Montag, Januar 19, 2009

Propaganda, Naiveté & The Boston Globe

This is an interesting piece.

Eric Calderwood, an otherwise unidentified Harvard grad student in Syria - I say that because we do not really know why he is there, and a cursory check on the web fails to reveal much more than the article in question (there are too many Eric Calderwoods out there) - writes about how he feels after watching the Violence Network, Al-Jazeera, and its coverage of the Gaza fighting. He's there to study Christian-Muslim relations in the Middle Ages, according to the article.

It's obvious that Al-Jazeera is propaganda: Calderwood states as much. Let's take a closer look.

DAMASCUS - This morning, while I made my coffee and eggs, I tuned in to the best show on television. When I went next door to buy my milk, the owner of the Rawda Grocery Store was already watching it, and down in the Sha'alan neighborhood, at the restaurant where I ate breakfast yesterday, customers are sitting over their bowls of fava bean soup, eyes glued to the screen. Millions across the region are following it along with us.

First off: the best show on television. Everyone watching it, eyes glued to the screen. This is the key to the whole problem of propaganda in the Middle East: of the failure to make a differentiation between reality and manipulated reality. This plays extremely well to the Arab public, which for all of its sophisticated political analyses - no one loves political speculation more than the Arabs - is extremely naive in understanding how they are manipulated by what has become an alternative reality.

I'm not going to quote this all - go read the article - but will highlight some items and claims to show how this propaganda has its effects, and why propaganda is inherently damaging, not merely to the political process, but in preventing people from being confronted with true reality, as opposed to a manipulated and manufactured reality held up for inspection.

It is openly partisan, almost never showing Israeli deaths or injuries. It is also provocative and upsetting in a way that looks nothing like news in the West. Their broadcasts routinely feature mutilated corpses being pulled from the scene of an explosion, or hospital interviews with maimed children, who bemoan the loss of their siblings or their parents - often killed in front of their eyes. Al-Jazeera splices archival footage into the live shots, weaving interviews and expertly produced montages into a devastating narrative you can follow from the comfort of your own home.

In other words, it is not only openly partisan, it is also deliberatively manipulative in a way that the mainstream media in the US and Europe, for all their faults, steadfastly refuse to follow.

This is news without even the pretense of impartiality. After several days of following the Al-Jazeera coverage of Gaza, I've never seen a live interview with an Israeli, neither a politician nor a civilian. In the Al-Jazeera version, the Gaza conflict has only two participants: the Israeli army - an impersonal force represented as tanks and planes on the map - and the Palestinian civilians, often shown entering the hospital on makeshift stretchers. There are few Hamas rockets and no Israeli families. It's not hard to see why Al-Jazeera is accused of deliberately inflaming regional enmity and instability.

This is typical double-speak: Al-Jazeera isn't merely accused of deliberately inflaming emotions - as if that was needed - it deliberately does so. This is the typical fear of naming what needs to be named.

But in a larger sense, Al-Jazeera's graphic response to CNN-style "bloodless war journalism" is a stinging rebuke to the way we now see and talk about war in the United States. It suggests that bloodless coverage of war is the privilege of a country far from conflict. Al-Jazeera's brand of news - you could call it "blood journalism" - takes war for what it is: a brutal loss of human life. The images they show put you in visceral contact with the violence of war in a way statistics never could.

Oh goodness gracious. This is what prompted me to post: this is where Calderwood goes completely wrong.

CNN doesn't show blood because it is blood that incites. The role of CNN and others - this is how they understand themselves, the bias that they often show is another discussion - is not to incite, but to inform. Nothing more, nothing less: by showing blood it then becomes a race for the bloodiest pictures to get the best ratings, and that will do nothing but lose them viewers in the civilized world. Al-Jazeera isn't a stinging rebuke for the lack of CNN showing blood, but rather is the example of why CNN doesn't do that: to do so means taking sides, of becoming a propagandist outlet.

War is of course bloody and people get killed. They don't just get killed: their bodies get torn apart by explosions, limbs removed from torsos; bullets tear off limbs and turn people into ground meat; they burn to death, screaming their lungs out; they bleed to death, slowly and in great pain; they lose their minds from shock; war is hell. I don't think that anyone at CNN and elsewhere doesn't know this, or is simply too "civilized" to show the results of war.

Rather, they know that it is a bad thing to do so: it inflames the emotions, it creates more anger and more fear, it makes the situation worse.

For an American, to watch Al-Jazeera's coverage of Gaza is to realize that you've become alienated not just from war, but even from the representation of war as a real thing. As Americans, we're used to hearing the sound of heavy artillery, machine guns, and bombs in action films and video games. Yet here on the news, they seem strangely out of place. You could argue that Al-Jazeera uses images of civilian violence to foment public outrage against Israel. This might well be true. At the same time, these images acknowledge human suffering and civilian death and stand strongly against them - and in doing so, foment outrage against war itself.

This is where the deliberate use of war victims as propaganda comes into play, but only in the West. This is the call for pacifist reactions, the deliberate appeal to the western viewer of how horrible this is, done deliberately to generate sympathy and a call for cessation of conflict. But generating these images and generating this emotion is a deliberate act, aimed at sapping the willingness of opponents to continue the fight. That is, after all, one of the prime goals of propaganda. It's not just about whipping up the emotions of your own followers, it's also about attacking the will of your opponents to resist you, it's attacking the supporters of your opponents to deny your enemy their support.

Whether you are a fan or a critic of the network's presentation of the news, it's hard to deny that Al-Jazeera is, first and foremost, excellent television. The network's command of the form is one reason why it has resisted being marginalized, and even gained in prestige, despite acrimonious criticism from the American government and from many Western media sources. Watching its sounds and images, day after day, has a powerful effect totally outside the framework of the conflict it's covering.

Wrong, wrong, wrong: here Calderwood is mistaking professional quality television production with excellent television: more exactly, he is discovering how powerful professional propaganda can become. But professional propaganda is not excellent television.

Al-Jazeera choreographs its Gaza coverage with a sophistication that goes well beyond the dramatic representation of violence. To watch the war on Al-Jazeera is to be captured in a new rendering of time, and to become part of an "imagined community" defined by it. The network uses a ticker-tape format, with a constant flow of text underneath the main image. To the left is a small box that counts the days of the war in red and white fonts. Thus, while watching the news, you're introduced to a new calendar, in which the beginning of the war is the beginning of time. The ticker tape at the bottom of the screen includes a running count of the human cost of the war, steadily tolling the number of wounded and dead.

The key word here is choreography. It is sophisticated, but it's not good TV. It's professional propaganda, aimed largely at the Arab world, designed to be heart-rendering. That's not excellent television.

The network's producers seem to have learned a lot from American reality television, where real footage is crafted and spliced into a compelling narrative with characters, personal conflict, and a dramatic arc. Each day, viewers here in Syria and across the Arab world tune into a new "episode." Each day, the war's narrative builds and folds back on itself, reinforcing the audience's familiarity with the cast of characters: Hamas, the scrappy rebel; Israel, the regional bully; the civilians of Gaza - and, in particular, the wounded children - caught in the middle of the conflict. The "international community" is a bloviating model of inefficacy, tied up in innumerable committees and summits. Through it all stride the Al-Jazeera correspondents, decked out in blue bulletproof vests.

In other words, it's all about the show. The images are deliberately manipulated - real footage spliced with something that isn't real - to create an emotional response.

Al-Jazeera often goes live to the correspondent in Gaza City right at the beginning of the daily three-hour cease-fire, when the Israeli army is supposed to put down its arms to allow the entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza. During this shot, the correspondent inevitably "catches" live footage of the Israelis continuing to bomb well into the cease-fire period, and inevitably expresses surprise and dismay at what he is seeing, even though he is essentially replaying a scene he framed the same way the day before, and the day before that.

Again: manipulated reality. This is where the MSM in the US is increasingly headed, with its "faked but true" tendencies to be liberal with lies when it serves the greater cause. This is where media turns into propaganda, this is where the fine line is crossed between reporting the news and manufacturing it.

The staged suspense, the protestations of surprise - they smack of cynical theater. But it's hard to argue with the footage itself: There have been several independent reports of Israeli attacks and raids during the daily cease-fire. However they choose to frame it, Al-Jazeera correspondents are capturing events that other networks cannot. At that basic level, what they're doing is irreplaceable as journalism.

It is cynical theater: it is revolutionary street theater, it is the shameless manipulation of truth with manufactured reality. It is propaganda. it is not as "irreplaceable as journalism", they are raping journalism in the name of the greater cause, they are abusing and destroying journalism. They are not capturing events: they are staging the events, they are manipulating the events, they are showing a single side of the events.

It is not excellent television

As perverse as it may sound, Al-Jazeera's coverage of the war satisfies, in the same way that a sitcom or serialized drama satisfies. It's not so much surprise that keeps bringing you back, but rather your familiarity with the characters' flaws and faults. And you know that your experience of the drama is not individual but rather collective. Walk into any cafe, grocery store, or dry cleaner in Damascus, and you are almost certain to find a TV tuned to Al-Jazeera's around-the-clock coverage of the war in Gaza. There is solidarity and also a certain comfort in watching the grim reality of war en masse.

Again, this underscores how Al-Jazeera is the tool of choice for the modern propagandist: the reality of the war would be so unsatisfying without their changes to reality, to adjust reality - or more exactly the perception of reality - to meet their needs, but failing in the core fundamental of journalism, of actually reporting what happens. Al-Jazeera is propaganda, not journalism.

It is impossible for me to imagine American viewers caring this much about a war they were not fighting themselves, especially one presented CNN-style, as an intermittent report of statistics, diplomacy, and military briefings. Al-Jazeera's critics would argue that the network has a lot to learn from the objectivity prized and upheld by well-regarded Western media outlets. But the American media has something to learn, too: Showing the actual violence of war is how you get the public to grasp the nature of war. Our networks' squeamishness about violence lets us keep human death and suffering at a distance, an abstract consequence of policy. If what you are worried about is individuals, then to look away from violence is not a neutral position.

Network's "squeamishness" about violence has nothing to do with keeping death and suffering at a distance, but rather it is because the emotions instigated by such displays leads to wars. The Spanish-American War was created by Hearst and the other Yellow Journalists of the day.

Or put it this way: would not the American viewing population during the attack on 9/11, if they had been shown the people leaping from the burning towers, showing how they impacted, crushed into bloody pulp and left lying there so cruelly, have been inflamed, would not they have cried out for justice, for revenge, nuke them till they glow? The hijackers came from Saudi Arabia and were Muslim? Nuke Mecca. Feel the rage, feel the anger, until it overcomes reason and lashes out. That is exactly what bin Laden wanted, what he expected, and where he was so completely and totally wrong.

Don't try to deny that this wouldn't have happened: for this reason the civilized world has sensibilities, does not appeal to raw emotions, demands stepping back and understanding what has happened. After all, the greatest bloodletting on European soil, WW I, was a war of emotions, without sense or meaning, driven by propaganda on both sides. The development of western civilization is, in many ways, the triumph of reason and sensibility over resentment in its many forms.

Propaganda is the sign of weakness, of the need to manipulate and deny, to lie and hide the truth.


That word "Holocaust" on that poster (in Arabic, mihraqa) is also a provocation, and it's only part of the very deliberate lexicon used on Al-Jazeera to describe the Gaza War: "aggression" ('udwan), "occupation" (ihtilal), and "genocide" (ibada). If objectivity is your yardstick, the entire way the network's newscasters discuss the war disqualifies them as journalists. But this is also how my Syrian neighbors see American journalism, which lumps any number of Arabs and Islamists and political rebels together as "terrorists."

Again: the deliberate provocation, the deliberate lexicon of words designed to generate emotions. The fact that his Syrian neighbors are unable to discriminate does not deny the fact that Al-Jazeera have disqualified themselves as journalists: they are propagandists.

Here in Damascus the ethical stakes of this war of words are very real. Yesterday, I went down to a popular shopping district a few blocks south of my house to buy groceries. On the main commercial strip, I noticed that a number of the stores had put up anti-Israeli propaganda posters. Many of them featured a burning American flag with a Star of David and a swastika in the middle. On many thresholds, shop owners had painted the Israeli flag so that their customers could step on it. In one storefront, the owner had placed a poster that said: "Americans not welcome." Ironically, this shop owner is also the landlord of some of my best American friends in Damascus.

This has nothing to do with "ethical stakes": this shows the desired results of propaganda and state-run news, designed to manipulate a population that is more than willing to go along with the propaganda story. Offer any one of those folks a green card and you'd see how thin that veneer of hate would be...

I can understand why many people strongly believe that Al-Jazeera itself contributes to these regional hatreds. But after months of watching the network intensely, I can honestly say that I've never heard their newscasters frame an argument or a story in anti-Semitic or anti-American terms.

Here the title of this post comes into play: the naiveté here is extraordinary. If you have studied propaganda methods at all, you know that the best ones are the ones that take control of the logical thought processes, where the target population is manipulated into coming to the desired conclusion that one must hate Americans or that the Jew is evil. This is not the mark of a lack of anti-Americanism, but vastly more the mark of a well-trained propagandist. Take the words of those you want to vilify and present the listener with a pre-made, readily digested matrix to interpret those stories: remove them from the need to think, and your job is partially done.


In a way, that's the paradox of Al-Jazeera's war journalism: It is flagrantly political, but accompanied by a real curiosity about other perspectives. It also makes me wish for something else: A TV network with the bravery to show the war imagery you can see on Al-Jazeera, but the integrity to do it in the service of peace, rather than the service of a side. Its violent imagery, however unpleasant, would be a strong stand for the individual against violence, and for human compassion against easily fanned hatreds.

This is not a real curiosity: the other perspectives are presented in such a way that they must appear incredulous, incapable of being believed. Calderwood has been in Syria too long: he has started to assimilate the constant stream of propaganda, of perceiving the world the way that the propagandists want it to be seen. The rest of the propagandists' job is to seduce the credulous, turning them into the true believers that the propagandist wants and needs.

The idea that propagandizing the news, of deliberately showing the evil necessities of war, can be done in the name of peace is accepting the fundamental story of the propagandist, that their story is true, and because it is true, peace can only happen when the violence stops. Calderwood has been in Syria too long: he is starting to believe that white is black, that 2 +  2 is indeed 5. Violent imagery serves only to enrage and horrify: presenting it must walk the fine line between inciting more resistance and destroying resistance by horrifying it.

After all, the perfect war is the one where the enemy, due to propaganda, falls without a single act of violence. This was the goal of Soviet propagandists, and the Syrians learned from the true masters of this trade.

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