Natalie Alcoba looks at how the media acts as a never-ending barrage of information bombs to bolster the homefront.
It is late Friday night and Larry King is staring pensively out of the television scree. As if leading a family discussion, he chats with CNN viewers about American military action in Afghanistan, filtering questions through to his two suit-clad guests versed in military and government affairs.
One caller asks if the government knows whether Osama bin Laden is still in Afghanistan. The bespectacled man says the intelligence agencies have been tracking his movements and reminds the viewer that the long-term goal is to eliminate the terrorist network, al-Qaeda. This support is echoed by the other guest, who then reassures the caller that bin Laden is in Afghanistan.
Two versions of the same answer. Have no fear, faithful viewers, your government knows what it is doing. And it is right.
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. have unleashed an American retaliatory mission that, as president George W. Bush has put it, vows not to rest until the “perpetrators are brought to justice.”
But away from the rough terrain of Afghanistan there is another battle underway. This is the propaganda war, where a homogeneous message has made the task of getting all sides of any story struggle.
Propaganda is defined as the organized dissemination of information to further or impede a government’s or other agency’s agenda.
It is a message, and the media are the messengers.
The last few weeks have seen a steady stream of pro-government media propaganda and little tolerance of any criticism. From CNN to Al Jazeera, the message put forth by mainstream media has become one sided.
Media critics say audiences need to actively seek out other sources, alternative sources, to read or hear more than one point of view. One source is simply not enough.
“Saying the media has propaganda is like saying the air has molecules,” says Vince Carlin, chair of Ryerson’s school of journalism.
“The media is a method of transmitting messages from various groups, whether it’s OCAP or the Liberal party,” he says. It transmits propaganda daily through its coverage of government actions and announcements. But during times of military action, governments depend on the influence of news organizations to rally an maintain the public support necessary to keep up the campaign, says Carlin. That seldom leaves room for discussion or debate.
“What [the media are] supposed to do is bring other information that might support other views.”
So far, there has been little dissent in American coverage.
“We see in the U.S. media what seems to be a consensus of supporting the government, no matter what,” says Carlin.
“Anybody who has diverged from the line that this is God’s work hasn’t survived very long.”
Bill Maher, host of ABC’ss Politically Incorrect, was forced to swallow his words after he criticized the morality of the military campaign on his first show after the Sept. 11 attacks.
“We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away: that’s cowardly,” Maher said. “Staying in the airplane when it hits the building – say what you want about it – that’s not cowardly.”
The day after the show, FedEx and Sears Roebuck pulled their advertising in protest and as many as 17 TV stations had dropped the program before Maher apologized.
Dan Guthrie from the Daily Courier in Oregon and Tom Gutting from the Texas City Sun said they were fired for criticizing President Bush’s initial retreat to safety in Nebraska the day of the attacks. The list goes on.
“The mass media have clearly not taken it as a mandate to provide objective reporting,” says Gary McCarron, who teaches the history of media at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. He says there has been an increasing division between mainstream media – entities which are owned and funded by corporations – and alternative media that exist without advertising dollars and largely rely on volunteers.
“They [mainstream media] are not there to ruffle any feathers, or at least to ruffle them just enough to make semblance of objectivity,” he says. McCarron attributes this to news groups being swallowed up by even bigger corporations: NBC falls under Genral Electric’s umbrella, ABC Networks is owned by Disney, CNN is run by AOL Time Warner and Fox News Channel is a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.
But propaganda in the media is not a phenomenon exclusive to Western culture. Sajjad Wasti, a fourth-year business management student came to Toronto from Pakistan three years ago. He frequently logs on to Pakistani news organizations including www.dawn.com and www.jang-group.com for current events.
The 23 year-old says media outlets in Pakistan are also used as propaganda machines to further the state agenda.
But contrary to the American focus on military action, major English dailies in Pakistan are highlighting the effect of this action, reporting the early casualties of what many fear to be the a long term battle. “They inform about the Taliban perspective,” says Wasti. He adds that news organizations report on the effect of the bombing campaign without reporting the regime.
“There is a major difference between how both of them define the world affairs,” he says, minutes after watching a Lebanese newscast online at www.manartv.com. The top item on the broadcast was about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. That same item was third or fourth in the CNN lineup, he says.
John Morton, a Canadian History teacher at The Student School, an alternative school in Toronto, engages his class in discussions about news coverage. Students look at the use of language and symbols in corporate media and analyze the weight allotted to any given story – where it appears in the lineup of a newscast or how prominently its placed in a newspaper.
“Corporate media are broadcasting a government message, a capitalist message for the most part,” says Morton.
“Anything that has to do with civilians [in Afghanistan] being killed is not upfront in the news and to some degree it’s hidden,” said Morton.
He brings alternative magazines such as Canadian Dimension and Extra to his class for analysis.
“Alternative media is asking people to look at history, to look at foreign policy, to look at who has a vested interest [in a war] and to look at what the results are going to be,” he says. “They show us perspectives that we might not have been made familiar with.”
“If the first casualty of war is truth, the second casualty is language, the use and misuse of language,” says Carlin. “It is in the interest of those trying to maintain political support [to call it a war] and the press can be very useful in supporting that.”
Morton agrees that the language used to describe the conflict is inaccurate. “This has been defined as war and is being called war because it’s a much easier sell,” he says.
This is not the first time Morton has brought discourse about modern day propaganda into his classroom. The veteran teacher co-founded Educators for Peace and Justice. The group was created 10 years ago during the Gulf War by Toronto-area teachers who wanted to expose their students to more than just the mainstream message. Morton says American and Kuwaiti mass media made that war a fight for democracy when in fact, a lot of it had to do with access to oil supplies.
“We wanted to try and get the word out to people that there were really good reasons to be opposed to the war,” he says. The group play dormant for years, but was brought back to life after the events of Sept. 11.
Morton is quick to note that not every magazine or news story is driven by a government’s propaganda machine.
And so far, Canadian media have been relatively successful in giving viewers a more detached perspective on government action at home and overseas, says McCarron.
“Canada has done a better job at providing more balanced coverage and the historical context that explains the situation in Afghanistan.” he says. “Even my American colleagues want to turn to the CBC to get more balanced reporting.”
Evidently, the potpourri of information outlets at the public’s disposal has made it more clear where the onus lies to find balanced coverage – on the viewer.
“We live in a consumer culture that teaches us to be passive. We’re meant to sit back and absorb,” says Alex Lisman, RyeSAC’s v.p. education. He says audiences need to actively seek out alternate sources of information.
McCarron, however, is not that quick to put all the responsibility on the viewer. He says other factors, such as time and money, affect access to alternate sources of information, many of which are only found on the internet. “To say its their [the audience’s] responsibility is problematic because you have to ask ‘can people afford the source of alternative media?'” He adds that in general, access to alternative media is limited. The lack of advertising dollars to create a cushy budget makes mass distribution practically impossible.
“Mainstream media has always been used by those in a position of power to define a frame of reference,” says Lisman who prefers to get his dose of current events from sites such as www.rabble.ca or www.indymedia.org. Still, he acknowledges that alternative media too presents a skewed message. “All media is propaganda and it’s better to claim that than to claim objectivity.”
And McCarron says straying from the mainstream message shouldn’t be equated with anti-American rhetoric.
“Even though these are alternative voices, it doesn’t mean they’re lined up against the U.S,” he says. “They’re just giving both sides.”