It's a popular notion: TV sets and other media
devices let us in on the violence of war. "Look, nobody likes to see dead
people on their television screens," President Bush told a news conference
more than three years ago. "I don't. It's a tough time for the American
people to see that. It's gut-wrenching."
But televised glimpses of war routinely help to keep war going. Susan Sontag
was onto something when she pointed out that "the image as shock and the
image as cliché are two aspects of the same presence."
While viewers may feel disturbed by media imagery of warfare, their
discomfort is largely mental and limited. The only shots coming at
them are ones that have been waved through by editors. Still, we hear
that television brings war into our living rooms.
We're encouraged to be a nation of voyeurs or pseudo-voyeurs
looking at war coverage and imagining that we really see, experience,
comprehend. In this mode, the reporting on the Iraq war facilitates a
rough division of labor. For American media consumers, the easy task
is to watch from afar secure in the tacit belief we're
understanding what it means to undergo the violence that we catch via
only the most superficial glances.
Television screens provide windows on the world that reinforce
distances. Watching "news" at the remote, viewers are in a zone
supplied by producers with priorities far afield from authenticity or
democracy. More than making sense, the mass-media enterprise is about
making corporate profit in sync with governmental power.
Exceptional news reports do exist. And that's the problem; they're
exceptions. A necessity of effective propaganda is repetition. And
the inherent limits of television in conveying realities of war are
further narrowed by deference to Washington.
Styles vary on network television, but the journalistic pursuits whether
on a prime-time CNN show or the PBS NewsHour are chasing parallel
bottom lines. When the missions of corporate-owned commercial television and
corporate-funded "public broadcasting" are wrapped up in the quest
to maximize profits and maintain legitimacy among elites in a warfare state,
how far afield is the war coverage likely to wander?
While media outlets occasionally stick their institutional necks out,
the departures are rarely fundamental. In large media institutions,
underlying precepts of a de facto military-industrial-media complex
are rarely disturbed in any sort of sustained way by the visual
presentations or by the words that accompany them.
"Even if journalists, editors, and producers are not superpatriots,
they know that appearing unpatriotic does not play well with many
readers, viewers, and sponsors," media analyst Michael X. Delli
Carpini commented. Written with reference to the Vietnam War, his
words now apply to the Iraq war era. "Fear of alienating the public
and sponsors, especially in wartime, serves as a real, often unstated
tether, keeping the press tied to accepted wisdom."
Part of the accepted wisdom is the idea that media outlets are
pushing envelopes and making the Iraq war look bad. But the press
coverage, even from the reputedly finest outlets, is routinely making
the war look far better than its reality both in terms of the
horror on the ground and the agendas of the war-makers in Washington.
Countless stories in the daily press continue to portray Bush administration
officials as earnestly seeking a political settlement in Iraq while recalcitrant
insurgents, bent on violence, thwart that effort. So, with typical spin, a dispatch
from Baghdad published in the New York Times on June 17 flatly declared
that comments by U.S. commander Gen. David Petraeus "reflected an acknowledgment
that more has to be done beyond the city's bounds to halt a relentless wave
of insurgent attacks that have undercut attempts at political reconciliation."
Of course, occupiers always seek "political reconciliation." As
Prussian general Karl von Clausewitz observed long ago, "A conqueror
is always a lover of peace."
At the same time, the more that an occupying force tries to impose the prerogatives
of a conqueror, the more its commander must deny that its goals are anything
other than democracy, freedom, and autonomy for the people whose country is
being occupied. In medialand, the lethal violence of the occupier must be invisible
or righteous, while the lethal violence of the occupied must be tragic, nonsensical,
and/or insane. But most of all, the human consequences of a war fueled by U.S.
military action are shrouded in euphemism and media cliché.
Which brings us back to violence at the remote. While a TV network
may be no more guilty of obscuring the human realities of war than a
newsprint broadsheet or a slick newsmagazine, we may have higher
expectations that the television is bringing us real life. Vivid
footage is in sharp contrast to static words and images on a page. At
least implicitly, television promises more and massively reneges
on what it promises.
We may intellectually know that television is not conveying realities
of life. But what moves on the screen is apt to draw us in,
nonetheless. We see images of violence that look and loom real. But
our media experience of that violence is unreal. We don't experience
the actual violence at all. Media outlets lie about it by pretending
to convey it. And we abet the lying to the extent that we fail to
Artifice comes in many forms, of course. In the case of television news, it's
a form very big on pretense. We're left to click through the world beyond our
immediate experience at a distance that cannot be measured in miles.
But away from our mediated cocoon, spun by civic passivity, the death machinery
keeps roaring along.
The new documentary film War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep
Spinning Us to Death, based on Norman Solomon's book of the same title, is
being released directly to DVD this week. For information about the full-length
movie, produced by the Media Education Foundation and narrated by Sean Penn,
go to: WarMadeEasyTheMovie.org.