Politics, media and war: 9/11 and its aftermaths
Politics, media and war: 9/11 and its aftermaths

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7.2 The uncensored war

Daniel Hallin’s study of US media coverage of the Vietnam War, The Uncensored War: the Media in Vietnam, sets out to demonstrate empirically that critical media reporting of the war did not cause the United States to ‘lose the war at home and so lose the war abroad’. He describes how both liberal and conservative commentators subscribed to a myth that by showing the reality of the war, citizens-cum-audiences turned against the US military involvement in Vietnam. In fact, media coverage of US action in Vietnam only became critical once the US political elite became divided. Media simply reflected these divisions. They did not ‘manufacture dissent’. Once elites became divided, journalists reported these divides, such that opposition to the war became a legitimate position.

Hallin suggests reporting is ‘indexed’ to the degree of consensus among elites. Political ‘elites’ (including political parties, different branches of state, and opinion-formers or intellectuals) enjoy complex relations that must be explained in each case under study. Just as audiences are not homogeneous, and ‘the media’ is not a singular body, so political elites are plural. Hallin’s study complicates Herman and Chomsky’s argument that US mass media necessarily and inevitably manufacture consent for war by showing the conditions in which media can come to play an opposition role to government.

Activity 25 The uncensored war

Please read the extract from Hallin’s book now.

Click to view The uncensored war [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

You should consider the following questions while you read. Again, note that some questions cannot be answered directly from the extract, but instead ask you to come up with your own answer based on your knowledge, experience and judgement. The discussion will fill you in on anything you can’t answer, so when you have finished reading, take a look at it.

1. Is Huntington correct to suggest that media undermine public attitudes towards democratic institutions (p4-5), and do media ever play the role of opposition?

2. How did US journalists characterise or describe US military defeat in Vietnam, according to Hallin? Why might this be so?

3. Has the myth that the US media caused its government and military to lose the war in Vietnam affected how media have covered subsequent wars, for instance in Latin America in the 1980s or Iraq in 1991 or 2003?

4. Does viewing the often bloody ‘reality’ of war necessarily turn audiences against war? How would we know?

Comment

  1. Huntington appears to hold to an expectation that deference is a virtue, and that politicians should be given space to conduct public affairs without intrusion. Yet we might counter this argument by saying that the media acts as a check and balance on political decision-making, and that a transparent political system will make for better judgements. Hence it can be argued that it is necessary for media to take a stringent stance towards politicians, but not necessarily an oppositional one.
  2. US journalists characterised the US defeat as one brought about by media reports that convinced US citizens that they should withhold their support for the war. Political and military leaders assume that certain images and stories of war will be intrinsically disturbing to publics-cum-audiences, e.g. bloodshed and the killing of innocent people ‘in our name’ or ‘by our boys’.
  3. Since the Vietnam War, political and military leaders have exercised far more strict regulations on journalists attempting to report from geographical zones in which military operations are being conducted. This reached a peak in the 2003 Iraq war in which US-led Coalition forces would not guarantee the safety of any journalist not embedded. Many journalists or ‘independents’ died in what appears to be fire from Coalition forces.
  4. Like arguments about violence or pornography on audiences, many commentators suggest that watching carnage from war and conflict zones ‘inures’ audiences, such that they become less shocked by such scenes. However, there are no studies that prove this. Equally, the suggestion that graphic scenes turn audiences against the policies that are thought to have led to them is unproven. If audiences believe the people being killed or injured are on ‘the other side’, they may endorse the violence. Scholars must take care to distinguish who is fighting and how audiences relate to them before making any claims about the effect of such scenes on audiences.

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