George W. Bush’s Thanksgving Day campaign stop in Baghdad said everything that needed to be said about the success of the US occupation of Iraq. The president, who likes to refer to the invasion of Iraq as a mission of liberation, traveled in secret, arrived unannounced and with plane lights dimmed, remained closeted at the heavily guarded Baghdad International Airport for 150 minutes and then hightailed it out of the country before the Iraqi people knew their liberator was among them.
It was hardly a triumphal visit. Yet, the Bush political team could count on the cheerleading squads that have taken over the so-called “news departments” of the nation’s television networks to hail the tarmac tap in Baghdad as “dramatic,” “courageous” and “historic.” “What the president did today was show he was willing to put himself in harm’s way, like the troops,” chirped CNN commentator Douglas Brinkley, whose enthusiasm was echoed on every Thanksgiving night news report. ABC’s World New Tonight devoted the better part of 15 minutes to breathless reporting on the trek, closing off with an apparently serious recreation of the President’s not-exactly-harrowing transit from his ranch in Crawford to the airport in Waco, Texas.
For realistic reporting on the President’s tour of a completely secure airport hangar in Baghdad, Americans were again forced to turn to foreign news sources. Beyond the borders of the United States, practioners of a craft called journalism treated the trip with the respect it was due. While US commentators babbled on about how the President had erased the embarrassing image of himself bundled into a flightsuit for that “Mission Accomplished” photo op in May, international reporters sought out honest assessments, such as that of Mahmoud Othman, a member Iraq’s governing council. “(Bush’s) visit cannot be considered as a visit to Iraq,” Othman told Britain’s Guardian newspaper. “It was really a visit to an American military base in the country to boost the morale of the troops.” Another member of the governing council told the Guardian that the “excessive secrecy” surrounding the presidential trip could end up strengthening the image not of the US but of the insurgents opposing the US occupation. “They will be able to boast that they forced the most powerful man in the world to come in through the back door,” the governing council member explained.
London’s Independent newspaper referred to the Baghdad visit as a “lightning public relations strike on Baghdad” designed to provide the president “with powerful television imagery with which to launch his reelection campaign next year.” In a report headlined, “The Turkey Has Landed,” The Independent explained to British readers that the trip was organized “to secure valuable prime-time television coverage on Thanksgiving Day, featuring pictures of a determined president rallying his troops after a grim month in which 70 lives have been lost.”
Perhaps anticipating the worshipful reporting of the US media, the Times of London simply characterized the trip as “one of the most audacious publicity coups in White House history.”
If anything, the British press was generous. Beirut’s Al-Mustaqbal newspaper bluntly announced, “Bush’s secret visit to Baghdad opens the presidential election season.” In Paris, the newspaper Liberation described the Thanksgiving Day jaunt as an “electoral raid on Baghdad” arranged because “Bush knows that Iraq could become the Achilles heel of his (reelection) campaign.” Italy’s La Republica characterized the President’s two-and-a-half hours in Baghdad as “obviously an electoral blitz, a Hollywood style stunt of the kind we will see again and again throughout the (2004) campaign.”
Madrid’s El Mundo, a conservative newspaper that is frequently friendly to US policies, dismissed the presidential juggernaut as “a publicity stunt which will not solve the problem of Iraq.” Barcelona’s Vanguardia newspaper was even rougher, declaring that, “George W. Bush does not attend the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq, but has dinner in Baghdad with those who dream of coming home alive.”
In fairness, however, it should be noted that at least one foreign media outlet has commented favorably on Bush’s travels. The only Arab journalists allowed to witness Bush’s banquest in Baghdad were from the Al-Iraqiya television station. Their report was every bit as enthusiastic as the coverage that appeared on US television. It should, perhaps, be noted that Al-Iraqiya is funded by the Pentagon as part of the Iraqi Media Network (IMM), a television and radio initiative set up to provide positive news about the occupation and the US-led Civilian Provisional Authority (CPA).
Of course, as Don North, who quit his post as a trainer and adviser at Al-Iraqiya, noted, “IMM has become an irrelevant mouthpiece for CPA propaganda, managed news and mediocre foreign programs.”
That’s a troubling assessment of Pentagon-financed media in Iraq. What’s even more troubling is that, considering the irrelevant, managed and mediocre coverage of the President’s trip to Baghdad that aired on CNN, Fox, ABC and other networks, it is clear that the assessment applies as well to US media.