Who owns the story? America's televised battle for cultural supremacy

by Ellen Turkenich


It has been said that war is often fought on two fronts - one, the actually physical campaign of combat, and the other, the psychological campaign of winning the 'hearts and mind.' The three week war in Iraq known as Operation Iraqi Freedom proved no different. It was not just about America's war for oil or the liberation of the oppressed, but it represented a global television war further expanding the American corporate hegemony onto the cultures of the Others. From March 20th to April 9th, the round-the-clock television bombardment into American and Arabic homes of computer guided missiles and killed civilians has become the discourse by which most of the world has come to understand the realities of warfare. The interplay among the American commercial news channels/military storytellers, Al-Jazeera, and the other 'responsible' Western broadcasters has been a confrontation of relative values concerned primarily with whose narrative can dominate the coverage of the event, and in essence, dominate the psyche of the public arena. In this mediated clash, truth ' the value, the ownership, and the relativity ' become the weapons for the battlefield of cultural supremacy. As televised wars in the future will continue to play a seminal role in the arsenal of war, what is needed in the post-war coverage analysis is a deeper examination of the television's role in propagandizing war and an understanding of the televised effects.

The uniformity in American television channels of the initial 'shock and awe' military bombardment foretold much or what was to happen: a lack of in-depth and differentiated criticism of American foreign policy. What Americans wanted was a good story that they could follow and have come to depend upon in television. While propaganda is considered an ugly word in America's free press circles, the televised bombardment came as close to it in its self-censorship. Reporters pride themselves on a heroic independence, as champions for accountability with dozens of associations and charters to insert independent and assumingly objective coverage into the news stations. For those who viewed the war coverage on CNN and FOX during the first week of the war, they would universally attest that there has never been such a greater insertion of war correspondents as participants in the field of battle with almost eerie homogenous results. Whether the viewer's choice was Brett, Dan or Peter, the main focus became the visual display over Baghdad. On the first day of the US lead war (March 19th), both FOX and CNN showed the war's opening ceremony from the same vantage point: the 'shock and awe' campaign from the rooftop of the Al-Rashid hotel with brief cutbacks to the anchor desks and Pentagon briefing centers. Cloned journalists replicated the stories on all the other local and national news desks. It was an 'instant' classic shot to be replayed repeatedly over the course of the war. Of course, for the journalists, mimicking Americans at home, the war gave little sense of the Other: the human residents of Baghdad.

The distancing between us (the perps) and the victims (Iraqis) was necessary in that we were clearly were the aggressors. Without the upper hand in the human dimensions of the story, American broadcasters tended to rely more on the fun and games aspects of war. From first week of the war, following progress of the military tactics of the 'shock and awe' campaign became a favorite for CNN: First, with the running commentary on the nightly aerial bombings in visual terms of fire lit skies and then, with the alert readings such as 'Shock and Awe postponed,' 'Shock and Awe begins,' and other status checks. The 'tune in next time' nail biting cliffhangers of the war were more to command the narrative rather than driven by actual news events.

This heightened sense of events, or hyping the events in real time has more to do with the unique visual qualities that television can provide. Television is powerful because it dislocates the 'viewer' in a full auditory sensation that is an 'all-at-once' medium, designed to connect the 'viewer' to the experience of viewing, not necessarily to the content of the medium. This distinction is held clear in print media. It implies a linear, sequential, and implicitly, more logical, medium that can be examine at our own pace and leisure. Logical sequencing is not necessary, and in fact, counterintuitive to the television experience. The medium then is the message. (Berger 18)

This argument is echoed by Benjamin Barber in 'Jihad vs. McWorld' on the perils of TV viewing in this commercial age. Television is a tool designed not for any civic purpose but notably to adulterate humans for material consumption. (111) It refers to the ability of television to create a hyperkinetic response through images that overpower the sensory framework. The effectiveness in creating the consumption identity comes from exciting the most unconsciousness human drives. Commercials often trade on instinctual triggers based either on sex or violence, eliciting a 'Pavlov's' response to stimuli that eludes logical decision making. It conditions the mind to accept hyperbolized bits of information extolling its urgency and immediacy. However what is notable about the television mediated culture is the blurring between the symbols that represent reality and the reality itself. The orgy of images or instant gratifications that satisfy once, only serve to create more compulsions for 'the instant.'

Whether good or bad, television and commerce as the American way has been exported across the globe. The creation of open markets has brought international media conglomerates that use their economies of scale to operate in every possible marketplace. In US alone, the top three media firms have captured over 80% of the viewing public. The lessons learned by AOL-TimeWarner and Viacom are re-populated elsewhere as international media firms begin to devour into one another. While viewers believe that there is choice in programming, the programming comes from the same corporate mind set. The choice is the choice of consumerism. Corralled by the lack of real 'choice', the viewer is just branded 'Am I a CNN viewer or a FOX viewer? Am I a Pepsi or a Diet Coke?

Television as a 'soft power' embodies coercive attributes that are easily co-opted by hard power elements in society. If there is a connection between television as the engine of capitalists, then parallels can be drawn between the cultural apparatus held by media monopolies and the military apparatus held by industry of weapons manufacturers. In 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower spoke about the dangers of the undue influence of private interests over the military industrial complex. His warning spoke of the encroachment on American freedoms brought by the 'disastrous rise of misplaced powers.' Clearly McDouglas and McWorld are linked.

So what role does television play in televising the military apparatus? I suggest that it is the evolution of the military-entertainment complex. One striking feature of the war coverage is the preponderance of airtime spent by the FOX channel, as well as many other network news outlets, highlighting America's weapons of destruction: the Hellfire missile, the Stinger, the Daisy Cutter, the bunker buster, and the MOAB. Each new weapon is schematized, displayed and dissected as to indicate its superior attributes: the range of the projectile, the conditions in which it would operate, and the dimensions of its interior space. The glossy rotating 3D computer simulated images with gushing captions have some scholars wondering whether the thrill is the thrill of the weapons of mass seduction. 
In an interview for the Guardian, Linda Williams, a film studies professor at UC Berkeley, comments:

CNN has this special thing they do whenever they introduce a new weapon. It reminds me of the way athletes are introduced in coverage of the Olympics: a little inset comes out with their bio and stats...it (this weapon) comes flying out and turned this way and that way and that so that you could see it from all angles'This is the kind of spectacular vision you get in porn ' where the point is to see the sex act from every angle. It's narcissistic; boys getting together admiring their toys. It is about us proudly displaying our weapons and there is something sexual about that. (Brockes)

Or is it possible that the coverage is a consumer manual, accompanying the billions of dollars spent on defense? According to the Pentagon, one tomahawk attack missile costs about $1million each. In Iraq alone, the United States has dropped over a hundred in a span of just two weeks. The viewing public can now see their money well spent on the power and effectiveness of the 'smart' killing machine.

Hints of the efficacy of the military marketing campaign can be seen in a 1991 study conducted by the University of Massachusetts's Center for Studies in Communication. They surveyed Americans after the 1991 Gulf War on their knowledge of underlying political issues surrounding the war. Sut Jhally found that those that were the heaviest television viewers of the conflict were more likely to support war and know less about the political decisions surrounding the war than those with minimal TV viewing. However, heavy viewers excelled in one area: a near perfect recall for the names of military hardware such as the Patriot missiles and their military capability. Whether the televised Gulf War intended to 'brand' weapons of destruction, the military did not object in the second Gulf War to increase televised access to the flight decks and testing centers where reporters could participate in the firing of American made weaponry.

Weaponry has become a fetish, a commodity that is enjoyed outside of its original purpose. As Jordan Crandall, a media artist, points out:

One wonders, as always, what the real artillery is in this war ' images or bullets. Perhaps the soldiers should be allowed to carry cameras or the camera and gun should simply collapse into one another. It has been narrowing in terms of the windows between detection and engagement, "sensor" and "shooter," intelligence-gathering and deployment -- which in many ways drives military development and especially its aerial imaging. (2)

Vision is outfitted, a retooled weapon.

It is no wonder that Americans supported the war, irregardless of any evidence that the Iraqis were directly involved in the attack of 9-11. In a 'real' sense, the seamless simulacrum of reality allows us to 'put ourselves on the front line.' It gives us a sense of participation through the 'real situations' and the 'real people' or through what is coded as authentic. The voyeurism is borne on the real-time image streams dislocating us onto the battlefield with all its implied dangers. They feel that they are under attack, both as the hunted and the hunter behind the rifle scope. The reaction is from the virtual experience of having to fear what is unknown in battle. It is the sub-conscious aspects of the mind that surfaces as we become visual participants, not out of choice or with any ability to direct the action, but rather from a defensive position of being held captive.

The April 3rd military re-broadcasting of the Jessica Lynch rescue complete with Jessica herself inside the broadcast of the press briefing demonstrates a profound understanding of the media effect. On the surface, the story itself is that of an American soldier's heroism and bravery. She is extolled as an example of the new American soldier: A woman who survived combat that was rescued by other brave Americans in hostile terrain. However, this story is even more powerful from a narratological analysis.

Viewers are captured by the captured image: the classic story in story narrative structure. Jessica lies in terror embedded inside the screen, by footage taken by others embedded into reporting the story. General Brooks stands tall in sharp contrast, behind a podium encased with symbols of authority and of the nation, acting as the orator. The language surrounding him extorts us to obey: 'UNITED STATES COMMAND' and reiterates exactly who is in charge of the coded television messages. He is the archetype for the socializing agent that tells the audience what they want to get and who should give it to them. The audience accepts, entrapped like Jessica in some unknown terror.
The Jessica Lynch story diminished negative sentiments against the war. After its airing on the major network channels, the respondents who felt that the war was going well for Americans increased by 18%. (Field Poll)

In a post-mortem interview with Lynch's colleagues and the Iraqi doctors in charge of her care, a BBC reporter has debunked most of the heroism attributed to Ms. Lynch. The extent of her injuries and the ferociousness of her challenge to her attackers largely been discounted from the original news reports given by the Pentagon and mainstream press.
As one may surmise, public relations is an acknowledgement that truth is a matter of perception. Good PR, s well as effective propaganda, involves the telling of truth, but only a partial truth. It is the control of information, the spin, that is important, not the content. The true genius behind the war coverage is Hill and Knowlton, the private PR firm hired by the military to construct the media/propaganda campaign. It is the ingenuity of their embedded reporting plan in which the media and military organizers have understood and leveraged the narrative synergies between television programming and the military.
The incongruity of the reporter's call to arms speaks greater to the emergence of a military-entertainment complex. From the boot camp that was they attended to the positions inside combat troops, embedded reporters became the latest 'scud studs.' Appearing out of the sandstorms, the friendly newscasters that typically read the evening news were now part of the troops. All six excited CNN embedded reporters took on the language of the 'we' against 'them,' forgetting that they were impartial observers. Ryan Chilcote, a CNN reporter with the 101st Airborne Division, personalized his April 14th broadcast further by mentioning a friend who might have been injured during an attack. Reporting on the hardship of the troops, the chaos of Iraq, and intolerable sandstorms, reporters seem to reprise the role of 'friend of the troops.' As a matter of decorum, CNN and FOX decided against the airing of American causalities and of the numerous Iraq children and civilians that were injured in the military engagements, all except for Dr Sanjay Gupta's embedded broadcast of military doctors operating on a 6 year old child. The grisly images of war were too much except when it showed American beneficence.

On metaphoric level, the embedded reporter gives a good representation of American monopoly over globalization. The reporter is dislodged and dislocated from the cultural anchors of a place and time and embedded elsewhere. The mobile news reporter represents the ultimate disinterest in cultural specificity and replacement by the global corporate identity. They know not the language, the culture, or the people. Time is also distorted and squeezed down where day and night exist in the same altered broadcasts beaming from satellites in Doha and New York. As the pioneer of the 24 hour news coverage, CNN transmits by satellite to every major Western market by satellite, and is truly global in its reach through its affiliated stations in other parts of the world. Its version of the story gets played over the newscast of the local market as they tell the viewers what the world is watching.

There is some sense of déjà vu from the first Gulf war - a war which became a televised event with its identifiable cast of characters. During the first Gulf war, US viewers tuned into see Storming Norman Schwartzkof, Colin Powell, and Papa Bush. In Gulf War 2, viewers had Rumsfield, Powell, and Bush Jr. However, central to the casting of this war were the characters revolving out of the Pentagon's Centcom or the US Command and Operations Center- General Brooks and General Franks-both of whom dominated official airtime. The preponderance of military 'talking heads' was hard to ignore. On the internet site for the media watchdog group of the Farness in Reporting, they cited over 76% of all 'experts' on network newscasts had current or past military affiliations or government posts. During a similar three week study involving the evening newscasts of six American news channels, nearly 71% of the American guests were pro-war, but only 3% were anti-war. Of the featured British guests, 95% were pro-war military officials with the remaining 5% as journalists. Notably a third of the British public was against the war at the time and 27% of Americans had a similar stance, but the anti-war coverage was minimal. A large percentage of the anti-war appearances were unnamed or labeled simply on mass as protesters. With little coverage allotted to the anti-war voices, it is easy to see that America was unified, at least on television, for the war effort. (FAIR)

For those who have experienced the American network television event will confirm that it represented a new epoch in broadcasting. Grotesque and riveting, there were all the elements that create a good drama ' the conflict, the human interest, the familiar and reassuring cast of characters, and the unforgettable villains ' with a good dose of action to keep boys interested and emotional tear-jerking scenes for the ladies.
However, the success of America's war coverage is problematic. While greater numbers of viewers across the globe tuned into CNN and FOX, this only highlights the hegemony of the US over the rest of the world. Sadly, this is a fact apparent even to the most die-hard supporters of the American way, our Western allies. It also has polarized those who reject America's message and fomented greater animosity and fear of US intentions.
Staunch British supporters stayed glue to their televisions as well. The BBC, the government funded network station, mounted its most intensive operations with over 200 journalists and support staff in Iraq and the Middle East. By American standards, the BBC was a voice of inclusion. Justin Lewis, a professor of journalism at Cardiff University, found that the evening war coverage on the BBC was most pro-government out of the three largest British networks, with 11% of experts from the military and only 22% of the coverage on Iraqi casualties. As members of Blair's cabinet accused the BBC of anti-war bias, Martin Bell, a post-BBC reporter openly criticized the BBC and other network news for its one sided depiction of the war and for not showing the grisly consequences of combat. More strikingly, the Pew Global Attitudes conducted in 2003 showed that in March alone, British opinion of the United States fell by 27% from the previous summer to 48% favorable opinion rating. (Pew also reports that British opinion has shifted back up with the success of the military campaign.)

The BBC has also fallen into the pitfalls of 24 hour news coverage. The BBC had been plagued with significant factual errors in their reporting which embarrassingly had to be retracted on air. One of the most glaring was the reporting of the large scale Basra uprising on March 25th in British controlled territory. First, it was confirmed by a British military spokesman, than later retracted by Tony Blair as to the 'belief that there was a limited uprising of some sort.' Another story involved the US taking of Umm Qasr, Iraq's port in the south. BBC also reported on March 21 as to the unconfirmed US control of the port. In a volley of claims and counter-claims, the port apparently had been taken 'nine times' according to military sources. In a March 28th interview, the BBC network chiefs were quick to assess the problem as that of relying too heavily on the statements coming out of military sources, calling it one of the worst 'misinformation' campaigns.

Mainstream American journalists seemed less troubled with the loss of objectivity. As Bob Schieffer, a CBS evening anchor, stated at a speech at the RTNDA (Radio-Television News Directors Association & Foundation) that 'he had never been more proud to call himself a journalist at the coverage of the embedded reporters.'(Cochran) The very part of society that was insured constitutional protection of free speech so as to act as guardians against the tyranny of the government over its citizens has lost its civic value.

Al-Jazeera's reporting differs in its focus, but purports the same message - Resistance is futile. Al-Jazeera calls itself the 'Arab CNN', combining elements of the live broadcast, call in programming, interviews, and independent footage. During the US lead war, they focused on showing montage photos of the victims and of the dead. This message of victimology is no more humanizing than the message sent by American television. Showing an image of a child with his head blown up respects neither the dead nor the living. It is contrived to fit the narrative of the oppressed tribal man. Repeating visceral images of the dead spliced with text and other images creates even more of a disjuncture - one side representing impotent savagery and the other representing a powerful mix of the suit and the military. The implied image feeds into its own stereotype - the West as powerful and modern, and the Middle East in a state of chaos and disintegration. It re-affirms the relative positions in the power structure through media representation.
Media analyst, Michael Wolff, argues that Al-Jazeera is all about television ratings, not propaganda. He refers to the grittiness of the film and the panning effect of the dead as qualities embodying that of a snuff film. Al-Jazeera does porn, but not in the way Americans can, instead it is rather a low budget spectacle. What it lacks in good narrative structure, it makes up in blood and guts, and lots of it. The chaotic and unfiltered news out of Al-Jazeera embodies the qualities that make tabloids so readable and digestible.

The oddity of the Al-Jazeera phenomenon is the American-ness of it all. Underneath it all, Al-Jazeera television is a commercial entity. Its main goal is to keep its some 35 million eyeballs glued to the television sets for the eventual advertising payoff. The tricks that it employs have less to do with some different Arabic way of viewing life, but more to do with shock TV- from combative guests on Faisal al Qasim to the 'ambulance' chasing style of street reporting. They have taken the quantum leap over the staid media channels like the BBC, and thrust themselves fully into the role of future media conglomerate. Even the Emir of Qatar, who has funding the media station, knows that oil is a dwindling commodity.
This is the type of media that Edward Said himself would criticize. In Covering Islam, Said details a subtle and profound argument calling for intellectual responsibility in the face of a monolithic version of 'Islam' in the mainstream Western press. Al-Jazeera returns the favor with its own monolithic version of the West. In a recent Al-Jazeera poll, 74% of respondents believe that the Iraqi invasion is a war to create a new American world order, and over 88% of respondents believe that it was a war created for the benefit of Israel.

In this war effort, Al-Jazeera is clearly a winner. Not only did it become one of the most viewed websites in Europe, but in the midst of the war in April, it also became Lycos top search term. In an interview with Al-Jazeera's marketing and PR head, Jihad Ali Ballout, Ballout explains that the business plan of Al-Jazeera is to 'dominate the region, and then with English language broadcasts and other international partnerships, extend the brand throughout the world.' (Wolff) It is Arabic based, but not rejectionist. Al-Jazeera does not represent a version of Benjamin Barber's Jihad vs. McWorld, but rather, McJihad competing against McWorld.

So what needs to be done? This question begs at the larger issue of what is in America's interests. Perhaps there is political propaganda on the commercial network news, but we seem to care little about the more constant economic propaganda in the media.  If commercial television is strictly about entertainment, perhaps mainstream journalists should come on the air with a disclaimer: What you are about to see is only fiction and intended for consuming audiences, please prevent young impressionable minds who believe in civic responsibility to view the following programming . 
Part of the problem lies in the reporter's proposition that s/he is objective. It is clear that all the process of filing a new story is subjective and value-laden. The more journalists reveal the 'grey' areas of their story, the contradictions in the story, and the lack of knowledge over whom is wrong or right, the more honest and informative news stories will become.

Although CNN and FOX are imminently popular, this has not prevented media critics and scholars to purpose a more didactic form of television programming as an alternative to 'shock and awe' broadcasting. The public is currently funding PBS and C-SPAN through a consortium of cable operators. Unfortunately, neither channel garners a large public viewership. While they are content driven, they are not visually driven and audiences seem to prefer the jazzier infotainment of CNN and FOX.

Americans may prefer blissful ignorance; however, the rest of the world seethes in the hypocrisy of the arrogant empire preaching democratic values. If 9-11 is not one wake-up call about the impossibility of isolation in a globalized community, then American will suffer from more of the same. We will know less about our leaders and government, if the press does not hold them accountable for their policy actions. Democracies are demanding taskmasters, mostly because the require much of their citizens to participate and become informed. Instead of mindlessly viewing the press from the narrow channels of corporate media, citizens can use alternatives such as internet receive more in-depth analysis and hear dissenting voices. As the growth of internet can attest, the American public has been quick to look for information elsewhere.

While television has been co-opted by large corporations, this does not have to be a static fact. The public airwaves are owned by the public, and licensed to cable and commercial broadcasting networks. The public can dictate better terms for themselves with non-commercial programming choices. Corporations can be better regulated as to the share of cross-ownership in media properties to prevent further homogenization of the press, as well as to prevent the further concentration in control of the public airwaves. If television is a socializing agent, we can use the medium to learn how others in the world view the United States. The public can demand funding for the public broadcasting of alternative international public networks such as the BBC, CBC (Canadian Broadcasting), and France 2 to create a better democratic society with a more informed citizenry.


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