We Don't Need No Thought Control

Sunil Mukhi

Mumbai, May 6 2003

60-year-old Stephen Downs showed up at Crossgates Mall in upstate New York in early March this year, wearing a T-shirt that said on one side, "Peace on Earth" and on the other, "Give Peace a Chance". His son Roger had one that said "Let Inspections Work" and "No War With Iraq". For this, they were approached by security and asked to remove their T-shirts or leave the Mall. Stephen refused, and was arrested for trespassing. His son Roger recalled: "We were just shopping. We were wearing these T-shirts. We weren't handing out leaflets, we weren't saying anything," After a group of protestors staged a sit-in in support of Mr Downs, the Mall eventually decided to withdraw charges.

This event, and many others like it, suggest that not all is well with freedom of expression in the USA. Possibly these incidents represent the aberrant behaviour of a few rabid right-wingers. But these same people have been important supporters of the war on Iraq, whose alleged motivation was to bring democracy and freedom to the Iraqis. The irony is clearly lost on them. Anti-war protestors in the USA have faced derisive comments like "why don't you go and live under Saddam's regime?". In reality it is the opponents of democratic freedoms, particularly the freedom of speech, who are the ideological cousins of Saddam Hussein.

But these sporadic attacks on freedom of speech, expression and information pale in comparison with a more sinister threat. There is mounting evidence that TV networks, newspapers and newsmagazines in the US have been systematically distorting facts, fudging data and concealing information, to influence the public to believe George W. Bush's dubious arguments in support of his military adventure in Iraq.

In a recent Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, columnist Paul Krugman wonders "whether most of the public will ever learn that the original case for war has turned out to be false. In fact, my guess is that most Americans believe that we have found W.M.D.'s." He identifies a strategy in the US media to give "blaring coverage" to any administration claim, such as having located suspicious chemicals or evidence of WMD's. The subsequent admission that the claim was false is played down and buried in small print. The public, barraged into a state of confusion where the loudest sound-byte wins, never learns that it was duped.

Could this be a systematic policy? Confirmed US-baiters will not hesitate to say "yes". But a scientific temper obliges one to study the data carefully and come to a cautious, reasoned conclusion. A careful study reveals that on this issue, the conspiracy theorists turn out to be correct. There is convincing and objective evidence that mainstream US media have been engaged in manipulation of facts, reports and photographs, in a way that facilitates the Bush administration's war campaign.

The article of Krugman, referred to above, provides an important lead. He cites an article that appeared on the MSNBC network's website in September 2002, with the headline "White House: Bush Misstated Report on Iraq". This article followed up Bush's claim that according to an IAEA report, Iraq was six months away from making nuclear weapons. It turned out that Bush was lying through his teeth. The report in question said that *before the 1991 Gulf War* and the consequent inspections and sanctions, Iraq may have been 6-24 months away from developing nuclear weapons. After the UN inspections brought about wholesale destruction of Iraq's weapons and sanctions crushed the economy, the situation was totally different.

The White House actually admitted Bush's error, which is what the MSNBC article reported. But soon after publishing this article on its website, MSNBC inexplicably pulled it off the site again (rather than moving it to an archive page). The article has never been seen since.

Or rather, it never would have been seen, but for Russ Kick, editor and publisher of the website "The Memory Hole -- Rescuing knowledge, freeing information" (www.thememoryhole.org). This site specialises in tracking down incidents of this sort, rescuing a missing article or a forged photograph or an altered headline, and putting it up for all to see.

The Memory Hole carries the complete text of the MSNBC article, which contains much more than the White House's admission of an "error". It describes the American former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter arriving in Baghdad in September 2002 and saying bluntly that he did not think a war would be justified, and that Iraq was not presently making WMD. It also quotes a spokesman for the UN agency as saying that satellite photos of a site in Iraq did not lead to any of the conclusions that Bush and Blair were trying to draw from them. Clearly inconvenient for the US administration. But the article was fulfilling one of the most important jobs of the media -- protecting the interests of the reader by bringing out the truth. So why did MSNBC remove it?

One is free to conjecture, but in fact there is rather damning evidence. Besides carrying the complete text of the article, The Memory Hole site has a link to the MSNBC web page where the article used to live. There one can find for oneself the message "File not found. Our Web servers cannot find the page or file you asked for: http://stacks.msnbc.com/news/802167.asp".

What is more, the visitor can, as I did, send an email to MSNBC enquiring politely whether this page once held an article titled "White House: Bush Misstated Report on Iraq" and if so, why it has been removed. One can then wait for a reply, in vain. If they had a plausible motive other than the one we suspect, surely they would reply saying what it was?

More revelations of a similar nature can be found on The Memory Hole, and the reader can check them all by the same technique: read the "disappeared" article on their site, then connect to the original website where it originally appeared, only to find it is missing, then email the website or magazine, and wait in vain for a response.

A particularly intriguing case is an article by former US President George Bush Sr, along with Brent Scowcroft, his National Security Advisor, entitled "Why We Didn't Remove Saddam". This appeared in Time Magazine on March 2 1998, both in the print and web editions. It sets out a number of reasons why the previous Bush administration did not think it appropriate to pursue the Gulf War of 1991 to the point of removing Saddam Hussein from power. This article provides equally valid reasons for the US not to get into a unilateral engagement in Iraq today. It would surely be inconvenient to the administration of the younger Bush, the more so because his father wrote it.

Alone among all the articles in the March 2 1998 issue archived on time.com, this article has recently disappeared.

Surely Time Magazine doesn't claim this article was never written (the paper version of their magazine must still exist somewhere, and The Memory Hole provides a text version as well as a scan of the print version). So why did they hide it? Is it acceptable for a magazine to censor its own published article now that the opinions expressed (by a former US President!) are no longer "suitable"? Does Time Magazine somehow owe allegiance to the current President? This appears to be a blatant and shocking piece of manipulation to please him. Saddam would have been impressed.

Some of the disappearances of articles remain as unsolved mysteries for the reader to puzzle over. The website of news network CBS has two missing articles on 22 March and 26 March, respectively marked "Deleted" and "This story has been deleted". In these cases, Memory Hole was not able to track down the original stories. But they surmise, based on photographs and captions that still appear on these pages, that the first one was a public opinion poll conducted about the war on Iraq. The second was "probably about an attack on a location in Iraq, probably the Baghdad market that was hit by an air strike on 26 March 2003, killing 15 civilians and wounding 30."

Russ Kick, editorialising on Memory Hole, has this to say about the CBS deletions: "Very strange. If the stories had factual errors, why not just correct them? If the entire story was in error (i.e., the events described never happened), why not add a mea culpa at the top of each page?" He adds, "My email to the administrator of the CBS News Website has gone unanswered."

I emulated him by emailing CBS, and am still waiting for a response.

Besides causing inconvenient articles to disappear, the pliant media in the US and UK are not above falsifying accounts and manipulating images. On 30 April 2003, US troops fired on Iraqi protestors, killing 2 and wounding 18. According to an Associated Press report, the protestors had held a banner that said "Sooner or later US killers we'll kill you". This suggests the protestors had murderous intent. But in a photograph, the banner is clearly visible and what it actually says is "Sooner or later US killers we'll kick you out". Quite a different threat! But the "wrong" version was reported on Associated Press, and then carried on ABC, San Jose Mercury News, and Ha'aretz in Israel, among many other news media.

True to the pattern observed by Paul Krugman, the Associated Press eventually corrected the erroneous line, but by then it was too late - as of this writing, 50 outlets carry the wrong version and only 11 have the correct one.

Sunil Mukhi

April 2003