Image Conscious
March 28, 2003 12:27 AM   Subscribe

Image Conscious The fall of CNN, and what it means for the war.
posted by cmacleod (18 comments total)
Unlike any of the American, British or European news networks available overseas, Jazeera (and to a lesser extent some of its Arabic knockoffs) is presenting a coherent and convincing picture—and that picture is of an American war effort going disastrously wrong.
Well, yeah. That's because it's highly constructed, manufactured, and spun. CNN has its weaknesses, but if their narrative is incoherent, maybe that's because war is incoherent.
The issue here is not how the actual war is going, but how the battle of images is going. On that front, there hasn't even been a stalemate. So far, it's been a stunning victory for the Arabs.
Propaganda is always prettier than truth, which is often incomplete, contradictory, annoyingly complicated. Would the writer prefer CNN to present a glossy image of an unstoppable Coalition juggernaut, happy liberated Iraqis, corpses hideously disfigured by the demonic inhuman Baathists, etc., etc.? C'mon.

Western media are imperfect. But they are far less imperfect than Jazeera.

[this is silly]
posted by Slithy_Tove at 12:55 AM on March 28, 2003

I thought it was an interesting article. I don't have satellite TV, so I've mostly been getting my news from the web. But I agree that the ability to stitch together a coherent story represents a significant coup for the Arab networks (even if that story is stitched out of whole cloth). Humans have an irrational need for narrative, and will impose it even when there isn't a real basis for one.

And regardless of the quality of information on Al-Jazeera, the author makes a good point about the self-censorship going on at American networks.
posted by spacewaitress at 1:11 AM on March 28, 2003

Well, yeah. That's because it's highly constructed, manufactured, and spun.

No actually I would say the converse is true. In fact if anything their coverage is too raw, too real, unlike the highly polished mono-viewpoint presented by CNN.

Would the writer prefer CNN to present a glossy image of an unstoppable Coalition juggernaut..

Isn't that what they are doing?
posted by cmacleod at 1:12 AM on March 28, 2003

I've been hating the American media since before Bush took office. They seem to have lost touch with reality at the same pace as the current US administration.

And another thing. Why do all the American anchors seem to be smiling constantly?
posted by password at 1:20 AM on March 28, 2003

Would the writer prefer CNN to present a glossy image of an unstoppable Coalition juggernaut..

cmacleod: Isn't that what they are doing?

I don't think so. When there is a setback, we hear of a setback. When something is taking longer than expected, we hear that, too. When there is a success, we hear that. I think they've been fairly nuanced about ambiguous events, such as the missile that hit the Baghdad market, just reporting information as it becomes available. I cringed at their pre-war coverage, which was very Hollywood, and did seem to be cheerleading the war, but since the war began, I think that not just CNN, but western media in general has done a fairly good job. Outlets like Fox slant pro-war and those like The Guardian slant anti-war, of course, but overall, I think the coverage hasn't been bad.

spacewaitress, I agree with one criticism the Reason writer had: Western media should not be afraid to show the horrors of war. War is horrible. Media should not conceal it.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 1:46 AM on March 28, 2003

That's because it's highly constructed, manufactured, and spun.
After watching CNN every night at work since the beginning of this war, your description is exactly the one I would apply to CNN's coverage. From the article: "Jazeera gives you the impression there is a war going on, rather than a series of press conferences."

Also from the article: "A country that goes to war and then expects to see no evidence of war's actual results is not a serious country." Substitute 'country' with 'president' (or has that bit regarding Bush's refusal to look at the dead Americans been debunked?)

] BTW, I still think this war was inevitable. I just cringe that Bush and Rumsfeld are commanding it. [
posted by mischief at 2:48 AM on March 28, 2003

I think Otto von Bismarck said it best:
"People never lie so much as after a hunt, during a war or before an election."

Next year is election year, the US is at war and hunting Hussein - I don't even believe myself anymore.
posted by spazzm at 2:51 AM on March 28, 2003

The only significant difference I've found so far is that Al Jazera is showing pictures not shown on _any_ other networks. I'll leave to watchers to decide if it's right or wrong, if they like or dislike. Again, we have the power of remote and nobody forces us to watch what we don't like to watch.

For instance, I'm so sickend by Foxnews that I can't no longer watch it without thinking "what would Goebbels do to make it look better ?" But that doesn't make me feel the need to ask for its banning from some "floor", I'll simply switch channel.

That also applies to Iraq TV. But not to Al Jazera and other channels. At least -not yet-.
posted by elpapacito at 3:00 AM on March 28, 2003

Let me also add that Al-Jazeera has taken risks and created a stir in the Arab world:
"After Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Morocco and Mauritania, it is now Iraq's turn to censor Al-Jazeera because it no longer likes its frankness" said Reporters Without Border secretary-general Robert Ménard in a letter to Iraqi Information minsiter, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf. "We await your explanation of this arbitrary step and ask you to cancel at once the ban on Al-Umari" added Ménard."
Hardly then, a Saddam mouthpiece.
I think what is shocking to some American audiences is that they are exposed to a channel that values civilian Arab life more than that of American soldiers.
Please note that one of the, few, beneficial side effects of this war is that it has humiliated the Arab world, to such an extent that it has triggered an introspection that wasn't there before this colonial adventure began. We see in the Arab News a Saudi english language newspaper the following:

The United States sends its shocking and awesome military might to our part of the world to bring about not just regime change but region change as well, all the while proclaiming, as it sets about regrouping our geopolitical reality in response to its interests, that American troops here will not be an army of occupation but of liberation, as if we had asked to be liberated.

but then:

...the question I raise today is not why a superpower is tearing our homeland asunder, but why it feels able to do that, and get away with it.
Why, after well over half-a-century of independence, do we remain so weak, so helpless at meeting the challenges of history, of modernity, of progress? So vulnerable to the whims of invaders who know they can ravage our land, at will, without fear of retribution?
Why has our political culture proven so barren, our public debate so dreary, our reflections on national selfhood so desperately monotonous?
Begin here: We in the Arab world have quietly acquiesced in the forfeiture of our powers of self-determination as individuals and, collectively, as a polity.
We have lived in societies where a handful of men dictate our destiny, where we are socialized on the ethic of fear — fear of innovation and originality — and are coerced into embracing orthodoxy and uniformity. So much so that we have become a mirror image of our authoritarian elite, and like them, living in deep denial, incapable of grasping reality.

I hope this sort of soul-searching in response to naked aggression, helps pull out the Arab world out of its current slumber. Al Jazeera will be without a doubt of tremendous assistance to this awakening.
posted by talos at 3:28 AM on March 28, 2003

Very interesting opinion piece, talos. Fawaz Turki seems to be asking the right questions.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 3:48 AM on March 28, 2003

] BTW, I still think this war was inevitable. I just cringe that Bush and Rumsfeld are commanding it. [

Well, you have company for your opinion - Hans Blix says 'Nothing I could have said would have stopped this war.' in an interview in todays Guardian.
posted by biffa at 3:57 AM on March 28, 2003

interesting piece--i especially liked this little part: Why should anybody be listening to a news network that sees its first role as being that of a wartime censor?

and Slithy: ...When there is a setback, we hear of a setback. When something is taking longer than expected, we hear that, too. When there is a success, we hear that...
um...maybe our networks and cable could remember the old adage--not to tell us something, but to show us?
posted by amberglow at 5:46 AM on March 28, 2003

Man... Talos, helluva contribution.

It is amazing to think that the Middle East may begin having this discussion with itself, saddening to think that had they done so a decade or even a few years ago, this war might not have been necessary.

And I agree with elpapacito - I think the networks should show the war in its bloody totality. The only reason support for this was is so high in America, I believe, is that people are insulated from the true face of war.

If the anti-war movement really wanted to make some headway, they'd take a page from the anti-abortion movement, which regularly includes huge, full-color images of aborted fetuses on its placards and banners, forcing people to look at and confront the reality of what they "support." Photos like that of the kid with the back of his head blown off are worth thousands of arguments, let alone words; I believe the pro-war right, correctly, fears the debate may go in that direction. They have used the gut punches of human rights and WMD; this would be an equally effective emotional counter to that, and probably more so. How many parents would see that dead kid and wonder how they'd feel if it was their own child?
posted by kgasmart at 6:07 AM on March 28, 2003

Here's a perspective from a reporter on how difficult it is to cover the war.
posted by Summer at 7:01 AM on March 28, 2003

kgasmart, I hope you can read this with a touch of tolerance, because I suspect we're on diametrically opposed sides of the abortion policy question. I don't want to debate that, so much as your analogy between showing the horrors of war on TV, raw and unvarnished, and "including huge, full-color images of aborted fetuses on placards and banners, forcing people to look at and confront the reality of what they support".

That analogy doesn't sit right with me. For instance, I'm fully in support of organ donation and transplant operations, but you'd bet I'd feel nauseated and aghast if someone thrust full-color photos of harvesting and surgery in my face and waved them around a bit. That said, recognizing the unsavory nature of the process won't change the donation notation on my driver's license.

I could make many similar comparisons. Sometimes, actions that a society or an individual deems necessary or prudent can be visually repellent. Just because an image provokes a strong reaction doesn't mean that what's portrayed is inherently wrong (or right). Is consumption of beef wrong because many people would recoil from footage filmed within a slaughterhouse? No. Eating beef is wrong (or just fine, if that's your conclusion) for *reasons*. The visual isn't without impact, sure, but it's not what decides your policy.

So if you have problems with a particular policy, wouldn't reasoning be a better approach than gross-out or shock tactics? This is the same thinking I apply to animal-rights materials that insist on showing some of the worst end results of animal experimentation. I'm dead-set against most forms of animal testing, but the kind of campaigns the PETA folks and other groups occasionally run leave me wondering sometimes whether they're looking more to persuade or offend (and by offending, close the very minds they're trying to reach).

I don't want to derail the topic any further, so I'll restrain myself to simply noting that my (and many others') personal politics are generally deeply rooted enough to withstand grotesque visuals--particularly when they're deliberately presented with intent to influence.

And to circle back to war footage, my guess is that anyone who has devoted serious thought to the war, and decided they're for it, is unlikely to shift their positions based on what they see on TV--even the Al-Jazeera version.

[Please note as an aside, I am opposed to the war. But I'm just sayin'....]
posted by clever sheep at 7:56 AM on March 28, 2003

Why do all the American anchors seem to be smiling constantly?

It's not just the American anchors. I just saw CNN's usually serious Rhym Brahimi relaying the numbers of Iraqi dead and injured as reported originally by the Iraqi information minister, and she had a big-ass grin on her face as she announced the figures. How inappropriate is that?
posted by pudders at 9:37 AM on March 28, 2003

Clever Sheep, that's a valid argument. I do personally support the right to abortion, but I have to admit that, particularly after my own child was born, when I see some of those pictures I have to wonder. I have to wonder.

The same goes with eating meat, frankly: I'm a carnivore, but I've seen the scenes. Read a helluva piece in the NY Times magazine a few years ago on beef production that damned near put me off the stuff for a while.

When it comes to matters of life and death, I do truly believe that you've got to at least know what you're supporting before you can actually go out and support it.
posted by kgasmart at 9:50 AM on March 28, 2003

Boy am I glad that someone snapped up Tim Cavanaugh after Suck died. If only someone would hire Polly Esther and Terry Colon to work together again...
posted by straight at 10:42 AM on March 28, 2003

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