Media language and war: Manufacturing convenient realities
By Ramzy Baroud
Online Journal Contributing Writer
Feb 11, 2008, 00:13
In the competitive world of media today, swift and
conveniently selective reporting is of prime importance. Google News, for
example, claims to scan 4,500 news sources, of which only a few are highlighted
as main stories. There are thousands of similar services, all competing to
produce a story in the fastest time. Thorough -- and thus slower -- reporting
of crucial information often appears too little too late.
The Iraq story, which has occupied a huge proportion of
headline news for years, serves as a good example of this.
On February 1, only a few minutes apart, two Iraqi women
detonated themselves in two crowded pet markets in the Iraqi capital.
Authorities said that 98 people were reportedly killed and 200 were wounded.
Eyewitnesses reported a grizzly scene where human and animal body parts
littered the streets, hundreds of feet away from the blasts.
Any thorough analysis of the story would have to examine
several related factors. First, it would need to juxtapose the high death toll
with US and Iraqi governments� reports of �calm� in the Baghdad area. The claim
of a �return to normalcy� in the Iraqi capital has been propagated for months,
as a way of validating US President�s Bush�s military �surge.' Even if we buy
into the questionable statistics aimed at hyping the positive outcome of the
surge -- questionable because they are only promoted by US and Iraqi military
sources, with vested interests in downplaying the seriousness of the
�insurgency� -- the violence seems to have shifted from the capital into
northern areas, especially Mosul.
Instead of admitting failure in halting the violence which
has plagued Iraq since the US occupation of 2003, US and Iraqi authorities
resort to a continued and violent language to confuse and distract from the
This is how Alissa J. Rubin began her article for the New
York Times (January 31): �The unsettled situation in northern Iraq continued
Wednesday as Iraqi troops massed in Mosul to fight Sunni Arab extremists."
This is a brilliant way to divert attention of the story from the failure of
the surge to manipulate other values, and lumping these values to create a
completely fallacious association: �Sunni Arab extremists.�
Rubin further quotes an Iraqi Defence Ministry spokesman as
claiming that the goal of the military operation is to �oust Al-Qaeda in Iraq
from the city and prevent its fighters from returning.�
The entry statements contain a dangerously inaccurate
linkage between Arabs (an increasing oppressed minority in the Iraqi city),
Sunnis (the �remnants of the Saddam regime� as mindlessly parroted by the
media), extremists of the previous group and al-Qaeda. The New York Times story
-- which often sets the standards for reporting in other major US publications
-- will have laid the prefect foundation to justify future ethnic cleansings of
Sunni Arabs from the city, should the �military operation� succeed in �driving
out� al-Qaeda militants (the numbers of which are inflated whenever such
exaggeration is necessary).
Returning to the Baghdad markets� bombings, the response to
this tragedy was predictably misleading. The Iraqi government issued the usual,
if somewhat bizarre statement, and US officials, including Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice, made fiery condemnations. Enough material was gathered within
the hour to inundate us with hundreds of �fresh� news stories, which were
mostly a rehash of the official statements made in Baghdad�s Green Zone or in
CNN online opened one of its articles, made available soon
after the market bombings, with: �Two mentally disabled women were strapped
with explosives Friday and sent into busy Baghdad markets, where they were blown
up by remote control.�
The allegation was attributed to an Iraqi government
official later in the statement.
The Iraqi official said that �people referred to the bomber
at central Baghdad's al-Ghazl market as the 'crazy woman' and that the bomber
at a second market had an unspecified birth disability.�
Who are these �people�? Did the CNN reporter examine the
legitimacy of that claim by interviewing any of them?
The involvement of women in this sort of violence is often a
critical addition to the story, especially for Western readers. Readers tend to
pause longer when they hear of a suicide bomber who was also a mother. They may
feel an urge to learn more about the life of such a woman. Was she an inmate in
Abu Ghraib? Tortured? Raped? Did she lose a family member to the US war, to the
Iraqi death squads?
What do the bombings tell us about the security situation in
Baghdad, the success or failure of the �surge� or the war which is driving
people to suicide in its most brutal manifestations?
Apparently, it tells us nothing.
But Lt. Col. Steve Stover, spokesman for the Multi-National
Division-Baghdad has an explanation that seems, at least from the point view of
CNN, much more relevant than the seemingly unimportant questions above.
"By targeting innocent Iraqis, they [those who dispatched the �mentally
disabled� women suicide bombers] show their true demonic character." Thus,
CNN headline: �'Demonic' militants sent women to bomb markets in Iraq.� In
Western media language, Arab women are perpetually oppressed victims, and they
must maintain that role for the story to read right. Thus, the women bombers
cannot be viewed themselves as extremists, but as victims in the hands of
Within hours the buzzwords on online news were �mentally
disabled� and �demonic.'
But what does �demonic� mean exactly? What real issues does
it address? And why should such an irrelevant outburst define the deadliest
bombing in Baghdad in months?
Focusing on such extraneous associations -- mindless, mad,
demonic women, possessed and acting on the behest of bearded and cunning
al-Qaeda �Arab Sunni, extremists� -- does much more than simply distract from
the many military and policy failures in Iraq. It helps create a parallel
universe to that of the real world, thus presenting a substitute image that
shapes and reshapes the perceptions and imaginations of faraway news consumers.
The �real world� -- whether that of Iraq, Palestine, Burma,
Kenya or any other -- is a world that, although seemingly chaotic, is very much
rational. It is predicated on the values of cause and affect. What may seem
�demonic� and �mad� to a non-media person should not appear the same to a
journalist. The latter�s responsibility is to narrate, contextualize and
deconstruct with an independent and critical eye, not merely reiterate what has
been told to him by �official sources.'
The corporate media�s depiction of the Gaza story which has
been unfolding for months might be summed up in one overriding headline: Hordes
of Palestinian Breach Gaza Border with Egypt, Israel Concerned over Its
The imprisonment of 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza --
where poverty stands at 79 percent and unemployment hovers around a similar
number, and where the majority of the population is �food insecure� according
to United Nations agencies -- should have been depicted first and foremost as a
humanitarian disaster compelled by an Israeli siege. The dates related to the
successive stages of the siege follow a line of Israel�s political, not
�security� logic. Any reasonable timeline of recent events could easily verify
that (the formation of the Hamas government in March 2006, the ousting of the
pro-Israeli Palestinian security apparatus in June 2007 and so on being
followed by dramatic Israeli moves to tighten the siege on Gaza, Hamas�
But little of that seemed relevant to the way the Gaza story
was amply reported. Like the Iraq story, where the two main trusted sources are
the occupation and its puppet Iraqi government, any story of relevance to Israel
and Palestine has to be validated by the official Israeli source and to a
lesser but growing extent by their allies among Palestinians. The rest are
�extremist,' radical and hell-bent on the destruction of the �Jewish state.�
Note how the Jewishness of Israel is often emphasised whenever the word
�destruction� or similar words are infused.
This is what Bridget Johnson wrote in the Seattle PI
(January 29) chastising the United Nations� Human Rights Council for its
condemnation of Israel�s siege on Gaza: �There was zero mention of Hamas'
continued rocket attacks on Israel -- which preceded the cutoff of supplies
that has caused such an uproar -- or Hamas' refusal to renounce violence
against and attempted destruction of the Jewish state.�
The claims were preposterous -- especially that of a small
group�s �attempted destruction� of a country saturated with nuclear arms. The
words �destruction� and �Jewish state� are simply passed as an innocent
�opinion,' read by thousands of Americans. There are many notable omissions as
well. Hamas has repeatedly called for a mutual ceasefire, which was also
repeatedly rejected or simply ignored by Israel (in the guise of �not
negotiating with terrorists�). The siege followed the democratic elections of
Hamas, not the rocket attacks, the intensity of which corresponded with the
number of Palestinians killed in Gaza. Also conveniently missed is the fact
that Palestinians rockets have killed 10 Israelis in several years. The killing
of any civilian anywhere is tragic, but the facts are rarely contextualised by
the media. The number of Palestinians killed in Gaza as a result of Israeli
army attacks since the Annapolis �peace� conference two months ago is estimated
at 149. Several fold were killed in Gaza since the siege started early 2006.
Over 60 have died since June 2007 as a result of either lack of medicines or
Israel�s refusal to allow them entry to better equipped hospitals in the West
Bank. This is only the tip of the iceberg since human suffering cannot only be
measured by those who die, but also those who continue to live in perpetual
suffering. For Johnson, this is irrelevant, since this is not about right and
wrong, but a war of language. To win, one must have command over language --
and the way it�s manipulated -- and access to platforms that reach the largest
number of readers. An easy recipe to victory is an intentional mix of such
words as Islamic extremism, al-Qaeda, Hamas, Jewish state, security,
destruction, right to exist, juxtaposed with images or clips of angry
Palestinian youth burning Israeli and American flags �side-by-side,' and you
will have an American public and government standing in eternal solidarity with
While most US politicians are self-seeking, power hungry and
would do whatever it takes to be elected, the average American, unlike what it
may seem, is not born �pro-Israel,' and �anti-Palestinian.� Most Americans are
pro the manufactured, yet misleading image of Israel that reaches their homes
through television, waits at their doorsteps in the morning and is beamed to
them through the web. Israel has mastery over the language of the Western
media, which, again, helped create a paralleled universe that has little
relation to reality. That alternative universe only exists on the pages of New
York Times, the images of CNN, and the blabber of Fox News �experts.' According
to that narrative, Palestinians, are, like the Iraqi women suicide bombers,
�demonic,' �mad,' �extremist,' �irrational,' self-hating, and all the rest.
To recognize reality the way it is, one has to re-examine
language. While a critical reader is essential, the task starts in the hands of
a journalist, who must understand his topic is not based on simple �facts� and
perceptions. Simple facts lead to simple conclusions: Sunni extremists, mad
mullahs, unruly Palestinians, besieged Israel. Every story can be told in three
different ways: two by the two main conflicting parties, and a third by the
journalist himself. The journalist must not compromise his independence, must
not buy into jargon, mantras, and turn into another official spokesperson. To
convey a version of a story that is as close the true story as possible, a
media person has to comprehend the context himself, analyse the motives and
follow the line of logic: cause and affect, then, impart his new realizations
-- free of self-censorship, coercion or intimidation. Otherwise, the true story
will always be shelved in favour of rewritten official statements and
repackaged government and military press releases, falsely presented as
�accurate,' �independent� and �impartial.' Mindlessly repeating these official
discourses may be easier and more profitable, but it will make no helpful
contribution to the field of journalism, and to any possibility of truth and
Baroud is a Palestinian-American author and editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His work has
been published in numerous newspapers and journals worldwide. His latest book
Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People�s Struggle (Pluto
Press, London). Read more about him on his website: ramzybaroud.net.
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