THE EMBEDDED NEWS COVERAGE OF THE WAR
notes for a talk by Marsha Kinder in the
Cinema-TV Open Forum on Media Coverage of the War & the Anti-War Movements
May 26, 2003
A few days ago at a press conference, Major General Victor Renuart, one of the US field commanders said, that "bringing the media onto the battlefield is an historic event...its immediacy is unprecedented." And when asked by a reporter whether this embedding strategy has deterred the war efforts, he replied, "No, this has not had an adverse effect but this is something we have had to adapt to."
I want to talk about "embedding" as a three tiered strategy of...war, of linguistics, and of media practice that is now being used to make us "adapt" to this misguided war in Iraq.
First, the use of embedding as a linguistic strategy...
Second, the use of embedding as a combative strategy
- We are being asked to adapt not just to the term embedding--but a combative use of several terms: shock & awe, decapitating the Iraqi regime (as opposed to castrating), targets of opportunity (for the press as well as the military, a term that we are used to associating with the positive practice of hiring more diverse faculty of color instead of wiping out our foreign enemies).
- It's as if we are defining a war by inventing and spreading its own special jargon... redefining the connotative meanings--words in the making the echo effect--as a sign of being in the media circle--knowing which buzz words to use, part of the media frenzy, the echo effect distinguishing this war from all others--especially desert storm
These dynamics may be most apparent with the phrase, shock and awe, the catchy name of this "first bombing stage of the war." While evoking the formidable audio-visual explosiveness of Hollywood blockbuster action films, this phrase still avoids the explicit analogy with cinematic
spectacle-- an analogy that quickly became a clliche in the discourse around the 9/11 destruction of the twin towers.
- The media are quickly creating new antonyms (one way of changing the connotative meaning of a term: For example, the opposite of embedding is not independent reporting as one might reasonably expect but "unilateral"--implying its the other reporters who are "one-sided"--whereas in fact these embedded reporters are quite literally with the unit they follow, they are literally fellow travellers whose lives depend on these forces, they are literally "in bed with"--though this negative connotative was acknowledged in the first few days and quickly dismissed, to be replaced by associations with closeness, immediacy and reliable testimony.
Third, the use of embedding as a media strategy
- keeping the reporters on your side--if you can't persuade other nations, then capture the loyal support of the press, an create the illusion of a diverse community
- maintaining sympathies and identification with our soldiers in the field
- justifying why it is the field commanders rather than Bush in Washington who are performing in most of the press conferences, they have command of the particulars, they can answer questions on the fly whereas Bush cannot.
- inventing a new form of "reality tv"--like "Cops," in contrast with the staged speeches of Saddam Hussein whose reality status is called into question--raising questions as to whether his broadcasts are really live? Or whether it's really Saddam instead of a body double? Is he dead or alive? while our non-stop embedded "live" coverage of the war
is supposedly "keeping it real".
- Meanwhile, the televised speeches of Bush continue a strategy of ventriloquism--mouthing words written by others in a deadpan performance of high seriousness, the western hero of few words who is assumed to be a man of action.
As Major General Renuart put it in his press conference, "THE MEDIA IS REALITY IN FREE SOCIETIES LIKE OURS." Somehow, this statement is NEITHER reassuring nor credible, no matter how many times it is repeated by embedded reporters in the field.
- In an age of global communications technology, where news reports from all over the world are instantly circulated via satelline and over the internet and when radio stations like KCRW can move fluidly from different sources (CNN, BBC, NPR, and interview reporters from the Arab world), we find the US government inventing a new form of "local" news--keeping most reporters away from larger issues of whether we should be there, embedding the press and preoccupying them with the localized description of these events, not seeing the forest for the trees. No other nation seems to be able to compete with this form of embedding.
- Avoiding the charges that were made about the suppression of press coverage in Desert Storm (with the reporting pool). Here we get "OUR CONTINUING COVERAGE OF THE WAR" (a catchphrase constantly repeated).
This serial structure is sustained by the seeming variety provided by these embedded reporters from different locations within the theater of war, YET these reports still overwhelmingly represent the same pov, still omit the same kind of info, still fail to ask the challenging questions about whether we should be there at all. So this diversity or variety is an illusion--similar to the one that Stephen Neale claims is operative in Hollywood genres, which create an illustory sense of variety for an essentially monolithic system.
- Redefining the rivalries--everyone "doing" CNN (whose "heroic" coverage of Desert Storm has already been made into a movie on HBO), seeing this new war in Iraq as a new "target of opportunity" for the rest of the press (not only TV networks but also newspapers), who are all competing for more readers/viewers and better ratings, cultivating a
vision of war that sells:
We could watch Matt Lauer, NBC's pretty boy morning news anchor, jump from the daily soft-news festivities and petty rivalries with his co-anchor Katy Couric in Rockefeller center to the hard-news theater of war in Iraq--where he immediately began competing with other reporters who got there before him. One of his first remarks was to note that the other reporters swarming around him were generating rumors and instantaenously spreading them worldwide, and these endless reiterations were creating a sense of credibility. Meanwhile, this kind of reflexive
statement created a unique position for Lauer, as if he were immune from these charges. What these swarming reiterations DID accomplish, I think, is the instantaneous change in connotations for some of these key terms I've been discussing--and remember, as Roland Barthes had argued in the 60s, connotation is a primary battleground for ideological conflict.
We also could watch Bush competing with his father's war--though the most stinging line (to the Iraqi civilians) was given to Blair rather than Bush, "This time we will not let you down!"
- Redefining what can & cannot be covered: little or no information about Iraqi civiliian casualties demonizing the media coverage of the captured American soldiers--violations of the Geneva conventions (but what about our violation of international law in going to war?) since their images are appearing on "foreign" news, then we are supposedly justified in seeing these images so that we know what viewers in other nations are seeing--that's how one reporter put it when asked what's the difference between their displaying images of their captive from our showing of captured Iraqi soldiers our own broadcast of images of Iraqi captives--making ad hoc moral distinctions about these practices which constantly change in the field and repeatedly knocking out their TV station, as a prime target of war, but it keeps bouncing back on reserves--clearly our own media are also potent weapons in this war.