Warring with the Coverage of War
Dissent Disappears from Media Coverage
by Danny Schechter
Resist newsletter, December 2001
We have all been here before. Watching our country go to war,
with the mainstream media enlisted as a megaphone for official
views and sanitized news. It was like that in Vietnam, in the
Gulf, and now, with a significant difference, in Afghanistan.
The difference is that today despite new technologies, hundreds
of new channels and the diverse views available through the internet-the
situation is worse.
Worse, in part because journalists have effectively been barred
from the battlefields, and because most media institutions have
confused jingoism with journalism. American flags fly in the lapels
of newscasters and in the graphics on news gets, masking their
uncritical analyses in patriotic symbols. The voices of dissent
are mostly absent, as the New York Times discovered almost two
months after the war began.
A Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) survey of the
New York Times and Washington Post op-ed pages for the three weeks
following the attacks (9/12/01 - 10/ 2/01) found that "columns
calling for or assuming a military response to the attacks were
given a great deal of space, while opinions urging diplomatic
and international law approaches as an alternative to military
action were nearly non-existent. A total of 44 columns in the
Times and Post clearly stressed a military response, against only
two columns stressing non-military solutions."
In addition, both op-ed pages showed a striking gender imbalance.
Of the 107 op-ed writers at the Post, only seven were women. Proportionally,
the Times did slightly better, with eight female writers out of
79. This is especially ironic in a war against a Taliban condemned
for its treatment of women.
The media role in this crisis needs to be understood before
it can be challenged. What is striking about this period is the
penetration of the truly worldwide web, and the emergence of independent
media centers and many independent media organizations.
Marriage of Media and Military
Understand at the outset that TV News thrives on the excitement,
challenge and budgets that accompany the coverage of war. I wrote
about this media context in the Electronpress.com edition of my
book News Dissector.
While war unleashes devastation and death on people, it delivers
ratings and brings life to television. War is often the "big
story" (when sex isn't), a defining moment for many journalists.
It's the story that permits news departments to mobilize their
"troops"-that's what ABC called employees when I worked
there-and show off their hi-tech deployments. Many reporters who
"make it" to the top do so because of war reporting.
Ask Peter Arnett, Cristianne Amanpour or even Peter Jennings-no
disrespect intended-if being under fire helped or hurt their careers.
The answer is obvious. Less obvious is the relationship between
our bloated defense budget and war coverage. The Pentagon manipulates
TV's military boosterism to hype adventures, secure appropriations
and sell weaponry. War correspondents have traditionally been
top bananas in the food chain of journalism, at least in the days
when networks covered the world, not just US interventions in
it. It's an assignment many crave but few get, a job where guts
can be leveraged into glory-and, more importantly, upward mobility.
Being amidst the land mines can be a path to media gold mines.
That's the upside. The downside is really down: the "death
thing," in post-modernist jargon. It is dangerous physically
for local war-watchers as well as foreign crews stumbling into
war zones with inadequate preparation. The BBC now trains staffers
in survival skills and risk management. Its trainer told me that
news organizations share responsibility for media casualties by
not teaching safety practices.
Phillip Knightly, the author The First Casualty, the definitive
history on war correspondents, shows that in every war, truth
is a greater casualty than the journalist body count. He offers
a suggestion for saving lives by taking the romance out of the
adventurism that accompanies military reporting. Knightly suggests
newspapers simply stop using bylines with war reports and TV stations
drop the endless standups. "When they do that," he says,
"see how few journalists clamor to cover wars."
Knightly was one of the participants in a four-day course
outside London over Labor Day weekend a few years back. The conference
taught other ways to cover conflicts and strategies to package
peace journalism as a sexier option than war journalism. Unlike
a similar conference here that would likely attract academics,
this one drew working journalists, correspondents and producers.
As TV journalism fights an uphill battle against infotainment
formats, it was encouraging to find professionals struggling to
report conflicts honestly, compassionately and responsibly.
The first goal was recognition of the "binary fallacy,"
what conflict resolution guru Johann Galtung calls a "bipolar
disorder" that leads news people to follow the same template
over and over, simplifying armed conflicts into battles between
only two parties with no attention given to underlying political
factors, multiple causes, possible compromises or impacts on civilians.
The language used to describe conflict likewise fuels it by
constructing TV "realities" anchored in good versus
evil, light versus dark, self versus other. Argues Galtung, "journalism
does not only legitimize violence but is violent in and of itself'
by its continuing failure to pay attention to people's grievances
or strategies for peaceful outcomes. Bombings are reported vividly;
peace processes, particularly among non-state players, are ignored.
The workshop turned to teaching skills of deconstruction and
reconstruction. Stories about "evil billionaire terrorist
mastermind" Osama bin Laden were dissected for blatant biases,
inadequate sourcing and orchestrated assumptions that missiles
were the only sensible response. Likewise, TV reports on the Middle
East and Kosovo were analyzed as superficial, distorted and context-free.
Going beyond the media critique, efforts were made to show how
the same story could be reworked. Separate teams came up with
new scripts and voiceovers-all under "deadline" pressure.
A truck with edit gear arrived, permitting producers and wannabe
"correspondents" to re-edit, producing tapes that showed
how easily a thoughtful approach could lead to more informative
In all cases, the stories reflected traditional values of
accuracy, fairness and balance on all sides-including those usually
left out. The final products were somewhat amateurish, but improved
upon actually broadcast originals. A similar exercise with "two-ways,"
where studio presenters (anchors) interview reporters live, showed
how more conscious journalists could broaden the range of discourse.
Could any of these approaches be adopted here? Of course-if
the will existed. The BBC's Sue Lloyd Roberts showed her stories
from Burma and Tibet shot on camcorders, offering the kind of
sensitive-but-tough reporting on human rights so conspicuously
absent on our TV. She confided that British broadcasting is turning
away from her approach towards softer domestic stories in the
US mold. Jake Lynch of SKY News showed how his coverage of the
Irish troubles focused on initiatives by non-sectarian groups
who played key behind-the-scenes roles in the peace process. South
Africa's effort to promote reconciliation through media was offered
as another model.
A CNN bureau chief present at a discussion of these issues
claimed that his organization fields 65 peace correspondents.
One look at how CNN reported the Gulf War, and how it is covering
the war today, shows the gap in understanding in the trenches
of network journalism. George Orwell explained it years ago, predicting
an age of news speak, manipulated language and group think. For
the mainstream, now a mudstream, peace is war and war peace.
Gulf War Coverage
Media coverage of the Gulf War years ago was probably the
biggest, most expensive, and most sustained undertaking in the
history of the television news divisions. It was a marathon, a
news-athon that hooked us into a state of addictive anxiety where
we stayed tuned in to saturation updates without end. Media coverage
rallied the country behind the war while promoting the illusion
that what we were watching in our living rooms was what was happening
in the deserts of Arabia.
The coverage was so one-sided and so well managed that the
Administration would sweep the "Gulfies" if such an
award were ever created to honor the media work in this conflict.
Michael Deaver, President Reagan's PR honcho, was ecstatic about
its impact, contending, "If you were to hire a public relations
firm to do the media relations for an international event, it
couldn't be done any better than this is being done." Hodding
Carter, President Jimmy Carter's former chief flack, seconded
the emotion: "If I were the government, I'd be paying the
press for the coverage it's getting."
Yet the press-and this was a television story above all else-did
not have to be paid. Pete Williams, the man who "handled"
the media for the Pentagon, put his finger on this greatest accomplishment
before hostilities erupted. "The reporting has been largely
a recitation of what Administration people have said, or an extension
But let's scratch deeper. Was this a case of meanies in the
military manipulating the messengers of the media? No way. Listen
to Michael Massing in the Columbia Journalism Review: "access
was not really the issue. Yes the pools, the escorts, the clearance
procedures were all terribly burdensome, but greater openness
would not necessarily have produced better coverage." For
him, what we lacked were not freer reporters in the field but
more digging into the real reasons for the war, fewer "Scud
Studs," as NBC's Arthur Kent was called, and more I. F. Stones
to burrow in the bowels of Official Washington to get at the story
behind the story. (Kent himself was later fired by NBC, sued the
network, won, and then wrote a book denouncing the manipulation
The critics of the war coverage now include many of the people
upon whom we relied for information. CNN's Bernard Shaw told a
university conference that the American people "never got
the whole story." Veteran New York Times war reporter Malcolm
Browne, disgusted with the news management, said that the reporting
on this war spelled an end of war reporting as we have known it.
Newsday quoted one correspondent as saying: "The line between
me and a government contractor is pretty thin."
Critiques and Alternatives
That was then. What about now? Today I am writing every day
about the coverage of this war on mediachannel.org. I watch the
TV coverage, skim as many newspapers as I can and read the reporting
of news outlets in other countries to try to understand the perspectives
of other cultures? and frankly to find information and analysis
that are missing in most US media accounts. The British press,
which has many problems of its own, has been far more analytical,
detached and investigative than the media outlets most Americans
rely on for their news and information.
In this exercise, still underway at this writing, I identify
10 key problems with the coverage, although I must say that there
is also good reporting.
Here's what's missing:
1. Lack of historical context
2. Lack of cultural analysis
3. Lack of access to decision makers
4. Lack of access to the battlefields
5. Lack of coverage of US policy and interests in the region
Add to that (6) an absence of critical perspectives, (7) refusal
to adequately cover dissent in the US and around the world, (8)
refusal for the most part to hear from voices in the region, (9)
refusal to give adequate air time to NGO groups which have been
critical of the Pentagon's exploitative use of humanitarian food
delivery to focus attention away from the effects of the bombing,
and finally (10) virtually no attention paid to alternatives to
violence, international law, or how the conflict might be resolved
or will be resolved.
Okay, that's a critique. What's the alternative? We have all
read some of the analysis on the left, including the debates between
Christopher Hitchens and Noam Chomsky over whether left responses
are insensitive to the victims of the attacks in New York and
Washington, and whether the war is just or not. They will continue,
but you rarely find issues like this explored in the op-ed pages
of most media outlets. We should point out that many radical outlets
are also closed to dissenting perspectives from whatever political
line is in command. Some critics confuse patriotism with fascism,
attacking the American people rather than engaging them in the
many critical concerns. The left needs to confront ways in which
it marginalizes itself, often substituting slogans for substantive
Only a few national outlets give voice to the types of perspectives
I am calling for. On TV, two new channels, FreeSpeech TV and World
Links are available on satellite stations. There are 500 public
access channels nationwide, some of which carry shows like Amy
Goodman's Democracy Now. While the Pacifica Network is divided
and on the edge of implosion, they still offer dissenting voices
Indy media videos and websites reach audiences worldwide but
lack the means of promotion and marketing along with most of progressive
media. You can find many of them on sites like Fair.org, Alternet.org
and Zmag.org, along with hundreds of other web sites which offer
dissenting views. Mediachannel.org now has 820 affiliates easily
accessible through its site as well as a Global News Index with
I000 links. The company's new Globalvision News Network (www.gvnewsnet.com),
available through mediachannel, brings perspectives from all over
the world, a form of inside-out journalism that is also missing
in most of our media.
Love the media or hate it, we all have a responsibility for
our own media choices. We also need to see much media coverage
as a problem to be examined and ultimately confronted. As my old
friend Scoop Nisker used to say on San Francisco radio, "If
you don't like the news, go out and make some of your own."
Danny Schechter is the executive producer of Globalvision,
Inc. (globalvision.org) and the author of News Dissector (Akashic
Books and electronpress.com) and the More You Watch The Less You
Know (Seven Stories Press).
Control & Propaganda