On April 9, 2003, a group of Iraqis and US Marines toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein. For some, this signaled the liberation of a jubilant people. For others, it was a photo-op orchestrated by the US to suggest victory long before the fact. Journalist Peter Maass, suggests in the latest New Yorker that neither of these accounts captures the truth.
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BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. On April 9th, 2003, a group of Iraqis, with some decisive help from the U.S. Marines, toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square in Baghdad.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: They’re waving their fists in the air, they’re chanting “Death to Saddam.”
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Today was nothing less than a revolution.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: - in these amazing scenes of ordinary Iraqis, citizens with sledgehammers.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: They rushed forward, frenzied, to stamp triumphantly on the broken metal body -
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The edifice of the man responsible for two decades of tyranny pulled down in the center of Baghdad.
[SHOUTS FROM CROWD]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: For some, this signaled the end of the Iraq War and the liberation of a jubilant people. For others, it was just a photo-op orchestrated by the United States, a device to suggest victory long before the fact. Journalist Peter Maass, who was there when it all happened, suggests in the latest New Yorker that neither of these accounts captures the truth.
PETER MAASS: When one looks at Firdos Square and what happened there, it’s easy to think, oh, this was stage managed, a big photo-op. More than 200 reporters were at the Palestine Hotel. This was the place in Baghdad -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
PETER MAASS: - where the foreign press was based.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Palestine Hotel, which we should mention was right next to Firdos Square.
PETER MAASS: They went there because the journalists themselves were in some jeopardy, from mobs, from Iraqi security forces and also from American forces, which the day before had shelled the Palestine Hotel. So the Marines knew there were journalists there, but they weren't going there to put on a show. They were going there basically to secure that terrain.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In your article you mention the idea of the “strategic corporal.” This is the notion that in a world of immediate global communications, the actions of even a low-ranking soldier can have immense impact.
PETER MAASS: The strategic corporal issue is fascinating because there’s this gunnery sergeant named Leon Lambert who'd been in the Marines for about 16 years, and he rolls into Firdos Square and his first instinct is, which he blurts out over the radio system, hey, let's take down that statute. And his commander, a captain, said, no way. You know, we got to secure this place. But once Firdos Square was secured, Lambert radios to his commander, a captain, and says, hey, you know, some Iraqis are here and they want to do something to the statue, would you mind if I hand them a sledgehammer and a rope? And the commander says, okay, but don't use your vehicle. This triggered the whole toppling. Nobody above the rank of captain was aware of this. Lieutenant Colonel Bryan McCoy emerges from the Palestine and all of a sudden sees this panorama of Iraqis with a sledgehammer and a rope.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Trying to bring down this huge statue and doomed to failure.
PETER MAASS: Surrounded by cameras, and he realizes, McCoy does, that if he didn't take down the statue then the image that was going to be broadcast across the world was of the statue that refused to yield. And the statue’s a symbol now, worldwide, because the press is there, of the regime of Saddam Hussein. And so, for that reason, he decided to take down the statue.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Would you talk a little bit about the debacle of the American flag plastered on the statue of Saddam’s face?
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: And again, here you have the Marine up there. What is he doing? Oh, there we have it.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: He’s unfurling an American flag. Yeah.
PETER MAASS: You know, a lot of people here in America and elsewhere thought, well, this is part of the big psychological operation, put a big American flag up on top of this statue. As it turns out, this was also incredibly haphazard. There was a tank lieutenant in this battalion named Tim McLaughlin, who had a flag with him, and he had tried to raise it a couple of times during the invasion and had never succeeded. One time he was getting shot at, the other time, a tank rolled over the flagpole that he was going to use. By the time they got to Firdos Square – this was kind of an inside joke in the tank company, McLaughlin’s flag. So when the order finally came from the commander of the battalion to take down the statue, the captain said to McLaughlin, get your flag up. We got a moment now for the picture you've been waiting for. And the lieutenant colonel in charge of this battalion at Firdos Square, the first moment he became aware of it was when it was actually up on the statue. And the first thing he did was utter a profanity, and then he ordered it down.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You maintain that if there was a deception foisted on the news-consuming American people, it wasn't perpetuated by the military, so much as by the media.
PETER MAASS: I think the media has to take the blame for kind of errors of commission and errors of omission.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I've always said that if they just took a wider angle on the square, you would see that this was not the spontaneous uprising that all those tight shots really close to the statue led one to believe it was.
PETER MAASS: If you panned out, which rarely, I'd say, TV cameras did, while this was going on, you'd see a square that was mostly empty. And when this event was repeated over and over again, as it was, every 4.4 minutes on FOX TV afterwards that day, and every 7.7 minutes by CNN, it wasn't the wide shot that showed the true context, that there was this very small crowd there. It was the tight shot that showed the very few number of very excited Iraqis who were surrounded by journalists, photographers, cameramen, inciting Iraqis and others to kind of respond to them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Iraqis and the Marines –
PETER MAASS: And the Marines.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - both felt the need to act because of the presence of the cameras.
PETER MAASS: This is really a key thing. The battalion commander gave the order to take down the statue because there were cameras there filming everything that was going on. If the cameras weren't there, there would not have been a statue being brought down that day at Firdos Square.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You note in your article that in the case of weapons of mass destruction, for example, it was the government that created the myth and fed it to the media. But in this case, you say, the media created the victory myth and then fed it to the rest of us.
PETER MAASS: They created the victory myth by uncritically presenting this toppling of the statue as an eruption of Iraqi joy, as also kind of the end of the war. This is what the commentary was saying while the statue was going down, on FOX, on CNN, repeated throughout the evening, repeated in the next day’s newspapers: The statue’s come down. The war is over. This is victory.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How much is this the fault of the reporters and how much of their editors?
PETER MAASS: It’s both, actually, and in some ways I'd say it’s more the editors because there were journalists at Firdos Square who were telling their editors, look, this thing that’s going on with the statue, don't pay much attention to it. It’s not important. There are very few Iraqis here. It’s a very confusing situation. This war is not over. A reporter for The San Francisco Chronicle by the name of Robert Collier filed a report that day saying just that. And the next morning he woke up and his copy had been completely changed, and his editor told him that he had just missed the significance of this historical event. A photographer I talked with, Gary Knight, was on the phone, his sat phone, with his editor in New York, while the statue was coming down. And the editor said, what are you doing talking to me, why aren’t you taking a picture [LAUGHS] of what’s going on? I'm watching it on TV right now. And Knight said, look, there are very few Iraqis here. This really isn't that important. Believe me, I've been in wars all over the place. And the editor said, stop talking to me and take pictures now. Anne Garrels, an NPR reporter, in a report that was done by Columbia Journalism Review, explained that when she filed her reports about what was going on at Firdos Square, her editors told her, you’re not getting it. And this was repeated across the media spectrum.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You say that the over-coverage of the statue toppling led to significant under-coverage of the war. Can you prove one led to the other?
PETER MAASS: There’s a really good academic study out of George Washington University. What the authors of this study did is logged the TV coverage day by day, hour by hour during the invasion and after the invasion, and basically right after April 9th, FOX reduced its coverage of what was going on in Iraq by about 75 percent, all the broadcast networks by roughly similar amounts. CNN did a better job than others. But the coverage really changed in terms of the amount and also in terms of the tone.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what difference did it make?
PETER MAASS: If Firdos Square had been covered the way it should have been, much more balanced, less enthusiastically, let's say, then it would have been much easier for all of us to understand that it wasn't over, that we had a really nasty fight still on our hands. But this reckoning took place much later than it should have, and in that interim, people died.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Peter, thank you very much.
PETER MAASS: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Peter Maass is the author of Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil, and his article, The Toppling, produced in collaboration with ProPublica, appeared in this week’s New Yorker.