2. The Power of the Media
3. Media and World War I (1914-18)
4. Media and the Rise of Fascism
5. Media and the ‘Cold War’
6. Media and the ‘Fall’ of Berlin Wall
7. Media and the Rise of Nationalism and Xenophobia
8. Media and the War in the Balkans (Kosovo)
9. Media and 9/11, ‘War on Terrorism’ and ‘Anticipatory Pre-emption’
Mass Mediated History
A journalist is basically a chronicler of events as they unfold. In the process he/she makes the first draft of history, which history may come to the use of a professional historian to record the events objectively and bequeath to the future generations. New technologies have made journalist’s task easy but the rise of media empires and the subsequent formation of culture industries have made his/her job complex at the same time. Since media empires or cultural industries are primarily driven by profit motive and a desire to set the agenda – economic, political, social, cultural, etc., - journalists come under increasing pressures to compromise objectivity and truth. Accordingly at times the mediated history that is produced in the newsroom is a distorted version of reality out there. This is especially so in times of conflict and war. Some media critics goes on to the extent of saying that media is also a maker of war. Media assumes the self-appointed role of actors or agents in the events and processes which they purport only to be reporting. To that extent the media themselves have had an impact on the course of historical events, and been a significant ingredient in their development. This becomes evident when one considers carefully the major historical events of the twentieth and early twenty-first century.
Key words: Media, History, Mediated History, Journalist, Agenda setting
We live in a ‘mediated’ – by newspapers, magazines, radio, television, internet – society. The person who facilitates this mediation is a journalist. Journalist is basically a chronicler of events – reports events as they unfold. Locally, nationally, globally, things happen, then they are reported to the public. Thus what he/she writes down is the first draft of history. In this sense a journalist is the primary historian. In journalistic language the first draft of history is a ‘story’. We might recall here that in both French (l’histoire) and German (die Geschichte) ‘story’ and ‘history’ are expressed by the same word. A professional historian to write history would need first to peruse through the drafts that the primary historian has drawn. ‘News’ is constantly blended into historians’ narratives, and eventually becomes part of it. Thus there is a clear link between newstoriography1 and historiography. In the twentieth century context, it is right to say that historiography is to a considerable degree old newstoriography. The news is credible and believed, or it is not news. The first drafts were supposed to have been made following the professional code and other ethical principles. But it does not seem to happen this way always. For SIDE – Selection, Interpretation, Distortion and Emphasis - influences the way events are recorded. This is the crucial point in media2 making history.
Media in some form or the other have existed from the dawn of human history. It is not in the ambit of this short paper to go into the history of media. In showing how media makes history this paper will focus exclusively on some of the major events, which changed the course of history, in the twentieth and early twenty-first century. To explain how media makes history one needs to understand the two and only two functions of media: 1) mirroring society, 2) setting agenda. Now these two functions may be carried out in various ways.
Mirroring society means recording/reporting faithfully, objectively events as they unfold. Generally and traditionally it is thought that a journalist’s task is to search out and portray an accurate and true depiction of events as possible. The late twentieth century even established virtually instantaneous global communication networks whereby the event and the report on it (print & visual) were often simultaneous. The suicide attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York on 11 September 2001 are an example of this. The visual media does the mirroring part more vividly and accurately. That’s why anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare wanted the Lokpal Bill drafting committee’s meetings to be video graphed. Minutes of the meeting (chronicles) do convey what went on but not so solidly as the video. After all, in normal course cameras cannot lie. The visual media also makes the recalling/remembering of an event (by now history) easier. It is a common sense expectation on the part of the audience that there be proper sequence (from event to report to reception).
Media setting agenda has to do with its social responsibility, and should have been only because of that, not due to pressure from power-elites, vested interests, and business-interest of a particular media house. In the course of this paper we will learn that media’s setting agenda has not been always above board. In fact it is when media seeks to set the agenda (except social agenda for the good of the society) that untruth and half truth results. By seeking to set the agenda they try to mould the audience’s historical and current assumptions. In this respect journalists are not our guides, but our great misleaders.
The two-fold functions of the media outlined above raise some pertinent questions: To what extent have the media been actors or agents in the events and processes which they purport only to be reporting? To what extent have the media themselves had an impact on the course of historical events, and been a significant ingredient in their development? What if corrupt narratives have led to false perspectives and conclusions such that the ‘lessons of history’ and the justifications for future actions are, at crucial moments, based on misapprehensions or deliberate misappropriations?
We stated previously that this paper’s focus is on history altering events of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. We shall elucidate how mass media journalistic practice has not just reported and portrayed the twentieth century’s history falsely as it went along; it has also, through doing so, created consequences, chains of further events which could not have happened, or at least not in the way they did, without the intervention of initial misleading mass media discourses. Such discourses were in part due to the subjecting of mass media to market forces and ideology. Media was owned by powerful entrepreneurs for whom the maximizing of accuracy and objectivity was, ultimately, subordinate to the business of accumulating wealth and power.
2. The Power of the Media
Hence at this juncture it is appropriate to discuss briefly the power of the media. By the middle of the twentieth century mass media became a cultural industry having transforming effects on people’s perception of the world in terms of time and space. The mass media corporations, or more precisely, the global industrial corporations, were able to acquire the status of expanding world powers which eliminated most of the competition in the field. This commercialization is at the root of mass media’s massive distortion of discourse, and the consequent intention to mislead the public, which had become so routinised in media production that the working journalists either just accept it as coming with their job, or no longer notice it. Herman and Chomsky speak about it in Manufacturing Consent. In this connection Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2001) joins Chomsky (and many others) to highlight how media uses language as “an instrument of action and power”. Thus corruption of language is a central issue with regard to the power of the media:
Popular concepts like ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’, ‘choice’, and ‘reform’, are emptied of their dictionary meanings. This has long been standard practice, but in the late twentieth century it is reinforced by the facility of technology and the illusion of an ‘information society’, which in reality means more media owned by fewer and fewer conglomerates (Pilger 1998: 490).
In a lecture On Television Bourdieu expounds his view that “television poses a serious danger for all the various areas of cultural production’ and ‘poses no less of a threat to political life and to democracy itself.” “Television enjoys a de facto monopoly on what goes into the heads of a significant part of the population and what they think” (1998a:18). Looking at television’s discursive practice, he argues that it:
[…] can hide things by showing something other than what would be shown if television did what it’s supposed to do, provide information. Or by showing what has to be shown, but in such a way that it isn’t really shown, or is turned into something insignificant; or by constructing it in such a way that it takes on a meaning that has nothing at all to do with reality (ibid: 19).
In another lecture on The Power of Journalism he examines “how the structural pressure exerted by the journalistic field, itself dominated by market pressures, more or less profoundly modifies power relationships within other fields”. John Pilger too in Hidden Agendas eloquently demonstrates the immense and increasing power of media corporations in the media age, with its discourses conforming to “hidden agendas” which “often prevent the audience from understanding the meaning of contemporary events” (p.4). He goes on to show how Rupert Murdoch’s media empire is involved in manipulation of facts, stories, and language, particularly by his UK tabloid The Sun.3 Vital to this role is the manipulation of discourse:
One of the most effective functions of ‘communicators’ is to minimize the culpability of this [Western] power in war and terrorism, the enforced impoverishment of large numbers of people and the theft of resources and the repression of human rights. This is achieved by omission on a grand scale, by the repetition of received truths and the obfuscation of causes (Pilger, 1998: 489).
We shall see that what was said above has been crucial in media’s making history.
3. Media and World War I (1914-18)
According to John Pilger in the First World War journalists told lies in order to make acceptable that which would not be acceptable, or accepted, if instead the truth were told.
In other words, in the 1914-18 war, lies changed history, and cost the lives of millions of young men. The false version of events, where a ‘massacre’ became a ‘victory’, was what the public read in their newspapers, and the daily lies added up to an image of the war, as perceived [in UK], which made it acceptable. Untruth masquerading as truth did not just provide the public with a wrong account of what had just happened at the front, it ensured that as a result of that false story, the massacre continued; it determined future events (Theobald, 2004: 55).
Karl Kraus’4 voluminous record of how the war was reported in Vienna is a real eye opener. Kraus’ work which he later turned into a monumental documentary drama The Last Days of Humanity (1919) exposes “satirically the specific processes of discursive deception from event to its ‘mediatic’ transformation to its reception and consequences, revealing the combination of economic, political and journalistic power interests that were operating it” (Theobald, 2004: 56).
Kraus viewed the war from the start as a commercial operation, desired and run by those who could profit from it – a diabolic materialist elite of techno-capitalist entrepreneurs, opportunistic traders, corrupt journalist, and the military leadership.5
Within this unsavoury collaboration, the press plays thekey role, for it delivers public opinion, based on its hegemonic discourse, to the economic power elites and their political fig leaves. For Kraus, the war is just one lucrative episode in a larger, long-term process; the press did not suddenly switch to such a propagandistic role because of the outbreak of war. Rather, this was part of its structural function, which it had been practising for years. Correspondingly, it had not only long since gained control over public thought patterns and attitudes, it had also by 1914 created the cultural climate in which war became possible, acceptable, even desirable.6
In December 1914 Kraus expressed the idea of the press as the provoker, through its lies, of future evil, corrupt actions and news events.
“For Kraus, at the centre of this process of media provoking atrocities is linguistic corruption. This comprises his whole conception of the death of imagination and public disorientation through the commercialization of language, and his detailed unpacking of how language is instrumentalised by the press for the purposes of deceit, control and profit” (Theobald, 2004: 60).
4. Media and the Rise of Fascism
Adolf Hitler understood the central importance of media discourse in controlling the mind of the public. Hitler stated in 1923: “Propaganda, propaganda, propaganda, all that matters is propaganda” (Curran & Seaton, 1991: 249). Two years earlier, Kraus wrote: “In the beginning was the press, and then the world appeared.”7 Here Kraus meant to say that how we see the world depends on media discourse.
At this moment in history (around 1925) newstoriographical lies were woven into the everyday language and imagery and were fed into media consumers, including those in positions of power. It is the mass-murder of language in the media which preceded Auschwitz, that made the mass murder there conceivable and possible. Social democracy was failing and the doors were opening up for the ‘unconquerables’ return to dominance. Foremost among the ‘unconquerables’ was, inevitably, the press. Kraus wrote in January 1926: “That the bourgeois press had the power to unleash the war was something we had to experience. But that it could also emerge from it unscathed and, more insolent than ever, raise its head, on which the cross of incorruptibility is drawn; […].”8
In early 1929, as he approached the 30th anniversary of the founding of Die Fackel, Kraus wrote: It was my work to expose the press as the event-creating, death bringing organization of moral and spiritual irresponsibility, as that greatest evil of human society which, by means of the fascination of the printed word was able to divert attention from the danger it represented; as the suicidal weapon by which all the cultural achievements were stripped away, which it purports to protect.9 From this, it was a small step to state, in 1933: “National Socialism did not destroy the press, rather, the press created National Socialism”.10 Viennese newspapers of the time used clichés associated with German superiority and Jewish inferiority. The Nazis took them literally, and turned the words into action. Worn out clichés like ‘Jewish vermin’ became believed fact, and led to the obvious conclusion that they had to be exterminated, and thence to actual extermination.
Hitler’s arch-propagandist, Goebbels was ‘the thorough connoisseur of journalistic dialect’, that is, he who has appropriated the full range of corrupt manipulative practices of the press, and fashioned out of them the whole set of Nazi propaganda instruments, which he then applied to the brains of the German public, already anaesthetized by previous journalistic practice. Thus by 1933 the cultural prerequisites were in place for the savagery (World War II and holocaust) that was to follow. According to the analysis of Kraus it would have been no more than the logical outcome of the rise to power of the anti-culture, rooted in journalistic manipulation of language, which Hitler and his supporters had always represented.
5. Media and the ‘Cold War’
The misleading term ‘Cold War’ was the invention of a Western journalist. It was universally adopted by mass media, politicians, and academics and came into everyday parlance. This is thought to be the greatest discursive coup.
The resonant term ‘Cold War’ was always a deceit, covering up a series of ‘hot’ wars in, for example, Korea and Vietnam, where millions were killed. […] One might argue that, from the [1960s], the continued use of the misleading term ‘Cold War’ in the political and economic interests of those promoting and pursuing it, successfully imposed and reinforced the accompanying mindset, and criminally distracted media audiences from the really vital issues (Theobald, 2004: 80).
While a relatively small number of active citizens did understand and protest against the follies of the ‘Cold War’, the broad publics of Western Europe and the USA acquiesced in them over the last four decades of the twentieth century in accordance with dominant media discourse. Bertrand Russell, who became in this period of his life one of the clear minds amid the predominant obfuscation and mendacity, writes about the lies and half-truths fed to Western publics [through the media]: There is in the West much more regimentation and much more misleading propaganda by the Establishment than is generally known. Nor is it admitted that all such restrictions diminish the difference between East and West, and make the claim of the West to be called ‘The Free World’ derisory (Russell, 1961: 40).
During the ‘Cold War’ period a piece of widely available discourse, Tintin, a few pages of a children’s comic strip, was used for propaganda by the West. The first Tintin story Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, 1989, was quasi-fascist and anti-Soviet (‘evil empire’). Five main anti-Soviet themes in Tintin in the Land of the Soviets provided the rationale, aspects of which were also used by the Nazis to justify their anti-communism and invasion of the USSR, for the hostile public image of the Soviet Union in the West which was integral to the construction of the ‘Cold War’, and was successfully used to justify the demented conduct of the nuclear arms race.
1 The concept is a derivative of ‘historiography’. It means the undertaking of charting and analyzing news discourses within their ideological and political contexts, just as historiography does for historical discourses.
2 In this paper the terms ‘media’, ‘press’, ‘journalism’ is used almost interchangeably. The term ‘media’ is used both in plural and singular.
3 What many writers and critics of Murdoch’s media empire have been saying all along was proved right when the ‘phone hacking scandal’ unfolded in the UK in July 2011.
4 Karl Kraus (1874-1936) was an Austrian writer and journalist. He is regarded as a foremost radical media critic of the twentieth century. He founded his own newspaper Die Fackel (The Torch) which he continued to direct, publish, write until his death.
5 Theobald’s observation based on Kraus’ article written in his newspaper Die Fackel in1914.
6 Theobald’s observation based on Kraus’ article written in his newspaper Die Fackel in 1914.
7 As cited in Theobald, P. 67.
8 As cited in Theobald, P. 70.
9 As cited by Theobald, P. 70.
10 As cited by Theobald, P. 70.