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An informed public is the cornerstone of modern society. An informed public during wartime leads to a healthy democracy. Though the media shares a special connection with wartime reporting, disseminating information of major news value, it often keeps the truth masked and reality covered. The media establishment profited by periods of rapid technological change through the 1970s and 80s, and as television reporting grew sophisticated, concepts of truth and reality were shaped by the immediacy of visual content. This essay, in light of the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War, and Iraq War, will outline how the impact of television coverage during wartime, political manoeuvring, and the atrophy of journalistic standards, has shaped our view of reality and truth.
Television coverage of the Vietnam War, as the first televised war, reached audiences around the world. Conflicts of interest between journalistic integrity and nationalistic sentiments served to undermine the media’s coverage of the war. The Washington Post announced on Aug. 5, 1964 “American Planes Hit North Vietnam After Second Attack on Our Destroyers; Move Taken to Halt New Aggression”. Subsequently the New York Times reported “President Johnson has ordered retaliatory action against gunboats and ‘certain supporting facilities in North Vietnam’ after renewed attacks against American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin.” Though there was no evidence of a “second attack” by North Vietnam, President Johnson in a speech delivered on Aug. 4, 1964 earned plaudits from the New York Times editorial staff by proclaiming: “(they) went to the American people last night with the somber facts.”; By reporting claims from Administration officials as absolute truths, American media opened the gates to a bloody Vietnam war1.
Though the Tet offensive (North Vietnamese soldiers swept through more than one hundred Southern Vietnamese cities) left the U.S victorious, media portrayal was negative. The media’s hidden agenda dotted television reportage helping sway public opinion against the war. Television images usurped factual news stories relegating experienced reporters to bystanders and caption writers2. Personal commentary saturated television coverage with statistics pointedly showing an erosion of objectivity. Before the Tet offensive, journalists described 62 percent of their stories as victories for the U.S, 28 percent as defeats, and 2 percent as inconclusive.
After Tet, 44 percent of the battles were deemed victories, 32 percent defeats, and 24 percent inconclusive3. In 1998 the airing of a report by CNN and Time Magazine of the U.S Special Forces’ alleged use of nerve gas against American defectors in the Vietnam War was repudiated by Special Forces veterans’ groups and high profile intelligence figures. Yet, CNN asserted itself as a credible news organization, saying it was concerned with stories of human affliction4. The Fairness Accuracy In Reporting (national media watchdog set up in 1986 to document media censorship, bias and erroneous reporting), however, declared some television coverage from the Vietnam War a mere fabrication5.
The Persian Gulf war ushered in a period of rapid change for American media. Re-structuring of television networks and amendments to federal regulations6 spawned an era of satellite coverage and press pooling. Amended laws ensured television journalists became trusted agents of the U.S military whereby media correspondents were screened7; selective information was aired to U.S audiences. Press freedoms were challenged less for the military’s interest (worried about leaking of strategic intelligence) than the Administration’s political agenda. Television coverage was dictated primarily by advancements in digital satellite technology. The Persian Gulf war was the first war to be televised using global satellite networks8. Fluid images were cast, as veteran CNN Bernard Shaw recalls, “in people’s faces”, due to globalization of television networks.
The American Administration, evidence later indicated, utilized television images and newspaper reports to convince the public that Iraqi troops were threatening to invade oil rich Saudi Arabia. Though satellite images taken of Saudi Arabia’s border detailed a small number of Iraqi troops, U.S newspapers, news magazines and television networks drummed up reportage in line with the Administration’s political agenda. Independent press and peace activists argued against the deployment of U.S troops to the area campaigning for a UN peace-keeping force to be sent. But such sentiments did not percolate into the U.S media.
Although television coverage saturated airwaves to summon public support for a U.S invasion of the Persian Gulf, television feeds of suffering Kurds, and other Iraqis, prompted large segments of the public against military solutions for conflicts in the Middle East. Mark Rozell Professor of public policy at George Mason University punctuated the impact of wartime television coverage by citing a Gallup Poll:
A January 1991 Gallup Poll revealed that 89 percent of the American people identified television as their main source of information about the war; only 8 percent of the American people identified radio and 2 percent newspapers.
The U.S led invasion of Iraq saw satellite internet and television, and further sophistication in television equipment, help the myriad U.S news agencies who invested their time in covering the war. Though no formal evidence was tabled about alleged ties between Saddam Hussein and the perpetrators of 9/11, 32% of Americans, in a poll conducted by PIPA/KN9 in 2003, thought Saddam Hussein “very likely” to be personally involved in the terrorist attacks; 37% thought it was “somewhat likely.”
This misinformation is attributable to the torrent of television broadcasts and print media directed at providing a repetition of incidents surrounding 9/11; repetition is a precursor for propaganda. International polling has suggested public opinion around the world has been strongly against unilateral action in Iraq without UN approval. Of the 38 countries surveyed majority support does not exist for the actions of the U.S10. The obfuscation of truth and deterioration of journalistic integrity was the result of savvy political maneuvering.
Oversimplified television coverage of the Middle East has reduced it to a social and political backwater. The depiction of the bloody camera and weeping man (see appendix) represent the reality that wars can bring. The blood on the camera signifies the brutality of war alluding that wars may be captured on film or camera but the reality behind wars (the blood) cannot be captured objectively. The weeping man brings forth emotion involved in losing someone close. Such cultural and social sensitivities are not shown in U.S media’s war coverage. Television has proved to be a useful tool for masking truth by producing neatly worded sound-bites. A poll conducted by PIPA/KN in 2003 asked Americans whether “a majority of people in the Islamic world (would) favour or oppose the U.S led war efforts to fight terrorism”, a plurality of respondents (48%) assumed the Islamic world favoured the war effort.
Al Jazeera, brought the coverage of the Iraq war to 40 million Arab viewers, hoping to deliver free and independent news. Founded in 1996, its goal, according to Senior Producer Samir Khader is to “educate the Arab masses on democracy, irrespective of the other opinion”. Staffed by former members of the newly disbanded BBC Arabic television, all of whom are strong believers of a balanced and fair press, it has come under fire by the Arab and Western worlds for being the “mouthpiece of the zionists” and a “mouthpiece of Osama Bin Laden” respectively.
The notion of absolute truth and reality of television coverage is undermined by the representations of Al Jazeera as both a “mouth piece of the zionists” and a “mouth piece of Osama Bin Laden”11. Al Jazeera cutting to commercials plays a 30-60 second montage of American war planes, American bombs exploding and American army tanks across the desert. These images have come under criticism from U.S Press Officers. Dichotomies of interest will remain affirms U.S military Press Officer Lt. Josh Rushing as long as Al Jazeera & U.S media continue to play to their respective audiences:
When I watch Al Jazeera I can tell what they’re showing and what they’re not by choice. It’s the same thing when I watch Fox at the other end of the spectrum. It benefits Al Jazeera to play to Arab nationalism Just like Fox plays to American patriotism. Because that’s their demographic12.
Incessantly rolling out television images the media oversimplifies the coverage of war. An informed media – covering factual stories free from political slant – is increasingly important in a growing democracy. The media coverage of the Vietnam War led to degradation in journalistic integrity; the Persian Gulf conflict deepened political ties between the American Administration and the media; Iraq War is covered by a multitude of U.S news agencies but also an Arabic television news channel. Though the wars were covered by the media in different lights the widening political influence and diminishment of journalistic cannons have been common threads that have shaped our understanding of truth and reality.
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Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR); Website: [www.fair.org].
John Pilger, Heroes. (Johnathan Cape 1986, Vintage 2001), p.260.
Hallin, Daniel C., The Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam. Los Angles: California University of California Press, 1986. p. 161-162.
A. Shah, ‘Media, propaganda and Vietnam’. [http://www.globalissues.org/HumanRights/Media/Propaganda/Vietnam.asp]. Created: Sunday, December 29, 2002; Last Updated: Friday, October 24, 2003.
James Rennie, Desert Storm Front: Television News and Narrative Construction in the 1991 Gulf War, Honour’s Thesis 2004: [http://www.film.queensu.ca/Critical/Rennie2.html].
Capt Jon Mordan, Air & Space Power Journal-Chronicles Online Journal (online-only companion to Air & Space Power Journal; published quarterly), Document created: 6 June 99.
Douglas Kellner, The Persian Gulf TV War. (Boulder, Co.: Westview Press, 1992).
Program on International Policy Attitudes/Knowledge Networks; conducts global polls.
Gallup Poll International.
DVD, Control Room (2003); directed by Jehane Noujaim; (see appendix).
1 Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)
2 John Pilger, Heroes. (Johnathan Cape 1986, Vintage 2001), p.260
3 Hallin, Daniel C., The Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam. Los Angles: California University of California Press, 1986. p. 161-162
4 A. Shah, ‘Media, propaganda and Vietnam’. [http://www.globalissues.org/HumanRights/Media/Propaganda/Vietnam.asp]. Created: Sunday, December 29, 2002; Last Updated: Friday, October 24, 2003
5 Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)
6 James Rennie, Desert Storm Front: Television News and Narrative Construction in the 1991 Gulf War, Honour’s Thesis 2004: [http://www.film.queensu.ca/Critical/Rennie2.html]
7 Capt Jon Mordan, Air & Space Power Journal-Chronicles Online Journal (online-only companion to Air & Space Power Journal; published quarterly), Document created: 6 June 99
8 Douglas Kellner, The Persian Gulf TV War. (Boulder, Co.: Westview Press, 1992).
9 Program on International Policy Attitudes/Knowledge Networks
10Gallup Poll International
11 DVD, Control Room (2003); directed by Jehane Noujaim; (see appendix).