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War in the Livingroom

War in the Livingroom

July 13th, 2007  |  Published in Uncategorized  |  1 Comment

Note: a second foundation post explaining the kernel or core of my proposed new media theory is still ‘under construction.’ Like many before me attempting to put forward a new theory, the need to specify assumptions and context is proving a bigger task than first imagined. I can report that I have made considerable progress on that front and that the post should appear without too much further delay. I know…weasel words, but alas true ones.  In the mean time I will crosspost my  media posts from Yankeewombat. 

J. D. Johannes has a post up at Tech Central Station How al Qaeda is Winning Even as it is Losing that proposes a statistical method by which media bias can be measured. He makes no great claims for it but he follows the fundamental rules of scientific research in that he discloses his assumptions and the degree to which his method is a work in progress. It could be the start of a line of action research on how and why our Western MSM (Mainstream Media) is handling the War in Iraq. Johannes applies his experience buying advertising by applying a formula used to estimate the amount of influence advertising buys on public opinion. As he says – a very rough measure. His fundamental point about the war as that public support for the war has continued to fall because of negative media coverage despite the definite turn around in results on the ground. He reminds us why killing civilians and stirring up sectarian violence has worked as a media strategy despite the fact that the insurgency failed in its announced intention to hold a geographic base, stop the elections, or prevent the formation of the Iraqi security forces.

But al Qaeda’s largest harvest from “random slaughter” strategy was realized in America. Through acts of indiscriminate violence transmitted by the media, insurgents brought their war to America’s living rooms. The atrocity-of-the-day is the principal informational input most Americans receive. This forms their knowledge base. The public does not live in the villages and mahalas of Iraq. Patterns of recovery, of normalcy, are not evident.This is the essence of 4th Generation Warfare. And al Qaeda is clearly winning it.

Anyone interested in trying to measure the effects of media on public opinion should read Johannes’ article. I will just take one aspect of his results that confirm my own understanding of media but that run counter to both my personal view of the war and the general perceptions of bias in the MSM.

So our first assumption is that cable coverage, with FOX News Channel to the right of the mainstream, and CNN and MSNBC to the left, will mirror the optimism and pessimism of broadcast networks overall.

The Media Research Center defined as “optimistic” coverage that “reported on achievements or victories” for coalition forces. It defined as “pessimistic” reports that emphasized “setbacks, misdeeds or pessimism about [coalition] progress in Iraq.”

The MRC report, “The Iraq War on Cable TV,” concluded the following:

On Fox, pessimistic coverage outweighed optimistic coverage 3-to-2;

On MSNBC, pessimistic coverage outweighed optimistic coverage 4-to-1; and

On CNN, pessimistic coverage outweighed optimistic coverage 6-to-1.

As I implied above I am not among those who believe the media, in this case specifically cable TV, are pro war. So the above results fit my personal perceptions in general. Nonetheless, the result for Fox News does not surprise me – it exactly fits my impression that all the US cable news channels present a discouraging view of the war in Iraq. The obvious surprise is that Fox News shows as being mildly negative despite its clear ideological position supporting the war. I don’t know if the criteria behind the observations made by Media Research Center were skewed, but I know that the results fit my experience of Fox News because I see the war coverage through the lens of McLuhan’s statement – the medium is the message.

In the case of TV, it is the pictures, not the words used, that carry the primary impact. I would predict that there would be clearly observable differences between the words used by Fox, MSNBC and CNN, but that the main message is carried by the spectacular footage of “random slaughter” that no TV network can fail to show if it wants to maintain ratings. We have known this about TV for some time. It was widely discussed during the Vietnam war that it was television coverage of the war that turned public opinion against it. Indeed Marshall McLuhan saidTelevision brought the brutality of war into the comfort of the living room. Vietnam was lost in the living rooms of America – not on the battlefields of Vietnam.

TV has this capability because of two interrelated characteristics. First it is complete enough an experience of an event that it makes us feel like we have actually experienced it. We feel like we witnessed the attacks on New York on 9/11 although most of us did not. We therefore feel like we witness what goes on in Iraq from watching the news. The footage seems real, even when it is faked, (and there is evidence that some of it is) and is processed by our senses and brains as real experience. We know, only if we stop and think about it, that we are watching carefully selected and constructed movies of events and that it is difficult to remember that much is not being shown. The second factor is that the impact of TV is mainly carried by the pictures, as I mentioned above, and that the impact is primarily emotional. It is ‘real life’ drama, but drama nonetheless, and follows the same connections to our hearts that the Greek playwrites who invented Western drama used 2500 years ago.

Visually reporting “random slaughter” automatically conveys a negative message without having to resort to a Greek chorus chanting overt words like “Bush lied, people died.” The constant pictures of mayhem serve the same function as a Greek chorus behind the voice of the newsreader. Such coverage strips away political, social and military context and leaves the viewer with a helpless feeling of futility. The interesting thing is that Fox reports the war often using the same or similar footage. I believe this is so because such an approach is natural to any dramatic medium – despite the political effect being the opposite of what Fox sets out to do.

We are losing the information war because the insurgency – al Qaeda, Baathists, criminal gangs, the Mahdi Army – all of them, are playing the Western media like a violin. They are giving the media what they cannot resist – dramatic material they can turn into ratings.

A second factor I think will become more obvious when the history of the period is written is that the media in general disagreed with US policy in Iraq and used the power it had discovered in the Vietnam war to put out an anti war message. I think this is simply part of the social context of the history of media and politics in the US and more generally in the West. As a student of the media I think that mass media’s dominance of public opinion is changing because of the Internet. The independent journalist bloggers have changed the media environment and begun to undermine the power of the accumulated mass media – print and broadcast – to absolutely control the message. They still have the power to control public opinion powerfully, but their control of the means of publication which allowed them to absolutely determine what was reported and and how is also clearly broken. The media’s position is a lot like that of an illusionist who has been found out. Once people know something is not what it seems the knowledge spreads. The mass media may yet succeed in defeating America in Iarq, but it will be a nearer run thing than many believe. Nor do I believe will they succeed the next time they attempt it.

Crossposted at Yankeewombat.com


  1. James Kinniburgh says:

    October 7th, 2007at 9:36 pm(#)

    The major question I have with regard to this topic is this: Who, in fact, is making these editorial decisions?

    Is the pessimism of the coverage, in fact, the result of a deliberate, conscious attempt — a conspiracy — on the part of a majority of reporters and editors to smear the war? Or is it merely the unconcious result of an aggregate bias on the part of the same? Or is it a combination of editorial naivite, cost-saving measures (such as the use of indigenous “stringers” with their own agenda — see “Pallywood” http://www.seconddraft.org/movies.php), a desire for ratings and share (“if it bleeds, leads”), and several other factors unrelated to personal bias? Or is it some combination of all?

    It is easy to say “the media” as if they are a singular anthropomorphic entity, but the reality is more complex. I am sure there is an institutional bias in the field of journalism, and the success of the media in ending the Vietnam conflict has become a sort of foundational corporate myth/legend/narrative; but on a daily basis at the individual level, how is this myth played out, reinacted, or otherwise expressed (if at all)?

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I propose developing a new media theory as called for by Camile Paglia based on the work of Marshal McLuhan, Norman A Brown, Leslie Fiedler, as well as Eric S Raymond, Glenn Reynolds and others. See the Invitation for fuller information and how you may be able to participate. I want your help just like Linus Torvalds wanted help developing Linux.


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