The 1991 Persian Gulf War provided a testing ground for many of the latest war machines. It also clearly demonstrated the use of the news media, particularly television, by the military: without question, the media played an important role for the USA and its allies in winning the war. After the war, many research studies on the subject focused on new aspects of the media, such as technical usage opportunities, social effects and the limits of propaganda implementation through the media. One of the questions that came up was whether the ‘free press’ had become a propaganda tool, functioning as a public relations (PR) agent of the military during the war. If so, then when, how and why?
For big institutions that need to deal with the media, buying advertisements through media outlets is a common way to avoid being attacked by the media and sponsoring programs is a good device for using the media as PR agents. After some bad experiences with the media in the Korean War and worse experiences in the Vietnam War, the US military determined to harness the power of the media. Like any other service-providers keen to establish and maintain the popularity of their products, the military sought to advertise their services: patriotism, heroism, military might and, of course, war. During the Gulf War they played the role of an advertising client of the media, especially the broadcast media, and, in effect, sponsored a live war spectacle in the Persian Gulf. Thousands of soldiers and innocent civilians made up the cast for a show which attracted millions to their TV screens. It was a masterpiece of collaboration between the army and the media.
In order to sustain government and national policies, especially in ‘democratic’ countries, public support is vital, and today the media monopolize this power of persuasion. We can see power centres attempting to control media as early as the 1400s. When Gutenberg invented the printing press, the Roman Catholic Church saw this tool being used to undermine the papal authority, and declared it as ‘evil.’ During the second half of the twentieth century, especially in democratic countries like the US, the broadcasting media have themselves become a major power centre. Since the majority of the intellectuals in these countries regard the media as a ‘watchdog’ over the actions of government, the media exercise tremendous political authority as well as economic power. Since very few, if any, major policy decisions can be made without media approval, government needs to reconcile itself to the media rather than control them. Indeed, whoever needs the media’s ‘seal of approval’ must appeal to the media.
Except for government financed channels, all media outlets are commercial and the goal of channels like ABC, NBC, and CNN is making profit, rather than playing the ‘watchdog’ role. Inevitably, the ‘watchdog’ role is often compromised by the need to make profit. A well-known example of this in the past was the relationship between the media and the cigarette industry. Cigarette companies paid huge amounts of money to the media which encouraged them not to discuss the harmful side- effects of smoking. ‘Information concerning the hazards of cigarette smoking was available as early as 1938 but was ignored, censored or played down by the media to such an extent that, even two decades later, only 44 percent of the people thought smoking was a cause of lung cancer’ (Jensen, 1993, p.212). In exchange for some benefits, the media can be manipulated to hide information and sometimes even give false information. Such a case occurred during the Reagan administration: each of the three big networks ABC, CBS and NBC was acquired by corporations that might have been unqualified under earlier FCC standards which Reagan lifted. In return, the big media dispensed relentlessly positive news about Reaganism and the great trickle-down dream (ibid., p.25). Furthermore, by writing positive news, ‘government lying was too willingly supported by the media’ (ibid., p.26). The general public are quite ignorant of the extent of distortion and false reporting. We are not speaking of hiding some few government blunders but of giving erroneous background information to favour a declaration of war or the application of murderously punitive economic sanctions against a country. Seriously independent, investigative journalists, such as those who publish annually The Censored Year Book, document many cases of disinformation and misinformation by the US media on serious issues that involve loss of human life.
Following what they saw as the bias of the media during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the American military made a study of the weak points of the media, as of an enemy. In particular, they realized that the media’s concern to find the most interesting, up- to-date and spectacular news so that their channel would be viewed by large audiences was more important to them than their ‘watchdog’ role: ‘the larger the audience, the more they can charge for advertising’ (Fitzgerald). The media’s need for high ratings made them vulnerable to bargaining pressure, which the military exploited as any business interest would. War crimes and horrors were not to be shown, if the media wanted access to the international which would secure their audience ratings. The media’s capacity to present war as a big show was first realized (and managed) by British officials during the Falklands conflict. They knew that if the media were denied other alternatives than showing the official propaganda footage, they would use the propaganda rather than have nothing to broadcast. The British experience became the pattern for US military officials who set up a new, semi-formal code for US media and military relations. Following the Falklands pattern, military officials in charge of the Grenada, Panama and Gulf wars made it clear to media executives (through, for example such agreements as the Pentagon’s ten-page list of rules, revised in January 1991) that if they did not misbehave by revealing war crimes or US casualties they would have access to their military show and would make some profit. The deal suited both sides. CNN Executive Vice-President Ed Turner said:‘In the end, we are going to co-operate [with the US military]’ (Sukow, 1991) revealing his desire not to miss the chance to air the curious military show about to happen in the Arabian desert. However, it was not a show, it was a war. As a result, just as arguments for a non-military resolution were denied prominence, so too the unpleasant realities of the imposed military resolution, including the loss of human life, were hidden from a world-wide audience.
The military evolved tactics against the media to influence them as they had once influenced the military, began with the Korean War. Until the beginning of the end of the Vietnam War, the relations continued in the same pattern. Following the British example in the Falklands, the US military had their own model of media control in place before the Grenada invasion, and had made it more effective still for the Panama invasion. During the Gulf War, in the latest phase of these evolving tactics, there began a new level of almost overt commercial co-operation between the US military and the US mass media.
Today media and military planners work together on the battlefield. In the Gulf War, reflecting on the effort the broadcasting companies and other mass media put into advertising the war and attaining public support for it, we can say that correspondents seemed as if they were working as members of the army: the media functioned as a department of the military with the task of achieving public support for the victory. The co-operation between the army and news media succeeded. In the Gulf War, many reprehensible acts were committed by the US and its allies such as the bombing of civilian targets, including shelters and apartments, or concocting lies in order to make propaganda against the enemy seem legitimate. Sometimes this was even done by means of the President, George Bush. However, the war was legitimized in the eyes of the US public, and also in the eyes of many people all around the world.
In the past, the relationship between the military and the media was not so close. For the sake of getting good and interesting coverage, in many cases, the media harmed the aims of the military by exposing their failures or wrong actions, such as in the Vietnam War. In response, military and government offices increased censorship and stopped media access to military and governmental sources. After a long struggle and animosity between the media and the military, they appear to have become wholly reconciled in a mode of co-operation beneficial for both sides: exciting coverage and an international audience for the media and unquestioning public support for the military and government policies. Today the media, knowingly or unknowingly, function as the US Army’s PR agent, and in return the military gives them an important and exciting international event to report, which everyone is curious to see: war.
- FITZGERALD, J. (1995) ‘Aesthetics & Media Criticism’. Lecture in Emerson College, Media Criticism Aesthetics course, January 19.
- JENSEN, C. (1993) The News That Didn’t Make the News and Why, The 1993 Censored Year Book, Sheburne Press.
- KARNOW, S. (1984) Vietnam: A History. The first Complete Account of Vietnam at War, Penguin Books, New York, NY, p.23.
- LEE, R. S.H. (1978) ‘Early Korean War Coverage’, Journalism Quarterly, 55, pp.789fl93.
- MARTINI, L. Director. Lines in the Sand. Griffin-Wirth Assoc. c.1991.
- SHARKLEY, J. (1991) Under Fire, The Centre for Public Integrity, pp.614.
- SUKOW, M. R. (1991) ‘The Storm and the Eye’, Broadcasting, January 14.