Throughout the first year of the Iraq war, the Bush administration managed to keep a pretty tight lid on the war news that reached U.S. media consumers. Embedded reporters told the battlefront story from the viewpoint of U.S. troops. And the big media institutions back home - right up to The New York Times and The Washington Post - mostly refrained from asking inconvenient questions.
As a result, most of the American people bought the official story line most of the time: The Iraqi regime has weapons of mass destruction. It kind of, sort of has something to do with al Qaeda. The Iraqi people see us as liberators, etc.
The Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal had a long, easy ride in the media. But as this is written, ugly and inconvenient facts are tumbling into the media mainstream at a dizzying pace. And public confidence in the justice of the U.S. cause, and the competence of our leaders, is quickly eroding.
Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Co. have bested the "best and the brightest" of Vietnam fame by having their Tet and My Lai in the same month. The armed uprisings in Fallujah and Najaf - like the Vietnamese Tet insurgency of February 1968 - gave lie to the official war story. It has become impossible to believe that most Iraqis still see us as the good guys, or that the resistance is just a few isolated Saddam loyalists. Meanwhile, the abuse of Iraqi prisoners - like the 1969 revelation of the My Lai massacre - has destroyed America's reputation as a world leader and put a dent in our own righteous self-image.
The spell of silence is now broken, and more distasteful revelations are sure to come. The conquest of Iraq began as one of America's most media-controlled wars. But that was only because cowardly U.S. media outlets played along. Now the Iraq war could easily become the most media-saturated in all of world history.
THE OCCUPIERS OF Iraq can control many activities of media institutions. They can ban the Arabic satellite channel al Jazeera or anyone else they don't like. They can declare areas of the country off limits. They can force journalists to be accompanied by official "minders" (as Saddam Hussein's regime did). But ultimately none of this will control the flow of information from Iraq. There are cameras and camcorders all over the Iraqi battlefield. Our soldiers have them. The resistance has them. The terrorists who beheaded Nicholas Berg have them. And access to e-mail and the Internet assures us that the images of Iraq will always find their way to the outside world.
The good news from the Abu Ghraib prison scandal was that some American soldiers are still steered by the compass of conscience. The mistreatment of prisoners came under investigation because a U.S. soldier secretly reported it. When Gen. Taguba's report was stalled somewhere in the Pentagon's "chain of command," a soldier phoned Seymour Hersh, a reporter for The New Yorker. We can be sure that, scattered throughout our armed services, there are many more men and women of conscience. And as the situation on the ground becomes increasingly dangerous, we will also be hearing from average soldiers who are more interested in personal survival than in the administration's dreams of world conquest.
Free Americans with minds and voices - that seems to be another factor (like guarding the museums, or the vulnerability of oil pipelines) that Cheney and Rumsfeld left out of their war plan.
Still, the images and stories that trickle out of Iraq will not, alone, be enough for the American people to reach an informed judgment. We also need credible mainstream journalists (on television) who can summon the courage to "connect the dots." Instead of reporting administration claims as fact and looking for a counter-quote to hide behind, someone in the mass media needs to trust his or her own judgment enough to tell the audience what is true, and what is not.
During the Vietnam years, everything changed one night when CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite dropped the pose of neutrality, looked into the camera, and told America that there was no light at the end of the tunnel. Someone needs to do that again. Maybe Dan Rather, the Texan who now occupies Cronkite's chair, would like to leave the profession with his head held high?
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.