Politics, media and war: 9/11 and its aftermaths
Politics, media and war: 9/11 and its aftermaths

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7.4 Who lied to whom?

Seymour M. Hersh has spent several decades as an investigative reporter and presently works for The New Yorker. He has received most acclaim for his reports on the Mai Lai massacre during the Vietnam War and the abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib in Iraq in 2004. When reading it, bear in mind that – as we saw in Herman and Chomsky’s work – it is common practice for journalists at mainstream newspapers to rely on official sources for daily information. This makes for an easy, cheap story, and these sources are usually reliable. However, such a close relationship between government and journalists can sometimes lead to problems. In ‘Who lied to whom?’ Hersh investigates claims by US officials that the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein had obtained ‘yellow cake’ uranium as part of a covert nuclear programme. The US officials claim to have received this ‘intelligence’ from British sources, and indeed the British government made public similar claims about the uranium. Hersh’s investigative report suggests how intelligence might be used by politicians as ‘evidence’ to support particular policies. This article was published a fortnight into the war.

Activity 27 Who lied to whom?

Please read Hersh’s article [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] now. You should consider the following questions while you read. When you have finished reading, take a look at the discussion.

  1. Might this report have had an impact on the decision of the US and UK to go to war if it had been published before the war had begun?
  2. Who does Hersh rely upon for credible sources, and what makes them credible?
  3. Are the news media mentioned in the article who ‘fell for it’, such as The Guardian and Washington Post, responsible in any way for the 2003 Iraq war?
  4. If members of the public cannot trust mainstream media outlets, what options do they have for obtaining reliable news?


  1. WMD was a primary justification for war, though it had secondary meanings: the presence of WMD in Iraq would have implied that Saddam Hussein was ‘untrustworthy’ and ‘dangerous’. Additionally, the presence of WMD was central to many presentations given by the US and UK in the sections before the war, e.g. Colin Powell’s presentation to the UN of satellite images of WMD ‘sites’ in Iraq. Hence the report would have derailed the main justification given for the war. However, the war could have been justified on other grounds, including humanitarian reasons.
  2. He relies on International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) sources. As an independent body, they are ostensibly ‘non-political’ and therefore have no reason to give partial or inaccurate information.
  3. This is for the reader to decide, but if we are to say that journalists have ‘power’ then we might argue that they had some power to stop the war by informing publics who in turn could have held their political leaders to account. On the other hand, it should be noted that sufficient public criticism existed to enable more than a million people to march against the war on 15 February 2003, and that such large scale expressions of public opinion do not necessarily influence government policy, as was the case in this instance.
  4. Audiences increasingly turn to a variety of news sources, but due to time pressure, lack of media literacy, and loyalty to particular media sources, we can hardly say audiences ever gain a ‘full picture’. The difficulty of obtaining reliable news is one of the central questions in media-political relations in the twenty-first century, and leads to questions of ‘trust’ and ‘credibility’ that news organisations are as concerned about as citizens.

In the next section we will turn to studies of how audiences/users of the media have understood and responded to media and government presentations of post-9/11 issues and stories.

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