War, Propaganda and the Media
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- This page: http://www.globalissues.org/article/157/war-propaganda-and-the-media.
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Probably every conflict is fought on at least two grounds: the battlefield and the minds of the people via propaganda. The “good guys” and the “bad guys” can often both be guilty of misleading their people with distortions, exaggerations, subjectivity, inaccuracy and even fabrications, in order to receive support and a sense of legitimacy.
This web page has the following sub-sections:
- Elements of Propaganda
- Propaganda and War
- Wider Propaganda
- Propaganda in Democracies
- Why Does So Much Propaganda Work?
- Some Detailed Examples
Elements of Propaganda
Propaganda can serve to rally people behind a cause, but often at the cost of exaggerating, misrepresenting, or even lying about the issues in order to gain that support.
While the issue of propaganda often is discussed in the context of militarism, war and war-mongering, it is around us in all aspects of life.
As the various examples below will show, common tactics in propaganda often used by either side include:
- Using selective stories that come over as wide-covering and objective.
- Partial facts, or historical context
- Reinforcing reasons and motivations to act due to threats on the security of the individual.
- Narrow sources of “experts” to provide insights in to the situation. (For example, the mainstream media typically interview retired military personnel for many conflict-related issues, or treat official government sources as fact, rather than just one perspective that needs to be verified and researched).
- Demonizing the “enemy” who does not fit the picture of what is “right”.
- Using a narrow range of discourse, whereby judgments are often made while the boundary of discourse itself, or the framework within which the opinions are formed, are often not discussed. The narrow focus then helps to serve the interests of the propagandists.
Some of the following sections look into how propaganda is used in various ways, expanding on the above list of tactics and devices.
Propaganda and War
At times of war, or build up for war, messages of extremities and hate, combined with emotions of honor and righteousness interplay to provide powerful propaganda for a cause.
Many say that it is inevitable in war that people will die. Yet, in many cases, war itself is not inevitable, and propaganda is often employed to go closer to war, if that is the preferred foreign policy option. Indeed, once war starts, civilian casualties are unfortunately almost a guaranteed certainty.
Those who promote the negative image of the “enemy” may often reinforce it with rhetoric about the righteousness of themselves; the attempt is to muster up support and nurture the belief that what is to be done is in the positive and beneficial interest of everyone. Often, the principles used to demonize the other, is not used to judge the self, leading to accusations of double standards and hypocrisy.
The list of tactics used in propaganda listed further above is also expressed in a similar way by Johann Galtung, a professor of Peace Studies and summarized here by Danny Schechter:
Arthur Siegel, a social science professor at York University in Toronto, describes four levels of varieties of propaganda:
With the last point above, Siegel is pointing out that as well as “enemies” having propaganda mechanisms, we also have our own propaganda mechanisms.
Propaganda when Preparing or Justifying War
In preparing for or justifying war, additional techniques are often employed, knowingly or unknowingly:
(O’Kane’s reference to the dead baby story is about the 1991 Gulf War where a U.S. public relations firm got a Kuwaiti Ambassador’s daughter to pose as a nurse claiming she saw Iraqi troops killing babies in hospitals. The purpose of this was to create arousal and demonize Iraq so war was more acceptable. More information about this is on this site’s Iraq section.)
Award-winning investigative journalist, Phillip Knightley, in an article for the British paper, The Guardian also points out four stages in preparing a nation for war:
- 1. The crisis
- The reporting of a crisis which negotiations appear unable to resolve. Politicians, while calling for diplomacy, warn of military retaliation. The media reports this as “We’re on the brink of war”, or “War is inevitable”, etc.
- 2. The demonisation of the enemy’s leader
- Comparing the leader with Hitler is a good start because of the instant images that Hitler’s name provokes.
- 3. The demonisation of the enemy as individuals
- For example, to suggest the enemy is insane.
- 4. Atrocities
- Even making up stories to whip up and strengthen emotional reactions.
Knightley also points to the dilemma that while some stories are known to have been fabrications and outright lies, others may be true. The trouble is, he asks, “how can we tell?” His answer is unfortunately not too reassuring: “The media demands that we trust it but too often that trust has been betrayed.” The difficulty that honest journalists face is also hinted to in another article by Knightley:
Military Control of Information
Military control of information during war time is also a major contributing factor to propaganda, especially when the media go along with it without question. The military recognizes the values of media and information control very well.
The military often manipulates the mainstream media, by restricting or managing what information is presented and hence what the public are told. For them it is paramount to control the media. This can involve all manner of activities, from organizing media sessions and daily press briefings, or through providing managed access to war zones, to even planting stories. This has happened throughout the 20th century. Over time then, the way that the media covers conflicts degrades in quality, critique and objectiveness.
“Information is the currency of victory” an August 1996 U.S. Army field manual. From a military’s perspective, information warfare is another front on which a battle must be fought. However, as well as needing to deceive adversaries, in order to maintain public support, information to their own public must no doubt be managed as well. That makes sense from a military perspective. Sometimes the public can be willing to sacrifice detailed knowledge. But that can also lead to unaccountability and when information that is presented has been managed such, propaganda is often the result. Beelman also describes how this Information Operations is used to manage information:
Danny Schechter, also referring to the article above by Beelman, describes Information Operations more bluntly as being “a way of obscuring and sanitizing that negative-sounding term ‘propaganda’ so that our ‘information warriors’ can do their thing with a minimum of public attention as they seek to engineer friendly write ups and cumulative impact.” This, he points out, can be accomplished via several strategies:
Overloading the Media
- This can be done by providing too much information!
- Schechter gives an example of the Kosovo War, where “briefers at NATO’s headquarters in Belgium boasted that this was the key to information control. ‘They would gorge the media with information,’ Beelman writes, quoting one as saying, ‘When you make the media happy, the media will not look for the rest of the story.’”
- A common way to do this is to appeal to patriotism and safeguarding the often unarticulated “national interest”
- Schechter describes, how Condaleezza Rice and other Bush administration officials persuaded the networks to kill bin Laden videos and other Al-Jazeera work during the initial months after the September 11 2001 tragedy. This is nothing new, however, as he points out; “All administrations try to seduce and co-opt the media.” (and of course, this happens all around the world.)
- Schechter describes the ramifications: “It is this ideological conformity and world view that makes it relatively easy for a well-oiled and sophisticated IO propaganda machine to keep the U.S. media in line, with the avid cooperation of the corporate sector, which owns and controls most media outlets. Some of those companies, such as NBC parent General Electric, have long been a core component of that nexus of shared interests that President Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex. As Noam Chomsky and others have argued, that complex has expanded into a military, industrial and MEDIA complex, in which IO is but one refinement.”
- Press briefings by military institutions such as NATO, Pentagon etc, where journalist’s questions are answered and information is presented is of course a form of spin. It is the spin that the military will put on it.
- Journalists no doubt expect this, but true to many media propaganda models, seldom are such “official” statements verified and followed up on, especially if from one’s own nation, with whom there is often a lot of trust. A result of this is propaganda and spin becoming the official version.
- Of course, the military can often hide behind this one!
- Sometimes from a military operational perspective it can be understood why they don’t want to give much (or any) real details. Looked in isolation from other issues, this seems like an understandable and acceptable military strategy.
- Yet, when combined with the other propaganda strategies, it is another way to withhold information.
Co-Option And Collusion
- As Danny Schechter asks on this issue, “why do we in the media go along with this approach time and again? We are not stupid. We are not robots. Too many of us have DIED trying to get this story (and other stories). Ask any journalists and they will tell you that no one tells them what to write or what to do. Yet there is a homogenized flavor and Pentagon echo to much coverage of this war that shames our profession. Why? Is it because reporters buy into the ideology of the mission? Because there are few visible war critics to provide dissenting takes? Or is it because information management has been so effective as to disallow any other legitimate approach? An uncritical stance is part of the problem. Disseminating misinformation often adds up to an inaccurate picture of where we are in this war.”
- Stratfor, a global intelligence consultant comments on the war on terrorism saying that the media have become cheerleaders as “Coverage of the ‘war on terrorism’ has reversed the traditional role between the press and the military.” The problem with this, as they continue, is that “The reversal of roles between media and military creates public expectations that can affect the prosecution of the war.” Or, more bluntly put, the media becomes an effective mouthpiece for propaganda.
Embedded Journalists: An Advantage for the Military
Dilemma of Journalists and Wartime Coverage
With military conflicts then, reporting raises an interesting dilemma for some; one the one hand, the military wish to present various aspects that would support a campaign, while on the other hand, a journalist is supposed to be critical and not necessarily fall in line. The is captured well by Jane Kirtley, a professor of Media Ethics and Law:
Often, especially when covering conflicts, the media organizations are subject to various constraints by governments, military, corporate pressure, economic interests, etc. Sometimes, however, the media are more than willing to go along with what could be described as self-censorship, as highlighted vividly in the following:
Other times, the sources of information are limited. For example, “Information warfare” of a military or government might be targeted at “enemy” nations and groups, but often affects their own populations:
Journalist Harold Evans addresses the issue of war correspondents duties, as being the challenge of patriotism versus professionalism:
Phillip Knightley, in his award-winning book The First Casualty traces a history of media reporting of wars and conflicts and towards the end says:
But the issue of propaganda can go beyond just war, to many other areas of life such as the political, commercial and social aspects:
The use of words is integral to propaganda techniques. Dr. Aaron Delwiche, at the School of Communications at the University of Washington, provides a web site discussing propaganda. Delwiche recounts how in 1937, in the United States, the Institute for Propaganda Analysis was created to educate the American public about the widespread nature of political propaganda. Made up of journalists and social scientists, the institute published numerous works. One of the main themes behind their work was defining seven basic propaganda devices. While there was appropriate criticism of the simplification in such classifications, these are commonly described in many university lectures on propaganda analysis, as Delwiche also points out. Delwische further classifies these (and adds a couple of additional classifications) into the following:
- Word Games
- Labeling people, groups, institutions, etc in a negative manner
- Glittering generality
- Labeling people, groups, institutions, etc in a positive manner
- Words that pacify the audience with blander meanings and connotations
- False Connections
- Using symbols and imagery of positive institutions etc to strengthen acceptance
- Citing individuals not qualified to make the claims made
- Special Appeal
- Plain Folks
- Leaders appealing to ordinary citizens by doing “ordinary” things
- Band Wagon
- The “everyone else is doing it” argument
- Heightening, exploiting or arousing people’s fears to get supportive opinions and actions
(See the previous link for descriptions of these devices.) A vivid example of such use of words is also seen in the following quote:
Political Scientist and author, Michael Parenti, in an article on media monopoly, also describes a pattern of reporting in the mainstream in the U.S. that leads to partial information. He points out that while the mainstream claim to be free, open and objective, the various techniques, intentional or unintentional result in systematic contradictions to those claims. Such techniques — applicable to other nations’ media, as well as the U.S. — include:
Suppression By Omission
- He describes that worse than sensationalistic hype is the “artful avoidance” of stories that might be truly sensational stories (as opposed to sensationalistic stories).
- Such stories he says are often “downplayed or avoided outright” and that sometimes, “the suppression includes not just vital details but the entire story itself” even important ones.
Attack and Destroy the Target
- Parenti says, “When omission proves to be an insufficient mode of censorship and a story somehow begins to reach larger publics, the press moves from artful avoidance to frontal assault in order to discredit the story”.
- In this technique, the media will resort to discrediting the journalist, saying things like this is “bad journalism”, etc., thus attempting to silence the story or distract away from the main issue.
- Parenti says that the media will seek to prefigure perceptions of a subject using positive or negative labels and that the “label defines the subject without having to deal with actual particulars that might lead us to a different conclusion”. (Emphasis added)
- Examples of labels (positive and negative) that he points to include things like, “stability”, “strong leadership”, “strong defense”, “healthy economy”, “leftist guerrillas”, “Islamic terrorists”, “conspiracy theories”, “inner-city gangs” and “civil disturbances”. Others with double meanings include “reform” and “hardline”.
- Labels are useful, he suggests, because the “efficacy of a label is that it not have a specific content which can be held up to a test of evidence. Better that it be self-referential, propagating an undefined but evocative image.”
- As Parenti says of this, “Frequently the media accept as given the very policy position that needs to be critically examined”
- This is that classic narrow “range of discourse” or “parameters of debate” whereby unacknowledged assumptions frame the debate.
- As an example he gives, often when the White House proposes increasing military spending, the debates and analysis will be on how much, or on what the money should be spent etc, not whether such as large budget that it already is, is actually needed or not, or if there are other options etc. (See this site’s section on the geopoltiics for more on this aspect of arms trade, spending, etc.)
- Here, what officials say is taken as is, without critique or analysis.
- As he charges, “Face-value transmission has characterized the press’s performance in almost every area of domestic and foreign policy”
- Of course, for journalists and news organizations, the claim can be that they are reporting only what is said, or that they must not inject personal views into the report etc. Yet, to analyze and challenge the face-value transmission “is not to [have to] editorialize about the news but to question the assertions made by officialdom, to consider critical data that might give credence to an alternative view.” Doing such things would not, as Parenti further points out, become “an editorial or ideological pursuit but an empirical and investigative one”.
Slighting of Content
- Here, Parenti talks about the lack of context or detail to a story, so readers would find it hard to understand the wider ramifications and/or causes and effects, etc.
- The media can be very good and “can give so much emphasis to surface happenings, to style and process” but “so little to the substantive issues at stake.”
- While the media might claim to give the bigger picture, “they regularly give us the smaller picture, this being a way of slighting content and remaining within politically safe boundaries”. An example of this he gives is how if any protests against the current forms of free trade are at all portrayed, then it is with reference to the confrontation between some protestors and the police, seldom the issues that protestors are making about democratic sovereignty and corporate accountability, third world plunder, social justice, etc. (See this site’s, section on free trade protests around the world for a more detailed discussion of this issue.)
- This is where the notion of objectivity is tested!
- On the one hand, only two sides of the story are shown (because it isn’t just “both sides” that represent the full picture.
- On the other hand, “balance” can be hard to define because it doesn’t automatically mean 50-50. In the sense that, as Parenti gives an example of, “the wars in Guatemala and El Salvador during the 1980s were often treated with that same kind of false balancing. Both those who burned villages and those who were having their villages burned were depicted as equally involved in a contentious bloodletting. While giving the appearance of being objective and neutral, one actually neutralizes the subject matter and thereby drastically warps it.”
- (This aspect of objectivity is seldom discussed in the mainstream. However, for some additional detail on this perspective, see for example, Phillip Knightley in his award-winning book, The First Casualty (Prion Books, 1975, 2000 revised edition).)
- Parenti gives some examples of how when “confronted with an unexpectedly dissident response, media hosts quickly change the subject, or break for a commercial, or inject an identifying announcement: ‘We are talking with [whomever].’ The purpose is to avoid going any further into a politically forbidden topic no matter how much the unexpected response might seem to need a follow-up query.”
- This can be knowingly done, or without realizing the significance of a certain aspect of the response.
- “The most effective propaganda,” Parenti says, “relies on framing rather than on falsehood. By bending the truth rather than breaking it, using emphasis and other auxiliary embellishments, communicators can create a desired impression without resorting to explicit advocacy and without departing too far from the appearance of objectivity. Framing is achieved in the way the news is packaged, the amount of exposure, the placement (front page or buried within, lead story or last), the tone of presentation (sympathetic or slighting), the headlines and photographs, and, in the case of broadcast media, the accompanying visual and auditory effects.”
- Furthermore, he points out that “Many things are reported in the news but few are explained.” Ideologically and politically the deeper aspects are often not articulated: “Little is said about how the social order is organized and for what purposes. Instead we are left to see the world as do mainstream pundits, as a scatter of events and personalities propelled by happenstance, circumstance, confused intentions, bungled operations, and individual ambition — rarely by powerful class interests.”
Furthermore, with concentrated ownership increasing (as is discussed in detail in the next section on this site) a narrower range of discourse can arise, sometimes without realizing. The consequences of which are summed up by the following from UK media watchdog, MediaLens:
As mentioned above just concentrating and reporting on the “official line” without offering a wider set of perspectives can also impact people’s opinions. In another article, MediaLens also highlights this and the impact it has on how global issues are perceived:
Furthermore (and while not a complete study of the mainstream media), media watchdog, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) did a study showing that there can be heavy political biases on even the most popular mainstream media outlets. The outlets they looked at were ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News in the year 2001. They found that “92 percent of all U.S. sources interviewed were white, 85 percent were male and, where party affiliation was identifiable, 75 percent were Republican.”
Why Does So Much Propaganda Work?
Wanting to believe the best of ourselves
The following perhaps serve as ominous warnings, given the source:
Fear-mongering and distorting facts
Narrowing the Range of Debate
Some Detailed Examples
In the following pages, some examples of propaganda and the media are presented. (In some cases the media is a participant in the propaganda, sometimes knowingly and other times unknowingly, and sometimes even both.) However, while some of the specific pages may seem long, these form very few examples and over time more will be added.
For now though, the examples chosen reflect some of the more notable issues that did turn up in the mainstream, and so to some extent, a lot of people are familiar with these issues, but maybe not some of the deeper issues that were obscured by propaganda of various sorts.
The impacts of such propaganda contributed to the loss of millions of lives for it helped form a sense of legitimacy to what could otherwise have been regarded as controversial. Propaganda therefore comes with a huge cost.
This article has the following parts:
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