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Many of us have been here before. We're watching our world go to war, watching through the lens of a mainstream media system that in far too many instances enlists as a megaphone for official views and sanitized news. In America, it was like that in the early days of the Vietnam conflict, and later, in much of the coverage of the first Gulf war. And now, once again, with some distinct differences, in Afghanistan and other fronts in the still expanding "war" against terrorism. The difference is that today, despite all the new technologies, hundreds of news channels and diverse views instantaneously available through the internet, the information situation is even more grave.
We have more media and less understanding. Yes, I know how imprecise the term "media" has become—we are all exposed to information of all kinds, online and offline, analog and digital, broadband and satellite, in the traditional press and conventional television newscasts as well as in a proliferating array of magazines, websites, 'zines, videos, and films. What is called news pours into us, and through us, mediated by yet more technologies and "platforms" than I can keep up with. And yet at a time of deepening crisis, when responsible media is needed more than ever, so much of it is failing us all the same.
There were even times in this time of terror when the media seemed to be terrorizing us more than enlightening us. News about terror often became distancing and frightening, with alarmist reporting of an often unsubstantiated, if not misleading kind, leading to a panicked response in which millions of Americans said that they were ready to sacrifice their basic freedoms for security. In many instances, the first stories and "breaking news" bulletins forecasting new attacks proved wrong, based on skimpy evidence or no evidence at all.
Millions of people ended up relying on such reports, often believing they were being well served by them. Quickly, many of our minds and attention spans were tethered to a flow of bulletins, headlines, and buzzwords floating cryptically as text on the bottom of the TV screen, endlessly presenting a parade of headlines about wars and deaths and celebrity divorces. All of these items were treated with the same sense of urgency, as if they are all the same.
Much of the public became hooked, even addicted, to this ever-flowing digital news stream, tuned in and zoned out by the endless and repetitive chatter of the 24-hour news channels, with their nonstop, wall-to-wall imagery and "breaking news." Far too many viewers then believed they were "in the loop," in the know, and getting the "real" story (ironically, much of the entertainment programming on the air is now called "reality television"), so distinctions between "faction" and fiction often became elusive. After all, TV news looks so authoritative and comprehensive. It is packaged to be perceived as "credible" and then delivered with well-honed, tested techniques designed to be believable. How are most viewers to know what is left out or that the sources are often limited and skewed, or how partisan politics fuses seamlessly into a genre of patriotically correct but one-sided perspectives that aim to manipulate emotions and encourage more viewing, with constant promos of what's next?
Cumulatively, this image-driven approach often supplants information. Today's picture-driven media conceal as much as they reveal. The problem is worse than ever, because all but a few journalists have effectively been barred from battlefields from the east of Afghanistan to the West Bank of Palestine. Increasingly, government sources set the agenda and help frame the issues and the news. Access to documents and details are limited by policy and practice.
News coverage of this conflict is worse than ever also because many media institutions have confused jingoism with journalism. Truth-telling tends to be degraded when American flags start flying on the lapels of newscasters and in the graphics surrounding news sets. In that environment, voices of dissent quickly disappear like some dissident priest in Argentina during the days of that country's "dirty war." It took The New York Times almost two months to discover and report that news-management techniques were orchestrating what TV newscasts were covering, and that TV's reporting and pundit shows were leaving out dissident voices once the war was up and running. Ironically—or not—in a war against a Taliban regime condemned for its treatment of women, most of the pundits on American TV remained men, according to The Washington Post, with only 12 women experts interviewed versus 78 men on the weekend shows in the month after September 11th. The writer mocked this clear pattern of bias by repeating, "men, men, men" as if we needed a reminder of the macho ethic that takes over when media discussions on the use of military power get underway.
We live in an age of media politics, governed not just by politicians but by what is in a effect a "mediaocracy"—a mutually dependent relationship between media and politics, a nexus of power in which political leaders use media exposure to shape opinions and drive policy. Political candidates increasingly rely on their media advisors and spent small fortunes to buy airtime for broadcasting ads that get their poll-tested messages across. Governments don't have to buy airtime, but their media operations have even bigger budgets to hire small armies of strategists and speechwriters. This mediaocracy then sets the agenda and frames what issues get the focus and which do not.
The events of 9/11 introduced a new player in our media-dominated political culture. The attacks on American targets were staged for their dramatic effect, as a variant on what revolutionaries once called "armed propaganda," an attack orchestrated to achieve maximum media attention by extremely media-conscious terror groups. And yet with few exceptions, their media strategy and sophistication was rarely explained in the media.
Understand this well. Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda cadres were very media savvy. They used computer games to train for the assault on the World Trade Center. They relied on the internet, and they had their own video unit to make training tapes for their internal use and video messages for external transmission outlets like al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based Arabic-language satellite station. Those staged videos were then reported on and rebroadcast by media outlets worldwide. All were image conscious, skillfully exploiting the symbols of their jihad politics and top leader just as consciously as U.S. presidents who stage photo ops and press conferences in the Rose Garden.
In our new high tech age of connectivity media wars are increasingly fought alongside armed conflicts. Today's warriors fight along the grids of technology, economic interdependence ,and ideological combat. Information wars have become central to war fighting. Their messages are targeted in equal measure to different audiences—to their respective constituencies and to their adversaries. The War on Terrorism builds its own strategy of countermeasures influenced by the enemies' playbooks. While cats fight rats, while the martyrs of the mujahadeen takes on the kafir (nonbelieving) infidels, the White House attacks "evil doers" and their "axis," and the two sides become more alike than they realize with an almost shared polemic. Bin Laden denounces "crusaders" while President Bush calls for a crusade. Caught in these crosshairs are the people, the citizens at risk with a need to know what is going on, and how to survive a frightening new situation in an era they are told has "changed forever."
I write as a media maker-cum-media critic who is convinced that the media role in this conflict is central to understanding it, although it is mostly ignored. Media rarely calls attention to their own role. And yet, the media's impact in this crisis is at once total and at the same time elusive. It needs to be understood more deeply, to be dissected, as it were, but also challenged.
In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, it was common to hear journalists and pundits alike say we, all of us, were at a turning point, as in "the world will never be the same." How, we must ask, has the media changed in and changed by this crisis? Has it changed for better or for worse? Many believe there has been a fundamental shift in its overall focus. Some see an improvement, a new dispensation. How true is this impression? For the news media, especially in the U.S., the unexpected catastrophic events of September 11th represented a wake up call, an injection of adrenaline coursing through veins that had spent a summer slumbering through coverage of sex scandals and shark bites at the beach. Covering those dramatic terror attacks gave many outlets a heady gravitas, with the incidents themselves representing a dramatic mega-media challenge, underscoring the key role and keen responsibility media outlets now assume in every national crisis. As we will see, some media outlets acquitted themselves very well at the outset, but they quickly reverted to pre-crisis mode.
In this book, the term Media War is used on three levels; first, to examine the role media plays in covering (and miscovering) the many conflicts that have escalated since September 11. This book explores that coverage from different angles, with analysis, commentary, reports on the terror attack, and the retaliation it sparked. It examines the mainstream news coverage and the U.S. Government's approach to managing it. This content analysis also shows the use of media as a tool of modern war fighting, and as an instrument of propaganda and spin, the key dissemination belt for often sanitized official information, much of it from U.S. government sources.
Second, it looks at the many roles media play at a time of terror and war, as an information resource and a unifying force. Critics who view media itself as a "weapon of mass distraction" also recognize its use as a tool in the arsenal of mass mobilization. There is no better way of rallying the public.
Third, it examines how media often become a battleground in the war for public opinion, as a competitive arena in which media outlets are often at war with each other, at war for market share and what is now called "mind share." The scramble for ratings, profitability and competitive advantage used to mean a fight to be the first to get the story or present a scoop. Today news gathering is far more corporate and formula-driven. It involves targeting demographics and using tried and tested methods for marketing news programs to build audiences for advertisers. In the "old days" or what some now call the golden era, hard news ruled. Today the focus is on human-interest features, often with a sleazy tinge, "storytelling" and sensationalism.
Most books about wars tend to be I-was-there accounts by participants focusing on what happened on the battlefield. This book is not. It is written in an age when perception often trumps reality. It is, instead, a view through the sometimes-foggy lens of media analysis that was sharpened by 30 years in the industry as a writer, reporter, correspondent, producer, director, newscaster, and editor. It brings together daily reports, a weekly column, longer articles, research studies and other commentary. It seeks to assess the performance of journalism, news companies, TV channels, as well as the role of government agencies in trying to influence the way the terror story has been reported and the spin it has been given.
This is excerpted from the introduction to Media Wars: News in a Time of Terror by Danny Schechter. Copyright © 2003 by Danny Schechter and published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. Excepted with permission of Danny Schechter. Schechter is a veteran journalistan Emmy-winning network producer (at CNN and ABC News) and filmmakerwho now runs MediaChannel.org, a daily weblog discussing media issues and analyzing coverage of the war. You can buy Media Wars here.