Why we need the journalism of outrage particularly in times of war

An essay on journalism and propaganda in times of war as part of my PGrad Dip in Communications in 2011.

“On some positions, Cowardice asks the question, “Is it safe?” Expediency asks the question, “Is it politic?” And Vanity comes along and asks the question, “Is it popular?” But Conscience asks the question “Is it right?” And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right.” [i]

This is even more true for journalists than the public at large. When faced with the mendacity, cronyism and hypocrisy of the powerful political, military and economic elites that govern us, it should be journalists who expose them. And if journalists have to do so with anger and outrage to break through the apathy of the public, then so be it.

As Robert Fisk says,

“…so no one can say: “We didn’t know – no one told us.””[ii]

Fisk also quotes Israeli journalist Amira Hass –

“Our job is to monitor the centres of power” and comments “…that is the best definition of journalism I have heard; to challenge authority – all authority – especially so when governments and politicians take us to war, when they have decided that they will kill and others will die.”[iii]

Journalists like Fisk and Pilger write eloquently and passionately about what they see when those elites decide others have to die. These journalists provide rich historical context to the present, not as most media stenographers do reporting Orwellian Doublethink, the press releases and official statements of authority that would have you believe history started only yesterday. Fisk in particular personalises what he has seen, exposing the euphemisms like “collateral damage” and the reality of military acronyms. His writing is meticulously researched and full of raw first hand accounts. However journalists of his ilk rely on us the reader having empathy and not being so full of self righteousness and false patriotism that we are blind to the machinations of elite power; the propaganda, the Play Station graphics and dry disassociated body counts.

Unfortunately I think many in the governing elites and indeed the public at large, lack much empathy for anyone outside their family and close circle of friends. They either don’t care or choose to be willfully blind to injustice and even criminal behaviour if they believe it to be better for their personal financial or social well being. Journalists confronting them with evidence of corruption, lies and as we have seen during the Iraq war, torture and murder, are not always lauded as champions of truth and morality but often seen as unpatriotic or politically motivated. It is okay to challenge an individual’s actions but for many people challenging the system within which they have lived most or all of their lives is too confronting and will win a journalist no friends and a great number of enemies.

The Abu Ghraib scandal is a good example. The photos of the abused prisoners caused outrage around the world (even though they were the most sanitised of thousands including ones of rape), but many Americans were outraged not because of the torture or the humiliation of the prisoners, but because their country, president and military, institutions that frame their body politic and the meaning of being American, were being exposed as malevolent and it made them embarrassed and uncomfortable.

“Most people prefer to believe their leaders are just and fair even in the face of evidence to the contrary, because once a citizen acknowledges that the government under which they live is lying and corrupt, the citizen has to choose what he or she will do about it….To choose to do nothing is to surrender one’s self image of standing for principles. Most people do not have the courage to face that choice.”[iv]

So it is easier to blame rogue individuals rather than the elite establishments of government and the military. Seymour Hersh’s expose of the Mai Lai massacre and Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate investigations brilliantly exposed the actions of select “bad apples” without questioning the institutions and conventions that grew them. One could argue that Sergeant Grainer at Abu Ghraib, Lieutenant Calley at Mai Lai and President Nixon at Watergate were predictable outcomes of the institutions and policies they represented. The liberal media will criticise the conduct during war but not the act of war itself. It will criticize a President without asking about constitutional change. In the US it is not acceptable to challenge the almost universal belief in American Exceptionalism, a well entrenched ideology which dates back 150 years to the Manifest Destiny movement of the Mexican-American war.

For instance read the columns of  Thomas Friedman, the leading foreign affairs correspondent of the “liberal” New York Times.

“The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist – McDonalds cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas….and the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps”[v]

If  journalism and political debate are framed within a narrow status quo, what happens when that status quo is misguided, corrupt or even evil?

This passage from Blum’s book Rogue State sums up this cognitive dissonance perfectly.

“Congressman Otis Pike headed a committee in 1975 which uncovered a number of dark covert actions of US foreign policy, many of which were leaked to the public, while others remained secret. In an interview he stated that any member of Congress could see the entire report if he agreed not to reveal anything that was in it. “But not many want to read it,” he added.

“Why?” asked his interviewer.

“Oh, they think it is better not to know,” Pike replied. “There are too many things that embarrass Americans in that report. You see, this country went through an awful trauma with Watergate. But even then, all they were asked to believe was that their president had been a bad person. In this new situation they are asked much more; they are asked to believe that their country has been evil. And nobody wants to believe that.”[vi]

In times of war should journalists hold a blow torch to elite rationale or should they say like Dan Rather in a burst of patriotic fervour post 9/11,

“George Bush is the President, he makes the decisions, and, you know, as just one American, whenever he wants me to line up, just tell me where”[vii]

In his 2010 documentary The War You Don’t See, John Pilger asks

“Why do so many journalists beat the drums of war and not challenge the spin and lies of governments? And how are the crimes of war reported and justified when they are our crimes?”[viii]

He goes on to say in an interview with Vanessa Baird that

 “…the truth of war is the grotesque. It is trees hanging with the body parts of children. It is people going insane before your eyes. It is terrified soldiers with their trousers full of shit. It is human damage that runs through countless families: civilians and soldiers. That’s war. The coverage of war should be this eyewitness but it should also tell us the why. That means journalists not colluding but investigating.”[ix]

To go to war is the most grave act a government can commit. It usually involves the death of thousands or millions of men, women and children. Most men do not go lightly, they need to be convinced. Yet time and time again they succumb to official propaganda that is subsequently shown to be false. They kill and are able to morally absolve themselves by saying “I was just following orders”. They pass moral responsibility passes to the authority they have submitted to and rarely is this logic questioned.

A large part of the problem is the media’s position within powerful elite structures and is most famously elucidated by Herman and Chomsky with their propaganda model in Manufacturing Consent.

“The power of the (US) propaganda system lies in its ability to mobilize an elite consensus, to give the appearance of democratic consent, and to create enough confusion, misunderstanding and apathy in the general population to allow elite programmes to go forward” [x]

The lead up to the Iraq war was the perfect example of this. Deepa Kumar notes Douglas Kellner’s belief that

“…the media have become the “arms of conservative and corporate interests,” due to the concentration of ownership. Thus, instead of acting in the interests of the public, they advance the interests of political and economic elites.”[xi]

This problem of concentration of media ownership is a frequently mentioned topic of academics but funnily enough not a topic of the amalgamated media itself. A huge conglomerate like General Electric owns companies in both the military industrial complex and the media, including CNN. How long does anyone believe the CEO of CNN would keep their job if CNN’s journalists were critical of the company’s defence siblings?

More overtly, Nick Davies gives a startling insight into how the CIA has been rebuilding its networks of influence since before 9/11. He points out that in 1976 two congressional enquiries found the CIA was using 800 different “assets” secretly posing as reporters, editors and owners, in newspapers and television stations throughout the world, and that the CIA’s propaganda budget exceeded that of the 3 largest global news agencies combined.[xii] Post 9/11 the situation is hardly likely to have improved.

Combine this with the budgets and human resources of information departments in the Pentagon, State Department and the White House (more than 10,000 people in the Pentagon alone) and their understanding of the “churnalism” requirement of the media and you get what one US General called

“recognition that the current global media gravitates toward information that is packaged for ease of dissemination and consumption.”[xiii]

Davies says

“More often, the rules of production of the news factories themselves impose their own demands as media outlets pick easy stories with safe facts and safe ideas, clustering around official sources for protection, reducing everything they touch to simplicity without understanding, recycling consensus facts and ideas regardless of their validity…” [xiv]

I call this the journalists as victims model. It smacks of laziness and lack of moral courage, of journalists and editors who are more concerned for their paycheck than of keeping the public informed. No it may not be a level playing field, but journalism should not be akin to public relations for the government.

Kumar is even more specific in accusing the US media of being “complicit with the aims of the military industrial complex”[xv] and that the “evolution and perfecting of the media-military industrial complex propaganda system is voluntary and conscious.”[xvi] He goes on to note how the Bush administration met with media heads post 9/11 to discuss how they could “help” the government and how CNN set up a system of “script approval” for reporters, acting to “ensure that if the military made any errors, CNN monitors would act as the second layer of filtering”[xvii]

Pilger in his usual forthright way goes even further.

“We treasure our myths. Edmund Burke called the press a ‘fourth estate’ that would check the other great institutions of democracy. It was a quintessentially liberal view. It was also romantic nonsense – honorable exceptions aside….The media – press and broadcasting – has long since become an extension of the established order, and frequently its mouthpiece and valet”[xviii]

When it comes to war this is hard to dispute.

In the context of war and the mass media’s reporting of it, Edward Herman noted

“It is the function of defence intellectuals and other experts, and the mainstream media, to normalize the unthinkable for the general public.”[xix]

David Edwards and David Cromwell expand on this in Guardians of Power.

“Normalising the unthinkable is achieved by passing lightly over even the most horrendous crimes of state-corporate power, by casting doubt on the true severity of those crimes – suggesting that, anyway, the ends justify the means, that alternative courses of actions would have had even worse consequences – and by focusing laser-like on the crimes of official enemies”[xx]

The propaganda model is far more prevalent I believe than the idealised mobilisation model where journalists raise an issue, public opinion is roused and officialdom responds; or the consensus model where investigative journalists work hand in hand with the policy makers and interest groups to respond to issues. The more money involved, the more likely the propaganda model will be the one used. And there is no area of government expenditure where more corporate welfare is dispensed than defence. Without potential enemies there is no rationale for expensive weapon systems. Without war there is no reason to expend that “ordinance” and then replace it.

The US military, working on the erroneous premise that the media lost them the Vietnam War, have made information operations the fifth arm of the services, the aim to “dominate the information battlespace.”[xxi] One sign of this is the attachment of a PSYOP[xxii] member to US military units and the embedding of journalists. The Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts were the culmination of a continual process of media control trial and error post Vietnam, through Grenada, Panama and the first Gulf War. The British too used it successfully during the Falklands conflict.

In a way it is perfectly understandable for journalists who are living with military units, who are completely dependent on them for their sustenance and security, to identify with those men. But as professionals they should be able to separate their feelings for the “men” from the rationale of the politicians and military command. Moreover as humans they should have some empathy for the victims on the receiving end of all that firepower. During the Iraq war it was quite sickening to see journalists dressed in combat fatigues and helmets, even gas masks, reporting the war. As Pamela Hess, a UPI reporter, would state, “Reporters love troops. Put us with these 18 year old kids…we just turn to jelly.”[xxiii]

In addition embedded reporters signed agreements as to what they could and couldn’t report and any “rogue” footage slipping through was censored by TV executives. It was ironic that the most damning criticism of operations in Iraq came not from the corporate media but the blogs of soldiers themselves.

Recently the most damning investigative reporting of the US military and the Global Financial Crisis has come not from the network media or liberal press, but from Rolling Stone Magazine.[xxiv] Indeed one of their articles, The Runaway General, ended the illustrious career of General Stanley McCrystal, commander in Afghanistan.

I would like to finish with reference once again to Robert Fisk. In his opus The Great War for Civilization he includes a 17 page account of how an American Apache helicopter and Hellfire missile, gifted to Israel in murky circumstances, killed many of the 14 people crammed into an ambulance fleeing the fighting during Operation Grapes of Wrath in Lebanon. Not only is there a moving account of the attack and its aftermath but Fisk retrieves chunks of shrapnel from the missile complete with serial numbers, smuggles it to the US with the help of airline pilots and Amnesty International, and confronts executives of the US manufacturers. After initial denials they admit it is one of theirs and anonymously regret the loss of life caused by the missile.

“They wanted to show their compassion – and did so up to a point – but were desperately anxious to avoid any offence to Boeing or Israel. I told them to keep the Hellfire missile fragment. And as I left the room, I heard a voice behind me say: “I don’t think we’ll put this one in the trophy room.”’[xxv]

He went on to discover that in fact the Hellfire had been a surplus US Marines missile secretly “gifted” to Israel after the Gulf  War and that tens of billions of dollars in US ordinance had been similarly transferred without the approval of Congress or public knowledge in addition to the billions of open military assistance the US provides Israel each year .

Was this grandstanding? I don’t believe so. Did it change the foreign policy of Israel or the United States? No. Was it worth writing about and did it expose an outrageous sequence of events with terrible human consequences? Definitely. We desperately need journalists like Fisk to inform us, to expose the duplicity, mendacity and Machiavellian nature of international affairs. We need their outrage to explain to us the human cost of the acts committed in the name of freedom and democracy. What we choose to do with their writing is up to us but never claim you did not know, that no one told you. Maybe you just didn’t want to hear.


[i] Martin Luther King Jr

[ii] Robert Fisk, The Great War for Civilisation – The Conquest of the Middle East, Harper Perennial, 2005, preface p xxiii

[iii] Robert Fisk, The Great War for Civilisation – The Conquest of the Middle East, Harper Perennial, 2005, preface p xxiii

[iv] Michael Rivero – American Talk Show Host

[v] Those words appeared in Friedman’s book “The Lexus and the Olive Tree,” but the passage first surfaced in the New York Times Magazine on March 28, 1999, near the end of a long piece adapted from the book. Filling almost the entire cover of the magazine was a red-white-and-blue fist, with the caption “What The World Needs Now” and a smaller-type explanation: “For globalism to work, America can’t be afraid to act like the almighty superpower that it is.”

[vi] William Blum, (2002) Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s only Superpower,London, Zed Books, p 27

[vii] Dan Rather quoted in Media, War, and Propaganda: Strategies of Information Management During the 2003 Iraq War, Deepa Kumar, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1, March 2006, p58

[viii] The War You Don’t See, John Pilger, ITV, 2010

[ix] Interview with John Pilger, Vanessa Baird, New Internationalist, Dec 2010, Issue 438, p30

[x] The Propaganda Model: A Retrospective, Edward Herman, Against All Reason, Volume 1, 2003, p4

[xi] Media, War, and Propaganda: Strategies of Information Management During the 2003

Iraq War, Deepa Kumar, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1, March 2006, p 49

[xii] Flat Earth News, Nick Davies, Chatto & Windus, 2008, Ch 6: The Propaganda Puzzle, p 224-235

[xiii] General Metz quoted from Military Review, Flat Earth News, Nick Davies, Chatto & Windus, 2008,

Ch 6: The Propaganda Puzzle, p 254

[xiv] Flat Earth News, Nick Davies, Chatto & Windus, 2008, Ch 6: The Propaganda Puzzle, p 255

[xv] Media, War, and Propaganda: Strategies of Information Management During the 2003

Iraq War, Deepa Kumar, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1, March 2006, p 64

[xvi] Media, War, and Propaganda: Strategies of Information Management During the 2003

Iraq War, Deepa Kumar, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1, March 2006, p 49

[xvii] Media, War, and Propaganda: Strategies of Information Management During the 2003

Iraq War, Deepa Kumar, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1, March 2006, p 51

[xviii] Interview with John Pilger, Vanessa Baird, New Internationalist, Dec 2010, Issue 438, p29

[xix] The Banality of Evil, Edward Herman, quoted in Guardians of Power – The Myth of the Liberal Media, David Edwards & David Cromwell, Pluto Press, 2006, Ch 5: Afghanistan – Let them eat grass, p 76

[xx] Guardians of Power – The Myth of the Liberal Media, David Edwards & David Cromwell, Pluto Press, 2006, Ch 5: Afghanistan – Let them eat grass, p 76

[xxi] Earth News, Nick Davies, Chatto & Windus, 2008, Ch 6: The Propaganda Puzzle, p 236

[xxii] Dedicated psychological operations units in the US Army designed to use the media to spread confusion and disinformation within the “enemy”. Prohibited by law from targeting U.S. citizens within the borders of the United States, they can target foreign audiences.

[xxiii] Media, War, and Propaganda: Strategies of Information Management During the 2003

Iraq War, Deepa Kumar, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1, March 2006, p 61

[xxiv] The Runaway General, Michael Hastings, June 25 2010;  The Kill Team: How US soldiers in Afghanistan murdered innocent civilians, Mark Boal, March 27 2011;  Another Runaway General: Army deploys Psy-Ops on US senators, Michael Hastings, February 23 2011,  King David’s War: Double down on a failed strategy, Michael Hastings, February 2 2011, The Generals Revolt: Obama’s struggle with his own military, October 28 2009

[xxv] Robert Fisk, The Great War for Civilisation – The Conquest of the Middle East, Harper Perennial, 2005, Chapter 19, p 965

Bibliography

 Articles

Media, War, and Propaganda: Strategies of Information Management During the 2003 Iraq War, Deepa Kumar, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1, March 2006, p 48-69

The Propaganda Model: A Retrospective, Edward Herman, Against All Reason, Volume 1, 2003, p1-14

New Media: Countering US Mainstream Media Views in Iraq War I and Iraq War II  Rao, Madanmohan, Media Asia,Volume 30, Issue 3, 2003, p 133-137

Picturing the Iraq War: Constructing the Image of War in the British and US Press, Shahira Fahmy & Daekyung Kim, International Communication Gazette, 2008, Volume 70, Issue 6, p 443-462

Interview with John Pilger, Vanessa Baird, New Internationalist, Dec 2010, Issue 438, p29-31

War & Media, Piers Robinson, Robin Brown, Peter Goddard and Katy Parry, Media Culture Society 2005 Vol 27, Issue 6, p 951-959

Books

A Century of Media, A Century of War, Robin Andersen, Peter Lang, 2006

Degraded Capability: The Media and the Kosovo Crisis, Edited by Philip Hammond and Edward Herman, Pluto Press, 2000

Flat Earth News, Nick Davies, Chatto & Windus, 2008, Ch 6: The Propaganda Puzzle, p 205-256

Guardians of Power – The Myth of the Liberal Media, David Edwards & David Cromwell, Pluto Press, 2006, Ch 5:Afghanistan– Let them eat grass, p 76-93 & Ch 11: Disciplined Media – Professional Conformity to Power, p172-187

Rogue State: A guide to the world’s only Superpower, William Blum, Zed Books, 2002

Televising War: FromVietnam to Iraq, Andrew Hoskins, Continuum, 2004

The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, Nick Turse, Metropolitan Books, 2008

The Best War Ever – Lies, Damned Lies, and the Mess inIraq, Sheldon Rampton & John Stauber, Penguin Books, 2006

The Big Chill: Investigative reporting in the current media environment, edited by Marilyn Greenwald & Joseph Bernt, Iowa State University Press, 2000

The Evolution of American Investigative Journalism, James Aucoin,UniversityofMissouriPress, 2005

The Great War for Civilisation – The Conquest of theMiddle East, Robert Fisk, 2005

The Journalism of Outrage: Investigative reporting and agenda building in America, David Protess & Fay Lomax Cook, Guilford Press, 1992

The New Rulers of the World, John Pilger, 2002

True Lies, AntonyLappe & Stephen Marshall, Penguin Books, 2004

War Lies & Videotape: How media monopoly stifles truth, edited by Lenora Foerstel, International Action Centre, 2000

Documentary

The War You Don’t See, John Pilger, ITV, 2010

Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, Robert Kennedy, Moxie Firecracker Films, 2007

Standard Operating Procedure, Errol Morris, Sony Pictures, 2008

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