Baying for Blood

Source: Alrian Volumn 23 (2): 2003

The international media: watchdogs of the public interest or cheerleaders for war?

By: Mustafa K Anuar

There are some disturbing patterns in the coverage of the Iraq crisis by the international mass media, particularly those that are based and/or owned by US interests. Although there have been a number of news reports and analyses critical of the unilateralist Bush administration, by and large these large news media groups are supportive of the war against Iraq. Or at the very least, they tone down criticisms of the bellicose Anglo-American axis.

There had been attempts to manufacture evidence (against Saddam) in the desperate endeavour to manage news and public opinion. For instance, Tony Blair, the British PM, proudly presented what he considered concrete evidence to show that Saddam’s regime was closlely linked to the infamous Al-Qaeda terrorist group. It was later revealed that this ‘evidence’ was a collection of academic papers, one of which was thought to be a student’s academic paper.

Close Proximity

The close proximity between the media and the American state and military is another worrying factor. For example, in preparing for the war on Iraq, the American military has introduced a new concept in war journalism: the so-called “embedding process”. Journalists are required to tag along with the soldiers in units to ensure the viewpoint of the military is played up. In short, get immersed in the military. All reports of actual combat will have to be approved by military commanders.

But this symbiotic relationship is nothing new. The London Guardian (April 12, 2000) and a few other foreign publications reported that from June 1999 to March 2000, CNN employed US army’s Psychological Operations Personnel in its headquarters in Atlanta, US under a programme called ‘Training with Industry’. It was learned later that they were managing news regarding the conflict in Kosovo. It was also revealed that the propaganda team was involved during the Gulf War and the war in Bosnia.

Media spinning also involves the dangerous game of stereotyping, either via news bulletins or movies or TV entertainment programmes. Some element of racism cannot be discounted. The targeting of certain Islamic groups, ethnic profiling in the United States, ethnic smearing in movies all have the cumulative effect of representing Muslims especially as terrorist-minded, militant, barbaric, fanatic, corrupt, sexually perverted, etc. In short, they get demonised by the media, which in the long run can justify actions of certain western governments against these so-called demons.

This doesn’t really help in the promotion of interfaith and interethnic understanding. Worse still, this demonisation may set off a chain reaction among certain fanatical groups in the Muslim world, which, in turn, would trigger off similar responses from the other side (the Christian right).

The M-I-C Complex

These are trends that are cause for concern. But why is this so?

There are several possible reasons, one of which is that the aftermath of the Sept. 11 tragedy saw many media organisations, especially American ones, being caught in a frenzy of jingoism. It is said that in these difficult times, to be critical of the Bush administration is to be easily labelled “unpatriotic”. For example, after that brutal attack, the Fox News Channel chairman was reported to have advised Bush to take the “harshest measures possible” against those who attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.

But there are also the more important underlying reasons. The American mainstream mass media are very much part of what was termed in the mid-1970s as ‘the military-industrial-communications complex’. For example, the gigantic General Electric (GE) firm, one of the world’s major defence contractors, owns RCA as well as NBC since 1986. GE also owns CNBC Asia. The CBS TV network is linked to military and nuclear development activities.

The New York Times is linked to the nuclear industry, which serves as the supplier of nuclear weaponry. In other words, the interests of certain media organisations coincide with those of the military. In fact, the entire military-industrial-communications complex played a direct role in the television coverage of the Gulf War. This may in part explain why the television giant networks helped to popularise euphemisms such as “collateral damage”, “carpet-bombing”, and “extensive damage” in a feeble attempt at sanitising a bloody and barbaric war.

Another factor is the structural-economic dimensions of the mass media. The media are built on a specific structure of ownership and financing. This structure is founded on four factors: [a] the US media are basically financed by the private sector; [b] the media’s heavy reliance on advertisement for revenue; [c] the media are not only producers of news and entertainment, but also large corporations (profit motive); and [d] the concentration of media ownership (less diversity of media output, and high stakes involved).

Finally, there are the related issues of news values, sources and censorship. Conflict is considered by the media as newsworthy, a popular commodity for sale (which is why quite often news of the developing world in the western media revolves around conflict, war, famine, diseases, etc.) As regards news sources, news organisations tend to look for sources they consider reliable and credible, and quite often they end up interviewing and quoting people from the establishment (White House officials or spokespersons) and the military (and military experts) in this case. Voices of dissent, as a result, tend to be muffled. Direct or indirect censorship comes about when you rely too much on the military and politicians.

In contrast, our local mainstream media in particular have had a field day in publishing views that are critical of the warmongers, especially Bush and Blair. Anti-war demonstrations and speeches made in Malaysia are well reported, and comments from analysts and commentators are splashed all over. While we commend these efforts, one should not construe this as an indication of an opening up of the mainstream media or the flowering of press freedom in Malaysia. For the acid test is whether the local media would also be equally passionate in reporting the speeches and actions of some Malaysians who are against a war or conflict that does not jive with the political stand of the Malaysian government. What happened, if our collective memory needs jogging, to those Malaysians who were deeply concerned about the oppression in East Timor a few years ago?

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