It’s a popular notion: TV sets and other media devices let us in on the violence of war. “Look, nobody likes to see dead people on their television screens,” President Bush told a news conference more than three years ago. “I don’t. It’s a tough time for the American people to see that. It’s gut-wrenching.”
But televised glimpses of war routinely help to keep war going. Susan Sontag was onto something when she pointed out that “the image as shock and the image as cliche are two aspects of the same presence.”
While viewers may feel disturbed by media imagery of warfare, their discomfort is largely mental and limited. The only shots coming at them are ones that have been waved through by editors. Still, we hear that television brings war into our living rooms.
We’re encouraged to be a nation of voyeurs — or pseudo-voyeurs — looking at war coverage and imagining that we really see, experience, comprehend. In this mode, the reporting on the Iraq war facilitates a rough division of labor. For American media consumers, the easy task is to watch from afar — secure in the tacit belief we’re understanding what it means to undergo the violence that we catch via only the most superficial glances.
Television screens provide windows on the world that reinforce distances. Watching “news” at the remote, viewers are in a zone supplied by producers with priorities far afield from authenticity or democracy. More than making sense, the mass-media enterprise is about making corporate profit in sync with governmental power.
Exceptional news reports do exist. And that’s the problem; they’re exceptions. A necessity of effective propaganda is repetition. And the inherent limits of television in conveying realities of war are further narrowed by deference to Washington.
Styles vary on network television, but the journalistic pursuits — whether on a prime-time CNN show or the PBS NewsHour — are chasing parallel bottom lines. When the missions of corporate-owned commercial television and corporate-funded “public broadcasting” are wrapped up in the quest to maximize profits and maintain legitimacy among elites in a warfare state, how far afield is the war coverage likely to wander?
While media outlets occasionally stick their institutional necks out, the departures are rarely fundamental. In large media institutions, underlying precepts of a de facto military-industrial-media complex are rarely disturbed in any sort of sustained way — by the visual presentations or by the words that accompany them.
“Even if journalists, editors, and producers are not superpatriots, they know that appearing unpatriotic does not play well with many readers, viewers, and sponsors,” media analyst Michael X. Delli Carpini commented. Written with reference to the Vietnam War, his words now apply to the Iraq war era. “Fear of alienating the public and sponsors, especially in wartime, serves as a real, often unstated tether, keeping the press tied to accepted wisdom.”
Part of the accepted wisdom is the idea that media outlets are pushing envelopes and making the Iraq war look bad. But the press coverage, even from the reputedly finest outlets, is routinely making the war look far better than its reality — both in terms of the horror on the ground and the agendas of the war-makers in Washington.
Countless stories in the daily press continue to portray Bush administration officials as earnestly seeking a political settlement in Iraq while recalcitrant insurgents, bent on violence, thwart that effort. So, with typical spin, a dispatch from Baghdad published in the New York Times on June 17 flatly declared that comments by U.S. commander Gen. David Petraeus “reflected an acknowledgment that more has to be done beyond the city’s bounds to halt a relentless wave of insurgent attacks that have undercut attempts at political reconciliation.”
Of course, occupiers always seek “political reconciliation.” As the Prussian general Karl von Clausewitz observed long ago, “A conqueror is always a lover of peace.”
At the same time, the more that an occupying force tries to impose the prerogatives of a conqueror, the more its commander must deny that its goals are anything other than democracy, freedom and autonomy for the people whose country is being occupied. In medialand, the lethal violence of the occupier must be invisible or righteous, while the lethal violence of the occupied must be tragic, nonsensical and/or insane. But most of all, the human consequences of a war fueled by U.S. military action are shrouded in euphemism and media cliche.
Which brings us back to violence at the remote. While a TV network may be no more guilty of obscuring the human realities of war than a newsprint broadsheet or a slick newsmagazine, we may have higher expectations that the television is bringing us real life. Vivid footage is in sharp contrast to static words and images on a page. At least implicitly, television promises more — and massively reneges on what it promises.
We may intellectually know that television is not conveying realities of life. But what moves on the screen is apt to draw us in, nonetheless. We see images of violence that look and loom real. But our media experience of that violence is unreal. We don’t experience the actual violence at all. Media outlets lie about it by pretending to convey it. And we abet the lying to the extent that we fail to renounce it.
Artifice comes in many forms, of course. In the case of television news, it’s a form very big on pretense. We’re left to click through the world beyond our immediate experience — at a distance that cannot be measured in miles. But away from our mediated cocoon, spun by civic passivity, the death machinery keeps roaring along.