6.2.1 Activity: Government and spectacle
In an extract from ‘9/11, Spectacles of Terror, and Media Manipulation: A Critique of Jihadist and Bush Media Politics’, Douglas Kellner offers a highly-charged condemnation of the (predominantly) US media. He does this first for its apparent abjection towards (and, indeed, explicit endorsement of) the Bush administration's aggressive rhetoric in the sections following the 9/11 attacks, and, secondly, for the ways in which its highly selective and partial (pro-US) reporting has helped to publicly legitimate post-9/11 military campaigns. Kellner provides an overview account of the activities of US (and other) media and George Bush's Government, in the early days of the 2003 Iraq War. He takes the controversial position that not only did Bush seek to use the war as a platform for boosting his own waning political popularity, but that both Government and the media became complicit in the creation of media 'spectacles' specifically designed to promote the apparent strategic success (as well as moral legitimacy) of post-9/11 US military activity.
Activity 21 9/11, spectacles of terror, and media manipulation
, taking notes as you go. You do not need to read the whole thing, just the abstract and the section from ‘On March 19, the media spectacle …’ on page 15 to just above the ‘Concluding Comment’ on page 21. Then attempt to answer the following questions:
- What contrasts does Kellner draw between US and non-US media coverage of the 2003 Iraq War?
- Summarise Kellner's account of the role of embedded reporters.
- What evidence does Kellner provide to demonstrate that the US media were involved in varied attempts to the 'counter the negative spectacle'?
When you have answered the questions, reveal the discussion.
- Kellner argues that US television provided a highly partial and selective account of the unfolding 2003 war – tending towards commentary and analysis that favoured war and justified the invasion of Iraq in somewhat 'gung-ho' nationalistic terms. US broadcasters, such as the Fox and NBC network, are accused of providing little more than 'propaganda and one-sided patriotism' (p.17). By contrast, Arab networks such as Al Jazeera offered an opposing view that questioned the legitimacy of the military operation, presenting it as both an 'invasion' and 'illegal' in terms of international law. Kellner notes how other non-US networks such as Canadian CBC used more neutral and moderated language ('War on Iraq') than US networks ('War in Iraq', 'Operation Iraqi Freedom').
- Kellner is quite critical of 'embedded' reporters – those television and newspaper journalists who work alongside military units rather than being externally located and reporting at arm's length (these are usually called 'unilateral' reporters). He first accuses some (unspecified) embedded reporters of being 'gung-ho cheerleaders and spinners for the US and UK military' (p.16) producing reports that were unashamedly 'exultant and triumphant' (p.16). While Kellner does identify that some 'embeds' were capable of challenging the military viewpoint – see the account of the Washington Post journalist – on the whole he is inclined to argue that embedded reporters are compromised by their reliance on military support and thus can only offer 'propagandist' reporting. He then suggests that only independent (unilateral) reporters are able to provide accurate and objective accounts.
- Kellner goes on to detail how attempts by the US media to 'counter the negative spectacle' (p.20) included:
- the 'rescue' of Private Jessica Lynch, an American prisoner of war who was apparently liberated from the clutches of Iraqi soldiers in a dramatic filmed event 'staged like a reality TV spectacle' (p.18) (the US account of this event has now been widely discredited)
- the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in central Baghdad by a massed group of Iraqis (as Kellner notes, the reality is somewhat less dramatic)
- the highly choreographed event of George Bush ('in full Top Gun regalia' p.20) apparently piloting an aircraft onto the deck of USS Abraham Lincoln in order to offer his 'Mission Accomplished' speech where he (somewhat prematurely) declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq.
Such attempts to create positive spectacles underlines the importance attached by the US to ensuring, not just a military victory, but what Retort would refer to as an image victory.
You should observe that while Kellner's argument is highly polemical (and might well be criticised for its emotiveness and its own selective use of material and argument) it also provides elements of a convincing critique of the role of the media in routinely promoting US governmental and military interests, as well as engineering specific 'spectacles' that function largely as propaganda.