gulf War began, reporters were confined to pools, and the Pentagon was handing out video footage to various news and media outlets. The mantra was “precision bombing,” “limited civilian casualties,” and bloodless war. The news coverage focused entirely on the military buildup, and most major newspaper editors, pundits, and journalists supported the march to war. By this point, they would do anything to oblige the military just as long as they could hold onto their court-side seats. There was too much profit at stake.

By early 2002, major US news publications and broadcast outlets overtly and unthinkingly published unverified official information fed them by government, military, and intelligence sources. [See for example: Michael Massing, Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq, A New York Review Book, 2004; David Dadge, The War in Iraq and Why the Media Failed Us, Praeger Publishers, 2006; Lisa Finnegan, No Questions Asked: News Coverage Since 9/11, Praeger Publishers, 2007; Greg Mitchell, So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits–and the President Failed on Iraq, Union Square Press, 2008; Lila Rajiva, The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the American Media, Monthly Review Press, 2005; W. Lance Bennett, Regina G. Lawrence and Steven Livingston, When the Press Fails: Political Power and the News Media From Iraq to Katrina, The University of Chicago Press, 2007].

Several journalists at smaller publications saw through the game and maintained strict skepticism and critical questioning of the administration. Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay of Knight Ridder (now McClatchy Newspapers), for example, reported as early as 2002 that senior US officials “with access to top-secret intelligence on Iraq say they have detected no alarming increase in the threat that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein poses to American security and Middle–East stability.” [Warren Strobel & Jonathan Landay, “Lack of Hard Evidence of Iraqi Weapons Worries Top US Officials,” Knight Ridder Newspapers, September 6, 2002].

McClatchy’s journalists wrote some 80 investigative war-related pieces between January 2002 and May 2005. Clark Hoyt, the now-retired Knight-Ridder Washington editor, later pointed out that “it all seems too tragically obvious today, but believe me, this was lonely journalism in 2002 and 2003.” [Gilbert Cranberg, “A special Pulitzer for Knight Ridder’s pre-war coverage?” Nieman Watchdog, July 20, 2006].

However, as the government beat war drums, most journalists from major corporate newspapers and television news outlets jumped onto the dance floor and began dancing to the beat.

A photojournalist–desperate to place herself in the limelight–claimed that she might have seen Osama Bin Ladin in Afghanistan standing on the roadside. Her evidence was that she saw a man in “Gulfie-Arab” clothing, who “skittered off the road” upon seeing her convoy approaching. Time magazine decided to publish her statements rather than be embarrassed by the photographer’s racist (“Gulfie” “skittered animal-like”) and baseless claims. [Kate Brooks, “In the Light of Darkness: A Photographer’s Journey After 9/11,” Time, September 19, 2011, See online here: (last accessed November 2023)].

Rumors, innuendo, and lies were good enough to print, and everyone wanted to get in on the game. No one seemed to care about facts, veracity, or professionalism. Dozens of seemingly mature and experienced men and women from leading newspapers, cable, and broadcast news fell over themselves to file the most hysterical, fear-mongering, obsequious, and patriotic drivel in modern journalistic history. They lied, they concocted, and they faked their news. It was a master class in sowing confusion among the citizenry and helping push a war that would be judged a war crime if done by any other nation. A few tried to raise the alarm, but it wasn’t enough. Once the war began, it was too late.

What followed in the coming months can only be described as slapstick comedy.

These embedded journalists and photographers returned with cleansed, heroic, and triumphant images of the war that the US propaganda wanted its citizens to see. Those who tried to subvert the system were locked out or thrown out. Those who refused to embed, as some 200 unilaterals did, once the war began, were harassed, abused, shut out, detained, beaten, and, in some cases, directly fired on by the US troops.

For an example of embedded journalism that US media professionals, commentators, pop culture mavens, and opinion makers widely celebrated, see Case Study: Killing Them Softly.

Even major broadcasters, which the US felt were not toeing the line, became targets. Al-Jazeera’s offices in Kabul and Baghdad were hit with missiles, killing the cameraman Tareq Ayyoub in Baghdad. [Dahr Jamal, “Iraq: The Deadliest War for Journalists,” April 8, 2013, (last accessed November 2023)].

In Baghdad, the Palestine hotel, home to many foreign reporters, was fired upon, killing three journalists. “Baghdad is not a safe place.” Victoria Clarke, the Pentagon’s spokesperson, explained disingenuously. “You should not be there.” [Dahr Jamal, “Iraq: The Deadliest War for Journalists,” April 8, 2013, (last accessed November 2023)].

One hundred fifty journalists and 54 media support workers, according to the Center for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ), were killed in Iraq between March 2003 and December 2011. [Frank Smyth, “Iraq War and News Media: A look inside the death toll,” Center for the Protection of Journalists (CPH), March 18, 2013, (last accessed November 2023)]. Those who, tired of the restrictions and explicit censorship of the embed program, attempted to continue their work outside the system faced more significant and more violent harassment. [Chris Marsden, “Embedding, repression and murder: How the US military degraded journalism in Iraq,” World Socialist Web Site (, April 11, 2003]. Arab journalists were particular targets. [Ann Cooper, “Journalists in Iraq: from ‘embeds’ to targets,” The Seattle Times, February 9, 2004].

The embed program required violence to maintain. Journalists–embedded, working behind the guns of the US military, wearing its uniforms, sharing its food, sleeping in military encampments, driving around in its vehicles, eating its food, and sleeping in the same tents–gave America the “show” it wanted. Later, they called it “journalism” and hoped that no one would notice that the Iraqis–dead or alive–were entirely missing from their narratives. An occasional glimpse of the horror of the war slipped through, but these were isolated cases and explained away as anomalies or “mistakes.” Those who violated the rules were expelled. [Michael Kamber and Tim Arango, “4,000 US Deaths, and a Handful of Images,” New York Times, July 26, 2008].

The close access to the military was “seductive…embedding with the military felt like being invited in—no, welcomed—for the first time by the cool kids.” [Peter Van Buren, “The War Lovers”, Le Monde Diplomatique, May 23, 2011]. If the military had hoped to control the narrative of its war, it could not have done better. Our journalists, particularly the photojournalists, fell over themselves to join. The military wasn’t worried about taking these journalists along because it knew that the camaraderie and companionship also acted as a check on any investigative and critical reporting for the war.

This habit of cozying to military power and the lure of access to the military and its hardware has not diminished with time. See Case Study: Selling A War.

Reinhold Niebuhr once pointed out that it is the most cultured and educated who “give the hysterias of war and the imbecilities of national politics more plausible excuses than the average man is capable of inventing. So they become the worst liars of war-time.” [Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man, and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2010(1947):97].

The post-9/11 moment may be one of America’s most politically despotic and the government’s exploitation of a nation’s mourning, the most cynical and calculating. Yet, journalists chose to capitulate to the dictates of power just when we needed them to live up to the principles of their discipline, even if these were mythical and imaginary.

It is not a coincidence that this capitulation occurred in the very decades that journalism was “being whittled away by a Wall Street theory that profits can be maximized by minimizing the product.” [Russell Baker, “Goodbye to Newspapers?” The New York Review of Books, August 16, 2007]. Profit-driven, growth-concerned Corporations do not confront the state but collude with it, recognizing that nothing sells a product better than appeals to patriotism, nationalism, and xenophobic exceptionalism.

We are still living in the shadow of that moment.