Objectivity and truth are victimized in war coverage

OJohn Tribbett On Wednesday, the Arab satellite network Al-Jazeera showed the bodies of what they alleged were two dead British soldiers. It was the most recent of a series of video images of dead U.S. and British soldiers and prisoners of war shown on Al-Jazeera television. The images were subsequently shown in various forms, some censored heavily, on U.S. television, in print, and on online news outlets.

On Thursday, Britain’s top commander in the Persian Gulf, Air Marshall Brian Burridge, told reporters, “All media outlets must be aware of the limits of taste and decency and be wary that they do not unwittingly become the tools of the Iraqi regime.” British Prime Minister Tony Blair was more emphatic: “It is yet one more flagrant breach of all the conventions of war, more than that to the families of the soldiers involved; it is an act of cruelty beyond comprehension.”

Earlier this week U.S. government officials claimed the airing of such videos was a violation of the Geneva Convention. The Geneva Convention states POWs must be protected “against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity.” No reference was made to the admittance earlier this month by U.S. military officials that the deaths of two prisoners in Afghanistan being interrogated at Bagram air base, north of Kabul, were ruled to be “homicide.” Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both denounced the “stress and duress” techniques being used on Taliban and suspected al-Qaida operatives as torture under definitions of international treaty.

“War has victims on all sides. If you don’t show both sides, you are not covering the war,” said Ibrahim Hilal, the editor in chief of Al-Jazeera. He was responding to the criticisms by the power brokers of the Allied Coalition against the airing of controversial footage. Al-Jazeera said the images of the dead were “deemed to be newsworthy and relevant” and were not broadcast just “for the hell of it.”

The U.S. media machine has worked quickly to distance itself from the controversy by supposedly toning down its showing of Iraqi POWs. An Associated Press report Thursday in The Washington Post stated, “American networks have shown crowds of Iraqi POWs, but no close-ups in which they would be identifiable or interviews with them.” This is blatantly untrue. From the first days of the war, easily identifiable images of Iraqi POWs have been endlessly paraded across the television screens across the world via U.S. networks, many of which undoubtedly made it into the homes of the Iraqi people, as they were meant to.

The issue is much deeper than who has the moral high ground in covering the war – which can be argued endlessly. But that argument is a distraction. What is of much greater importance is how the media is being used by all interests involved to control the worldwide opinion about this war.

There is a pervasive myth in the culture of journalism – the myth of objectivism. It goes something like this: The journalist will go out into the field, collect facts through a variety of methods and then organize them to be presented, without bias, to the larger society. The society, in turn, will be able to make well-informed decisions based on these objective facts.

The reality is journalists come from a particular place and time. They bring with them personal politics, upbringing and mental hang-ups. They are shackled by language, culture and spiritual beliefs. The entities they work for are ultimately driven by profit as a bottom line. They are subject to the self-censorship of the paycheck and the corporate culture looming above them. Conglomerate owners rule over vast media kingdoms all subtly governed by their personal whims. To this, objectivity and truth fall victim – especially during war.

The press and the government-military complex have always had a tenuous relationship. The power elites need the press to line up public opinion along with its wartime objectives. The history of modern warfare makes it clear that popular sentiment is a requirement for waging military campaigns. Whether through propaganda, public relations, censorship or plain old lies, it is a necessity to try to control the press during wartime. All sides do it.

War wants us to see things in simplistic terms, to turn complex realities into easily definable realities. It is a precursor and requirement needed to rationalize mass murders. Good versus evil, friend versus foe, patriotic versus unpatriotic – these are the paradigms of war. It is a hijacking of our mental reasoning and of the human heart from which we must be ever vigilant – especially when it comes to our consumption of the media.

The media itself is neither good nor bad. It is, however, an omnipresent fact of our lifetimes. It is an entity many strive to control. Within it, all nuances of truth and misinformation can be found. That leaves it up to each and every one of us to dig a little deeper, to work a little harder and read a little more to see past the quick fix of headlines and shocking images coming at us 24 hours a day. We must not be duped into the quagmire of reality television that focuses on the soap opera of propaganda and not the abomination of war. If we don’t like what we see from the Al-Jazeeras of the world, maybe it has less to do with their lack of morality and more to do with our unwillingness to face the consequences of our choices – consequences our media is reluctant to show us.

So when we see images of dead and captured soldiers strewn across the satellite feed of Al-Jazeera, we should be outraged. When should we wince in horror as we watch mushroom clouds bloom over Baghdad on CNN? Our disgust at our failure to find a peaceful resolution should fester as we watch tanks roll and our eyes should droop in shame as ex-military officials-turned-talking heads exalt the wrath of our laser-guided killing machines. We should be outraged at the act of human carnage, not by the telling of it.

This is war. It is a failure inherent in our species. For better or worse, we are now being forced to see it from the others’ perspective and we don’t like it. Too bad.

John Tribbett’s biweekly column appears Fridays. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]