Media and War, Bringing It All Back Home

(Keynote address at the “Media and War” symposium, University at Buffalo, 17-18 November, 2003)


I want to take a moment to consider the two words the pairing of which occasions this symposium: war and media.

“War” seems easy enough to define or delimit. Most of the things we call “wars” could be described as a state of belligerence between two entities, or a campaign a large entity wages against a condition it perceives as systemically harmful.

Corporations have price wars. Countries have wars for territory or natural resources. Portions of a country war against other portions of the same country over ideas, over religion, over race, over property. The U.S. government has in recent years fought what it termed wars against AIDs, drug abuse, poverty, illiteracy and terrorism. Each of those wars has budgets, legislation, offices, officials, letterhead–everything necessary in a bureaucracy to tell you something is real.

War is grounded in the notion of triumph and defeat. It is zero-sum.

Germany and Japan ended WWII by agreeing to surrender unconditionally, after which we rewarded them by helping them reestablish the industrial bases we had recently destroyed.

The war in Korea ended with all parties agreeing to go back to where they were before the war started. The war in Vietnam ended with a truce, which let the US detach itself, after which the North Vietnamese finished what had started however many years earlier.

All wars end with somebody winning and somebody losing, or nobody winning or losing.

The meaning of the term “Media” depends on who’s using it.

To a biologist, “media” is the stuff bug cultures grow in. Perhaps you remember”agar-agar” in high school biology with which you grew bacteria colonies in a Petri dish. To a computer engineer or librarian, “media” is devices that store and transmit information: discs, cables, satellite signals.

University departments of Media Study study media, but only selected kinds. None of them studies bacterial cultures or the ways electronic signals are transmitted or the magnetic and optical methods for preserving information. Few Media Study departments study soap operas, print journalism, theatrical movies, blogs, email, radio, billboards, broadcast news, or the world wide web. Some of that work in the university is done by English departments, journalism departments, communications departments. Most of it isn’t done at all. We just don’t spend much time looking at those behaviors, at what media people do and what might be the meaning of what they do.

For a symposium such as this, I would take the term “media” to include, at a minimum: print journalism, broadcast and cable journalism, web journalism, network docudrama, the web itself, email, and artistic and documentary renditions of war-related material of various kinds that use any of those media as raw materials.

A few years ago, books would have had no place in a discussion of the media and war because they took so long to appear–a year from typescript to book on the shelf was not uncommon. But how can we talk of the media and the Jessica Lynch saga, say, without including the book ghost-written for her by a disgraced ex-New York Times reporter that was published a week ago today and which got huge coverage in the November 17 Time magazine? (The cover of which featured a close-up cover picture of her that bore an uncanny resemblance to porn star Traci Lords.)

Time and technology

Technology has changed the way book publishing works, as it has changed everything else in the world of media. Books can now be on the stands within days from delivery of a formatted manuscript, and often are. The authors’ introduction in Embedded, an interesting collection of oral histories done last summer with reporters who worked in this year’s war in Iraq, is datelined September 2003; I got a hardback copy from <Amazon.Com> in early October 2003.

In World War II, it could be weeks before a war photographer’s images reached a newspaper’s pages. In Vietnam, videotape from reporters in the field had to be flown back to the US for broadcast. Rolls of 35mm film shot by Associated Press photographers were sent to Saigon for developing, prints were selected by editors there, then sent by radio signal (15 minutes per image) to Japan, and then sent on to editors in the US and London by undersea cable and landline.

There were no wires needed in Iraq. Video was sent to stateside editors via satellite, and reporters were able to go on camera live. Most photographers used Nikon or Canon digital, not film cameras, so there were no rolls of film needing developing and printing. The sent their pictures to their editors in the US from wherever they were, using a a laptop and a BGAN satellite phone. The editor of Getty Images said he could have images on the wire to clients 15 minutes after they were uploaded to the satellite by the photographer in the Iraq desert.


All governments in all wars have used all the means at their disposal to put their own motives, decisions and actions, and the actions of their military forces, in the best possible light. They have likewise used all the means at their disposal to put the motives, decisions and actions of their opponents and their opponents’ military forces in the worst possible light.

For governments at war, the media is an instrument of war or an element in war that is to be controlled. When the US press was dutifully reporting false information from the military about their success shooting down Scud missiles in the Gulf War, “then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney said, ‘I do not look on the press as an asset. Frankly, I look on it as a problem to be managed.” Dwight David Eisenhower, supreme allied commander in Europe during World War II, famously said, “Public opinion wins wars.”


The media bring our wars home, but only rarely have they been able to do it in complete freedom. In World Wars I and II, all news stories and all photographs went through military censors. The WWI Sedition Act made it a crime to disparage the government, and Woodrow Wilson imposed what he called voluntary censorship on the press: they didn’t have to sign it, but if they didn’t they wouldn’t get any information or access.

In World War II, the military would not permit the American public to see a photograph of a dead American soldier until 21 months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Germany’s declaration of war against the United States. At that point they decided pictures of dead soldiers would help mobilize public opinion.

The press operated without government censorship or control the first few months of the Korean War, which started June 25, 1950, but General Douglas MacArthur disliked the gloomy stories appearing in American newspapers about military disasters. He said people who wrote and published those stories were “traitors” and in December 1950 he imposed strict military censorship which continued through the end of the war three years later.

Lyndon Johnson tried three times to get US government officials to start censoring the media in Vietnam, but he got nowhere: officials wouldn’t do it. There were too many foreign journalists on the ground who could not be controlled by the US, and the genie was already out of the bottle.

His successors fared better: every US war between Vietnam and the current war in Iraq was heavily censored. President’s Reagan and Bush the Elder ordered journalists kept out of Grenada, Panama, the first Gulf War, and they were.

Vietnam is often called our only uncensored war, but that only means that the government wasn’t vetting the pictures and words. Governments aren’t the only censors. Writers and photographers will tell you that editors and publishers are often frustrating and capricious gatekeepers. Editors and publishers censor stories and images because of patriotic feelings or political interests or because of their sense of the public’s taste. When reporters and photographers learn that certain kinds of stories or images are unacceptable in the editorial suite, they censor themselves. They stop filing or transmitting such stories and images.

In coverage of the Vietnam War, no bodies of dead Americans were shown on US network television until the Tet offensive of 1968. The absence of images of American dead the previous five years resulted from media executives’ choice, not the government’s restrictions. Even after they started showing bodies at Tet, gore was minimal. Gore is minimal now. You have seen nothing on any television newscast that gives you any idea what war does to human bodies.

Both of our wars in Iraq were, on American television, largely bloodless. They came across as performance space for media stars, the punched-out phrases of Wolf Blitzer, in whose reports all items of information had exactly the same weight, the same value, and all violence was small and at a distance. They were often more like computer games than people killing people.

The media is not at all homogeneous in the way it tells us about war. Philip Knightley writes in his classic study of the press at war, The First Casualty, about New York Times reporter Harrison E. Salisbury, the “first correspondent from a major United States newspaper to go to North Vietnam.” Salisbury described what it was like seeing US planes drop bombs on civilian targets in Hanoi in 1966. “The Pentagon called him ‘Ho Chi Salisbury of the Hanoi Times.’ The Washington Post …said the Salisbury was Ho Chi Minh’s new weapon in the war…. The Pulitzer Prize jury recommended him for a prize by a vote of four to one, but the Pulitzer Advisory Board rejected the recommendation by six votes to five.”

Lately, there have been rumblings of increasing friction between the US military and the press in Iraq. The Baghdad briefer turned away a journalist’s question last week saying, “I refuse to answer a morbid question.”

What else is there in war other than morbid questions?


The daily press, the immediate media, is superb at synecdoche, at giving us a small thing that stands for a much larger thing. Reporters on the ground, embedded or otherwise, can tell us about or send us pictures of what happened in that place at that time among those people. The overarching theory rationalizing the great expense and effort that goes into those little stories is they somehow give us access to the big story, the big picture, what is really going on. Otherwise, they are of no more importance or interest than, say a story about an RV wreck in Montana, a tenement fire in Chicago, a homicide in Boston or Buffalo. One story among an infinitude of other stories.

But synecdoche works only if the part really does stand for the whole. And that is something you often cannot know until long after the moment.

In an eloquent description of what he saw in the assault on Omaha Beach in Normandy in June 1944, the event that marked the beginning of the final Allied assault against Nazi Germany, correspondent Morley Safer (in the recent PBS documentary “Reporting America at War”) described what he saw as an disaster, a slaughter that accomplished little. Most of his fellow correspondents who took part in the landing thought the same. The military brass, Safer said, claimed otherwise, that the operation was a huge success. And, that time, Safer said, the brass was in fact correct. The D-Day landing on the French coast was a huge success. When you’re there, Safer said, “this is all you see.” And he put his hands next to his face, like a horse’s blinders, and projected his hands out, marking a long, narrow trapezoid of restricted vision.

Media’s attention span

War is big and there are only so many reporters and only so many places for their words and images to appear. Choices are made constantly.

What makes a story a story? The day he takes over The Enquirer, Charles Foster Kane, protagonist of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, looks at the competition paper, the Chronicle, and says to the editor he is about to fire, “The “Chronicle” has a two-column headline, Mr. Carter. Why haven’t we?”

“There is no news big enough,” Carter says..

“If the headline is big enough,” Kane says, “it makes the news big enough.

Sometimes a story changes the way the media deal with other stories. After the My Lai story broke, wrote Philip Knightley in The First Casualty, “the media, especially in the United States, decided that the war was all but over. The amount of space and time devoted to it began decline….In 1968, at the height of the Tet offensive, there were 637 accredited correspondents [in Saigon]; in 1969, 467; in 1970, 392; in 1971, 355; in 1972, 295. By mid-1974, only thirty-five correspondents remained, mostly American and Japanese. All the correspondents I have spoken with who were in Vietnam during this period remarked that it became noticeably more difficult, from 1969 on, to get their stories used. ABC and NBC both told their Saigon staffs and free-lancers in that year that the story would now be the negotiations in Paris and that film footage from Vietnam should be angled to the withdrawal of the American forces.”

Media impact

Perhaps the seven key media moments from the Vietnam war were these: CBS reporter Morley Safer’s story from a village south of Da Nang where US troops torched 150 houses while the villagers huddled in terror; Walter Cronkite’s personal note during the 1968 Tet offensive saying that the war was lost and it was time to negotiate; Eddie Adams’s photograph of the Saigon police chief shooting to death a suspected Vietcong on the streets of Saigon; Nick Ut’s photograph of a 9-year-old girl running down a road, her skin burnt off by napalm; Malcolm Browne’s photograph of a Buddhist monk who had just set himself afire to protest the war; Seymour Hersh’s My Lai articles; and Ronald Haeberle’s photographs of the My Lai massacre that subsequently appeared in Life magazine.

Safer said of his village burning story:”This wouldn’t have happened in World War II, or if it happened it wouldn’t have been photographed, and if it had been photographed it would have been censored.”

Which suggests something about media and war: it’s not just that events happen and the media documents and presents them. There is a third element: what the public is ready to accept, what the public wants to know. It is not at all clear how much the media influences public opinion and how much public opinion influences the media.

The US military still blames the media for stories and images that turned the American public against the war in Vietnam. But many media historians say it’s the other way around: the stories were there all along, but the media didn’t start using them until public opinion had shifted because of the increasing cost in American lives.

The Army’s trial in 1969 of Lieutenant William Calley, who oversaw the massacre of an entire village by his company of infantry on March 16, 1968, was virtually ignored by the American press. What happened in that village came to light only because Washington-based free-lance investigative reporter Seymour Hersh heard about it and wrote about it. Nobody would take his stories. Then his next-door neighbor, who ran a small wire service, agreed to put them out. At first, hardly any paper was willing to touch them. Then, perhaps because of increasing public dislike for the war after the 1968 Tet offensive, public interest grew. The media followed the public. Hersh’s stories got more play, Life magazine published Ron Haeberle’s photographs. My Lai went into our vocabulary.

The University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes and Knowledge Networks, Misperceptions, the Media and the Iraq War did seven separate nationwide polls between January and September 2003. They found that Americans have major misperceptions about the Iraq war, and that the degree of misperception and support for the war correlated closely with which television station they watched most. “Those who primarily watch Fox News are significantly more likely to have misperceptions, while those who primarily listen to NPR or watch PBS are significantly less likely.”

What the study could not determine was whether the watchers of Fox supported the war because of the misinformation they got from Fox or if they watched Fox because it presented the information they wanted to see and hear. I’d bet on both: the media is making choices all the time, and so are we.

The padded crotch -mission accomplished aircraft carrier landing

I just mentioned several key media moments in the Vietnam War, moments that either influenced public opinion or provided images for what the public was thinking.

The two key American media moments in Iraq II were very different. Both were absurd: the coverage of Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” landing on the carrier Abraham Lincoln and the Jessica Lynch saga.

On May 2, 2003, an S-3B jet with President George W. Bush in the second seat landed on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln. Buch got out of the plane on the side away from the camera, where he took off his helmet and had his hair combed. He came around the front of the plane, smiling in a body-fitting flight suit, the pilot’s helmet tucked under his arm. He looked all the world like a dashing young hero. He walked through a lane of saluting deckhands in color-coordinated uniforms (yellow, green, purple, red) strutted across the deck, and later made a speech about this day marking the end of the major combat in Iraq. Behind and above him, draped across the front of the ship’s bridge, was a huge banner that read “Mission Accomplished.”

The Abraham Lincoln? Well, if you were the world’s new Great Emanicpator which aircraft carrier would you choose to give your victory speech? The only things missing were the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Let My People Go.”

CNN played the landing and strutting again and again and again. It was on all the evening broadcast news programs, even “The NewsHour” on PBS. It was great theater. The pundits said that evening and on the Sunday morning talk shows that it would surely provide powerful images for the Bush reelection campaign.

But then it unraveled, and another medium was largely responsible for it: writers on the web began pointing out that the last time Bush had been in the cockpit of a jet fighter was just before he went AWOL for the final year of the National Guard hitch that kept him out of Vietnam. They didn’t just say it, they provided documents to prove it. And that when all that great theater happened on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln the ship was only 39 miles off San Diego–which meant he could have made the trip just as quickly by helicopter. And that the huge carrier had been positioned so it would show open sea behind the president rather than the clearly visible San Diego coastline you saw if you turned your head.

The landing quickly became a skit on “Saturday Night Live”; it was hugely popular and has been rebroadcast several times. As the deaths in Iraq continued to mount, the “mission accomplished” banner became more and more embarrassing. A few weeks ago, the White House press officer disclaimed responsibility for it, saying that Bush’s media team had nothing to do with the banner, that it was the sailors’ idea. Apparently that didn’t sit well with the crew of the Abraham Lincoln: someone leaked that the the White House had manufactured the banner and delivered it to the ship.

It is unlikely we’ll be seeing much footage of Carrier Pilot George in the campaign. It’s too easily ridiculed and satirized.

The Mission Accomplished Carrier Landing was perhaps perfect example of the media finding itself pressed in government service–in this case not pursuit of the war, but a political campaign. What they told us was news turned out to be an infomercial.

The Jessica Lynch saga

The Jessica Lynch saga, like the EverReady Bunny, keeps going and going and going.

In an article on the Index on Censorship web site, Nicholas von Hoffman pointed out that when peace demonstrator Rachel Corrie was killed by a bulldozer operator in Gaza it “was a one-day story. She might as well have been a suicide bomber. In contrast there is Private Jessica Lynch, the wounded soldier rescued from her fiendish Iraqi captors by the derring-do of the night-raiding US Army Rangers who braved death to snatch this young woman to safety.

“Thanks to the foresight of the military, an army TV cameraman was brought along lest these heroic doings go unrecorded. For several days afterwards Jessica and her friends dominated all the US news channels. It remained for Canada’s Toronto Star to discover that there were no guards preventing Private Lynch from leaving the hospital, only a group of non-fiendish Iraqi medics doing their best to heal her wounds. The paper wrote that ‘the so-called daring rescue was essentially a Hollywood-style stunt’.

“A few weeks later the BBC did a full expose of the whole mendacious episode, but apart from a quick mention on CNN, a story in the Washington Post and an indignant column in the Los Angeles Times, the business was ignored by the mass media.”

“Once back in this country,” said Daniel Schor on “All Things Considered” on November 10, “Pfc. Lynch became a hot-ticket item for the media. Every news executive sought to become embedded in her adventure….Jessica Lynch will be all over the media in coming weeks, interviewed by Diane Sawyer on ABC, Katie Couric on NBC, the David Letterman show and much, much more, as they say in the television business.

“In her ABC interview, Pfc. Lynch says the military used her capture and rescue to sway public support for the Iraq war. With mounting casualties in Iraq and mounting doubts about the war, the creation of a heroic icon could not have come at a better time for the military. Pfc. Lynch is making a great contribution to the military-media complex.”

The real story in the Jessica Lynch story is about the media itself: how American print and electronic reporters and editors were duped and used by the military. And how even after the fraud was revealed by Canadian and British reporters they remain unwilling or unable to let it go.

“With admirable humility,” said a November 14 Buffalo News editorial, “she does not call herself a hero.” Admirable humility about what? Does the Buffalo News refer to your ‘admirable humility’ because you don’t call yourself a linebacker for the NFL or a movie star? What humility is required in not claiming to be something you and everyone else knows you aren’t and weren’t and won’t ever be?

The Jessica Lynch story is a classic Western: the cavalry going in to rescue the feisty blue-eyed blonde-haired very white maiden from the rapacious dark-skinned savages. Even the rhetoric is out of a Western: every single newspaper and magazine article I’ve seen about the event refers to the “ambush.” An ambush is where someone hides and surprises you. There was no ambush. Jessica Lynch was injured and captured because the captain leading her convoy got lost and drove into Nasiriyah, a town in total control of Iraqi troops. If you go into the lion’s den you can’t fault the lion for being there and you certainly can’t call what the lion does to you an ambush. You got done by the lion because of your incompetence or stupidity, maybe, but not because of an ambush. But “ambush” makes for a much better story than stupid or incompetent, it fits that Western movie model, it makes for a much better legend.

Legend doesn’t care about truth; legend is about itself. What the media have done with Jessica Lynch was explained by the newspaper editor in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. He shreds a young reporter’s true story about an event everyone thinks happened very differently. “This is the West, sir” the editor says. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Other media

I’ve been talking thus far about mainstream media, big money media, big institution media. Media that has a lot at stake and fights like hell to get attention and make money and does anything it can not to fall out of official favor.

But that’s not the only media out there. The others are, I think, becoming more and more important. Smaller, thoughtful publications that, without the pressure of or desire to get data out immediately take time to check things carefully or think about what they mean. Smart radio from NPR. Pacifica and “Democracy Now.” And, most important of all, the web, which in this war frequently carried around the globe and made accessible information the military and politicians had successfully kept out of the eyes of the mainline press and information the mainline press thought unseemly for us to see or too complicated for us to handle.

While the New York Times was front-paging Judith Miller’s rewrites of handouts from Ahmad Chalabi and the Pentagon about the WMD that were absolutely positively certainly in Iraq, websters were reading Robert Fisk’s columns from The Independent about what was happening in Baghdad and Uri Avnery’s articles about the struggle to end the violence in Israel. While the print and television press were rewriting government handouts about John Ashcroft’s domestic war on terrorism as if it were government as usual, web sites like TomPaine, CounterPunch, Index on Censorship, Black Commentator and Civil Rights Watch were publishing tough, smart articles analyzing the war Ashcroft was waging was on the Bill of Rights. While the mainstream press all but ignored the Refusenik trials in Israel, the web offered detailed reports of defense and prosecution positions and statements. Great stuff available only on the web, free and open to anybody who can get to a computer.

The web continues to be a source of important photographs you see nowhere else. The one that stays with me is an older man holding a pretty girl who is maybe eight years old. She wears a purple coat and green pants. If you couldn’t see her legs you’d think she was sweetly sleeping. But you can see her legs, which are ripped and bloody. Her right foot is blown away, just a bit of the heel still hanging from her leg by a small strip of bloody skin.

That photograph never, to my knowledge, appeared on American television or in the American print press. When the BBC posted the photograph, they cropped the right side so you couldn’t see the severed foot. Were it not for the medium of the web, hardly anyone here would have seen it, or known of it, or of others like it. Were it not for those pictures, the impact of the missiles and bombs would have been videogames and words.

All those articles and pictures are there right now. If you weren’t interested in them yesterday, you might be tomorrow, and when you are, they’ll be there for you. That kind of media access never existed before, and we are seeing the mere beginning of its potential.

What reporters see

The more I think and learn about this the more questions I have about it. War is such a big word; it is a word for historians, theoreticians, generals, politicians. War is an abstraction.

Soldiers and reporters do not live or work in abstraction. No soldier who goes into battle fights a war; no reporter sees a war. They do this thing, on this day, in this place, and tomorrow it’s something else in some other place. Soldiers and reporters deal with specificity, with the particular: a trail, a tree, a sound, a piece of metal with which someone kills or mutilates someone, which might kill you.

“The first rough draft of history,” Washington Post publisher Philip L. Graham called it. That’s a line that journalists offer in pride and by way of explanation of error and imperfection. “We’re the first rought draf of history. You wouldn’t have anything if it weren’t for us,” they say, and they’re right. And, “Don’t expect us to apply the polish, to cut away the trash, to extract the meaning. Because that’s your job, not ours.”

And they’re right about that, too: the judgments about what matters and what doesn’t, the determination of meaning, the decisions about where we go from here–that’s our job, not theirs.

BRUCE JACKSON, SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Professor of American Culture at University at Buffalo, edits the web journal His most recent book is Emile de Antonio in Buffalo (Center Working Papers). Jackson is also a contributor to The Politics of Anti-Semitism. He can be reached at:


Bruce Jackson’s most recent books are Inside the Wire: Photographs from Texas and Arkansas Prison (University of Texas Press, 2013) and In This Timeless Time Living and Dying on Death Row in America (with Diane Christian, University of North Carolina Press, 2012). He is SUNY Distinguished Professor and James Agee Professor of American Culture at University at Buffalo