Democracy, War and the Media – Uneasy Bedfellows All Round

Recent international wars and the often spectacular ways in which the established media is covering them, have given media researchers ample opportunity to see whether technological developments are giving us the opportunity to have a closer experience of democracy.

It is logical to assume that new technology empowers us all. To have a better idea of what is going on in the most inaccessible of situations is believed to contribute to our sense of involvement and enhances our democratic rights. Hyper-modern communication technologies are extremely useful in providing the ordinary citizen with greater access to more, faster-paced and better researched news and news background information. The greater our freedom of information the more of a say we feel we have. And the better our lives become – right?

New insights in the role of the media’s empowerment by high tech equipment started with the first gulf War in Iraq, the coverage of which was totally dominated by CNN. When the US set out to police the world some more in Somalia other broadcast stations were better prepared, and Sarajevo became known as the internet reporting war. The latest struggles in Afghanistan and Iraq witnessed a total press-friendly war, with journalists of all mainstream and some alternative media with their noses bang on the action.

As the war in Iraq, cleverly branded “Operation: Iraqi Freedom” by the US government, is not likely to be ending this year and as troops in Afghanistan are also not anywhere near leaving, the debate is focused on whether interventions were based on facts rather than misleading accounts of what was happening on the ground. The media, accusing the government of spin doctoring its actions beyond what is healthy, are themselves accused of having become victims or willing puppets on a string by the very people they ought to be keeping a check on.

Propaganda, that old fashioned concept generally associated with dictators, appears to have become very much a live concept again during the last few years. We never had the privilige of banning it from our daily lives, but think tanks and other civil organisation focusing on modern propaganda techniques report a markedly higher interest in the phenomenon in recent years. The heightened interest itself indicates a new tendency to mistrust our leaders.

What the think tanks report back to people on current-day leaders is no less reassuring. Pointing out the various levels on which propaganda is part and parcel of the message sent to us, you might begin to wonder how fast asleep we are even though we’d like to think we have a handle on reality. Although we’re not necessarily faced continuously with the same blatant and ugly lies Hitler and Stalin dreamt up in the 1930s, there is a plethora of examples of half truths and similarly poisonous messages being sent out to the masses by the media broadcast machine.

Biggest excuse? There’s a war on. Even in normal times, it is impossible not to live with some degree of propaganda but when a common enemy needs destroying, we somewhat forgive our leaders and the media for collaborating in what everyone knows is a circus. “Probably every conflict is fought on at least two grounds: the battlefield and the minds of the people via propaganda. The “good guys” and the “bad guys” can often both be guilty of misleading their people with distortions, exaggerations, subjectivity, inaccuracy and even fabrications, in order to receive support and a sense of legitimacy”, one media institution writes on its website.

Avoiding the blatant lie, most Western leaders these days are guilty of spreading propagandistic messages, both when they address the public about their role in the war AND in ordinary situations. In essence, all propaganda is harmful to democracy, even though many people tend to think of the less intensive forms as modern spin doctoring or clever PR.

The ultimate result from all propaganda that reaches its goal, in whatever form, is total passiveness of the people that believe the the message. Fears that the media is poisoned to this effect have been widespread in the US and the UK over the past two years. Noam Chomsky, the popular left wing scholar in the US, hits the nail on the head describing the best-seller ‘Weapons of Mass Deception, The Uses of Propaganda in Bush’s War on Iraq’ by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber as “A major contribution for those who want to take control of their own future, not be passive subjects of manipulation and control.”

The book is a detailed account of how the world’s top ad agencies and media empires were hired by the US government to make the invasion in Iraq into a concept no one in their right American mind could possibly think of as wrong and in which the big words democracy, freedom and totalitarianism were featuring as if they were part of a national marketing campaign for some kind of consumer product.

The happy feeling of winning a war might have stretched just about far enough to gain another round of elections for the US conservatives, but complaints of numbness are increasingly being taken seriously by larger parts of the population in this country. Perhaps one positive outcome of the war is that it has focused more attention to the methods employed by leaders to convey their message to the public.

Talk of a numb, heartless, cold, harsh society is nothing new but evidence of really clever toxology fixed up by political parties and spread through media devices it’s becoming an unavoidable focus point in the wider debate about especially the US society. The way the US press machine has been fine tuned to receive messages by the conservative party is portrayed by the progressive personality Rob Stein (formerly Commerce Department) who compiled a detailed overview of how exactly messages are sent out to which media, when and where. From his research you can see that what’s been guised as a campaign to build community feeling has effectively become the highly organised conservative party extension that can mobilise entire regions in a jiff. “[they have] built a strategic, coordinated, disciplined, well-financed community of local, regional and national organizations, which collectively can mobilize a majority progressive constituency”, says Stein.

His research illustrates how the machine was built from its earliest until the last elections and reveals that the effort went underway during the early 1970s in response to a largely intangible fear that capitalism was on its way back. The network of NGOs out there is around 80, large “non-partisan” groups. These are financed by private -conservative- initatives with funds stretching to an estimated USD400 million annually.

Stein’s findings are an excellent backdrop to beginning to understand how a nation can be prepared for war without necessarily using many overt lies. News stations were being fed facts by ‘experts’ trained to purport one particular stream of thought. Stein reckons that around 36,000 members of the conservative party now working in a independent think tank have received training on media-specific issues. If a news anchor decides -of his own free will- to discuss a particular topic, he’ll turn to think tanks, legal groups, media organisations, networking groups, and very likely encounter highly versatile individuals, not -and this is the tricky business- ‘elected officials’ but nevertheless people who form the ‘cadre’ of the conservative network, trained by what’s known as the ‘Leadership Institute’.

With this much of a system in place, the invasion in Iraq took place after the public had been well-prepared for the footage on tv. Philip Knightley, the author of ‘First Casualty, a history of war reporting’, wrote a razor sharp prognosis of what the propaganda formula entailed in the first days following 2001 September 11, and outlined in his article how the patterns were likely going to evolve as the government prepared the public opinion for conflict. He divided the process into stage one; public speeches about the crisis; stage two, public speeches demonising of the enemy’s leader; stage three, public speeches in which the enemy as individuals in a group are demonised; and stage four, a justification of resulting atrocities. He then proceeded to outline where the US president was in the process and what he was likely to undertake next. He appeared to be eerily spot on and his was among the first articles in the media that was a pre cursor to the avalanche of public upset.

Talk of an invasion in Iraq started immediately after the 9/11 attacks and was accompanied by exactly the kind of propagandistic rhetoric the history books write about. When the first victories were reported, various media outlets focused on as broad a spectrum of reporting as you can expect, but it´s said that the American media were way more patriotic than ever and completely surrendered to a euphoria that it usually is impartial to, and produced almost all its headlines of the first days in this spirit. One, incredible shot by Reuters of Firdos Square, where a statue of Saddam Hussein towered in old days- showed it to be nearly empty – a scene often witnessed in the Middle East during days historic events happen, was largely omitted by the American press. Early reports, , of people´s hostility toward the US were also largely ignored by the mainstream press in the US those days.

A lot of the criticism within the US of the US involvement in Iraq centered on the legitimacy of the war and how information about the ongoings was distributed. The use of images by the US government illustrates what kind of old fashioned and obvious tools of propaganda this government has been getting away with, playing on people’s opinions in ways that reak of propaganda at its least disguised. Pictures of Saddam Hussein with an old rifle were shown by US officials to convey the message that the toppled Iraqi leader was a dangerous madman. Had they left it at that, the message might have been somewhat precise, but the image was used to play the general public and guide it into a belief that weapons of mass destruction were at Saddam’s disposal.

Having been ridiculed by the media and been held accountable by the wider US public, this has not deterred the government to do exactly the same again in the wake of the Iraqi elections. Pictures of the Iraq elections, showing polling booths, the obligatory black-cloaked woman, disparaging eyes peering from behind a veil, unkempt donkeys and anything else sandy colored middle Eastern, were singled out and held as ‘a sign that a critical turning point has been reached’ by US leaders including Bush, Cheney and Rice.

Times may have changed but perhaps leaders always will be up to the same tricks to justify their actions in a war. Writes one journalist in The Nation: ‘Yes, of course, it is good that Iraqis are voting. But, after so many false starts, the test of whether this election is actually a turning point will not be met by mere images of ballots sliding into boxes. It will be met only by reality. And the reality that will matter is that of an Iraqi government standing on its own two feet, organizing the policing and the defense of that country, managing its oil wealth and establishing relations with the rest of the world based on its needs — not the dictates of an occupying force’, according to Robert Scheer in an editorial three days after the elections.

Globalissues.com lists instances where the media over recent months have -less whittingly- become accessory to propaganda. The site cites cases where journalists focus on leaders’ thoughts without presenting their audiences with any substantial alternative views. Reading the cases where the media are supposedly right there and then tools of a government misleading the population is quite an eyeopener. In the UK, where the media like to think themselves often clever first and foremost, journalists find themselves targets in match ups between government spin doctors and themselves. One instance was cited where journalists in a radio programme went into a detailed discussion of how the UK leadership could best position itself to gain greater access to the minds and hearts of people. Nothing really new there. It might have started with one landmark article on Diana, princess of Wales, and her dilemma with the press and one invitation by a newspaper to several ad agencies to give some advice as to how she could best market herself. Anything of this sort in the textbooks is considered collaborative propaganda and rightly so.

The program in question was omitting to alert its audience to the dangers of propagandistic ploys when they clearly had a duty to do so. ‘[…] had the potential to provide an important understanding of propaganda and warning citizens of a democracy to ensure leaders are accountable. Instead, […] appeared to concentrate on the dilemmas of Tony Blair’s position; what he should or could do to win the British people’s support for a possible war on Iraq,” reports the website. Perhaps this is where the UK public differs. A service oriented economy, the UK population that is educated anywhere from A-level on, likes to think that it communicates this way.

Any thoughtless reports of the actions of a government in war, might seemingly allow journalists to claim neutrality as simple conduits supplying information, but ‘it is not neutral to repeat the government line while ignoring critics of that line, as often happens. It is also not neutral to include milder criticism simply because it is voiced by a different section of the establishment, while ignoring more radical, but perhaps equally rational, critiques from beyond the state-corporate pale. A big lesson of history is that it is wrong to assume that power, or ‘respectability’, confers rationality’, the think tank says in its Elements of Propaganda.

The best way to counteract propaganda -according to the media experts- is to have a pluralistic press. The reports to really pay attention to for the utmost in freshness would be private initiatives from war- torn countries. Of the recent wars, the one in Bosnia really started off internet reporting and the euphoria levels rose with several spectacular stunts on all sides in these war torn parts of ex-Yugoslavia. But these ‘new alternative media’ appear not to have the astounding impact on the establishment they were believed to be growing when Kosovo took place, even though mainstream media in many cases are now keeping up with efforts by private people on the ground. Blogs and internet reporting have carved a niche for themselves as a medium in their own right. A phenomenon that can safely be assumed as the single most important change within the media over the last five years.

But there are drawbacks. The biggest disadvantage, preventing the blogging effort to really take off, is credibility – you never can be really sure that a blog, unless known personalities feature in it, isn’t a hoax. Unlike the established media – which run their own blogs based around personalities – bloggers are not immediately held accountable for the things they report or for their quotes and because there is no way to verify the accuracy or perception of individual reports, especially anonymous ones, they are not anywhere nearing having the influence that people ascribed to them in the early days of the Kosovo war.

Even though the increased discourse in society has become way more visible, one can’t really make heads or tails of all the entries that are made every day, let alone derive an accurate sense of even the opinions that are voiced. The cases in which blogs do influence world politics are so sporadic that every time a blog writer reveals highly secretive information that is picked up on by the press. But this itself is still considered news, which illustrates how new and fragile the movement still is.

Rationalisation and improved coverage thanks to technology have totally altered our idea of what a war is. That’s as much as we can safely assume if we want to answer the question whether democracy is better served with the rise of technology. Even though the media when reporting on wars are already collaborating in the propaganda circus that automatically exists in such a situation, having first hand reports from war situations is an improvement on democracy if you assume that more information is always better.

War fought on the ground is about little else than killing and demolishing man-made creations. The increased openness that western armies show the media in modern wars, makes for stories that are likely to give a greater insight than ever into the goings on on the ground. Rather than mere pencil drawings that reporters in times of Ernest Hemingway sent back from the war, we get graphic accounts of the latest killings. But is the information any more comprehensive?

The greater access the established media have to wars and the optimised information they provide on what’s going on in the battlefield can to some extent be compared with the rise of alternative media and the increased information flows that give us more and more diverse information about the society we live in. Getting a sense of the state of our democratic rights is still sadly left to the established media. Let’s hope they improve on their jobs!

Angelique van Engelen is a freelance writer writing for http://www.contentClix.com. Contact her if you are interested in tailormade content for your publication, website or print outlet. Angeliqueve@contentClix.com

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