Media Wars

David Perlmutter, Professor and Associate Dean for Graduate Studies & Research at the University of Kansas School of Journalism & Mass Communications, has a summation of the latest embarrassing media incidents from the war in Lebanon surrounding the credibility of photojournalism. He says some very good things and also, I believe, fails to genuinely confront the core problem.

He comes close in this paragraph:

A few photo-illusions are probably due to the lust for the most sensational or striking-looking image – that is, more aesthetic bias than political prejudice. Also, many photographers know that war victims are money shots and some will break the rules of the profession to cash in. But true as well is that local stringers and visiting anchors alike seem to have succumbed either to lens-enabled Stockholm syndrome or accepted being the uncredited Hezbollah staff photographer so as to be able to file stories and images in militia-controlled areas.

A brilliant job of gingerly grasping the nettle. If you read that paragraph slowly you will see that he is saying indirectly that political prejudice is the major factor. He offers two explanations for that prejudice – Stockholm syndrome where the victims of terror identify with their captors, and the kind of corruption of journalism where reporters give sympathetic coverage to terrorists in return for access.

I would go further. I think political prejudice is the outer skin of deeper problems that infect the MSM generally. A key mistake it makes is putting its duty to question its own government, and even its own culture, before its duty to the truth. I think it is fair to say that this tendency to oppositionalism in the American media arises directly from Watergate and the abuse of truth by the US military at press briefings in Vietnam known derisively as the ‘five o’clock follies’. In those two cases finding the truth and opposition to government were the same, but it was the truth that justified the opposition – not the other way around. But these specific causes of American oppositionalism are not the whole story because strong opposition by the press to the West in general, and the US and Israel in particular, is a ubiquitous phenomena. What I see in the European media and to lesser extent the American media is a combination of Stockholm syndrome and post colonial theory, not to mention a poisonous combination of post modernism and moral relativism, that all too often seems to deliver the sympathies of the media into the hands of the enemy.

The most obvious imbalance in MSM coverage that I see is that while their own side is always treated with skepticism or downright hostility, the message that the other side – Iraqi terrorists, Palestinians, Hezbollah – puts out is taken on by the media without serious question. They all too readily accept enemy framing of events and snap up dubious footage or stills they have no way of checking. They don’t often report threats or question the material publicly because they are afraid they will lose access or worse. The latter is precisely what Eason Jordan admitted CNN did to maintain access to Saddam’s Iraq. All these behaviors are ethically unsupportable and have put me and a lot of other people right off the MSM. (It is worth mentioning that John Burns of the New York Times refused Saddam’s minders and his pressure – so it can be done.) Moreover, the problem goes deeper because much of what our enemies in the War on Terror do is create mayhem with the primary purpose of inducing media coverage. Even 60s demonstrators knew that their protest would go unreported unless they ‘broke a window’. I found it very suggestive that the French shut down coverage of the car burning young Muslim rioters in their suburbs because they knew the coverage itself induced further rioting. They recognized that the media attention fed a self stoking cycle. I don’t think the solution is government censorship, but rather for journalists to recognize this intentional targeting of the media and act ethically when they encounter it. I see no reason why major news organizations can’t remove the propaganda value of news stories manipulated by terrorist organizations at the editorial level. For example, The recent stories about the death and injury to civilians out of Lebanon could have been balanced by always simultaneously reporting that Hezbollah was almost certainly basing rocket launchers among civilians for the purpose of generating these victims for their propaganda value. If the terrorists threaten and terrorize the reporters then shut the terrorists out of all coverage. That is exactly what they deserve. But it would be a great improvement if the media just acted even handedly. That is, just do to the terrorists what they are already doing to their own side and use their well developed ability to see through attempts to manipulate them. And then report it!

When you back up a bit further and look critically at the media circus you could argue that the cause of much of the violence in Iraq is the presence of the media as much as it American troops. The various Sunni and Shia militias have their own agenda to terrorize each other’s population as well as inflict casualties on the American forces, but their methods are seriously skewed by the presence of the media. The same is true of Hezbollah’s policy of keeping civilians near military targets. Would they do many of these things with the media out of the equation? I think not. The creation of spectacular incidents that they know the media will feature become the prime cause of many incidents. I recall an old, almost certainly apocryphal, story about the media and that well known and dearly loved American terrorist group – the Hell’s Angels. If I recall correctly the story went that 60 minutes asked a Hell’s Angel leader what town they were going to knock over next so they could report it better, and the reply came back – ‘you tells us what town, and we’ll knock it over’. The story points to the morally ambiguous position of the media in relation to reporting spectacular violence. By overemphasizing it, it is always in danger of causing it. Two quite different incidents from Iraq illustrate how deeply this phenomena is established. In 2003 there was a fierce battle over the remains of a helicopter in Tal Afar which ended the moment the desired photographic subject had been removed from the battle field. A month or so ago there was a counter sniping incident in Ramadi where snipers used a specially set up car as a sniping platform but were caught because they had a camera mounted so they could film their shots. Such media driven events happen every day and I believe the media ought to be estimating how much the event is designed to draw their attention and then reporting that estimate as part of their coverage.

In closing I want to say that David Perlmutter’s essay was inspired in part by his love of the profession of photojournalism and he wonders if the craft he loves “is being murdered, committing suicide, or both.” He takes a dark view of blogs.

“But the photojournalist standing on the crumbling ramparts of her once proud citadel now sees the vandal army charging for the sack led by ‘zombietime,’ ‘The Jawa Report,’ ‘Powerline,’ ‘Little Green Footballs,’ ‘confederateyankee,’ and many others.”

As a blogger I of course see them as heroes exposing a media abusing their power as the gatekeepers of what we see and how we see it. As a photographer I too am pained by the damage photojournalists are doing to themselves.

To give Daniel Perlmutter his due I like his prescription for how the media and the journalism schools can best handle the problem:

News picture-making media organizations have two paths of possible response to this unnerving new situation. First, they can stonewall, deny, delete, dismiss, counter-slur, or ignore the problem. To some extent, this is what is happening now and, ethical consideration aside, such a strategy is the practical equivalent of taking extra photos of the deck chairs on the Titanic.

The second, much more painful option, is to implement your ideals, the ones we still teach in journalism school. Admit mistakes right away. Correct them with as much fanfare and surface area as you devoted to the original image. Create task forces and investigating panels. Don’t delete archives but publish them along with detailed descriptions of what went wrong. Attend to your critics and diversify the sources of imagery, or better yet be brave enough to refuse to show any images of scenes in which you are being told what to show. I would even love to see special inserts or mini-documentaries on how to spot photo bias or photo fakery, in other words, be as transparent, unarrogant, and responsive as you expect those you cover to be.

Yes I agree, a lot of the solution is right there in our old fashioned ethics.


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