Media Misrepresentations in Times of Crisis
US media and military tactics to incite wartime support
A dozen years after the Gulf War in 1991, public perceptions of it are now very helpful to the White House. Using previous occurrences to model current news stories is part of a timeworn pattern used by the media, in today's case to create an American sense of morale and bravery in the face of military crisis. Illusions about previous wars make the supposed "imminent" seem acceptable, especially to the thousands of mothers and fathers about to send their beloved children into the impending war with Iraq. As George Orwell observed in his novel 1984, "Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past." Now, as we are again on the brink of war one country a previous enemy, and in the midst of a "war on terrorism", the mainstream media is careful what to rehash of the Gulf War, what numbers to withhold and what touching personal interest stories to reiterate.
It's not unusual to hear journalists and politicians say that the Gulf War had few casualties. Considering the magnitude of media spin, that myth is hardly surprising.
"When the air war began in January 1991," recalls Patrick J. Sloyan, who covered the Gulf War as a Newsday correspondent, "the media was fed carefully selected footage by (Gen. Norman) Schwarzkopf in Saudi Arabia and (Gen. Colin) Powell in Washington, DC. Most of it was downright misleading" (Sloyan). In an essay written as a fellow at the Alicia Patterson Foundation this year entitled "What Bodies?" , Sloyan describes "limitations imposed on reporters on the battlefield" in 1991: "Under rules developed by (Defense Secretary Dick) Cheney and Powell, journalists were not allowed to move without military escorts.
All interviews had to be monitored by military public affairs escorts. Every line of copy, every still photograph, every strip of film had to be approved -- censored -- before being filed. And these rules were ruthlessly enforced." The question arises then, whether wartime security measures should outweigh the moral obligation to disclose the truth to the people of a nation in the midst of conflict. As December 2002 began, and Washington began to increase its security and surveillance procedures to border on intrusive, Los Angeles Times media critic David Shaw told readers: "Based on past performance, both by the current Bush administration and by its immediate Republican predecessors, there's every reason to think that if we go to war against Iraq, Washington will exert more control over the media than ever before, using every tactic from manipulation to deception to disinformation." For the most part, mainstream news organizations such as CNN, CNBC, and MSNBC are avid participants in such deceit. Their objections are routinely feeble and belated.
Even when objections are made, media critiques usually steer clear of moral concern. They " re much more likely to focus on questionable claims about technical performances: whether "smart bombs" were truly accurate, whether cruise missiles strayed off course, and so forth. But the greatest deception of the Gulf War was far more profound. "In manipulating the first and often most lasting perception of Desert Storm," wrote Sloyan, "the Bush administration produced not a single picture or video of anyone being killed. This sanitized, bloodless presentation by military briefer's left the world presuming Desert Storm was a war without death." The mothers and fathers and the hundreds of families still grieving ten years later know that that is simply not true, and while there seems to be no consistent source for the true casualty count of the Gulf War the numbers, varied though they are, they seem staggering when compared to the sterile battlefield we saw on television. But in his excellent new book "Tinderbox," scholar Stephen Zunes points out: "Most estimates put the Iraqi death toll in the Gulf War in the range of 100, 000.
Due to the increased accuracy of aerial warfare, the proportion of Iraqi civilians killed was much less than it had been in previous air campaigns. At the same time, because the bombing was the heaviest in world history -- consisting of tens of thousands of stories -- the absolute numbers were quite high. Most estimates of the civilian death toll are approximately 15, 000." But the message that the mainstream media is now sending to families of soldiers seems to be one of proud blindness -- fed numbers far lower than many statistics, these people are not afraid. On Tuesday December 10, 2002 CNN aired a segment on Connie Chung Tonight about a family whose three children are all currently being sent or have already been sent to Iraq. The mother and father in interviews both expressed their pride in their children with very little mentioning of their fears.
Mary Staun, the mother of the three children, ages 19, 22, and 24, told the emotional tale of having to hang three white stars in her front window to symbolize her three children at war. When Connie Chung asked her if she had bought any gold stars (traditionally used to represent fallen soldiers), Mrs. Staun answered that no she had not, and she wasn't planning to. Both of the Staun expressed a monumental trust in the US military and it's intelligence, and even went as far as to say that the media plays the most important role in keeping people safe. I feel that, honestly, people do not know what's going on over there. "Luckily, for the most part, the media is not telling us everything that's going on over there.
If they did, our children would even be in more danger. I think we need to trust those that know what's happening and believe that they " re doing the best for everyone," said the mother of the three soldiers. This appalling and blind trust in the American media and also the government and military establishments was in stark contrast with an earlier segment on the same show in which celebrities who had signed a petition letter to the government protesting preventative military tactics spoke with Connie Chung. Actress and comedian Janeane Garofalo was in the studio to represent the signers of the letter, and she spoke in direct opposition to the opinion of Mrs.
Staun, who said that she was happy that the media was not releasing information to the public, because it would cause panic and danger among the general population. Perhaps though, it is only a matter of presenting this "dangerous" information in the correct context, instead of the seemingly constant bombardment of statistics without adequate explanation that make their way onto the television news circuit. Garofalo stated that "I really feel there is something wrong with the mainstream media... I feel... as a citizen that I am just not getting any information. And all I keep hearing is war, war, war.
It's this 'showdown in Iraq.' " Garofalo's point is valid -- at the same time that the American public is not being informed of any details or particulars from the military about the situation in Iraq we are being prepared by the media for a "showdown" with a country we know very little about as citizens. What are the likely human consequences of the impending war on Iraq? News media should be asking that question. But the American public remains in the dark concerning many aspects of the conflict with Iraq. What price will we have to pay for this clash of cultures we know little about? What will be the impact on the rest of the world -- is the situation momentous enough to compromise relations with Asia, Eastern Europe and the dozens of other countries liable to be affected? Does our quickness to invade the Iraqi state mean we are destined as a nation to become a watchdog to the world? These are the questions the US military, government, and the mainstream media organizations in their representations need to ask themselves -- what is the true price that the world will pay, and doesn't every American deserve the information to form their own conclusions on the issues, and to voice their opinion on the invasion? "The avowed U. S. aim of regime change means any new conflict will be much more intense and destructive than the Gulf War, and will involve more deadly weapons developed in the interim," said a report issued last month by health professionals with the London-based Med act organization and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.
They warned: "Furthermore, the mental and physical health of ordinary Iraqis is far worse than it was in 1991, making them much more vulnerable this time round." The report found that "credible estimates of the total possible deaths on all sides during the conflict and the following three months range from 48, 000 to over 260, 000. Civil war within Iraq could add another 20, 000 deaths. Additional later deaths from post-war adverse health effects could reach 200, 000." And here's another conclusion from the report that major U. S. news outlets keep ignoring: "In all scenarios, the majority of casualties will be civilians." References: "Connie Chung Tonight." December 10, 2002. (December 12, 2002).
Graber, Doris A. Mass Media And American Politics. Washington DC: Congressional Quarterly, Inc. , 1997.
Orwell, George. 1984. New York: Penguin Classics, 1976. Reeve, Gill. "Collateral Damage: The Health and Environmental Costs of War on Iraq." December, 2002 (December 10, 2002). Shaw, David.
"Boot Camp Gives Hope That Media Will Be On Front Lines." December 1, 2002 (December 10, 2002). Sloyan, Patrick J." What Bodies?" . 2002 (December 9, 2002). Zunes, Stephen.
Tinderbox: US Middle East Policy and The Roots of Terrorism. Monroe: Common Courage Press, 2002. Additional Readings: Tuch man, Gaye. Making News: A Study in the Construction of Reality. New York: The Free Press, 1978..