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Danielle Poe

Reality America


As I try to discover aspects of what "The New America" is, I find myself focusing on the media phenomenon of "reality television." This phenomenon interests me particularly in its relationship to how September 11, 2001 and the 2003 war against Iraq were covered by popular U.S. news outlets. September 11, 2001 interests me because of its status as a potential turning point in U.S. relations with the world. According to the philosopher Slavoj Zizek, the attacks of that day allow a glimpse into the "Desert of the Real," the world behind what Americans typically believe to be reality. Prior to the attacks in New York City and at the Pentagon, it was possible for Americans to believe that we lived in a charmed world where we could pursue the American dream of wealth and security without interference from hostile forces around the world. The attacks, though, opened a window through which Americans had the opportunity to glimpse the suffering that happens around the world everyday, an opportunity for empathy (Zizek, 389). However, the attacks also provided an excuse to shore up any cracks in the American illusion and to extend the U.S.’s self-image of strength and security (Zizek, 389). I am also interested in the 2003 war against Iraq because it allows an opportunity to expose the mechanisms at work in creating a "reality world" in which the US is impervious to attack. Through the manipulation of images, stories covered, and soundtracks, popular American media outlets such as ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC, and Fox News Channel construct an uncritical perspective on the Iraq war and the US’s role in the world.

I will begin my analysis of what I call "reality America" by discussing what "reality television" is and how it appears in entertainment and how it seeps into popular news outlets. Next, I will turn to the events of September 11, 2001 by way of Slavoj Zizek’s who argues that 9/11 reveals "the Real." I argue that Zizek underestimates the power that reality America has over its viewers, even if there are moments in which the tropes of reality television are exposed. As witnessed during the Iraq war, the popular media is actively involved in constructing media events such that they follow the patterns of reality television more than they follow patterns of objectivity.

1. Reality Television

Although I will argue that reality television shares characteristics with popular news media, they are not reducible to the same category. One crucial distinction between the two categories is that viewers know that the reality television genre is misleading and highly constructed, but viewers believe that the popular news media is objective. If American viewers brought the same awareness of the characteristics of reality television to the news media, we would be in a much better position to come to conclusions about the world around us than we currently are.

To clarify the distinction between reality television and the popular news media, I will use a definition of reality television that comes from a study conducted by Robin L. Nabi, Erica N. Biely, Sara J. Morgan, Carmen R. Stitt. In this study, "Reality-Based Television Programming and the Psychology of Its Appeal," the authors explore what is characteristic of reality television, its appeal to viewers, and what distinguishes regular viewers from occasional viewers of reality television. They define reality television as follows,

After considering the qualities of television programs that seem representative

of the burgeoning genre, we offer the following definition of reality-based television programming: programs that film real people as they live out events (contrived or otherwise) in their lives, as these events occur. Such programming is

characterized by several elements: (a) people portraying themselves (i.e., not actors or public figures performing roles), (b) filmed at least in part in their living or working environment rather than on a set, (c) without a script, (d) with events

placed in a narrative context, (e) for the primary purpose of viewer entertainment (304).

While the definition that the researchers use was predetermined, their research results did reinforce that the definition does reflect most people’s assessment of what reality television is (Nabi et al, 307-310). Reality television should differ from news programming based on the obviously scripted nature of news and that the primary purpose of news is to provide objective information, even when it is also entertaining. Clearly, the two genres share that people portray themselves, a heavy usage of people filmed at least in part in their living or working environment, and the events are placed in a narrative context.

One of the most important aspects that Nabi et al address is why reality based television is so popular with viewers, or what gratification is being sought by viewers when they watch reality television. In particular, they were looking to see whether they could verify that people watch reality television in order to satisfy voyeuristic tendencies (312), or for the hope of seeing "something forbidden from an unsuspecting target" (Nabi et al, 319). The researchers’ hypotheses help to determine whether there is any accuracy in the popular belief that reality television viewers believe that the events that they witness represent actual events (Bagley, 74). The results of Nabi et al’s research indicates that most people are not watching to satisfy voyeurism, they do not believe that others are watching to satisfy voyeurism, and they disagree that they are seeing something "real" when they watch reality television (319).

The results of their study indicate a higher level of sophistication present in the viewers than is popularly attributed to reality television viewers. The researchers explain that,

Research Question 3 questioned the psychological needs met by watching reality based television. In Table 3, we present the results of the open-ended analyses, which suggest that regular viewers watch mainly because they are entertained, find the programs suspenseful, and enjoy their unscripted nature. In contrast, casual viewers are more likely to watch out of curiosity and for entertainment value. Of note, although liking the "real" quality of the programming, respondents disliked reality-based TV mostly because it appears contrived, that is, not in fact real. For regular viewers, misleading editing (a likely indicator of contrived) was also bothersome. For casual viewers, the amount of conflict and negativity was most problematic (320, reiterated on 321-322).

While many people seem to think that reality television viewers gullibly believe that everything presented on reality television is real, the results of Nabi et al.’s study is that viewers are aware that this genre is edited in such a way as to be highly contrived and misleading. When people watch reality television, they are not trying to get information about how the world works or their own place in the world; instead, they are watching primarily for entertainment or for curiosity.

Although I could not find any studies that tested why viewers watch television news programs, I will assume based on journalism reviews that people are watching the news for information and facts, even when they are also watching for entertainment or curiosity as well (see Farhi, "Red News, Blue News", Morris). Thus, it would be highly problematic to find that television news is using the same tropes as reality television, such that television news is also constructed in highly contrived and misleading ways. While it would be naďve to hope that the popular news media will shift away from the rising trend toward entertainment and bias (See Aday et al, Hickey, Kelliher, Westin), we can hope that American viewers will become more savvy in their viewing and question the reality of what we see on popular news broadcasts just as they do with reality television.

2. September 11, 2001

Slavoj Zizek, in "Welcome to the Desert of the Real," seems to believe that on September 11, 2001, the American people had an opportunity to begin to see beyond our previous conceptions of the world into a new understanding of the world and the US’s place in it. For Zizek, as with many other authors, September 11, 2001 marks a turning point in contemporary analysis of the US’s relationship to the rest of the world. Certainly, the events of that day created a space and opportunity for interpretation. Zizek offers two possibilities for how Americans might interpret the events of September 11, 2001,

Either America will persist in, strengthen ever, the attitude, "why should this happen to us? Things like this don’t happen here!"---leading to more aggression toward the threatening Outside, in short: to a paranoiac acting out----or America will finally risk stepping through the fantasmatic screen separating it from the Outside World, accepting its arrival into the Real world, making the long-overdue move from "things like this should not happen here!" to "Things like this should not happen anywhere!" (389).

As we continue to live in the aftermath of 9/11, we can see that the US has not decided between the two possibilities: lashing out against all perceived threats and turning outward to promote justice throughout the world. While I will ultimately conclude that Americans prefer a reality America to the Real, in this section of the paper I will examine the small glimpses of people turning away from the fantasy of the US as a bastion of strength and security and moving to what Zizek calls the Real.

When Zizek talks about the Real, he is referring to the state of affairs as experienced by the majority of people in the world, not some objective view separate from the subjective perspectives of actual people (Zizek 388). Zizek makes the assessment that the US is engaged in a fantasy of security based on a comparison of Americans’ reported experiences and the reported experiences of people outside the US,

Cruel and indifferent as it may sound, we should also, now more than ever, bear in mind that the actual effect of these bombings is much more symbolic than real. The United States just got a taste of what goes on around the world on a daily basis, from Sarajevo to Groznyy, from Rwanda and Congo to Sierra Leone (388).

Zizek’s analysis may in fact seem cruel to many, but he is right to emphasize the symbolic power of the attacks more than the real effects. Robert Paul Churchill points out that had the hijackers simply wanted to kill Americans they would have been much more effective targeting crowded football stadiums, but the point of the attacks was not just to kill people, but to make a symbolic point. Churchill goes further than Zizek by emphasizing that the symbolic point is that for many around the world American capitalism and militarism are directly responsible for their suffering. If we combine Zizek and Churchill’s analysis of the events on September 11, 2001, what makes that day Real is that Americans discovered ourselves to be just as vulnerable as those who suffer around the world and that we had the symbolic opportunity to discover our role in others’ suffering.

In part, many Americans, and others around the world, did discover what Zizek calls the "desert of the real," a phrase that he takes from the movie Matrix (1999),

The material reality we all experience and see around us is a virtual one, generated and coordinated by a gigantic megacomputer to which we are all attached; when the hero (played by Keanu Reeves) awakens in the "real reality, " he sees a desolate landscape littered with burned ruins---what remained of Chicago after a global war. The resistance leader Morpheus utters the ironic greeting: "Welcome to the desert of the real." (386).

"The desert of the real" is the reality behind the virtual reality, a field of desolation hidden by a shiny veneer of prosperity and safety. For many Americans, the war against Iraq has opened an opportunity to question the readily apparent to find what would otherwise be hidden. One example of this questioning occurred during the protests preceding the invasion of Iraq. During those protests, millions of people in the US and abroad gathered together to challenge the Bush administration’s assertions that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, the supposed link between Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, and the claim that the US needed to invade Iraq to make itself more safe (Aday, 11).

Of course David Kay, the lead weapons inspector in Iraq, has indeed revealed that there is no evidence that Iraq does now, or did prior to the March 2003 invasion, possess weapons of mass destruction. But, even before the war began, common sense told us that Saddam Hussein could not have had weapons of mass destruction. In the days leading up to the invasion, Colin Powell presented the US’s case for invasion to the United Nations Security Council. However, all of his information (including photos, taped conversations, and film footage) was subject to criticism even before the U.S. began its war. Prior to the war, Maria Tomchick, an American journalist, wrote "Powell’s Flimsy Evidence" in which she raises a series of questions about Powell’s evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, which came from undocumented sources, contained blurred images, and showed empty trucks. Her conclusion is that at best the evidence is too murky to justify an invasion; at worst, she believes the evidence may be fabricated.

Further questioning of the U.S.’s stated motives for invading Iraq continue. As Arundhati Roy has observed in her criticisms of the U.S. (and allies’) invasion of Iraq, "In the fog of war - one thing's for sure - if Saddam 's regime indeed has weapons of mass destruction, it is showing an astonishing degree of responsibility and restraint in the teeth of extreme provocation" (Roy 34-35). Her comments were made after the war began, but the same reasoning applied even before the "shock and awe" campaign. Either Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction or he had weapons of mass destruction. If he had none, then he was not an immanent threat to the U.S. If he had weapons of mass destruction, then he was quite restrained in his use of those weapons and not an immanent threat to the U.S. If he is not an immanent threat to the U.S., then the U.S. had no justification for its pre-emptive strike against Iraq.

Although many journalists and academics were questioning the need for a war in Iraq, in the lead-up to the war Bush linked Hussein and Al-Qaeda so successfully that polls by New York Times/CBS News and ABC news indicated that between 42% and 55% of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was directly responsible for the 9/11 attacks (Roy 43). However, no such evidence has ever been uncovered, in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq and the months following.

Behind the belief that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and that Saddam Hussein was directly responsible of the 9/11 attacks, Americans seemed to have an underlying belief that the invasion of Iraq would make the U.S. safer. However, the belief that the war in Iraq has made us safer is quickly eroding. One powerful example of that erosion is Cindy Sheehan’s attempts to meet with President George W. Bush. Sheehan, a mother grieving for the loss of her son, wants to ask President George W. Bush why her son was sacrificed in the occupation of Iraq. That she wants to question Bush about his policy in Iraq is not new, many people have been asking that question for years. What has changed, however, is the media reception and coverage of Sheehan’s attempts. The Bush administration and media outlets such as Fox News Channel have attempted to portray Sheehan as a peace activist pushing her own agenda (Rich), but these attempts have largely failed as other popular media outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Clear Channel Radio Stations have favorably covered Sheehan’s vigil outside Bush’s Texas ranch (Rich).

The protests against the war in Iraq, the analysis of the Bush administration’s motives for going to war, and coverage of Sheehan’s protest all point to Americans’ discovering the Real that usually remains covered by fantasy. As I pointed out above, though, the Real is not some unchanging world behind the scenes. The Real is a dynamic reality that shifts as events shift. Even as the Real shifts, so too does Reality America. Even while some are persuasively arguing against the Bush administration’s reasons to go to war, Bush is able to convince many Americans of a fictitious link between Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Thus, popular media coverage of Sheehan’s protest should not distract us from the ways in which popular media manipulates consumer perceptions and perpetuates (if not produces) bias in the viewing audience. The effect of glimpses of the Real that show through the façade is to strengthen the appearance of objectivity in reality America’s popular news media.

3. The Iraq War

In the previous section, I discussed Zizek’s use of the Real and his assertion that we have a choice between facing the desert of the Real in which Americans recognize our place among others who suffer and lashing out against the Outside world (Zizek, 389). What Zizek misses, though, is that the drive to lash out against the Outside is not simply to preserve the American image that we are good and the Outside is evil (Zizek, 387-388). The lashing out against the Outside is also about rejecting the point of view of the Outside that lashes out against the U.S. In Zizek’s articulation of the conflict, the US is embarked on a positive project of self-definition (Americans- good; Saddam Hussein-evil). In my articulation of the conflict, the US is also embarked on a negative project of disavowal, or refusing the Outside’s definition of us (Americans-evil). In order to accomplish the positive and the negative projects, the US government and media create a reality for American viewers. Thus, the small signs of hope, the glimpses of the Real, should not distract us from the systematic manipulation of reality in the news media.

We find evidence that the American news media is actively involved in creating its own version of reality by examining coverage of the Iraq war. Consider, for example, the soundtracks used by the various media outlets as they covered "the shock and awe" phase of the 2003 Iraq war; each of the cable news channels developed music that heightened the feeling of crisis (Engstrom, 46). According to Nicholas Engstrom the preparations for these soundtracks began well in advance of the actual breakout of war,

Five days before the war with Iraq began, I visited Fox News headquarters to pick up a CK labeled "Liberation Iraq Music," containing what was to be the theme music for the war coverage. The Fox theme could b Metallica rehearsing Wagner, the guitar chords rising over thudding drums. It seemed ready-made for Apocalypse Now, when helicopters blare The Flight of the Valkyries from mounted speakers as they swoop down on a Vietcong-held village. Would the coverage fit the music? (45).

The fact that Engstrom compares Fox News Channel’s (FNC) war music to movie scenes emphasizes the way in which even supposedly objective sources of news are giving viewers a narrow perspective on what is happening in Iraq. We could imagine a quite different soundtrack in which heart wrenching music is used to emphasize the suffering and plight of Iraqi citizens whose infrastructure and lives are falling to ruins as the U.S. stages its "shock and awe" campaign. However, CNN, FNC, MSNBC, and CBS all relied on music that heightened identification with the American military (both its soldiers and its technology) to help deliver and determine the content of their coverage of the initial US invasion of Iraq (Engstrom, 46-47).

While the soundtracks used by the major news networks may lead us to suspect that the Iraq war coverage is biased, we must look to the actual content of the news to determine whether or not we are justified in that belief. My analysis of the manipulation of news does vary slightly with some of the cable news networks. A study of CNN and FNC, which are perceived by many to be liberal and conservative respectively, reveals that the content of the news is the same on both networks; the distinction between these networks is the manner in which news is delivered. While FNC relies heavily on opinionated journalists to deliver the news, CNN relies on calm staid journalists to deliver the news (Farhi, 1-2). Overall, FNC’s manner of delivering news results in the most biased coverage (Aday et al). In "Embedding the Truth: A Cross-Cultural Analysis of Objectivity and Television Coverage of the Iraq War," Sean Aday, Steven Livingston, and Macye Hebert carried out a comprehensive study of 1, 820 news stories on ABC, Al-Jazeera, CBS, CNN, NBC, and FNC in order to determine whether or not these popular media outlets have a bias when they try to deliver objective news (7-9). They examined these networks’ objectivity at two levels:

First, it must look at coverage at the story level. It must examine the objectivity of individual stories and compare the overall body of work at various networks and, in this case, across cultures. Second, such an examination must look at the overall picture of the war offered by the various news organizations. For example, it may be that stories are objective but that a bias can be seen in the relative selection and avoidance of certain story topics (8).

At the level of the story, all of the networks except FNC maintained an overall neutrality. FNC’s coverage of the war was deemed biased largely because of its reporters’ identification with individual troops and the U.S. military ("our troops") (Aday, 8-13). The bias of FNC coverage, though, also included one anchor calling anti-war protestors "sickening" (Aday, 10). The bias of FNC coverage was significant as compared to other networks,

In addition [to bias from interviews with retired military], much of the prowar slant in stories came in stories where the anchor was the primary reporter (e.g., stories read or interviews conducted by the anchor), with 66.7 percent of these adopting a supportive tone. This compares to a range of 3.3 to 8.5 percent of the anchor-led stories on the other American networks (Aday, 14).

The overall conclusions of the authors of this study is that FNC’s decision to encourage the use of first person plural in reporters’ coverage of the Iraq war is significant because it encourages a prowar stance in its viewing audience. The bias that this effects in viewers is all the more significant, according to the authors, because FNC viewers already tend to be proadministration and prowar (Aday, 18).

Another interesting outcome of this study is the conclusion that the authors draw about the effects of having embedded journalists covering the war. In relation to the authors’ first criterion for analyzing bias (story content), they conclude that the embedded journalists stories are overall more neutral than stories by other journalists (Aday, 15-16). However, the second criterion for analyzing bias (stories covered and stories avoided) reveals that embedded journalists do give a prowar bias because of their emphasis on personal stories and pictures of American soldiers, their avoidance of pictures and stories about casualties (American military, Iraqi military, and civilian), and their focus on battles (Aday, 15-16).

The conclusion in "Embedding the Truth" is that while individual stories may be neutral in their coverage of the Iraq war, the news stations still operate with a bias by virtue of what they cover and what they do not cover. The bias comes from the sanitized version of events (no blood, no casualties even when embedded journalists cover fighting), the lack of coverage of dissent, and the lack of coverage of international diplomatic efforts to prevent and halt the war (Aday, 3 & 16-18). While this study confirms popular opinion and other research that FNC is particularly guilty of constructing a highly edited and artificial version of reality, it also reveals the ways in which the major popular U.S. media outlets are using standards of neutrality to conceal bias at other levels. Very few individual stories are guilty of extreme bias (less than 1% according to Aday et al’s research) (12); nevertheless, the overall coverage of the war is largely supportive.

In conclusion, I am far less hopeful than Zizek that Americans have reached a point at which we are able to see the "desert of the Real." Certainly, the possibility for us to be savvy and to see past manipulative soundtracks, camera shots, and narratives exists. In spite of popular wisdom that says people believe what they see on "reality television," most people recognize that all manner of illusion is used in "reality television" to give a misleading construction of actual events. When we turn to the major news media, we can see that they use many of the same methods to convey a biased narrative that "reality television" uses. The news networks use soundtracks, sanitized camera shots, personalized focus on individual soldiers. They systematically fail to cover dissent, casualties, and international diplomatic efforts to stop the war. All of these tactics should make viewers at least as suspicious of news coverage as they are of reality television. Yet, we do not have evidence that most people are able to apply the same critical lens to the popular news media that they apply to entertainment. As the popular news media becomes more seductive by way of using the techniques of reality television, Americans seem to be retreating further from the Real, further into our belief that we are good and the Outside is evil, and further into our disavowal of the Outside’s insistence that the US is evil.

Works Cited

Kay: No evidence Iraq stockpiled WMDs. 2004. CNN.Com (January 26, 2004),

Aday, Sean, Steven Livingston, and Macye Hebert. 2005. Embedding the truth: A cross-cultural analysis of objectivity and television coverage of the Iraq war. Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics 10, (1): 3-21.

Bagley, George. 2001. A mixed bag: Negotiating claims in MTV's the real world. Journal of Film & Video 53, (2/3): 61..

Churchill, Robert Paul. Forthcoming. "Globalization and terror". In Parceling the globe: Philosophical explorations in globalization, global behavior, and peace., eds. Danielle Poe, Eddy Souffrant. Amsterdam; Atlanta: Rodopi Press.

Engstrom, Nicholas. 2003. The soundtrack for war. Columbia Journalism Review 42, (1) (05//May/Jun2003): 45..

Farhi, Paul. 2003. Everybody wins. American Journalism Review 25, (3) (04//): 32.

Hickey, Neil. 2003. Cable wars. Columbia Journalism Review 41, (5) (01//Jan/Feb2003): 12.

Kelliher, Laurie. 2004. Fox watch. Columbia Journalism Review 42, (6) (03//Mar/Apr2004): 8-8.

Morris, Jonathan S. 2005. The Fox News factor. Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics 10, (3): 56-79.

Nabi, Robin L., Erica N. Biely, Sara J. Morgan, and Carmen R. Stitt. 2003. Reality-based television programming and the psychology of its appeal. Media Psychology 5, (4): 303.

None. 2004. Red news, blue news: A search for meaning in a fog of facts. Columbia Journalism Review 43, (4) (11//Nov/Dec2004): 6-6.

Rich, Frank. 2005. The swift boating of Cindy Sheehan. The New York Times, August 21, 2005, 2005.

Roy, Arundhati. An ordinary person's guide to empire. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2004.

Tomchick, Maria. Feb. 9, 2003. Powell's flimsy evidence. Z-Net.

Westin, David. 2005. The truth about TV news: When opinion dominates, everything becomes opinion. Columbia Journalism Review 43, (6) (03//Mar/Apr2005): 8-10.

Žižek, Slvoj. 2002. Welcome to the desert of the Real! South Atlantic Quarterly 101, (2): 385.

Danielle Poe is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Dayton.  She is currently co-editing Parceling the Globe: Philosophical Explorations in Globalization, Global Behavior, and Peace with Eddy Souffrant, from University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

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