War as Spectacle

Rehashing seminar papers does not always produce a stimulating book, but the one under review is an exception. Based on research papers originally written for a symposium, War and the Media: Reporting Conflict 24/7, edited by Daya Kishan Thussu and Des Freedman (Sage Publications, 2003), offers 19 essays, most of them lucid and perceptive. A melding of wisdom from theoreticians and practitioners, it explores themes that cut to the bone of the billion-dollar, high-tech industry that media have become. And even though most of the essays here were written before the Iraq invasion, they do not sound dated, because the imminence of the conflict was incorporated into the final draft.

Given how central the media are to the representation of conflict worldwide, there are many questions that bear asking. Which conflicts get covered and why? Despite heading the list in terms of deaths, the wars in Congo, Sudan, Angola, and Algeria are comparatively invisible in terms of the coverage they merit. Radicalized Islam, however, has replaced communism as the pre-eminent threat to Western interests and therefore represents the new global enemy for the countries in which the major media networks originate.

Mainstream media assume three kinds of roles in communicating conflict: critical observer, publicist, and battleground. The last is because it is the surface upon which war is imagined and executed. The editors of this volume ask whether media proliferation really fuels the watchdog role of the media in times of conflict. Does competition make you seek out more, does truth become a commodity in the era of rolling news? Or does war reportage primarily have public-relations value?

Correspondents are more likely to publicize and reinforce official sources on which reporters choose to depend, says one of the analysts writing here. Mainstream media reproduce the framework of political and military leaders. Media manipulation is one component of the U.S.-led imperial initiative. The media are likely to privilege and publicize official versions of conflicts, and examples are cited to prove the point.

But in fairness to the profession, that is only one side of the argument. The other is that technology makes it possible for journalists to capture more of the direct action, convey more real-time footage, and therefore become far more vulnerable than they were before.

In an essay in the section titled “Journalists Under Fire,” Nick Gowing shows how the new technologies that make it possible for journalists to bear witness immediately also end up endangering their lives more than before. Citing the example of the Italian photographer who was shot dead in Ramallah because an Israeli tank opened fire when he pulled out his video camera, Gowing says the International Press Institute has found that such attacks are part of a concerted strategy by the Israeli army to control reports on the recent surge in armed hostilities in the region. He also says warplane pilots now have a category of threat, called the threat of the media, which they have learned to respond to. Such as a videophone from a front-line trench that is beaming up inconvenient real-time details about fighting and targeting.

So the news content has changed, and with that comes the scrutiny of how much high-tech warfare reporting achieves. Does it tell you more about why wars are being fought? Gowing says that getting the picture out in-stantly does not improve your ability to answer the questions how and why. And focus-group discussions with consumers of coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by the Glasgow University Media Group demonstrate that relentless, action-packed war coverage does little to improve public understanding of the issues at stake.

Anchors and reporters alike spend remarkably little time explaining. Sept. 11, of course, has been a watershed in conflict reporting, creating a new category of urban war correspondent and affecting the journalist’s own psyche deeply. Should he line up for the country, like Dan Rather of CBS News, or strive to explain why America is being targeted?

This is the second major book to emerge on what Sept. 11 has done to journalism (see Journalism After September 11, ed. Barbie Zelizer and Stuart Allan, Routledge, 2002) and the first one setting out, among other things, to look at how trauma shapes the news and the emergence of media fundamentalism.

One of the more seminal contributions in the volume under review is the chapter on the growing creative links between Hollywood and the Pentagon. There is a “militainment nexus,” a formal collaboration proposed between the defense and entertainment industries on modeling and simulation technology, an institute for creative technology set up with grants from the U.S. military, and an increasing range of series that celebrate conflict and futuristic weapons systems. The book suggests that we rethink media research agendas to incorporate the hidden aspect of entertainment.

The editors teach at the Media and Communications Department of Goldsmiths College, University of London.