Penn's War: Media Lap Dogs Backed Iraq Mess
By Susan Donaldson James
Actor narrates a new documentary that indicts US involvement in Iraq.
Sean Penn, the actor-director-turned-political-activist, narrates a new anti-war documentary that alleges U.S. presidents since Kennedy have manipulated the public to wage wars.
The searing documentary coincides with the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and asserts that the mainstream media have been cheerleaders for a war that has cost the nation - according to Department of Defense figures this week - 3,980 lives.
The star, who won for best actor in the 2003 film "Mystic River," has been an outspoken critic of the war, often calling it "Dante's Inferno."
This week, "War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death" has been released for home entertainment to distributors like Amazon and Best Buy and on Netflix. The film premiered in New York City, Saturday.
Penn, 47, has toured Iraq twice - once just before the Bush administration stepped up drumbeats for the war in December 2002, and also as a correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Written and directed by Loretta Alper and Jeremy Earp, the film weaves archival footage from World War II to the Iraq War. It is based on the book by the same name, written in 2005 by Norman Solomon, founder and executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy.
"No One Else Has the Guts to Go"
"I invited Sean Penn out of the blue, when no one else had the guts to go," Solomon told ABCNEWS.com. "When I worked on the film, I contacted him and he didn't hesitate at all. He donated his time, his work and his reputation."
Penn was unavailable for comment because he is in production on a film about the life of Harvey Milk, his publicist Rachel Karten of I/D Public Relations told ABCNEWS.com. The actor is set to play the gay politician of San Francisco's 1970s in a biopic directed by Gus Van Sant.
Penn has been a growing political force in Hollywood. That is no surprise, considering Penn's roots: His father, actor and director Leo Penn, was blacklisted in the 1950s for his support of Joseph Stalin.
From his early days portraying an airhead in 1982's "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," Penn has played more highly charged roles like a death row inmate in "Dead Man Walking" (1995) and Sgt. Eddie Walsh in the anti-war film "The Thin Red Line" (1998).
Penn answered a call to help in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, literally pulling people out of the water. A year ago, Penn led a town meeting in California that was critical of President Bush and his handling of the war, drawing both public praise and scorn.
Penn once paid $56,000 for an ad in The Washington Post criticizing the war, according to a report in USA Today. He also baited Bush for his handling of Katrina and his "inflammatory rhetoric" toward Iran.
"You and your smarmy pundits - and the smarmy pundits you have in your pocket - can take your war and shove it," Penn told the San Francisco Chronicle at the time. "Let's unite not only in stopping this war, but in holding this administration accountable."
Reaction to "War Made Easy" has been favorable, according to Adi Bemak, gift director of the Media Education Foundation, which produced the film and is distributing it worldwide.
The project also received support from actor Matt Damon, who was listed in the film's credits as a "friend" of the foundation.
"We thank all the friends who have supported our work, and that really means in all kinds of ways - networking, hosting events, hosting staff, making donations," Bemak said.
Toll or Deaths, Injuries
Five years after the American "shock and awe" campaign to oust the regime of Saddam Hussein, 159,000 troops still remain in Iraq, according to the Department of Defense. In addition to military deaths, an estimated 29,275 have been wounded. But the largest toll has been on Iraqi civilians, with 81,964 to 89,448 dead, according to the Brookings Institute.
One of the highest prices of the war has been the public loss of faith in the ability of its government to tell the truth and in a docile press corps, according to the film.
Solomon's meticulous research and rarely seen archival news footage from World War II through the Vietnam War, Panama, Grenada, Bosnia and two Gulf wars analyzes the way in which the media regurgitated the politicians' justification for war.
Every president since John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush - all except Jimmy Carter - came under fire for their war rhetoric. But Solomon is even harsher on the news media that trumpeted the government's war cry.
Even Walter Cronkite, whom Solomon calls "the patron saint of journalism," did not escape attack, as CBS footage chronicled the newsman's participation in an aerial mission in Vietnam. Cronkite marvels at the weaponry and U.S. military superiority.
Analyzing the press coverage of the Iraq War, Solomon points to the masterful use of public relations by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld when he called on 500 journalists to "embed" themselves with the troops. In doing so, the press showed only the perspective of the "attackers" and not the victims.
Solomon contends he is no pacifist: "If war is justified, the government doesn't have to lie about it."
"The public supported World War II even though it went on for so long, because the public never felt it was based on lies," according to Solomon, who, in the film, reminds the audience of the now-debunked Bush mantra that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
In one of the most compelling scenes of the film, Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., speaks out against impending war in Afghanistan in never-seen footage three days after 9/11. She cast the lone vote in Congress against authorizing force in the emotional aftermath of the terrorist attacks.
Journalists as Stenographers
"War Made Easy" is being distributed to schools around the country in the hope that Americans can learn "media literacy" and be more critical consumers of the news, looking to more than mainstream sources, the film's distributors contend.
Solomon also urges the media to get back to solid investigative reporting that challenges the reins of power. Today, he said, they are only "stenographers of the war makers in Washington."
"Journalists want to be ahead of the curve, but not out on a limb and they don't want to take professional risks," Solomon said. "There are great reporters through all the eras, but they are islands of good journalism swamped by oceans of received wisdom."
"It's an appeal to democracy that can create genuine alternatives to war," he said. "Journalists need to fight back and the public needs to challenge itself."
However, Rich Noyes, director of research at the Media Research Center, sees the press coverage leading up to the war in Iraq differently. He has just released a five-year study of the three major television networks.
"The left has claimed that the media didn't do enough to stop the war in its tracks," he told ABCNEWS.com. "But if you go back to the questions asked and the articles that were written and the news that aired, there were great skeptics, adversarial coverage and even hostile news coverage."
The most aggressive, Noyes said, was Peter Jennings of ABC News. "We have pages and pages of quotes."
Despite the media's attacks, Noyes said the media historically has had a "liberal tilt."
Since the onset of the war, the media have been even more anti-government, according to Noyes.
By 2004, with coverage of scandals like Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse, the negative stories "more than outstripped the coverage of Medals of Honor winners and Silver Stars," he said.
"The vast array of coverage showed soldiers as anonymous or victims of policy perpetrators or misdeeds," said Noyes. "This sort of bad news hurt the morale of the country."
Alan Schroeder, associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University, told ABCNEWS.com that investigative journalism is not alive and well today. He worries that corporate forces have taken their toll on an independent media.
"Investigative journalism takes a lot of time and you don't produce daily stories and it requires a financial investment," he said. "Journalism is a business and subject to all the pressures of the marketplace."