Packaging Terrorism: Co-opting the News for Politics and Profit by Susan D. Moeller, 2009: Wiley-Blackwell.
If you are thinking why we are talking about a book on the media coverage of terrorism in a space like this one, let me tell you one thing upfront: One, because this is a rare and important book and two, because terrorism, no matter where you are and what your profession is, can claim you as a victim.
Also, we have witnessed routinely how Internet-savvy terrorism has become of late: terrorism sites host beheading videos and broadcast threats of attack, terrorists abuse social networks and chat rooms for recruitments, and they use applications such as Google Earth for planning attacks (as seen in last year’s Mumbai attacks). Terrorists have been successfully using the new media to imbed fear into our hearts through our eyeballs.
The larger truth is that terrorism is the politics of our times. And like politics, even if you are not interested in it, it is interested in you.
The grand narrative of our times
Every era has its own grand narrative. Ours has been, at least for the last decade or so, terrorism. Before that, Kennedy’s and Reagan’s era was about the cold war, Clinton’s about globalisation and WTO and until recently, George W. Bush’s of global terrorism and the ‘war on terror’.
This grand narrative, however, is taking yet another new direction under president Barack Obama. The express reckoning is that the global financial crisis is a greater threat to the USA than terrorism. It is an even bigger threat to the United States' national security than the al Qaeda terrorist network or proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, said retired admiral Dennis Blair, the Obama administration’s director of national intelligence, in his first appearance before the US Congress.
While the shift from terror to finance is still happening, it is a good time to look at the ogre of terrorism that has been the bane of our life and times. And if you haven’t ever thought about how the media brings the ‘news’ of terrorism to us, Dr Moeller’s book can be an eye opener. She is the director of the International Centre for Media and the Public Agenda (ICMPA) at the University of Maryland, College Park, US. If you are afraid the book will be a dry read, you are in for a surprise. The book is not jargon-heavy, is divided into short chapters and uses a lot of examples to establish claims and observations.
Packaging terrorism for our consumption
The book is about a very simple idea. “The idea is this: that it’s not the acts of terrorism that most matter in the post-9/11 world,” writes Dr Moeller in her introduction, “it’s what we are told to think about the acts of terror. Politicians tell us what to think. The media tells us what to think. Even terrorists tell us what to think. They all want to attract our attention…They all have agendas. They all are packaging terrorism for our consumption. We are the audience for all those disparate actors.”
So, in a nutshell, this book is about how to make sense of the ‘packaged’ terrorism that is thrown at us from time to time—from New York, London, Madrid, Kabul, Bali and Bombay.
Chapter by chapter, Dr Moeller builds up the gory picture of terrorism and its manipulation—by terrorists, politicians and media barons. She begins with the basics such as what is terrorism, how 9/11 happened, how president Bush and his ‘vulcans’ (Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Richard Armitage, Condoleezza Rice and Paul Wolfowitz) crafted the war on terror—a label for their unilateralist and interventionist foreign policy goals, and how the American (and the copycat global) media responded.
Media response to the War on Terror
“The media responded as directed—and as they always have at the start of a national crisis,” writers Dr Moeller. “At the end of October 2001, the then CNN chairman Walter Isaacson wrote a memo to his staff members that ordered them to balance the broadcast images of civilian devastation in Afghanistan with reminders of the American lives lost at the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.” And thus began, according to Moeller, the beginning of a misleading media spin on the war on terror. “Isaacson was wrong,” she argues. “The American public deserved to know more about the casualties and hardship in Afghanistan. The public needed to know more about the meaning and the effect of the president co-opting 9/11 and co-opting the patriotic, broad-based interest in responding through a ‘War on Terror’.”
After examining the genesis of the ‘War on Terror’, Dr Moeller brings under her microscope various media-related issues that underlie the reporting on terrorism. Some examples: use of the umbrella words and phrases such as ‘terrorist’, ‘madrassa’ and ‘weapons of mass destruction’, defining terrorism, why news standards matter, and the politics of media coverage.
“Over and over, time and again, my centre’s studies revealed that the victims of terrorism rarely appear in the stories about it,” she says. “Media cover international affairs through the lens of their own country’s foreign policy—especially as articulated by its leadership.” Think of last year’s Mumbai terror attacks and how quickly it became an India and Pakistan issue, and how the media in the two countries adopted nationalistic agendas in reporting and discussing the attacks.
Citizen journalism and terrorism
With a rich cache of examples, the book traces a variety of developments in the media sector that arose while covering terrorism. One of the most fascinating aspects of these developments is the rise of citizen journalism, especially photos and videos, that came from citizens as well as professional photographers that were much discussed, many achieving iconic status. Perhaps blogs were invented just for this—when the mainstream media became shy of covering something or could not reach some areas, bloggers stepped in (remember the Baghdad blogger?) to fill the void. Very recently, the pain and suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza would not have come out in the open had it not been for the bloggers in Gaza and Israel who wrote the accounts of loss online when Israel had embargoed the foreign media in Gaza in its three weeks’ assault early this year.
The brave new world of murders and restrictions
With terrorism rampant in the world, what is most disturbing is the governments’ control (and thus manipulation) on the media coverage of the theatre of operations—in terms of restricting access to the war zones (embed restrictions) or killing of journalists. Consider these facts:
• Among the first killed by the Hutus during the genocide in Rwanda were 14 local journalists.
• How many people know that for the past decade Algeria has been ravaged by war that has left an estimated 100,000 dead? Not many, because both sides in that conflict have taken turns murdering journalists: 60 at last count. Same in Chechnya.
• Many don’t seem to be noticing that there is less and less coverage of the war in Iraq. By the summer of 2008, noted the New York Times, there were only half a dozen Western photographers covering the country, even though 150,000 American and 4,100 British troops remained engaged there. Why? Because of the “danger, the high cost to financially ailing media outlets and diminished interest among Americans in following the war.”
To ensure free and fair coverage of terrorism, the priority must be to build civil societies, including media, from inside out and the ground up, suggests the author. In conclusion, she says that we need to move beyond spin, ask questions because we don’t have all the answers, and evaluate what we are being told. “We need a vibrant, spirited, diverse, and pluralistic media at home and around the world,” she says.
To deal with the global curse of terrorism, the media needs to rise above all kinds of boundaries and re-evaluate their exceptionalism. Dr Moeller aptly recalls Dr Martin Luther King’s message: “A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.” (‘Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence’, 1967).
“If we do not act,” added Dr King for action, “we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight. Now let us begin.”
Even though it seems to be too late, can we still begin now?
Published first as my blog entry at www.mis-asia.com