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Burning the “Bridge to Baghdad”: As War Begins, the Media Censors the Voices of Ordinary Iraqi People

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The corporate media networks have “embedded” hundreds of journalists with the U.S. military. But they have not one with an Iraqi family.

Twelve-time Emmy Award-winning TV journalist Jon Alpert wanted to create dialogue and bring the voices of ordinary Iraqis to ordinary Americans. He traveled to Baghdad last month to set up a video conference with Iraqi students in Baghdad and American students in New York. The American Museum of Radio and Television was sponsoring the event. But as Jon Alpert drove from Amman, Jordan, on the road to Baghdad, they called him and backed out. Jon produced the video dialogue anyway. When he returned to the U.S., not one network would air his piece.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: You are listening to Democracy Now!, as we turn back to Baghdad and go there with award-winning veteran Iraq reporter Jon Alpert.

KADOURI: Today we are going from Amman to Baghdad, and I hope we’re going to have a good time in Baghdad.

JON ALPERT: You’re Palestinian.


JON ALPERT: OK. Palestinian driver.


JON ALPERT: And you?

PALESTINIAN DRIVER 3: Palestinian Jordanian. Palestinian in Jordan.

JON ALPERT: OK. So we’ve got three Palestinian drivers.

PALESTINIAN DRIVER 4: Four Palestinian

JON ALPERT: Four Palestinian drivers. How many extra drivers do we have here? Three more! OK. Right now it’s Baghdad or bust. I’m in the middle of nowhere in Jordan. Can you hear me? The Museum of Radio and Television, that was going to be our partner in this and pass this on to 200 colleges, pulled out. They’re calling from New York.

DISPATCHER: I have Bob from the museum on the other line. Can I patch you through?

BOB BATSCHA: This is the reason that we don’t feel comfortable doing this. We run a very high risk of being a setup for Saddam Hussein having an opportunity to have young people say, “Why are you trying to kill us?” And I don’t think that’s the role that we should be playing.

JON ALPERT: We all thought that there was something to be gained by people talking to each other, no matter how antagonistic the situation might be. And actually, we thought that that was something that was part of the mission of reporters and part of the mission of the museum.

BOB BATSCHA: We just feel the risk of being a front for this guy is very real.

JON ALPERT: Is the museum saying that our American kids aren’t smart enough to be able to pick up propaganda when they see it? Our kids are tough enough to talk and to be perceptive.

BRENT RENAUD: So we’re screwed, basically. I mean, my understanding was we’re coming over here to do this dialogue for the Museum of Television and Radio. And if they backed out, we don’t have a project.

JON ALPERT: But we are en route, and we’re pointed in the direction of Baghdad, and we can’t give up.

ERIC: We’ve seen a lot of Iraqi defectors in the United States supporting an American invasion to oust Saddam Hussein. We’ve also read in the paper many Kurds saying that Saddam Hussein should be ousted by American forces. Why do you think these people think that America should invade Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein?

IRAQI YOUTH 1: I think maybe because they’re not Iraqis. I don’t think there’s a person in this whole universe who would go against his country, against his people, and stand up and goes, “Bomb my country.” Do you think that is a human being?

IRAQI YOUTH 2: OK, you’re asking us: Why don’t we change our government? Why don’t we choose another president? Will you like if I come with an army or any Iraqi would come with an army and force you to kick Bush off? Will you like this? This is [inaudible].

ALCY: I actually agree it would be a good idea for them to come in and get rid of Bush, but…

AMERICAN YOUTH: What is it like? What are the conditions like that you’re living under?

IRAQI YOUTH 1: We’re trying to forget. We’re trying to forget that there’s war might come. And we’re trying to smile and live our lives. But there’s still one thing missing. I mean, you never know when you’re going to die. And we’re still young for this. And you never know when maybe this will be our last smile, this will be our last meal, this will be our last of everything. I mean, how — we never know what’s coming.

AMY GOODMAN: Just a few of the young voices in Iraq that are under the gun today. You are listening to Democracy Now! That Bridge to Baghdad was produced by veteran reporter Jon Alpert, who joins us in our firehouse studio now. I’m Amy Goodman. Jeremy Scahill also here, just returned from Baghdad. Jon, you have won 12 Emmys. You are a veteran Iraq reporter. You brought back very disturbing images after the Persian Gulf War. You went to set up this dialogue between Iraqi kids and U.S. kids. Are we the only ones playing it right now?

JON ALPERT: Well, it’s certainly not going to be played on major media outlets. Every single major media outlet in the United States refused to broadcast this tape.


JON ALPERT: Well, they were really busy counting down to war. They had a stop watch in their head, and it only went one way. And I really think that this was something that possibly humanized the Iraqi people. And even though it doesn’t seem dangerous, that becomes very dangerous at this particular time, if there’s a face put on the people who are on the receiving end of what’s happening over there in Iraq. It was — I never thought that this one would have trouble going on the air. When we came back from the first Gulf War and we had the only evidence that the smart bombs weren’t smart and we were killing a lot of civilians, I understood why there was pressure. But this one, I thought, was going to be benign, and it was just people talking. It was kids talking, what type of music they liked, what their hopes were. And the fact that we can’t get this on the air, it’s really frightening. That’s scary.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you’ve broadcast for the different networks. I mean, there was just a piece on you that was — well, it wasn’t just about you, I have to admit. It was on the veteran reporters in this country. Was it a CBS two-hour special? On Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw and Jon Alpert. So, you are very well known in the mainstream journalistic community. We began by hearing from this clip, a conversation you had with the Museum of Radio and Television?

JON ALPERT: Yeah, we had gotten funding from the Shire Foundation to go and do this dialogue. And we went up to the Museum of Radio and Television. They have a very useful and widespread seminar series that connects 200 colleges together. And we thought, “This is great. Not only are the young people here and the young people in Baghdad in our two studios going to talk, but 200 colleges across the United States can have a conversation.” And the museum backed out. The museum runs some really good programs. But as we get closer and closer to the war, more and more people become scared. You talk about courage in the time of war. And the scary thing is that the networks and a lot of the establishment begins to lose their courage to be able to see all sides, and they start to self-censor themselves. And the museum got scared, and they backed out, scared of people talking. And it was surprising to me, and really, really frustrating, because why can’t people talk? What is scary about people talking? And they were scared to have that happen.

AMY GOODMAN: We are now watching images from aircraft carriers around Iraq, journalists embedded with the military, not to be confused with “in bed with the military,” at every site, with more than 100,000 U.S. soldiers on the border in Kuwait. And we’re seeing the reporters talking to the soldiers. We’re seeing the video images now in this last 12 hours of the Pentagon as they show us the explosions and the different kinds of weapons that have been used. During the Persian Gulf War, so as we are at the beginning of this now people can understand what it takes to get images from the target end, you were — you thought you were working for who, when you went into Iraq and gathering your film?

JON ALPERT: Well, NBC was going to broadcast our report from the first Gulf War. And it was the first time that there was definitive proof that the military basically had been lying. Do you remember during that first Gulf War, every single day on TV, the Pentagon held a news conference, and they had these extraordinary images of the bombs precisely hitting their targets. And about 10 days into the war, one of the correspondents raised their hand, and they said, “General, every single picture you’ve shown us is a perfect hit. Has every single bomb hit its target? Has there been one miss?” And this general said, “We have not missed a single target. Every single one of our weapons has precisely hit the mark.” And I said, “That can’t possibly be true.” And when we went over to Iraq, and we got the documentation that it absolutely wasn’t true, and we came back, there wasn’t a single network in the United States that had the courage to broadcast that report.

AMY GOODMAN: And you were blacklisted. Jon Alpert with us, Jeremy Scahill, as well. They’ve actually just both separately returned from Iraq. Jeremy Scahill, Democracy Now! correspondent, you are now seeing how the U.S. is projecting what is going in Iraq. While you were there, you were experiencing it yourself, and you were seeing international press. The difference, Jeremy?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, well, in just watching TV last night, I mean, the whole story is being spun that basically France and Germany are responsible for things now happening the way that they are. And the U.S. press is, you know, in sync with the Bush administration in blaming France and Germany for not giving diplomacy a chance. I mean, diplomacy has become a codeword for unquestioning acceptance of U.S. hegemony. That’s what diplomacy means now. But it’s interesting, on CNN International, which I was watching just before I came here, they’re saying consistently, almost at the intro of every story, “After the U.S. abandoned diplomacy.” And that’s how it is being reported. And, in fact, watching Nic Robertson, the CNN correspondent, and Rym Brahimi, the correspondents that are in Baghdad, very different style of reporting on domestic CNN than they do on CNN International. It’s almost dumbed down when it’s on CNN domestic. It’s very interesting, the contrast. I mean, you have some extraordinary people that are in Baghdad right now, even some working for major U.S. networks. You just don’t see that. You just don’t see what they are producing in Baghdad appearing on TV screens in the U.S. I mean, you do have — and Jon knows this as well as anyone — you have some really, you know, good, well-intentioned people there. But they just don’t fight their editors, or they can’t fight their editors on some of the things that are happening.

JON ALPERT: Well, the other thing that’s interesting is there are dozens of reporters right now embedded in military units on the sending end of the weapons. And I don’t know any reporters who were embedded with Iraqi families. As it became obvious to us that we could not get our dialogue on the air, I began trying to get an assignment to go and embed myself with an Iraqi family. Called every single network, and they all said, “I’m sorry, our forces are completely deployed. We’re not interested in that.”

AMY GOODMAN: Jon, if people want to get a hold of Bridge to Baghdad — you have produced a 50-minute piece; you thought it would be easy, that it would be aired nationally; at this point, we’ve just played an excerpt — where can people call or go on the web to get more information?

JON ALPERT: Well, if you have a satellite dish, it’s going to be appearing on WorldLink TV. It’s going to be appearing on Free Speech TV. Those are the two public access channels on digital satellite TV. We’re going to show it on cable TV here. You can contact us at DCTV, DCTVNY.org. We’d like people to see it.

AMY GOODMAN: And if a network has a change of heart, where can they call?

JON ALPERT: Ooh, just call us right away. It’s free. It’s free.

AMY GOODMAN: As we go out of this broadcast, I want to just mention quite a disturbing experience that Jeremy and I had last night. Before the bombs fell, we went out to New Jersey Performing Arts Center because Ani DiFranco was performing there before more than 2,000 people and asked that we come up before she sang to talk about independent media in a time of war.

When we got there, we heard that the concert might not even go on, because she had told people they could table and give out information. And the NJPAC, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, said, no, no such information would be allowed to be given out. We went with one of the people who works here, Jenny, who had some flyers in her bag. They opened the bag and said, “None of this political information will be allowed in. You leave the bag out, or you stay out yourself.” It was in her backpack. They said no flyers were allowed in the performing arts center.

And then we were told at the time that we were going up on the stage, right before Ani was singing, that we would have to go up at the point where the lights were going up and that those who ran the venue — I should, by the way, say Clear Channel owns New Jersey Performing Arts Center, which would think that Ani was singing, but, in fact, we would go up. Also Miles Solay of Not in Our Name went up to talk about war. If they closed our mics, which they expected, possibly cancel the concert, we would just go on and grab another microphone.

But that the kind of censorship that we see in a time of war has to be stood up against. And we did make our statements about war and the importance about getting information out. Jeremy ended, just returning from Baghdad. And, Jeremy, when you finished, Ani DiFranco did come up and sing. And we’re going to go out with that song. And she started by saying?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, she said — because we actually then took the flyers that we had and threw them out into the audience and said, “Clear Channel didn’t want you to have these, but we’ll give them to you anyway.” And Ani DiFranco said, “The people won a victory here. People, one. Random — random knuckleheads, zero.” And then she sang the song.

AMY GOODMAN: “People, one. Random knuckleheads, zero.” And that does it for the program. New Jersey Performing Arts Center is where it took place. That does it for the show, as we go out with Ani DiFranco’s first song, “One Bold Move.” Want to thank our cast today of producers, Kris Abrams, Mike Burke, Angie Karran, Ana Nogueira, Elizabeth Press, Jeremy Scahill, Jon Alpert of Free Speech TV. Thank you very much also to Chet, as well as Mike Di Filippo. Our website is www.democracynow.org. Our email address, mail@democracynow.org. Ani DiFranco, “Your Next Bold Move.”

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