William F. Fore received a B.D. from Yale Divinity School and Ph.D. from Columbia University. A minister in the United Methodist Church , he was Director of Visual Education for the United Methodist Board of Missions, then Executive Director of the Communication Commission of the National Council of Churches in New York City. From 1989 to 1995 he was Visiting Lecturer in Communication and Cultural Studies at Yale Divinity School.. His publications include Image and Impact (Friendship Press 1970), Television and Religion: the Shaping of Faith, Values and Culture (Augsburg 1987, currently reprinted by SBS Press, 409 Prospect St., New Haven, CT 06511), and Mythmakers: Gospel Culture and the Media (Friendship Press 1990).
This article appeared in The Christian Century, April 17, 1991, pp.422-423. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.
Fore explores the unusually tight control the United States military had over Gulf War news coverage in general and television coverage in particular. He suggests that there is no simple answer as to how and why this could have happened, that it involved a combination of technical, economic and cultural forces, and that everyone who views such events uncritically is asking to be controlled.
Those who study television have identified three basic approaches to analyzing its cultural influence. Television can be analyzed for the meanings its transmits; for the way its programming is driven by economic considerations; and for the way it gratifies audience needs. Applying these three analyses to the TV images of the Gulf War offers some important insight into television’s biases and its cultural power.
Television as signifier. Viewers have learned a complex visual code: a close-up means intimacy or emotion, a shot from below means authority, a fade-out means the end of an episode. We have been taught the “meaning” of certain characters and objects: doctors represent authority; jet planes mean wealth and power; popular actors and athletes are trustworthy. Commercials rely heavily on signification: soft drinks are associated with youth and beauty, automobiles with power, control and escape. Signification is the key to all effective selling.
What did the Gulf War sell? We were inundated with images of technology: powerful and exotic airplanes taking to the sky night after night: tanks speeding across the desert, stopping only to shoot at (and always hit) a distant target. In case we missed the point, narrators assured us the bombs were “smart” and the strikes “surgical.” The signification was clear: technology not only bestows power and superiority but enables us to be humane, even in the conduct of war.
We also saw a great deal of interpretation as opposed to documentation. If Vietnam was the first TV war, the Gulf was the first anti-TV war. With the exception of a few exciting moments when a Scud missile was expected in Israel or Dhahran, correspondents were restricted to talking to us by radio or telephone while the camera focused on a map of the Middle East. Otherwise, various experts, mostly former military men, explained a particular weapon or tactic from a studio thousands of miles from the battlefield. Never was so much stock footage used to convey so little. When narrators described tank training, we saw familiar shots of tanks racing across the desert; if there was a report of new air sorties, we saw, for the dozenth time, the same old pictures of planes leaving their airfields; and when Patriot missiles were being discussed, we were treated to endlessly repeated footage of Patriots being uncrated (all cleared by the censors).
In sharp contrast to Vietnam, no cameras went with the soldiers into ground combat. We never saw for ourselves. The meaning? That this war was quite separate from our daily lives. For all the rhetoric, the war was not a truly serious event for most people–which may have been why some people tried so hard to sell the war to others, through yellow ribbons, bumper stickers, and even outdoor advertising.
We saw two other kinds of images, but they were far less visible and much less compelling. One was the image of warriors, the soldiers visited by TV in order to provide us “human interest.” GIs, somewhat ill at ease, told how they were eager to “get the job done” and go home, while officers assured us that their troops were fully prepared for attack. These images signified that there were real people over there on our side, that is images of victims were even less in evidence. We saw family hardship back home in America, especially among newsworthy families (a father taking off from work to care for baby while mother was at war, or families encountering economic loss while the breadwinner was away). But the real victims–the more than 50,000 Iraqi soldiers who were fried and pulverized by hundreds of thousands of tons of bombs, or the 4 million civilians in Baghdad experiencing nightly bombing raids and days with no water, food, electricity or sanitation–were virtually invisible.
Television as economics. Almost 25 years ago the German media critic Hans Magnus Enzenberger pointed out that all media are manipulated in some way: “There is no such thing as unmanipulated writing, filming or broadcasting. The question is therefore not whether the media are manipulated, but who manipulates them.”
Who controls TV? The web is complex, but three groups exercise most of the control: the owners who run it, the advertisers who pay for it, and the government which licenses it.
When we analyze television from an economic perspective, we ask one simple question: who benefits? Who benefits when each year the nightly news contains less and less information and more and more entertainment? Who benefits when the amount of documentaries on the networks decreases each year for 20 years? Who benefits when a single company can own television and radio stations, cable systems and local newspapers–and thus control much of the information in a community?
Who benefits when every candidate for Congress must pay thousands of dollars to the owners of TV stations in order to run for office?
The celebration of technology in the Gulf War took place on stations increasingly owned and operated by multinationals deeply involved in the production of armaments. General Electric, the tenth largest corporation in the U.S. and one of the largest weapons producers, owns the NBC network and its stations. Westinghouse, another major defense contractor, owns one of the largest broadcast groups.
Control is not limited to owners. Sponsors also greatly influence the way news is presented. Dupont, IBM, AT&T and ITT are all major sponsors on TV, and all have major stakes in the public support for high-tech armaments. Who. benefits from coverage which celebrates smart bombs and surgical strikes? In addition to this impressive control exercised by owners and sponsors, the military effectively shut off the press from the war. Malcolm W. Browne, a reporter for the New York Times, complained that for “most of the news people most of the time, the Gulf War has been played out in the Dhahran International Hotel.” The press corps of more than a thousand had to rely on a pool system which allowed a handful of persons (picked by the U.S. Armed Forces Joint Information Bureau) to develop the “product” (as the JIB called all forms of news) which would then be used by all other reporters. “In effect,”, said Browne, “each pool member is an unpaid employee of the Department of Defense, on whose behalf he or she prepares the news of the war for the outer world.” As a result, “even in Khafji, this war seemed to smell more of greasepaint than of death.”
Television as gratifier. Coverage of the war met a number of deep-rooted psychological needs: to feel powerful and in control, to experience extreme emotions in a guilt-free, nonthreatening environment, to share emotionally-charged experiences with others, to gain a sense of identity, to gain information, to satisfy a belief in justice, to see others make mistakes, to participate in the drama of history (vicariously and without risk) and to affirm moral values.
This aspect of television viewing is perhaps the hardest lesson to accept. It reminds us that television would have no power if it did not have viewers eager to consume its messages. While it is true that television seeks out our psychological needs and meets them in ways that serve particular people’s desires for money, power and control, it is also true that every person who views uncritically is asking to be controlled.
What does this analysis tell us about television’s messages about the war? That war can be relatively safe, sanitary (surgical), and not terribly costly either in personnel or materiel. That the key to conducting a safe war — and indeed, to keeping us safe in general–is high technology. That our efforts are pure and in the interest of justice, of righting wrongs, of maintaining our way of life and standard of living. And that we are still Number One, a superpower among lesser powers, and consequently have the moral responsibility to police other nations in the interest of peace and justice.
It was no accident that the military changed the word “giddy” to “proud” in a reporter’s description of a U.S. pilot after a bombing run. It was no accident that in July when Saddam Hussein threatened to use fuel air bombs the press characterized it as another example of his desperation and barbarism, but in February when the U.S. began using the same weapons against Iraqis in their trenches the bombs had become just another “tool” in the U.S. “tool box.” It was no accident that TV never told us that “smart bombs” constituted less than 10 percent of those dropped in Iraq, or that it never showed us the “smart bombs” that missed a target or hit a civilian target. It was no accident that our planes constantly “killed” tanks — not men. It was no accident that though our president assured us repeatedly that “we have respect for the people of Iraq,” we never really saw them or what we did to them. It was no accident that from the day U.S. troops were deployed to the Gulf until January 3, 1991, TV provided 2,855 minutes of coverage on the Gulf crisis but only 29 minutes (about 1 percent) on opposition to the military buildup (according to Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting).
The biases and distortion of television are not simply a conspiracy on the part of a few media moguls; the responsibility is far too diverse and complex for that. But the system itself, which both reflects and amplifies our culture, makes them inevitable.