Media and War: Bringing It All Back Home
(Keynote address at the "Media and War" symposium,
University at Buffalo, 17-18 November, 2003)
I want to take a moment to consider the two words the pairing of
which occasions this symposium: war and media.
"War" seems easy enough to define or delimit. Most of the things we
call "wars" could be described as a state of belligerence between two
entities, or a campaign a large entity wages against a condition it
perceives as systemically harmful.
Corporations have price wars. Countries have wars for territory or
natural resources. Portions of a country war against other portions of
the same country over ideas, over religion, over race, over property.
The U.S. government has in recent years fought what it termed wars
against AIDs, drug abuse, poverty, illiteracy and terrorism. Each of
those wars has budgets, legislation, offices, officials,
letterhead--everything necessary in a bureaucracy to tell you something
War is grounded in the notion of triumph and defeat. It is zero-sum.
Germany and Japan ended WWII by agreeing to surrender
unconditionally, after which we rewarded them by helping them
reestablish the industrial bases we had recently destroyed.
The war in Korea ended with all parties agreeing to go back to where
they were before the war started. The war in Vietnam ended with a truce,
which let the US detach itself, after which the North Vietnamese
finished what had started however many years earlier.
All wars end with somebody winning and somebody losing, or nobody
winning or losing.
The meaning of the term "Media" depends on who's using it.
To a biologist, "media" is the stuff bug cultures grow in. Perhaps
you remember"agar-agar" in high school biology with which you grew
bacteria colonies in a Petri dish. To a computer engineer or librarian,
"media" is devices that store and transmit information: discs, cables,
University departments of Media Study study media, but only selected
kinds. None of them studies bacterial cultures or the ways electronic
signals are transmitted or the magnetic and optical methods for
preserving information. Few Media Study departments study soap operas,
print journalism, theatrical movies, blogs, email, radio, billboards,
broadcast news, or the world wide web. Some of that work in the
university is done by English departments, journalism departments,
communications departments. Most of it isn't done at all. We just don't
spend much time looking at those behaviors, at what media people do and
what might be the meaning of what they do.
For a symposium such as this, I would take the term "media" to
include, at a minimum: print journalism, broadcast and cable journalism,
web journalism, network docudrama, the web itself, email, and artistic
and documentary renditions of war-related material of various kinds that
use any of those media as raw materials.
A few years ago, books would have had no place in a discussion of the
media and war because they took so long to appear--a year from
typescript to book on the shelf was not uncommon. But how can we talk of
the media and the Jessica Lynch saga, say, without including the book
ghost-written for her by a disgraced ex-New York Times reporter that was
published a week ago today and which got huge coverage in the November
17 Time magazine? (The cover of which featured a close-up cover picture
of her that bore an uncanny resemblance to porn star Traci Lords.)
Time and technology
Technology has changed the way book publishing works, as it has
changed everything else in the world of media. Books can now be on the
stands within days from delivery of a formatted manuscript, and often
are. The authors' introduction in Embedded, an interesting collection of
oral histories done last summer with reporters who worked in this year's
war in Iraq, is datelined September 2003; I got a hardback copy from
<Amazon.Com> in early October 2003.
In World War II, it could be weeks before a war photographer's images
reached a newspaper's pages. In Vietnam, videotape from reporters in the
field had to be flown back to the US for broadcast. Rolls of 35mm film
shot by Associated Press photographers were sent to Saigon for
developing, prints were selected by editors there, then sent by radio
signal (15 minutes per image) to Japan, and then sent on to editors in
the US and London by undersea cable and landline.
There were no wires needed in Iraq. Video was sent to stateside
editors via satellite, and reporters were able to go on camera live.
Most photographers used Nikon or Canon digital, not film cameras, so
there were no rolls of film needing developing and printing. The sent
their pictures to their editors in the US from wherever they were, using
a a laptop and a BGAN satellite phone. The editor of Getty Images said
he could have images on the wire to clients 15 minutes after they were
uploaded to the satellite by the photographer in the Iraq desert.
All governments in all wars have used all the means at their disposal
to put their own motives, decisions and actions, and the actions of
their military forces, in the best possible light. They have likewise
used all the means at their disposal to put the motives, decisions and
actions of their opponents and their opponents' military forces in the
worst possible light.
For governments at war, the media is an instrument of war or an
element in war that is to be controlled. When the US press was dutifully
reporting false information from the military about their success
shooting down Scud missiles in the Gulf War, "then-Secretary of Defense
Dick Cheney said, 'I do not look on the press as an asset. Frankly, I
look on it as a problem to be managed." Dwight David Eisenhower, supreme
allied commander in Europe during World War II, famously said, "Public
opinion wins wars."
The media bring our wars home, but only rarely have they been able to
do it in complete freedom. In World Wars I and II, all news stories and
all photographs went through military censors. The WWI Sedition Act made
it a crime to disparage the government, and Woodrow Wilson imposed what
he called voluntary censorship on the press: they didn't have to sign
it, but if they didn't they wouldn't get any information or access.
In World War II, the military would not permit the American public to
see a photograph of a dead American soldier until 21 months after the
Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Germany's declaration of war against
the United States. At that point they decided pictures of dead soldiers
would help mobilize public opinion.
The press operated without government censorship or control the first
few months of the Korean War, which started June 25, 1950, but General
Douglas MacArthur disliked the gloomy stories appearing in American
newspapers about military disasters. He said people who wrote and
published those stories were "traitors" and in December 1950 he imposed
strict military censorship which continued through the end of the war
three years later.
Lyndon Johnson tried three times to get US government officials to
start censoring the media in Vietnam, but he got nowhere: officials
wouldn't do it. There were too many foreign journalists on the ground
who could not be controlled by the US, and the genie was already out of
His successors fared better: every US war between Vietnam and the
current war in Iraq was heavily censored. President's Reagan and Bush
the Elder ordered journalists kept out of Grenada, Panama, the first
Gulf War, and they were.
Vietnam is often called our only uncensored war, but that only means
that the government wasn't vetting the pictures and words. Governments
aren't the only censors. Writers and photographers will tell you that
editors and publishers are often frustrating and capricious gatekeepers.
Editors and publishers censor stories and images because of patriotic
feelings or political interests or because of their sense of the
public's taste. When reporters and photographers learn that certain
kinds of stories or images are unacceptable in the editorial suite, they
censor themselves. They stop filing or transmitting such stories and
In coverage of the Vietnam War, no bodies of dead Americans were
shown on US network television until the Tet offensive of 1968. The
absence of images of American dead the previous five years resulted from
media executives' choice, not the government's restrictions. Even after
they started showing bodies at Tet, gore was minimal. Gore is minimal
now. You have seen nothing on any television newscast that gives you any
idea what war does to human bodies.
Both of our wars in Iraq were, on American television, largely
bloodless. They came across as performance space for media stars, the
punched-out phrases of Wolf Blitzer, in whose reports all items of
information had exactly the same weight, the same value, and all
violence was small and at a distance. They were often more like computer
games than people killing people.
The media is not at all homogeneous in the way it tells us about war.
Philip Knightley writes in his classic study of the press at war, The
First Casualty, about New York Times reporter Harrison E. Salisbury, the
"first correspondent from a major United States newspaper to go to North
Vietnam." Salisbury described what it was like seeing US planes drop
bombs on civilian targets in Hanoi in 1966. "The Pentagon called him 'Ho
Chi Salisbury of the Hanoi Times.' The Washington Post ...said the
Salisbury was Ho Chi Minh's new weapon in the war.... The Pulitzer Prize
jury recommended him for a prize by a vote of four to one, but the
Pulitzer Advisory Board rejected the recommendation by six votes to
Lately, there have been rumblings of increasing friction between the
US military and the press in Iraq. The Baghdad briefer turned away a
journalist's question last week saying, "I refuse to answer a morbid
What else is there in war other than morbid questions?
The daily press, the immediate media, is superb at synecdoche, at
giving us a small thing that stands for a much larger thing. Reporters
on the ground, embedded or otherwise, can tell us about or send us
pictures of what happened in that place at that time among those people.
The overarching theory rationalizing the great expense and effort that
goes into those little stories is they somehow give us access to the big
story, the big picture, what is really going on. Otherwise, they are of
no more importance or interest than, say a story about an RV wreck in
Montana, a tenement fire in Chicago, a homicide in Boston or Buffalo.
One story among an infinitude of other stories.
But synecdoche works only if the part really does stand for the
whole. And that is something you often cannot know until long after the
In an eloquent description of what he saw in the assault on Omaha
Beach in Normandy in June 1944, the event that marked the beginning of
the final Allied assault against Nazi Germany, correspondent Morley
Safer (in the recent PBS documentary "Reporting America at War")
described what he saw as an disaster, a slaughter that accomplished
little. Most of his fellow correspondents who took part in the landing
thought the same. The military brass, Safer said, claimed otherwise,
that the operation was a huge success. And, that time, Safer said, the
brass was in fact correct. The D-Day landing on the French coast was a
huge success. When you're there, Safer said, "this is all you see." And
he put his hands next to his face, like a horse's blinders, and
projected his hands out, marking a long, narrow trapezoid of restricted
Media's attention span
War is big and there are only so many reporters and only so many
places for their words and images to appear. Choices are made
What makes a story a story? The day he takes over The Enquirer,
Charles Foster Kane, protagonist of Orson Welles's Citizen Kane, looks
at the competition paper, the Chronicle, and says to the editor he is
about to fire, "The "Chronicle" has a two-column headline, Mr. Carter.
Why haven't we?"
"There is no news big enough," Carter says..
"If the headline is big enough," Kane says, "it makes the news big
Sometimes a story changes the way the media deal with other stories.
After the My Lai story broke, wrote Philip Knightley in The First
Casualty, "the media, especially in the United States, decided that the
war was all but over. The amount of space and time devoted to it began
decline....In 1968, at the height of the Tet offensive, there were 637
accredited correspondents [in Saigon]; in 1969, 467; in 1970, 392; in
1971, 355; in 1972, 295. By mid-1974, only thirty-five correspondents
remained, mostly American and Japanese. All the correspondents I have
spoken with who were in Vietnam during this period remarked that it
became noticeably more difficult, from 1969 on, to get their stories
used. ABC and NBC both told their Saigon staffs and free-lancers in that
year that the story would now be the negotiations in Paris and that film
footage from Vietnam should be angled to the withdrawal of the American
Perhaps the seven key media moments from the Vietnam war were these:
CBS reporter Morley Safer's story from a village south of Da Nang where
US troops torched 150 houses while the villagers huddled in terror;
Walter Cronkite's personal note during the 1968 Tet offensive saying
that the war was lost and it was time to negotiate; Eddie Adams's
photograph of the Saigon police chief shooting to death a suspected
Vietcong on the streets of Saigon; Nick Ut's photograph of a 9-year-old
girl running down a road, her skin burnt off by napalm; Malcolm Browne's
photograph of a Buddhist monk who had just set himself afire to protest
the war; Seymour Hersh's My Lai articles; and Ronald Haeberle's
photographs of the My Lai massacre that subsequently appeared in Life
Safer said of his village burning story:"This wouldn't have happened
in World War II, or if it happened it wouldn't have been photographed,
and if it had been photographed it would have been censored."
Which suggests something about media and war: it's not just that
events happen and the media documents and presents them. There is a
third element: what the public is ready to accept, what the public wants
to know. It is not at all clear how much the media influences public
opinion and how much public opinion influences the media.
The US military still blames the media for stories and images that
turned the American public against the war in Vietnam. But many media
historians say it's the other way around: the stories were there all
along, but the media didn't start using them until public opinion had
shifted because of the increasing cost in American lives.
The Army's trial in 1969 of Lieutenant William Calley, who oversaw
the massacre of an entire village by his company of infantry on March
16, 1968, was virtually ignored by the American press. What happened in
that village came to light only because Washington-based free-lance
investigative reporter Seymour Hersh heard about it and wrote about it.
Nobody would take his stories. Then his next-door neighbor, who ran a
small wire service, agreed to put them out. At first, hardly any paper
was willing to touch them. Then, perhaps because of increasing public
dislike for the war after the 1968 Tet offensive, public interest grew.
The media followed the public. Hersh's stories got more play, Life
magazine published Ron Haeberle's photographs. My Lai went into our
The University of Maryland's Program on International Policy
Attitudes and Knowledge Networks, Misperceptions, the Media and the Iraq
War did seven separate nationwide polls between January and September
2003. They found that Americans have major misperceptions about the Iraq
war, and that the degree of misperception and support for the war
correlated closely with which television station they watched most.
"Those who primarily watch Fox News are significantly more likely to
have misperceptions, while those who primarily listen to NPR or watch
PBS are significantly less likely."
What the study could not determine was whether the watchers of Fox
supported the war because of the misinformation they got from Fox or if
they watched Fox because it presented the information they wanted to see
and hear. I'd bet on both: the media is making choices all the time, and
so are we.
The padded crotch -mission accomplished aircraft carrier landing
I just mentioned several key media moments in the Vietnam War,
moments that either influenced public opinion or provided images for
what the public was thinking.
The two key American media moments in Iraq II were very different.
Both were absurd: the coverage of Bush's "Mission Accomplished" landing
on the carrier Abraham Lincoln and the Jessica Lynch saga.
On May 2, 2003, an S-3B jet with President George W. Bush in the
second seat landed on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln. Buch got out of
the plane on the side away from the camera, where he took off his helmet
and had his hair combed. He came around the front of the plane, smiling
in a body-fitting flight suit, the pilot's helmet tucked under his arm.
He looked all the world like a dashing young hero. He walked through a
lane of saluting deckhands in color-coordinated uniforms (yellow, green,
purple, red) strutted across the deck, and later made a speech about
this day marking the end of the major combat in Iraq. Behind and above
him, draped across the front of the ship's bridge, was a huge banner
that read "Mission Accomplished."
The Abraham Lincoln? Well, if you were the world's new Great
Emanicpator which aircraft carrier would you choose to give your victory
speech? The only things missing were the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing
"Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "Let My People Go."
CNN played the landing and strutting again and again and again. It
was on all the evening broadcast news programs, even "The NewsHour" on
PBS. It was great theater. The pundits said that evening and on the
Sunday morning talk shows that it would surely provide powerful images
for the Bush reelection campaign.
But then it unraveled, and another medium was largely responsible for
it: writers on the web began pointing out that the last time Bush had
been in the cockpit of a jet fighter was just before he went AWOL for
the final year of the National Guard hitch that kept him out of Vietnam.
They didn't just say it, they provided documents to prove it. And that
when all that great theater happened on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln
the ship was only 39 miles off San Diego--which meant he could have made
the trip just as quickly by helicopter. And that the huge carrier had
been positioned so it would show open sea behind the president rather
than the clearly visible San Diego coastline you saw if you turned your
The landing quickly became a skit on "Saturday Night Live"; it was
hugely popular and has been rebroadcast several times. As the deaths in
Iraq continued to mount, the "mission accomplished" banner became more
and more embarrassing. A few weeks ago, the White House press officer
disclaimed responsibility for it, saying that Bush's media team had
nothing to do with the banner, that it was the sailors' idea. Apparently
that didn't sit well with the crew of the Abraham Lincoln: someone
leaked that the the White House had manufactured the banner and
delivered it to the ship.
It is unlikely we'll be seeing much footage of Carrier Pilot George
in the campaign. It's too easily ridiculed and satirized.
The Mission Accomplished Carrier Landing was perhaps perfect example
of the media finding itself pressed in government service--in this case
not pursuit of the war, but a political campaign. What they told us was
news turned out to be an infomercial.
The Jessica Lynch saga
The Jessica Lynch saga, like the EverReady Bunny, keeps going and
going and going.
In an article on the Index on Censorship web site, Nicholas von
Hoffman pointed out that when peace demonstrator Rachel Corrie was
killed by a bulldozer operator in Gaza it "was a one-day story. She
might as well have been a suicide bomber. In contrast there is Private
Jessica Lynch, the wounded soldier rescued from her fiendish Iraqi
captors by the derring-do of the night-raiding US Army Rangers who
braved death to snatch this young woman to safety.
"Thanks to the foresight of the military, an army TV cameraman was
brought along lest these heroic doings go unrecorded. For several days
afterwards Jessica and her friends dominated all the US news channels.
It remained for Canada's Toronto Star to discover that there were no
guards preventing Private Lynch from leaving the hospital, only a group
of non-fiendish Iraqi medics doing their best to heal her wounds. The
paper wrote that 'the so-called daring rescue was essentially a
Los Angeles Times, the business was ignored by the mass media."
"Once back in this country," said Daniel Schor on "All Things
Considered" on November 10, "Pfc. Lynch became a hot-ticket item for the
media. Every news executive sought to become embedded in her
adventure....Jessica Lynch will be all over the media in coming weeks,
interviewed by Diane Sawyer on ABC, Katie Couric on NBC, the David
Letterman show and much, much more, as they say in the television
"In her ABC interview, Pfc. Lynch says the military used her capture
and rescue to sway public support for the Iraq war. With mounting
casualties in Iraq and mounting doubts about the war, the creation of a
heroic icon could not have come at a better time for the military. Pfc.
Lynch is making a great contribution to the military-media complex."
The real story in the Jessica Lynch story is about the media itself:
how American print and electronic reporters and editors were duped and
used by the military. And how even after the fraud was revealed by
Canadian and British reporters they remain unwilling or unable to let it
"With admirable humility," said a November 14 Buffalo News editorial,
"she does not call herself a hero." Admirable humility about what? Does
the Buffalo News refer to your 'admirable humility' because you don't
call yourself a linebacker for the NFL or a movie star? What humility is
required in not claiming to be something you and everyone else knows you
aren't and weren't and won't ever be?
The Jessica Lynch story is a classic Western: the cavalry going in to
rescue the feisty blue-eyed blonde-haired very white maiden from the
rapacious dark-skinned savages. Even the rhetoric is out of a Western:
every single newspaper and magazine article I've seen about the event
refers to the "ambush." An ambush is where someone hides and surprises
you. There was no ambush. Jessica Lynch was injured and captured because
the captain leading her convoy got lost and drove into Nasiriyah, a town
in total control of Iraqi troops. If you go into the lion's den you
can't fault the lion for being there and you certainly can't call what
the lion does to you an ambush. You got done by the lion because of your
incompetence or stupidity, maybe, but not because of an ambush. But
"ambush" makes for a much better story than stupid or incompetent, it
fits that Western movie model, it makes for a much better legend.
Legend doesn't care about truth; legend is about itself. What the
media have done with Jessica Lynch was explained by the newspaper editor
in John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. He shreds a young
reporter's true story about an event everyone thinks happened very
differently. "This is the West, sir" the editor says. "When the legend
becomes fact, print the legend."
I've been talking thus far about mainstream media, big money media,
big institution media. Media that has a lot at stake and fights like
hell to get attention and make money and does anything it can not to
fall out of official favor.
But that's not the only media out there. The others are, I think,
becoming more and more important. Smaller, thoughtful publications that,
without the pressure of or desire to get data out immediately take time
to check things carefully or think about what they mean. Smart radio
from NPR. Pacifica and "Democracy Now." And, most important of all, the
web, which in this war frequently carried around the globe and made
accessible information the military and politicians had successfully
kept out of the eyes of the mainline press and information the mainline
press thought unseemly for us to see or too complicated for us to
While the New York Times was front-paging Judith Miller's rewrites of
handouts from Ahmad Chalabi and the Pentagon about the WMD that were
absolutely positively certainly in Iraq, websters were reading Robert
Fisk's columns from The Independent about what was happening in Baghdad
and Uri Avnery's articles about the struggle to end the violence in
Israel. While the print and television press were rewriting government
handouts about John Ashcroft's domestic war on terrorism as if it were
government as usual, web sites like TomPaine, CounterPunch, Index on
Censorship, Black Commentator and Civil Rights Watch were publishing
tough, smart articles analyzing the war Ashcroft was waging was on the
Bill of Rights. While the mainstream press all but ignored the Refusenik
trials in Israel, the web offered detailed reports of defense and
prosecution positions and statements. Great stuff available only on the
web, free and open to anybody who can get to a computer.
The web continues to be a source of important photographs you see
nowhere else. The one that stays with me is an older man holding a
pretty girl who is maybe eight years old. She wears a purple coat and
green pants. If you couldn't see her legs you'd think she was sweetly
sleeping. But you can see her legs, which are ripped and bloody. Her
right foot is blown away, just a bit of the heel still hanging from her
leg by a small strip of bloody skin.
That photograph never, to my knowledge, appeared on American
television or in the American print press. When the BBC posted the
photograph, they cropped the right side so you couldn't see the severed
foot. Were it not for the medium of the web, hardly anyone here would
have seen it, or known of it, or of others like it. Were it not for
those pictures, the impact of the missiles and bombs would have been
videogames and words.
All those articles and pictures are there right now. If you weren't
interested in them yesterday, you might be tomorrow, and when you are,
they'll be there for you. That kind of media access never existed
before, and we are seeing the mere beginning of its potential.
What reporters see
The more I think and learn about this the more questions I have about
it. War is such a big word; it is a word for historians, theoreticians,
generals, politicians. War is an abstraction.
Soldiers and reporters do not live or work in abstraction. No soldier
who goes into battle fights a war; no reporter sees a war. They do this
thing, on this day, in this place, and tomorrow it's something else in
some other place. Soldiers and reporters deal with specificity, with the
particular: a trail, a tree, a sound, a piece of metal with which
someone kills or mutilates someone, which might kill you.
"The first rough draft of history," Washington Post publisher Philip
L. Graham called it. That's a line that journalists offer in pride and
by way of explanation of error and imperfection. "We're the first rough
draft of history. You wouldn't have anything if it weren't for us," they
say, and they're right. And, "Don't expect us to apply the polish, to
cut away the trash, to extract the meaning. Because that's your job, not
And they're right about that, too: the judgments about what matters
and what doesn't, the determination of meaning, the decisions about
where we go from here--that's our job, not theirs.
Bruce Jackson, SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen
Professor of American Culture at University at Buffalo, edits the web
www.BuffaloReport.com. His most recent book is Emile de Antonio
in Buffalo (Center Working Papers). Jackson is also a contributor to
The Politics of Anti-Semitism. He can be reached at: