Military-News Complex: What Determines What We See and Hear


This article originally appeared in Issue# 56

Three ways the Gulf War was sold to the American public.

Students of television have identified more than one way of viewing its role as a cultural force. Recognition of the meanings it transmits, the way its programming is driven by economic considerations and its role in gratifying audience needs all provide important tools for analyzing its role in shaping societal goals and values. This applies even more effectively when attitudes are being shaped for a major societal effort such as a war.

When we apply these three analytical methods to TV images of the Gulf War, some important insights into television's biases and cultural power emerge.

TV as Signifier

TV viewers have already learned a complex visual code in which a closeup means intimacy or emotion, a shot from below means authority, a fadeout 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 significant images that link soft drinks 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, news anchor 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.

While newspeople 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 the Patriot missiles were 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 that this war was quite separate from our daily lives. For all the rhetoric, the war was not a truly serious event for most TV viewers-which may have been why some entrepreneurs 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 U.S. soldiers visited by TV in order to provide us with "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.

Media 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 four million civilians in Baghdad experiencing nightly bombing raids and days with no water, food, electricity or sanitation-were virtually invisible.

TV 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 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 control much of the information in a community?

Who benefits when every candidate for Congress pays thousands of dollars to television 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 television sponsors, and all have major stakes in the public support for high-tech armaments. Who benefits from coverage that 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 that 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 death."

TV 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, non-threatening 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 1990 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. "toolbox." 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 their objectives 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 one percent) on opposition to the military build-up (according to the watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting).

The biases and distortions 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.

The owners, sponsors and regulators of American television have a huge stake in the continued funding of armaments, support massive over-runs in high tech products, maintain an enormous military presence and initiate a new round of arms sales world-wide. To acheive this, television must constantly massage the minds of the American public with the message of power and the myth of the cowboy. During the Gulf War the message was a little more evident than usual.

* * * * *

Copyright 1991 Christian Century / Reproduced by permission from the April 17, 1991 issue of the Christian Century Subscriptions: $49/yr from P.O. Box 378, Mt. Morris, IL 61054. 1-800-208-4097.

Author Bio: 

Rev. William F. Fore, Ph.D., a Methodist, was Director of Broadcasting and Film at the National Council of Churches, then taught Communication and Cultural Studies at Yale Divinity School. He is the author of Mythmakers: Gospel, Culture and the Media (Friendship Press). In retirement he maintains a website at that provides 5,600 full-text articles and books by recognized religious scholars.