While wars kill people, destroy lives and economies and create lasting hatreds, they often bring great benefits to a minority of people. Wars are great for the national cohesion of a country, wars allow unpopular rulers to gather support for themselves and rally the masses behind them. Wars may also benefit the manufacturers of arms and ammunition and military equipment, mercenary forces or other industries. Wartimes are often periods of great emotional upheaval and peoples’ patriotic and nationalistic feelings rise to a great intensity.
During wars people are inclined to be less suspicious of government motives and more complaint to government commands and recommendations. However, generally wars cause much more harm than good and a section of the public often opposes war. During war times governments often rely on the national media to back their military policy and answer and refute the critics of war in their behalf. Media organizations face pressure from the government, the masses, the corporations and the military to conceal or distort facts or to report the war in a certain way.
In a democratic country, the citizens depend on the media to inform them objectively whether a certain governmental policy is in their best interests or not. Often the rulers of a country decide to go to war, while the people are reluctant. In such situations the government may pressurize media organizations to convince the public of the need for war. This situation occurred in the United States at the start of the World War I. The American public saw no reason to enter war against Germany at the behalf of Britain.
The President Woodrow Wilson, on the other hand pledged to enter war in the aid of Britain. In April 1917 as the US entered the war, Wilson formed the Committee on Public Information (CPI) to convince the American intellectuals to support US entry into the war. The committee flooded the country with speakers and propaganda posters. Newspapers were flooded with news releases denouncing the Germans and leveling true and false accusations at them (Ponder).
While at war governments often wish that the war be seen as a moral cause, wars that are fought for mercenary reasons or out of a misguided or extreme conception of patriotism are portrayed as morally sanctioned campaign to bring about a noble goal. Members of the media are expected to use this narrative in their reporting. Those who question the righteousness of the cause may face punitive actions of various types. During the Vietnam War, the media was employed by the American government as a tool against the anti-war movement.
Anti-war protesters were portrayed as traitors, giving aid and comfort to the Vietcong and North Vietnamese enemy. It was not until a large number of elected officials had declared their opposition to the ongoing war, that it became acceptable for the media to discuss the motives and assumptions behind the conflict and the righteousness of America’s cause. However the general tone of the war coverage was highly ‘patriotic’ as if the presence of the US forces in Vietnam were most natural and it were the Vietcong who were foreign invaders (Hallin).
Compared to previous administrations, the Nixon administration had to face a lot more public skepticism and widespread anti-war sentiments. The television networks too, started showing a lot more criticism of the administrations war policies. The administrations response was to appeal to the affiliate TV channels, which were mostly owned by rich, white, conservatives, to bear pressure upon the news networks to reduce the extent of their criticism (Hallin). The success of the establishment’s efforts to present the war as a moral goal is heavily dependant upon the public’s perception of the enemy as the epitome of evil.
Therefore the establishment may try to suppress any discussion in the media that portrays the enemy as having any positive quality whatsoever. Soon after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, comedian Bill Maher, on his TV show ‘Politically Incorrect’ questioned President Bush’s comment that the attackers were cowardly. One of the guests on the show, political analyst Dinesh D’Souza replied that the word was inaccurate when applied to the attackers, they were not cowards but warriors, agreeing with him Maher said, “We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly.
Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly. ” (Jones) This comment provoked a storm of fury in the public, in the media and the government. The comment was condemned by President Bush’s spokesman Ari Fleischer who said, “There are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do and this is not a time for remarks like that; there never is. ” (Jones). As a result of the controversy generated by the comment, the show ‘Politically Incorrect’ was deprived of advertising revenue and was cancelled a few months later (Jones).
One of the most common themes employed in pro-war propaganda is the identification of the military campaign as a campaign for the human rights of ordinary people. This propaganda is severely threatened by the news of civilian causalities. Therefore governments at war wish may wish to suppress or minimize the impact of news mentioning civilian casualties caused as a result of their soldiers’ actions. In order to portray the conflict with the enemy as a struggle between good and evil it is necessary to minimize any wrong doings or atrocities committed by the national and allied armed forces.
Often reporters learning of a story involving atrocities by their own side feel pressured to hide these atrocities altogether. Reporters may also fear that if they report anything negative about the military, their access to the frontlines will be curtailed. In addition for reporters who are embedded within a military unit, within a few days of facing the same dangers as the troops, their identification with the unit may make it extremely difficult for them to make an objective assessment of a situation.
During the Korean War, in the summer of 1950, the United States forces gunned down hundreds of South Korean refugees at No Gun Ri, believing them to be North Korean infiltrators. This massacre and other lesser ones were covered up by the American reporters because they believed that publishing the story might harm the war effort. It was not until 1999 that the No Gun Ri massacre was reported in the American Media (Penri). In Vietnam, the journalist Morley Safer, who revealed a number of atrocities on the part of the American military was especially the target of government wrath.
Military officials attempted to have him barred from the war zone and recalled by his news agency (Hammond). In order to keep public support behind the war, the government may wish to give the impression that the war effort is succeeding very well even when the facts are to the contrary. The government may try to restrict the broadcast of certain types of information such as causality figures. During the Vietnam War, the American forces were fighting a smaller, clandestine war in Laos.
In order to prevent the news of this clandestine war becoming public, the casualty figures for the Vietnam war were expanded to include the casualties in Laos under the heading “Casualties incurred by the US . military personnel in connection with the conflict in Vietnam” (Hammond). During the present day Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the Bush government forbade the media from publishing photographs of flag draped coffins of American soldiers shipped back from Afghanistan and Iraq, on the basis that it would undermine the morale of the public.
The government may also fear that news of military setbacks received by the national forces may turn public opinion against the war. In World War II, news of setbacks suffered by the US forces in the South Pacific were severely censored. If it became clear that there was no way to hide the news from being broadcasted, media sources would be instructed to wait until a victory had been achieved, the news of the setback in one area would then be paired up with the news of victory in another area to lessen the impact of the bad news (Carpenter).
On occasion members of international media organizations may be regarded as a hostile force by a side in a conflict due to their refusal to ascribe to a code of self-censorship or due to perceived bias in their news reports. These media organizations may then face violence at the hands of military forces. The Qatari television channel Al-Jazeera may have been the object of this treatment in the present day Afghanistan and Iraq wars. In November 2001, a bomb dropped from a US warplane destroyed the Al-Jazeera office in Kabul.
Al-Jazeera executives alleged that the US military had been informed of the coordinates of their office beforehand and that the bombing was deliberate (Wells). Al-Jazeera was again the alleged target of US attack in Iraq. Al-Jazeera interviewed Allied military personnel captured by Iraqi forces as well as the massive civilian losses caused by the allied bombing. Neoconservative intellectuals close to the Bush administration, such as Frank Gaffney advocated the use of the US military against Al-Jazeera, alleging that it was the mouthpiece of Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida.
In November 2005, the British publication The Daily Mirror alleged the existence of a memo from the British Prime Ministers office that claimed that President Bush considered bombing al-Jazeera offices in Qatar in discussions with the Prime Minister Tony Blair and that Blair talked him out of it (Mcguire and Lines). The conduct of war often becomes a point of contention between rival groups in a government, this may lead to politically motivated intentional ‘leaks’ of sensitive information to the media.
These ‘leaks’ may consist of partial, distorted or fabricated information, giving people a distorted view of the reality of issues. Since news media organizations are always looking to gain an advantage over their competitors they may decide to publish this unverified information thereby becoming unwitting tools in the hands of a faction in the government. During the Iraq War, the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame was leaked to the press, the leak was seen as a reprisal against Plame’s husband Joseph C. Wilson IV who had refuted President Bush’s assertion that President Hussein of Iraq was seeking to build nuclear weapons in a column in ‘Times’ (Werther). Modern news media attempts to serve several masters at once. In order to get to cover a war a make a profit they have to keep the military, the people, the administration and the affiliates happy. The professional responsibility of a journalist to report only the truth often takes a backseat to these considerations.