Media coverage

The global transformations which occur at all levels of the society today tend to have an increasing impact on the developments of events, no matter the area of interest. One of the major consequences of the interdependent world is the change in waging wars. Indeed, the international scene has known a series of major political transformations in the last decade; however it is important to notice the immense role the media began to play in the overall assessment of a conflict situation. While in the past, history was being written in large parts on the basis of the information gathered and analyzed after the respective conflict had been pushed to an end, nowadays the events benefit from live analysis and wide all around coverage. Despite its obvious advantages, such an interactive view on an international armed crisis can have negative side- effects as well. These in turn encourage critics to point out the dual role the media often plays in determining the political courses of action in unfolding international events. Therefore, in most recent events, journalism has taken the place of historical coverage with both advantages and shortcomings. This is rather obvious in a practical analysis of the Persian Gulf War in comparison with the 2003 Iraqi War.

The turn of events and subsequent research proved that indeed, journalistic analysis can often be accredited with the revealing of breaking news and events, whereas historical research remains the foundation of the relevant factual reality.

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It is widely acknowledged the fact that the media has many functions, among which the role as a fast source of information. In most cases, politicians use it as reliable sources of data. The Persian Gulf War is considered to be the first representative situation in which applying the term “CNN war” is appropriate. The 1991 war acknowledged the power of CNN live media coverage. President Bush once affirmed that he, indeed, learned more from the CNN than from other means of information such as the CIA. Moreover, his Press Secretary observed that “in most of these kinds of international crises now, we virtually cut out the State Department and the desk officers…their reports are still important, but they don’t get here in time for the basic decisions to be made”[1]. A similar point is made by US Army War College Research Fellow Lieutenant Colonel Frank J. Stech who argues that “satellite television is irrevocably altering the ways governments deal with each other; particularly during times of crisis…everyone is seeing the same thing”[2] In this given situation CNN and CBC proved to be the means through which all the information became official and the data was available to all the segments of the public, be it military or the average tax payer. In a way, the media was allured to show the breach of the international law Saddam Hussein was accused of and eventually to create the state of legitimacy needed in order to begin a campaign against him. Thus, the UN dealing with the Iraqi crisis was given wide coverage and in certain cases there was a limited impartiality. [3]

On the surface, TV channels enjoyed a wide range of freedom in broadcasting from the battle field. However, as it was becoming more and more obvious that the deadline imposed to Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait was ineffective, the military also became aware of the possible negative impact such a wide media exposure would have to a possible military intervention. This is why the American politicians, and subsequently the American strategic operations high chiefs took into consideration the role of the media as agenda setting. According to Doris Graber, most politicians consider that negative or positive approach influence the agenda. Almost 16% of them see that positive coverage affects the media, while 33% see that negative approaches of a subject affect the agenda setting procedures. [4] Therefore, the obvious consequence was the restriction of access for the international correspondents in the war zone. It was a much more intimate affaire than that of the Vietnam War because those in command considered it to be imperative not to allow too much access to images which might shock the American public opinion in particular. Such a reaction would have lead to a withdrawal of support for the military campaign.  As Frank Steckel considers, “foreign policy by CNN may be psychologically satisfying but it is very dangerous. Our records of interventions provoked by guilt inducing pictures are an unhappy one” [5] however, this was indeed one of the parts of Saddam Hussein’s plan to discredit the humanitarian nature of the foreign intervention. He in his turn manipulated the media by pointing out to the international correspondents the bodies of the victims claimed to be the result of American air strikes.

This undecided attitude which the press initially adopted in the case of the Persian War is somewhat explained by Julian Baggini in “Making sense: Philosophy behind the headlines” when he underlines the big difference between what the media knows at one point and what in fact results in being the actual truth, one that is later on discovered and pieced together. Thus, he makes a distinction between the information a journalist knows at a given time, which is most often at least partially flawed or biased, and the official data one comes to know, after the tensions of the event had faded. [6]

However, the inaccurate or distorted media coverage of the Persian War was also caused by the acute censorship imposed by the military once the attacks began and the first casualties were recorded on the side of the Allied Forces. Most often, during the intervention, there was a constant reminder of the Vietnam War which at the time represented an unhealed wound for the American public opinion. This is why, “the censorship during the war ranged from the imposed constraints of pool coverage (A New York Times journalist was detained for interviewing local residents in a small border town in Saudi Arabia), to self-censorship like that imposed by the BBC which withdrew from their schedule programs which might have been considered insensitive or of questionable taste” [7].

The restrains imposed to journalists had another role as well. Because of the great desire to attract the interest of the viewers, each war correspondent tried to get as much insight into the story he was reporting as possible. It his attempts, he most often discovered either stories which did not coincide with the official version presented in the daily briefings or stories which in fact were cover ups for different unsuccessful military operations. This is the case of Peter Arnett, the CNN correspondent who found out that one of the military objectives targeted by the American forces was in fact a baby milk factory while the US officials insisted that it was a germ warfare factory.[8] This lack of corroboration of the information also pointed out that the reality was far different from what the official reports presented as being real.  The presence of Peter Arnett in the Iraqi capital was a source of reporting which focused greatly on the human damage the apparently perfect synchronized Western warfare caused among the civilians.

From this perspective, the historical analysis that followed the war would prove to be more relevant for a clear depiction of the situation present on the ground. In the beginning, figures expressing the casualties of the war varied from 100, 000 to an eventual 20, 000 military victims and 2,400 civilians. From the Americans, the estimate figure is 148 soldiers killed in action and 458 wounded[9]. Still, according to media coverage at the time, the death toll would have seemed much larger; the emotional impact was indeed an important factor in determining the strength of the support for the actions undertaken by the Allied Forces.

Concerning the case of the first Gulf war, it can be briefly concluded that there is a certain inadequacy concerning the media coverage and the actual events that took place during those days. On the one hand, the media was give, up to a point, the freedom to express the realities surrounding the atrocities and violence in Iraq and later in Kuwait; on the other hand however, it was somewhat manipulated and its access to information even reduced to daily briefings held by Pentagon officials and other members of the commanding military and interviews taken under strict military surveillance. In these conditions, it was only natural for the press to lose part of its efficiency and capability of accurate and unbiased coverage. This was obvious when studies and research were conducted which revealed a different side of the entire conflict, one which did not coincide with the image portrayed by the TV channels.

The situation with the 2003 Gulf war is different however. From one point of view, the media had an in even more intense role to play, as the technological achievements in this field widely surpassed the technical capabilities of the early 90’s. Still, the media had more access to information and to divergent public opinions. This may be the result of the split support fir the US intervention in Iraq, unlike the previous case in which the majority agreed with the UN backed military operations. Nonetheless, there is also controversy that the media was manipulated in order to rally support in favor of the 2003 interventions. Unlike Operation Desert storm, there is a greater discrepancy between the officially presented side of the story and the subsequent information surfaced as a result of continuous research from those opposing the war.

From the very beginning, the coverage of the intervention was based on a much more skeptical attitude from the part of the broadcasters. Even if they did proved to be impartial in presenting, for instance, Colin Powell’s United Nations presentation of the US’s position in regard to the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction[10] CNN also hosted a series of debates and controversial argumentations, in order to try to present as much as the possible all the sides of the story. Even more, it created a special online section dedicated to the matter, in which it addressed both technical and theoretical issues surrounding the evolution of the war.[11]

Moreover, there was a wider network of broadcasting channels, as Oliver Boyd-Barrett points out “during the First Gulf War, the most important sources of news were the networks, and CNN’s cable and satellite services. Since that time, CNN has been joined by Fox News and MSNBC, and in terms of popularity these have overtaken the traditional networks as news sources” [12]

But news channels have been used in this context more as a propaganda tool for promoting the republican ideas for waging the war on terror. The media in this case has been the channel trough which the American public opinion most importantly was convinced of the justified motivation for waging war against another sovereign country. The famous footages of the 9/11 attacks on the WTC have even been used in the beginning of each news bulletin dealing with the imminent US led intervention in Iraq. From this point of view, there was a general consensus that “the rationale for invasion related to the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, and the Administration’s perceived need to protect the U.S. in particular, and the world in general from further such attacks.”[13] However, the author goes on to point out the lack of conclusive evidence in support of the intervention in Iraq, “No conclusive evidence was ever provided that the regime of Saddam Hussein was in any way involved with the attacks of 9-11, but those attacks became a pretext for intensification of U.S. aggression against Iraq” Therefore, the media was used to soften the public opinion by arguing the case of moral justice and the defense of the national territory and integrity.

The emerging situation in Iraq leads to a different unfolding of events. As the war is being continued, more and more critics present their point of view. Despite their somewhat differing arguments, they all relate to the lack of information and findings which the US led coalition is facing nowadays.  This makes journalists to consider that “The invasion and conquest of Iraq by the United States last spring was the result of what is probably the least ambiguous case of the misreading of secret intelligence information in American history (…)”[14] He goes n to add that in fact the public opinion was misled into believing the arguments presented by the American officials without proper evidence.

Opponents of the Bush Administration strongly underline the deficiencies in argumentation of the war in Iraq. In the beginning however, it was very unlikely for evidence supporting a refusal to go to war to be acquired and thus to build a stronger case opposing it. This is why, there were few questions asked once Colin Powell’s presentation took place at the UN. Nonetheless, years later and after much research there are certain truths that begin to dismiss the actual unverifiable evidence presented in the beginning. One of the most active and prolific voices against the Bush Administration’s initiative, Seymour Hersh, argues against the authenticity of the information presented to the public by considering that the Iraq intervention is just one phase in a wider and more complex scheme involving in the end the change of regimes in the Middle East. He points out that “Despite the deteriorating security situation in Iraq, the Bush Administration has not reconsidered its basic long-range policy goal in the Middle East: the establishment of democracy throughout the region.”[15] In supporting his point of view, Hersh even cited one high level official who agreed that “This is a war against terrorism, and Iraq is just one campaign. The Bush Administration is looking at this as a huge war zone (…) Next, we’re going to have the Iranian campaign. We’ve declared war and the bad guys wherever they are, is the enemy”[16] Therefore there is a certain degree of criticism which is constantly questioning the actions and reactions of the military and political officials in regard to the war in Iraq.

A critical eye on the situation may in many cases lead to the reconsideration of many aspects which up to a point were taken as being real. In the case of the 2003 Gulf War, the situation is quite similar. While in the early days of the intervention the information was not very clear, today, there are voices who doubt the eventual success of the campaign. Among them, one of the most representative figures of the pro side, Donald Rumsfeld, manifests his concerns when thinking of the final outcome of the American intervention. “”Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror (…)”Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?”[17]

In the light of the information that is constantly reshaping the media environment, the success is no longer that obvious and the role of the historians in gathering background information and data, in analyzing possible scenarios and eventual perspectives in the region becomes crucial for the decision making bodies. Such actions cannot be undergone by the media because these sorts of studies do not represent, aside from a few exceptions, breaking news stories and are therefore reduced in terms of public interest. One such report made by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London pointed out that the situation on he ground in Iraq is quite different from the one presented both by the media and by the politicians who support the war effort especially in the US. According to one report issued in May 2006 and cited by Jim Lobe, “”A rump leadership (of al Qaeda) is still intact and over 18,000 potential terrorists are at large with recruitment accelerating on account of Iraq”[18] Therefore, a close analysis done with a critical eye and from a rather objective perspective based on information gathered from mature and accredited sources point out to a different reality than that represented by the media or by the politicians who use the media in order to communicate their message to the voters, as Lobe concludes  that “Bush and his top aides never cease to remind nervous voters” the fact that “some 70 percent of al Qaeda’s leadership from the time of the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks has been killed or captured”.[19]

Even if there is this cohabitation between the media coverage and the historical support, there is still the matter of the independence of the media as part of the improvement of this relationship. Most often, the media fails to report the news is an objective manner because it is, one way or another, dependent on a certain pole of power or influence.[20] In response to such allegations, a number of respected media channels have adopted the format of “balanced coverage” which was visible even in the recent 2003 war. “Apprehending that coverage of events inevitably can have a point of view, editors and producers typically create news and commentary formats in which a single event is reported and interpreted by two opposing perspectives (…) Editors and producers can make a perfunctory nod toward the complexity of discovering the truth by showing contrasting- with “balanced”- points of view[21]. Thus, a more independent media would ensure a more correct representation of the truth. However, it cannot replace the historical perspective on events, as the latter is based on a more solid basis.

All in all, it could be concluded that media coverage plays a major role in shaping public opinion and in reorganizing and repositioning of information in such a way as to serve different interests. On the other hand, the historical perspective on events has proven to be in fact more reliable and less influenced by external factors. Still, it would be important to reconsider both approaches and to adopt a stand which would include both of them in the service of finding out the truth and presenting it as accurate as possible to the public.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

Baggini, Julian Making sense: Philosophy behind the Headlines. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002, 17-27

Barrett, Oliver Boyd. “Imperial News and the New Imperialism” in Third World Resurgence.

2003. http://www.globalpolicy.org/empire/media/2003/06newimperialism.htm

CBC Archives. 1990. United Nations sanctions use of force. http://archives.cbc.ca/IDC-1-71-

593-3109/conflict_war/gulf_war/clip4.

CNN War. 1998. http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/27a/054.html

Essays on Strategy XII, Institute for International Studies, Ed by John N. Petrie. Washington DC: National Defense University Press, 1994, p. 236.

Graber, Doris. Media, Power in Politics. Washington: Congressional Quarterly, 1994, p. 327.

Hersh, Seymour. “The coming wars. What the Pentagon can now do in secret”, in The New Yorker. 2005. http://www.newyorker.com/printables/fact/050124fa_fact

Lobe, Jim. Three Years On, War on Terrorism Looks Like a Loser Analysis. 2004.

http://ipsnews.net/interna.asp?idnews=25437

Mermin, Jonathan. The Media’s Independence Problem. N.d. www.ciaonet.org.

Powers, Thomas. “The Vanishing Case for War”, in New York Review of Books. 2003.

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/article-preview?article_id=16813

Rai, Ajai K. “Conflict Situations and the Media: A Critical Look” in Strategic Analysis:

A Monthly Journal of the IDSA 2000. http://www.ciaonet.org/olj/sa/sa_jun00raa01.html

Steckel, Frank J., “Preparing for more CNN Wars”, in Essays on Strategy XII, Washington DC: Institute for International Studies 1994, p 256 p 256

War Tracker. 2003. CNN War in Iraq. http://edition.cnn.com/SPECIALS/2003/iraq/index.html

The Persian Gulf War. 2006. The History Guy. http://www.historyguy.com/GulfWar.html

Transcript of Powell’s U.N. presentation. 2003. CNN War in Iraq. http://www.cnn.com/2003/US/02/05/sprj.irq.powell.transcript/

Walon, Frank. In service of the truth and the common good: the impact of the media on global peace and conflict. N.d. www.ciaonet.org

 

[1] Essays on Strategy XII, Institute for International Studies, Ed by John N. Petrie, (Washington DC: National Defense University Press 1994), p. 236.
[2] CNN War. 1998. http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/27a/054.html
[3] CBC Archives. 1990.United Nations sanctions use of force. http://archives.cbc.ca/IDC-1-71-593-3109/conflict_war/gulf_war/clip4
[4] Doris Graber, Media, Power in Politics:, (Washington: Congressional Quarterly  1994), p. 327.
[5] Frank J. Steckel, Preparing for more CNN Wars, in Essays on Strategy XII, Washington DC: Institute for International Studies 1994, p 256.
[6] Julian Baggini, Making sense: Philosophy behid the Headlines. (New York: Oxford Univfersity Press, 2002), 17-27
[7] Ajai K Rai. “Conflict Situations and the Media: A Critical Look” in Strategic Analysis:

A Monthly Journal of the IDSA 2000. http://www.ciaonet.org/olj/sa/sa_jun00raa01.html
[8] idem
[9] The Persian Gulf War. 2006. The History Guy. http://www.historyguy.com/GulfWar.html
[10] Transcript of Powell’s U.N. presentation. 2003. CNN War in Iraq. http://www.cnn.com/2003/US/02/05/sprj.irq.powell.transcript/
[11] War Tracker. 2003. CNN War in Iraq. http://edition.cnn.com/SPECIALS/2003/iraq/index.html
[12] Oliver Boyd-Barrett.  “Imperial News and the New Imperialism” in Third World Resurgence.

2003. http://www.globalpolicy.org/empire/media/2003/06newimperialism.htm
[13] idem
[14] Thomas Powers. “The Vanishing Case for War”, in New York Review of Books.  2003.

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/article-preview?article_id=16813
[15] Seymour Hersh. “The coming wars. What the Pentagon can now do in secret”, in The New Yorker. 2005. http://www.newyorker.com/printables/fact/050124fa_fact
[16] Idem
[17] Jim Lobe. Three Years On, War on Terrorism Looks Like a Loser Analysis. 2004.

http://ipsnews.net/interna.asp?idnews=25437
[18] idem
[19] idem
[20] Jonathan Mermin. The Media’s Independence Problem. N.d. www.ciaonet.org
[21]. Frank Walon In service of the truth and the common good: the impact of the media on global peace and conflict. N.d. www.ciaonet.org

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