Media and War on Terror
A Study of Media Propaganda and Diplomacy
Table of Content
Media on War
Media in War
Media in Diplomacy
In 2012, at least 67 journalists had been killed in action in different conflict areas across the globe, making it one of the deadliest years for media persons in action (CPJ, 2012). Never before in the recorded history, have so many journalists lost their lives in conflict zone. There was a time when media in war was treated at par with Red Cross Samaritans. But, now journalists are seen as polarised agents of either side (Aday et al., 2005: 6; CPJ, 2012). Perhaps the notion has befallen as a result of increasingly state controlled and propagated media content. Several scholars have researched and argued that in contemporary era, media objectivity is almost invisible and the tactics that make it biased are hidden from masses. The honoured holder of the title ‘fourth estate’ is fast submerging into ‘the state’ itself. Although, there is no deniability in the argument that media has the power to filter certain content in specific style to get desirable response from the public, but unfortunately, it has lost majority control over making that decision. Now it is being used by the governments as a tool to generate consensus over its operations, however outrageous they might be. Researches indicate that in case of ongoing ‘war on terror’ media has been effectively used to create mass support for war, dehumanise enemies, create a fake sense of victory and even as a strategic method to instil positive image in hostile countries. This paper is classified as follows. The first part deals with the concepts of framing, elite and pluralist theories and propaganda model suggested by Herman and Chomsky. Second part attempts to elaborate on the various roles that media plays in the war on terror under, with a brief discussion about the counter forces acting in the information technology that may revolutionise the war reporting in future and challenge the state’s control over the information flow like never before. Finally, the third section looks at how media can be used to instigate peace in conflict regions.
Media on War
News media is inherently a mediator between public and administrators. It is a carrier of information which bridges the information gap and gives the general masses the ability to analyse, evaluate, criticise and respond towards the actions of their leaders. Thus, free and objective press is treated as a basic constituent of a democratic set up (Robinson, 2008: 139). However, media is not the most neutral transponder of the news. Even if unconsciously, media is prone to framing a piece of information in a way that it leads its audience to certain perspectives and thought processes. In the words of media scholars, frames can be defined as ‘principles of selection, emphasis and presentation composed of little tacit theories about what exists, what happens and what matters’ (Gitlin cited in Matthes, 2009: 350). Thus, framing is a process of highlighting certain connections between a few elements of perceived reality ‘to promote a particular interpretation’ (Entman, 2007: 164). The concept is also closely linked to priming and agenda setting. Agenda setting refers to the media's ability, by focusing on some issues rather than others, to direct people to think about those issues. Priming refers to the ability of media to prepare and direct publics to the issues by which they should judge their leaders (Robinson, 2008: 145). However, contrary to news communities’ claims, the buck of bias does not stop here. Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model clearly indicates that contemporary media is prone to a multilateral bias and the content is highly dominated by ownership patterns or profit derivative, advertisers interest, approval by source and other agents of power, fear of flak and popular national agendas, such as anti-communism and patriotism (Herman and Chomsky, 1988: 2). The reason why these theoretical aspects of news building are being discussed is that these factors come in play when media enters the world of war.
Each information technology innovation slips media deeper into the war and conflict zones. The advent of electronic media recording and transmission equipment led reporters to live action, and now internet is making journalists out of terrorists themselves. Media has become subject of vast critical scrutiny for being the carrier of terror. Alarm and horror caused by a single act of terrorism is multiplied n number of times as it travels across the globe through 24X7 news channels and websites (Chermak, 2003: 7; Nacos, 2003: 1,5). And after the end of Cold War and 9/11 the US media, and in toe the world media, has shifted focus to the ‘terror frame’. Any violent incident is first checked against terror premise. While some credit on this over-usage goes to Bush administration, which declared ‘war on terror’ and asked the world to choose if they are with him or with terrorism (Norris et al., 2003: 15), but another possible explanation could be that the term has been chosen to extract maximum response from public (Schatz, 2002: xiv-xv). However, this profit driven approach also implies that terrorist activities get unconditional news coverage. More often than not, the media space works in favour of terrorists by providing them a tool to multiply impact of their violent activity over handful people and spreading their message to the masses (Bailey and Grimaila, 2006: 527). For example, Arab satellite news channel Al Jazeera’s decision to telecast Osama Bin Laden’s video message was seen as a terrorist supporting activity by the US government (Hammond, 2003: 28). According to Sutanu Guru (2002: 113), the media coverage of war on terror post 9/11 can be marked by four maladies - hysteria, paranoia, amnesia and myopia. It creates hysteria by romanticising the magnitude of the terror impact. In an attempt to grab eyeballs, media not only paints the ‘big picture’ but also conducts media trials and generalise victims and perpetrators creating paranoia amongst the public, which at times also leads to mob mentality. In recent times, Guru argues, media has forgotten the usage of terms like militia, rebels, separatists, etc., anyone or everyone acting against the state is a terrorist. And lastly media has chosen to comfortably ignore terrorism beyond US backyards and this, he says, is not just evident in US media but Indian press as well (Guru, 2002: 113-116; also see Chermak, 2003).
The bureaucratic domination on media content is explained by the academicians supporting the elite model, which ‘assumes that power is concentrated within elite groups who are able to dominate politics and society’ (Robinson, 2008: 138). According to this perspective, major media, ‘controlled by large profit-maximising investors do not encourage the dissemination of news and analyses that are likely to lead to popular indignation and, perhaps, government action hostile to the interests of all large investors, themselves included’ (Ferguson, 1995: 400). In line with propaganda model and realist and critical theory views, elite model argues that common public is largely ignorant of foreign policy issues, and is not enthusiastic enough for deliberating on crucial decisions like free trade agreements, military aide or war (Page, 1996: 118). From this viewpoint, media has a rather less independent form of influence and acts merely as an agent of government officials, working to mobilise public in support of respective policies. Conversely, ‘the pluralist model assumes that power is dispersed throughout society (including across the media and the public) so that no one group or set of interests dominate. As such, pluralist accounts maintain that media and publics are independent from political influence and, as such, can (and should) act as powerful constraints upon governments’ (Robinson, 2008: 138). Several academicians like John Mueller have tried to prove that public has the power to influence decisions. In his book ‘War, Presidents and Public Opinion’, Mueller analysed the number of US casualties in Korean and Vietnam wars against public support for these wars. His calculations deducted that ‘US citizens responded in an informed and rational manner; as more soldiers were killed, support for the two wars was increasingly withdrawn as revealed through opinion polls, public protests, and ultimately political damage to US Presidents Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson respectively’ (Robinson, 2008: 140). However, as we shall see in later discussion, researches indicate that until now the media has largely been a tool in the hands of government and powerful non state actors that have used it to bend the public sentiments during wars to achieve their strategic goals.