Op-ed: The war as commodity
M V Ramana
US mainstream media has over the years evolved into a wonderful propaganda tool. Its central feature is that though different media outlets diverge on a number of subjects, there are some core issues on which they essentially expound a common line. Differences, if any, are relegated to tactics
As President George W Bush gets ready to give the final order for the anticipated carnage in Iraq, US media outlets, especially TV channels, have been having a field day with numerous reports and interviews on the upcoming war. Once the bombing starts, all major television channels in the US are expected to switch to covering the war. Mainstream channels like NBC and CBS have reportedly delayed scheduled comedy shows till April in anticipation of the war.
The Pentagon, for its part, has tried to ensure that all this media coverage will be favourable by introducing a new process called embedding under which media personnel will be allowed to live and travel with the troops. As part of the bargain, journalists promise not to report certain categories of information and agree to honour news embargoes. About 500 journalists have chosen to get embedded. Already, prior to the start of war, the investment has paid off; these journalists have been filing the kind of “human interest” stories that the Pentagon likes.
In effect, mainstream media has functioned and is functioning as a way to drum up support for the war. It does this in many ways. To start with the voices that are heard are overwhelmingly pro-war. This is not reflective of the general public sentiment. It is because when it comes to security issues, TV channels almost inevitably feature only retired military personnel, each one more conservative and hawkish than the other. Many are employees of these channels. Utilising brightly lit maps and fancy graphic capabilities, they engage the viewer in the arcane details of how an attack would likely proceed or outline alternate military strategies. The basic question of whether there should be a war at all is never discussed.
Despite this bias, the worldwide anti-war movement has by its sheer size forced itself into the mainstream media. But US media, especially television, has sought to minimise its impact in various ways. One device is to follow up any report of an anti-war event with some commentator dismissing them as fifth columnists or simply ignorant or as completely ineffective. Another tactic that is used on the rare occasions when a speaker opposed to the war appears is to “balance” him or her with a super-hawk.
Also working against those opposed to the war is the format used by TV channels — short sound bites. In such a milieu, only familiar thought, i.e., what is already offered by the mainstream media, has a chance of making an impact. Under such circumstances, to talk about the openness of the media in inviting a variety of viewpoints, is like freedom in the fast food industry: “you can serve the audience any variation of a burger with fries that you want, but you cannot try anything else,” in the words of Andrew Lichterman. “This rules out most thought which is a departure from what people already know.”
The strongest argument against the war — the expected humanitarian consequences that will befall the Iraqi people from the bombing — has been almost completely blacked out by the mainstream media. This is not due to lack of material. Numerous humanitarian and relief agencies, as well as the United Nations itself, have issued urgent warnings about the impending crisis. If ever these are mentioned, they are portrayed as though the US has nothing to do with it, blaming it all on Saddam Hussein, who is, in any case, demonised by the media.
Once the war starts, one can expect a continued blackout of the casualties on the Iraqi side. The language, instead, would involve antiseptic terms like surgical strikes and collateral damage that obfuscate a painful reality. In analysing how the TV networks present war, Kevin Robins observes, “The screen exposes the ordinary viewer to harsh realities, but it screens out the harshness of the realities. It has certain moral weightlessness: it grants sensation without demanding responsibility and it involves us in a spectacle without engaging us in the complexity of its reality.”
Hand in hand, the media has also implicitly justified any casualties in Iraq as the necessary price for ensuring that attacks like the ones of September 11, 2001 do not occur. The media has left unchallenged the Bush administration’s baseless allegations about the relationship between Al Qaeda and Iraq. No wonder then that 57 per cent of Americans believe that Iraq was involved in those attacks, according to a survey published by the Pew Research Center.
US mainstream media’s skewed coverage and drummed up support for the war is not without reasons. One factor is the huge profits involved. As Robert McChesney points out, the US “media system is dominated by a dozen or so enormous media conglomerates, whose investors have no more intrinsic interest in journalism or democracy than they do in cigarette smoking or manufacturing anti-depressant pills or nuclear weapons. Their sole purpose is to use their semi-monopolistic market power to maximize profits, usually by doing whatever they can to please the advertising industry.” The 1991 Gulf war, the first televised war in history, was hugely successful in terms of viewer ratings. CNN, in particular, made its mark during that war. This war is expected to be no different in terms of media profits.
US mainstream media has over the years evolved into a wonderful propaganda tool. Its central feature is that though different media outlets diverge on a number of subjects, there are some core issues on which they essentially expound a common line. Differences, if any, are relegated to tactics, but the basic assumptions — the purported threat posed by Saddam Hussein and the necessity of getting rid of him, for example — are never questioned. The system works so well that the vast majority of the US public does not realise this role of the media, viewing it as independent and seeking the truth. The media, in the analysis of Noam Chomsky and Edward Hermann, attempts to manufacture a consensus.
M V Ramana is a physicist and research staff member at Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security and co-editor of Prisoners of the Nuclear Dream