News Speak and New Speak: How Language Did its Bit for the US War Effort in Iraq

By Joanne Tucker

The following is an extract from Joanne Tucker's paper delivered at the conference.

I think it is important to mention from the start that Al Jazeera, Abu Dhabi, Al-Arabiya, Al Manar, all these and a host of other Arabic satellite news and programming networks did not exist over ten years ago. Independent, or Arab world perspective news and views packaged in the language of and for an Arab audience did not exist.

Basically Arab audiences watched what we all watched in times of conflict or crisis for the pictures and analysis. There were no credible independent TV news outlets. CNN and the BBC, along with other US networks dominated the information air waves, particularly during the Gulf War of 1991. Analytical and visual coverage of any newsworthy event never originated from the Arab World.

Since then, we have embarked on a new information era. We have real time, around the clock, satellite coverage of wars in the most remote locations. What catapulted Al Jazeera into the current stratosphere of fame was that it was THE window on the war in Afghanistan. Al Jazeera was in the unique and enviable position of having the only access to 24-hour live pictures, because of a costly investment into a satellite uplink which the Board of Directors had agreed to against their better instincts two years previously. This in a country which no one considered fertile investment ground from a news value or media viewpoint.

Before September 11, Afghanistan attracted the world's attention for mainly two things. Being Osama bin Laden's country of residence where he occasionally married his children in open air, Bedouin-style ceremonies, and the destruction of the giant Buddha statues by the Taliban. Al Jazeera had a full-time correspondent reporting from this huge and impoverished land mass two years before a date became the starting point of a new historical era.

Another point that is important to make is that this latest war, possibly more than any other in our media-saturated environment, is a war about language and perception. Phrases such as "information operations" (formerly known as "information war"), "perception management," "media management"-these are just a few of those in fluent use by the military to describe strategies in this war. It is a war primarily and predominantly for the hearts and minds of the people.

As has been said by more than one expert, there is no military solution to this conflict, but whoever dominates the information channels and wins peoples' hearts and convictions is likely to win the new, global war on terror.

Who are these people, whom the different parties to this War are trying to win? In shaping perceptions and influencing minds, you first speak to your domestic electorate and then to an international audience. Governments, more than non-state actors, care most about winning over their own people. Outright victory in military superiority, as has consistently and predictably proven to be the case with the United States and its ally Israel, can turn to loss without the continued support of your own people and without dividing the support of people under occupation for their leaders.

America spends $400 billion a year on its military forces, personnel, and weapons programs, but without information dominance, this investment in the government's view will not yield value for money. To illustrate, we can look at some new uses of words to describe important elements of this war. "Body bags" have been renamed "human remains pouches." Coffins bringing home the bodies of dead servicemen or women from Iraq, are referred to as "transfer tubes." Breaking tradition with the past, President Bush has not attended a single military funeral for one American killed in Iraq. The death toll of Americans stands now at over 500.

No photographs for media publication are allowed of the dead arriving at the US Army Base in Della Ware, and flights of wounded soldiers heading for the Walter Reed Army Medical Centre in Washington DC are always scheduled to land after midnight. Pictures of American dead and wounded are erased from the national memory.

Many of the wounded thousands returning home are not coming back with scratches or broken wrists. These are young men and women with permanent lifelong disabilities, lost limbs, lost eyes, paralysis etc. Certainly the uglier aspects of the reality of war are not covered by US media for the obvious reasons that they do not help maintain support for the same War.

Are the Arabic news channels promoting sensationalism? Is Al Jazeera? They have been accused of being "over the top," very sensationalist, very tabloid in their coverage of the war, and I would like to quote some of those accusations. Before I do so, words such as "invasion," "military occupation," "resistance," "imbalance of military powers," "humanitarian crisis," "mass detentions" - these are words that, if mentioned on mainstream TV would produce an overwhelming reaction. What "invasion"?! This was a "war of liberation," a "campaign to free Iraq and Iraqis" from an evil dictator with weapons threatening his neighbours and the world. America was "helping Iraq to become the bastion of freedom and democracy" that would light the way for other nations across the Middle East.

I myself would receive phone calls at all times of the day and night when I was editor the English website, during the launch of Al Jazeera's temporary site covering of the War in March and April 2003. I would get calls from a variety of media outlets across the USA and the world. Reporters or programme anchors, whether TV, talk show, newspaper or radio, would call me and ask, "What are you talking about, an invasion? What occupation? What resistance?" If you mentioned signs of a nascent resistance to the American military presence in Iraq, based on reports from our correspondents on the ground, we were immediately accused of bias and sensationalism. What humanitarian crisis? Very little of the effect of War on the people on the ground was shown on mainstream American TV news screens. Which is not to say that some hard-hitting TV news and current affairs programmes on major networks in the States or in Europe did not offer a much broader, deeper and more subtle view of what was happening - because they did. But on US TV screens, this was the exception rather than the rule, and very rarely on prime time.

In general, mainstream American TV audiences, who did not expose themselves to other news outlets in print, radio, satellite TV and on the internet, were not well informed about major issues driving the war or affecting its consequences.

Al Jazeera was accused of outrageous sensationalism for sometimes mentioning facts and showing pictures of high news content value that were simply ignored by mainstream western coverage.

There are two new interesting studies highlighting the editorialization of news in the US and the narrow focus shaping public opinion in major newspapers. News coverage in the run up to the War, these studies conclude, were agenda-driven either out of wilful ignorance, negligence of thorough reporting, or to keep the story along preconceived political notions.

One of these studies, by Michael Massing in the February 26 issue New York Review of Books, looks at news article coverage of the war in the months building up to it. The other, by Chris Mooney in the March issue of the Colombia Journalism Review, examines in detail the editorials of six major US newspapers. Both of these studies analyse the extent that the broadsheet press in the US asked or did not ask questions about the reasons for going to war given by top US officials. TBS

Joanne Tucker has been with Al Jazeera TV for over two years. She was managing editor of the Al Jazeera Net English website during the site's temporary launch covering the War and in the run-up to its official launch in 2003. She has worked as a producer and reporter for the BBC for six years in between other stints during her broadcast journalism career, and she leaves Al Jazeera this month to head a documentary film production company, making films in English and Arabic for global distribution. She can be reached at:
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