Warring with the Coverage of War

Dissent Disappears from Media Coverage

by Danny Schechter

Resist newsletter, December 2001


We have all been here before. Watching our country go to war, with the mainstream media enlisted as a megaphone for official views and sanitized news. It was like that in Vietnam, in the Gulf, and now, with a significant difference, in Afghanistan. The difference is that today despite new technologies, hundreds of new channels and the diverse views available through the internet-the situation is worse.

Worse, in part because journalists have effectively been barred from the battlefields, and because most media institutions have confused jingoism with journalism. American flags fly in the lapels of newscasters and in the graphics on news gets, masking their uncritical analyses in patriotic symbols. The voices of dissent are mostly absent, as the New York Times discovered almost two months after the war began.

A Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) survey of the New York Times and Washington Post op-ed pages for the three weeks following the attacks (9/12/01 - 10/ 2/01) found that "columns calling for or assuming a military response to the attacks were given a great deal of space, while opinions urging diplomatic and international law approaches as an alternative to military action were nearly non-existent. A total of 44 columns in the Times and Post clearly stressed a military response, against only two columns stressing non-military solutions."

In addition, both op-ed pages showed a striking gender imbalance. Of the 107 op-ed writers at the Post, only seven were women. Proportionally, the Times did slightly better, with eight female writers out of 79. This is especially ironic in a war against a Taliban condemned for its treatment of women.

The media role in this crisis needs to be understood before it can be challenged. What is striking about this period is the penetration of the truly worldwide web, and the emergence of independent media centers and many independent media organizations.

Marriage of Media and Military

Understand at the outset that TV News thrives on the excitement, challenge and budgets that accompany the coverage of war. I wrote about this media context in the Electronpress.com edition of my book News Dissector.

While war unleashes devastation and death on people, it delivers ratings and brings life to television. War is often the "big story" (when sex isn't), a defining moment for many journalists. It's the story that permits news departments to mobilize their "troops"-that's what ABC called employees when I worked there-and show off their hi-tech deployments. Many reporters who "make it" to the top do so because of war reporting. Ask Peter Arnett, Cristianne Amanpour or even Peter Jennings-no disrespect intended-if being under fire helped or hurt their careers. The answer is obvious. Less obvious is the relationship between our bloated defense budget and war coverage. The Pentagon manipulates TV's military boosterism to hype adventures, secure appropriations and sell weaponry. War correspondents have traditionally been top bananas in the food chain of journalism, at least in the days when networks covered the world, not just US interventions in it. It's an assignment many crave but few get, a job where guts can be leveraged into glory-and, more importantly, upward mobility. Being amidst the land mines can be a path to media gold mines. That's the upside. The downside is really down: the "death thing," in post-modernist jargon. It is dangerous physically for local war-watchers as well as foreign crews stumbling into war zones with inadequate preparation. The BBC now trains staffers in survival skills and risk management. Its trainer told me that news organizations share responsibility for media casualties by not teaching safety practices.

Phillip Knightly, the author The First Casualty, the definitive history on war correspondents, shows that in every war, truth is a greater casualty than the journalist body count. He offers a suggestion for saving lives by taking the romance out of the adventurism that accompanies military reporting. Knightly suggests newspapers simply stop using bylines with war reports and TV stations drop the endless standups. "When they do that," he says, "see how few journalists clamor to cover wars."

Peace Journalism

Knightly was one of the participants in a four-day course outside London over Labor Day weekend a few years back. The conference taught other ways to cover conflicts and strategies to package peace journalism as a sexier option than war journalism. Unlike a similar conference here that would likely attract academics, this one drew working journalists, correspondents and producers. As TV journalism fights an uphill battle against infotainment formats, it was encouraging to find professionals struggling to report conflicts honestly, compassionately and responsibly.

The first goal was recognition of the "binary fallacy," what conflict resolution guru Johann Galtung calls a "bipolar disorder" that leads news people to follow the same template over and over, simplifying armed conflicts into battles between only two parties with no attention given to underlying political factors, multiple causes, possible compromises or impacts on civilians.

The language used to describe conflict likewise fuels it by constructing TV "realities" anchored in good versus evil, light versus dark, self versus other. Argues Galtung, "journalism does not only legitimize violence but is violent in and of itself' by its continuing failure to pay attention to people's grievances or strategies for peaceful outcomes. Bombings are reported vividly; peace processes, particularly among non-state players, are ignored.

The workshop turned to teaching skills of deconstruction and reconstruction. Stories about "evil billionaire terrorist mastermind" Osama bin Laden were dissected for blatant biases, inadequate sourcing and orchestrated assumptions that missiles were the only sensible response. Likewise, TV reports on the Middle East and Kosovo were analyzed as superficial, distorted and context-free. Going beyond the media critique, efforts were made to show how the same story could be reworked. Separate teams came up with new scripts and voiceovers-all under "deadline" pressure. A truck with edit gear arrived, permitting producers and wannabe "correspondents" to re-edit, producing tapes that showed how easily a thoughtful approach could lead to more informative peace-oriented reporting.

In all cases, the stories reflected traditional values of accuracy, fairness and balance on all sides-including those usually left out. The final products were somewhat amateurish, but improved upon actually broadcast originals. A similar exercise with "two-ways," where studio presenters (anchors) interview reporters live, showed how more conscious journalists could broaden the range of discourse.

Could any of these approaches be adopted here? Of course-if the will existed. The BBC's Sue Lloyd Roberts showed her stories from Burma and Tibet shot on camcorders, offering the kind of sensitive-but-tough reporting on human rights so conspicuously absent on our TV. She confided that British broadcasting is turning away from her approach towards softer domestic stories in the US mold. Jake Lynch of SKY News showed how his coverage of the Irish troubles focused on initiatives by non-sectarian groups who played key behind-the-scenes roles in the peace process. South Africa's effort to promote reconciliation through media was offered as another model.

A CNN bureau chief present at a discussion of these issues claimed that his organization fields 65 peace correspondents. One look at how CNN reported the Gulf War, and how it is covering the war today, shows the gap in understanding in the trenches of network journalism. George Orwell explained it years ago, predicting an age of news speak, manipulated language and group think. For the mainstream, now a mudstream, peace is war and war peace.

Gulf War Coverage

Media coverage of the Gulf War years ago was probably the biggest, most expensive, and most sustained undertaking in the history of the television news divisions. It was a marathon, a news-athon that hooked us into a state of addictive anxiety where we stayed tuned in to saturation updates without end. Media coverage rallied the country behind the war while promoting the illusion that what we were watching in our living rooms was what was happening in the deserts of Arabia.

The coverage was so one-sided and so well managed that the Administration would sweep the "Gulfies" if such an award were ever created to honor the media work in this conflict. Michael Deaver, President Reagan's PR honcho, was ecstatic about its impact, contending, "If you were to hire a public relations firm to do the media relations for an international event, it couldn't be done any better than this is being done." Hodding Carter, President Jimmy Carter's former chief flack, seconded the emotion: "If I were the government, I'd be paying the press for the coverage it's getting."

Yet the press-and this was a television story above all else-did not have to be paid. Pete Williams, the man who "handled" the media for the Pentagon, put his finger on this greatest accomplishment before hostilities erupted. "The reporting has been largely a recitation of what Administration people have said, or an extension of it."

But let's scratch deeper. Was this a case of meanies in the military manipulating the messengers of the media? No way. Listen to Michael Massing in the Columbia Journalism Review: "access was not really the issue. Yes the pools, the escorts, the clearance procedures were all terribly burdensome, but greater openness would not necessarily have produced better coverage." For him, what we lacked were not freer reporters in the field but more digging into the real reasons for the war, fewer "Scud Studs," as NBC's Arthur Kent was called, and more I. F. Stones to burrow in the bowels of Official Washington to get at the story behind the story. (Kent himself was later fired by NBC, sued the network, won, and then wrote a book denouncing the manipulation of news.)

The critics of the war coverage now include many of the people upon whom we relied for information. CNN's Bernard Shaw told a university conference that the American people "never got the whole story." Veteran New York Times war reporter Malcolm Browne, disgusted with the news management, said that the reporting on this war spelled an end of war reporting as we have known it. Newsday quoted one correspondent as saying: "The line between me and a government contractor is pretty thin."

Critiques and Alternatives

That was then. What about now? Today I am writing every day about the coverage of this war on mediachannel.org. I watch the TV coverage, skim as many newspapers as I can and read the reporting of news outlets in other countries to try to understand the perspectives of other cultures? and frankly to find information and analysis that are missing in most US media accounts. The British press, which has many problems of its own, has been far more analytical, detached and investigative than the media outlets most Americans rely on for their news and information.

In this exercise, still underway at this writing, I identify 10 key problems with the coverage, although I must say that there is also good reporting.

Here's what's missing:

1. Lack of historical context
2. Lack of cultural analysis
3. Lack of access to decision makers
4. Lack of access to the battlefields
5. Lack of coverage of US policy and interests in the region

Add to that (6) an absence of critical perspectives, (7) refusal to adequately cover dissent in the US and around the world, (8) refusal for the most part to hear from voices in the region, (9) refusal to give adequate air time to NGO groups which have been critical of the Pentagon's exploitative use of humanitarian food delivery to focus attention away from the effects of the bombing, and finally (10) virtually no attention paid to alternatives to violence, international law, or how the conflict might be resolved or will be resolved.

Okay, that's a critique. What's the alternative? We have all read some of the analysis on the left, including the debates between Christopher Hitchens and Noam Chomsky over whether left responses are insensitive to the victims of the attacks in New York and Washington, and whether the war is just or not. They will continue, but you rarely find issues like this explored in the op-ed pages of most media outlets. We should point out that many radical outlets are also closed to dissenting perspectives from whatever political line is in command. Some critics confuse patriotism with fascism, attacking the American people rather than engaging them in the many critical concerns. The left needs to confront ways in which it marginalizes itself, often substituting slogans for substantive debate.

News Sources

Only a few national outlets give voice to the types of perspectives I am calling for. On TV, two new channels, FreeSpeech TV and World Links are available on satellite stations. There are 500 public access channels nationwide, some of which carry shows like Amy Goodman's Democracy Now. While the Pacifica Network is divided and on the edge of implosion, they still offer dissenting voices unheard elsewhere.

Indy media videos and websites reach audiences worldwide but lack the means of promotion and marketing along with most of progressive media. You can find many of them on sites like Fair.org, Alternet.org and Zmag.org, along with hundreds of other web sites which offer dissenting views. Mediachannel.org now has 820 affiliates easily accessible through its site as well as a Global News Index with I000 links. The company's new Globalvision News Network (www.gvnewsnet.com), available through mediachannel, brings perspectives from all over the world, a form of inside-out journalism that is also missing in most of our media.

Love the media or hate it, we all have a responsibility for our own media choices. We also need to see much media coverage as a problem to be examined and ultimately confronted. As my old friend Scoop Nisker used to say on San Francisco radio, "If you don't like the news, go out and make some of your own."


Danny Schechter is the executive producer of Globalvision, Inc. (globalvision.org) and the author of News Dissector (Akashic Books and electronpress.com) and the More You Watch The Less You Know (Seven Stories Press).

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