War on the Media Front

by Chris Curran | 11/12/01 6:00am

So it's official: we're at war. But have you noticed a change in your daily routine as a result? There are no war bonds to purchase, victory gardens to plant or scrap metal to save for the war effort. On the other hand, protests against the war have not gained mainstream appeal and have been limited in number. Our government is at war, but it has yet to call on the American people to make the kind of sacrifices needed in a major conflict. If President Bush is going to succeed in mobilizing all of our resources for the fight, he will first need to do better job articulating to the American people why our cause is just, and how we must sacrifice. Propaganda and spin will become increasingly important in this war in which the media plays almost as important a role as the military.

Thus far it has been easy to rally the public around military action. The wreckage of the World Trade Center in southern Manhattan provides a good antidote to those who question why we are at war. But will the public stay steady in its support of the conflict as our memory fades and the specter of terrorism seems less real? Already, news stories about Manhattan and the Pentagon have given way to the burgeoning anthrax scare, which is a few orders of magnitude less deadly than the two plane attacks, but makes for better scare-mongering television.

Cracks are beginning to show in the moral indignation that was initially expressed by the world community. Reuters, a British-based news agency, has refused to call the Sept. 11 attacks terrorism. One wonders what they call it instead a protest by other means? Would Reuters look at a similar attack differently if it were the IRA bombing their London headquarters? Of course they would.

Relativism can be found on this side of the Atlantic as well. When asked if the Pentagon had been an appropriate target for the terrorists, David Weston, president of ABC News, said, "We journalists are not supposed to take a position on the Pentagon bombing." It's precisely these attitudes in the media that President Bush will need to overcome if the war against terrorism is going to be waged successfully. In fairness, the president of CNN recently warned his staff not to serve as propaganda outlets for the enemy. We can only hope that other networks share his commitment to balance.

The enemy will get its side of the story covered; we must do the same. Why do so few people know that Afghanistan was, and still is, the largest recipient of U.S. food aid in the world? Why didn't the alleged Taliban massacre of Christians praying in a church in Pakistan get more media coverage? We have been playing defense; the Taliban takes pictures of the few bombs that miss their targets and we spend an inordinate amount of time countering their claims. Why not answer criticism by asking how many people have starved to death under Taliban rule? We attack the current Afghanistan regime so that their citizens may someday enjoy a participatory democracy with civil liberties for all. The enemy attacked us to deny us these same freedoms. Why hasn't this dichotomy been made clearer?

The charges by the enemy that the United States is anti-Islam are as audacious as they are absurd. Unfortunately, I don't think we've done enough to refute them. In an effort to have the broadest audience possible, under the guise of "objectivity," the media sometimes omits coverage of some truths that are uncomfortable for some viewers. Does anyone remember whom we saved from being "ethnically cleansed" from their land by the Serbs in Bosnia? It was untold Muslims we saved from extermination. Farther back, we preserved the self-rule of Kuwaiti Muslims in the Gulf War. Egypt, an Islamic nation, is consistently one of the largest recipients of U.S. government largesse. The U.S. government is not anti-Muslim, but rather anti-terrorist. Though not mutually exclusive, the two categories are distinct.

A look at the end of the Gulf War is helpful for showing how not to end a war against an evil regime. After the Iraqis had been forcefully expelled from Kuwait, President George H.W. Bush elected, to the dismay of some of his more conservative supporters, not to pursue Saddam Hussein or to take control of Baghdad. A decade or so later, countless Iraqi children suffer under Saddam's rule. United Nations sanctions, which are often wrongly attributed to the United States, are blamed for this even though Saddam has few restrictions on how much food he can import.

Moreover, the sanctions have been largely impotent at hindering Saddam's plans to acquire nuclear and biological weapons. Saddam remains in power and, by all accounts, hasn't stopped fighting. We still bomb Saddam's newly built radar stations and he keeps attempting to shoot down our planes patrolling the U.N. sponsored northern and southern no-fly zones. It's a game of cat and mouse played out as low-intensity warfare. A few years ago, the Iraqi intelligence service attempted to assassinate ex-President Bush. Their plot was foiled, and President Clinton lobbed a few cruise missiles in retaliation. We are still at war with Iraq. This is the worst type of endgame possible; the Iraqi people still suffer, the despot stays in power, and the United States has no security.

Why are we still fighting in Iraq? The public lost its resolve to continue the war after Saddam had been kicked out of Kuwait, so we left the job half-finished. This should illustrate why the propaganda war is as important as the real war; without public support it is impossible to continue military action and the tendency to quit too soon is difficult to overcome.

For America to remain on a resolute path toward victory, it is not enough that President Bush has faith in our goal. He must also rally the public if their support starts to wane. To this end, propaganda must be stepped up, both at home and on the battlefield. Why not sell war bonds? In practice, they're not different from the T-Bills that the Treasury has issued in the past, but their psychological impact could be hugely beneficial. With a worsening economy and increased government spending we are now heading from a federal surplus to a deficit. We will soon need to issue bonds anyway, so why not get some mileage out of the debt by making the bonds a symbol of patriotism?

The war will become more difficult to pursue as new stories grab headlines and the ghastly attacks of Sept. 11 fade into history. To win this war, we will need to have a unity of purpose and sufficient resolve. The media's ability to rally public opinion, if used correctly, could be invaluable in pursuing this end. We're winning the military side of the war but, at best, we're only holding ground in the propaganda front. It's time to go on the offensive. Our cause is just and our nation is threatened. As President Bush recently said, "Let's roll."