Raymond Williams work ‘Keywords’ is perhaps one of the great pioneering cultural studies text of our lifetime. There are not many works that can claim that. In it, Williams pointed out that the meaning and use of words is deeply influenced by and changes with our political, social and economic situations and needs. As Williams himself argued in the book:
“…[T]he air of massive impersonality which the Oxford Dictionary communicates is not so impersonal, so purely scholarly, or so free of active social and political values as might be supposed from its occasional use.”
Words matter. And how, when and who uses them matters profoundly. When it is a word used by Western media, one deeply implicated in upholding corporate, political and military interests, we should always keep Williams insight in mind. Hence, it is irresponsible, if not disingenuous, of any writing by a media critic or commentator when writing about the American / Western media (broadcast, print, digital, radio) to not acknowledge the existence of this political and corporate influence, and the ways in which it influences so much of what is shown and spoken about. It is also disingenuous not to acknowledged that using and manipulating the media today is a crucial goal of any political administration anywhere in the world. The reach and access of media is greater today than ever before, and its influence on opinions and ideas second only to the Church. Perhaps more so, but I do not wish to blaspheme. Hence, I am repeatedly dismayed at the persistent and consistent eraser by media critics and analysts of American and European journalism’s close relationship to political and corporate power. (Le Monde Diplomatique is an exception, reporting repeatedly on this close collaboration when it comes to French media.) So much has been written about this to be self-evident, but it is intentionally pushed aside in discussions about how news get produced, published, disseminated and discussed. From corporate and private ownership of major newspapers, to political influence and collusion with journalists and editors, we know well today how closely our media has become a propaganda machine.
So when I came across this essay titled “Should News Outlets Show Photographs of Terrorists?” by Fred Ritchen – a former photo editor at The New York Times and now a teacher at the International Center for Photography in New York, I was left confused by many of its positions. On the face of it, it isn’t an unreasonable question. After all, who wants to acknowledge criminals and evil. Until you begin to pull apart the construction of the question, and begin to see the ‘evidence’ Ritchen offers to build his point of view. At the very least, I was left confused by the easy way Ritchen conflates a range of violent phenomenon under one rather poorly defined phrase of ‘terrorism’ / ‘terrorist’. By setting up a discussion about the ways in which people and militant groups are using social and other media to spread their political agenda and arguments, Ritchen attempts to grapple with the recent decisions by media outlets to ‘censor’ these voices, to not ‘glorify’ them unnecessarily. But to make this argument, Ritchen never crosses over to an overt support of the moves to ‘censor’ unpleasant realities, but instead argues that though he does not advocate complete erasure, he does that offer as an idea a change in focus in media:
“But the primary goal of the media, at least the media willing to forego the spectacular, might well be to de-emphasise and even destabilise the propaganda wars by emphasising more of the authentic and the everyday…
…Informing readers about more of the larger family album that provides society’s fabric can serve to share some of the more constructive energy to be found in social media, affirming connections rather than speculating on an apocalypse…
…while working to amplify a sense of the good and hopeful, the normal and the everyday, in people.”
Last time I checked, the primary goal of journalism (not media!), is investigating and challenging corporate and political power, protecting the legal, social and political rights of the ordinary citizen, investigating corruption and criminality of corporations, corporate leaders, public institutions, public servants and elected officials, investigating crimes, defending civil and constitutional rights and so on. I don’t remember journalism being asked to play the role of social nanny, or protector of our ‘sentiments’, or be a creator of ‘feel good’ normality just so that our day isn’t disturbed by difficult facts and truths. To say nothing about a pre-emptive determination of ‘criminality’ or politically informed judgement about ‘the good side’ or ‘the bad side. This rather benign, soothing, Disneyesque advice towards the end of a piece that claims to navigate the difficult terrain of today’s unchecked media space, and the difficulty of telling propaganda from news, was incredibly disturbing. Not the least because of its rather odd Big Brother connotations asking journalists to act as ‘soothers’ or ‘managers’ of our ‘unruly masses’ who seem not to know how to cope with media. This disdain for the public – a common theme among the elite, was stated quite explicitly by Ritchen in this very piece:
“The astonishing lack of media literacy in this age of the image has encouraged many misperceptions, enabling much of advertising and celebrity culture to flourish, and now evidently being useful to ISIS and other such organizations.”
Ritchen here is echoing a widespread belief – among politicians, pundits, and media elite, is that people just don’t know better, but that ‘we’ do. It isn’t planned profiteering, or marketing, or advertising but people’s ‘low brow’ desires that have allowed ‘advertising and celebrity culture to flourish’ in our media, social or otherwise. That through training, education, guidance and lullabies, they will be led to the ‘right’ place. You hear so much of this arrogant disdain in our media spaces today as they speak about the Trump phenomenon, and the ‘barbaric’ people who are lining up behind him. In Europe, it is a disdain and denigration reserved for Le Pen supporters or the Brexit believers.
Similarly, when applied to Muslims in American and Europe, these same elite believe that the reason people are easily seduced by ISIS / ISIL is because they are too stupid and illiterate to know propaganda from journalism, fantasy from reality. They are pawns, mindless and thoughtless, being exploited by supra-powerful media hypnosis emanating from the unchecked and uncontrolled Internet. Much like the bizarre and paranoid panics over paedophiles on the Internet, this one sees citizens as innocents easily manipulated and seduced away by evil voices. Ritchen cites the example of a German ISIS fighter who defected after seeing that behind their ‘celebratory’ films lay a lot of scripting and setting up of scenes. He cites this as an example of how if people can see the ‘reality’ they would not make such choices. Ritchen believes that once people see the fraud, they will wake up. But what would they be allowed to wake up to? After all, someone called Chelsea Manning also saw the fraud and noticed the brutality of our state and military structure and its wars. She realised the lies that were being fed to the public, and the criminality of our wars, but then paid a very heavy price. What we cannot consider is that perhaps the German ISIS defector fled from the lies of the German State, and the constructs of German ‘liberalism’, only to find himself stuck in just another, but different, stage play? Could it be that he in fact had a genuine allegiance to the suffering of a large part of humanity under NATO / American bombardments? Could it be that much like an American citizens marching off to bring ‘democracy’ to Iraq, a march for which they was ‘radicalised’ by our media and politicians on the basis of lies and false facts, the German too realised what has happening only after it was too late? That these are equal phenomenon, and less about ‘media literacy’ than about the fact that so much of our ‘journalism’ is no different from what we are quick to suggest is merely the propaganda of the others.
For someone well versed in the mainstream American media industry, it is strange for Ritchen not to acknowledging the deep penetration of corporate and political interests in our media, or the fundamental ways in which most politics is as much about media messaging as it is about real policies. The hundreds of millions spent by the Bush administration in manipulating and controlling the media to prove and then execute the illegal and criminal invasion of Iraq should be a constant reminder that media is not an apolitical, neutral or innocent institution/actor. This is simply Noam Chomsky’s point in his seminal work ‘Manufacturing Consent’, or Mark Danner in any number of articles that appeared in the New York Review of Books, or Lacan, or Zizek or McLuhan and many media critics. Or earlier, Walter Lippman, who actually wrote the phrase ‘manufacturing of consent’. That this piece is being written in Time Magazine, one of America’s foremost propagators of state propaganda and nationalist jingoism, is an irony that should not be lost on us. The entire universe of questionable collusion of mainstream media with political power is entirely removed from this discussion. But it is done so either because Ritchen is unaware of it, which would be seriously egregious for someone of his intellect and experience, or because it reveals the careful censorship that informs this piece in the first place.
But ‘terrorism’ or ‘terrorists’ is not a term a real journalists or media expert should ever use. It has no meaning other than one supplied by context and political expediency. But it is in the title of this piece, it is in the examples offered, and it is in the choice of ‘terrorists’ given. But here is the core issue: the reason why he can write this as a discussion of ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’ use of media, is because he is making a political judgement about whose violence and repression is good and necessary, and whose is ‘bad’ and ‘barbaric’. It is this judgement that reveals the ideology of the piece, and the certainty with which it is written.
What Ritchen, like many editors and photo editors working for a major American or European newspaper cannot fathom, or accept, is a political judgement, and a political commitment that may be contrary to American social and political ideology and propaganda. What Ritchen cannot accept, is that in the eye of millions, it is the USA and Europe, after nearly two decade (and longer), or violent slaughter and destruction of entire nations, who are the ‘terrorists’ and that it isn’t just ‘naive’ or media illiteracy, but political engagement and commitment, coupled with political repression in Western societies, that can move them. What seems alien to him is an idea of an allegiance – humanist, humanitarian, moral and ethical, of millions of people towards those in the Middle East who has suffered such brutality and horror under the bombardments and massacres of the West, and that people are moved to act in allegiance and support out of sheer horror at the crimes of the West against nations that never threatened them. For if he is can imagine this, he would be able to see that it isn’t media that is ‘radicalising’ the young, but the hundreds of thousands of corpses and destroyed lives some of us can see despite the ‘restraint’ in Western media that has entirely erased them.Personally, what I find ‘glorifying’ in media is the ease and calm with which we report and obfuscate the mass slaughter of thousands that we conduct elsewhere, and the infantile reactions, and exaggerated ‘sensitivity’ our media can suddenly seek, when we have to face the consequences of a small massacre within. Our barbarism seems to know no bounds, yet our pretensions to ‘civility’ certainly know no bounds either!
Ritchen offers a range of ‘Muslim’ examples of violence, which are then safely and predictably considered as ‘terrorist’. A very diverse – historically and political, set of phenomenon are carelessly and ahistorical lumped together to make his point. And any and all political history and context they may have is erased to make them seem similar, and equally deviant. We get the old cliched judgements about what can be spoken about as terrorism – the Palestinian resistance fighters desperately using all means to defend against the Israeli war crimes and colonial theft of their homes and lands, the ISIS / ISIL movement that emerged in the wake of America’s criminal wars and brutalisation of Iraqi and Libyan society, the ‘Muslim’ truck driver – an Arab! who in a moment of deranged anger plowed down dozens of people and the men who flew their planes into the towers (aside: Ritchen claims they were anonymous. That is wrong. They were not anonymous. They had names, traveled on their passports, were seen by everyone and never hid their identifies.) But none of these actors have any relationship to the other, and none of them can simply be said to be ‘terrorist’ as such. And then the gratuitous offering of a ‘good’ Muslim – Khizr Khan, the one who echoes our imperial discourse, the one who celebrates our nationalism, the one who parrots the myths of American exceptionalism and largess, the one who offers the native voice to confirm our own sense of social superiority and political innocence. Perhaps we should not read too much into the fact that all his examples are ‘Muslims’ or from the Middle East, but perhaps we should. Perhaps there is an intentional reduction of the just and necessary struggle of a brutalised Palestinian people against Israeli crimes with a deranged truck driver from Nice. So that if the driver can be erased, so can the Palestinians, as the French and the US press has indeed worked hard to do. Perhaps we should also not note that acts and people so many of us consider ‘terrorists’ are simply never mentioned or even alluded to or used as examples: the American invasion of Iraq, drone attacks, Anders Breveik and his Christian crusaders, the Israeli occupation and the deranged mentally sick American settlers in the West Bank, the insane US soldiers out to kill and slaughter but ‘glorified’ in Hollywood blockbusters instead. Yes, the ‘terrorist’ who inform this entire piece about ‘erasing’ their presence in media, he is Muslim. Ritchen refers to Alex Teves’ family, but lets remember that the Aurora Theatre shooting was never called an act of ‘terror’ and he was never charged with carrying out an act of ‘terror’. That’s because the assailant was not a Muslim.
It is not more restraint, but less restraint that is needed. Acts of violence are politics by other means. Arun Kundani, author of ‘The Muslims Are Coming’, has repeatedly argued that media has to offer more spaces for difficult dissenting and political thought, and that our current atmosphere, driven by a privatized, corporatised, politically affiliated media is drowning out the voices of people, and incarcerating others for speaking uncomfortable truths. Acts of violence, as Fanon argued so often, are actions against the silencing, erasure, dismissal, denigration, ignoring, throttling and humiliating. Here I am not talking about lone killers, though I believe that even they need to be heard and understood, but about the broader political counter-violence we see in acts of Palestinian resistance, or ISIS campaigns, that Ritchen otherwise conflates as similar phenomenon. Lest we forget, political repression, legal shenanigans, media control and censorship have already been used extensively against European and American Muslims, citizens and other, to silence uncomfortable political speech. Ritchen should look up what was done to the young Fahd Hashmi.
Journalism is not a ‘feel good’ enterprise, nor it is prime time media entertainment. It isn’t set up nor should it be expected to offer, bromides to salve our conscience and moral responsibilities. News reporting, extensively investigating, exploring every facet of an issue, raising the hard questions of our own political leaders, encountering all voices including that of the ‘alleged’ criminals, are not ‘glorification’, but the fundamental acts of what is a critical pillar of our democratic society. Journalism confronts us with the uncomfortable and problematic, in images and in writing, as long as it is relevant and important. It can’t be about ‘decorum’ or ‘behavior’ to show a society the face of the very monsters it creates.
Equally, it is wrong to believe, as the ‘No Notoriety’ campaign does, that investigating, discussing, featuring the details of a criminal, her motivations, her history etc. are ‘glorification’ and not journalism. It is equally wrong to suggest that only victim-hood, trauma and suffering of ‘innocents’ determines the scope of journalism. In fact, this is precisely what has been done for years – look at the dozens of stories about injured American soldiers, as a way to drown out any analysis, questioning and investigation of the corruption and lies that underpinned our recent wars. Journalists investigate crimes – political, corporate, personal, societal, and investigate all parties involved. It is not only an essential pillar of journalism, but also the fundamental pillar of our judicial system i.e even the perpetrator has his day in court, a right to present his argument, or defend himself against accusations. The Norwegians understood this well, given the mass murderer Anders Behring Breveik his day in court, his place in media, forcing Norwegians to face their own societal demons, and ask hard questions about how such a man could emerge from within them. Are Americans too fragile, to weak to face these simple tasks, to have to need to repress journalists from doing the necessary? I don’t think so.
A journalists job is to show, to unveil, to bring forward all that has been left unsaid. Reporting is not ‘glorification’. That we are unable to tell the difference between the acts of narcissists on social media and the practice of journalism is a sad commentary on the state of media and its experts today. Can Le Monde’s Jérôme Fenoglio, the director of the newspaper, see the failure of thought when he argues:
“Since the attack in Nice, we will no longer publish photographs of the perpetrators of the killings, in order to avoid the potential effect of posthumous glorification.”
How did news publishers begin to think that publishing is an act of ‘glorification’? This is a critical question because it highlights a shift in the meaning of ‘media’ and the spread of ‘information’. When did appearing in our advertisement filled, celebrity news fueled, low brow consumerism and culture industry based, newspapers become assured of their role as outlets of ‘glorification’? How have we arrived at a moment in media history when knowing, seeing, awareness and knowledge of a crime and a criminal is considered not to be the natural act of journalism and responsible provision of information to a concerned citizenry, but actually a form of ‘glorification’ and celebration? Perhaps it is because the West, the USA in particular, who is the pioneer of using broadcast and digital media to spread propaganda and ‘glorification’:The ‘video gaming’ of our brutal aerial assaults against civilian populations in Iraq and Afghanistan (‘shock and awe’ baby!); the comic stage craft of an aircraft carrier landings of a goofy smiling President; the careful and meticulous censoring of all video and photographic details through a highly advanced ‘embed’ program; the gleeful and willing collaboration of our mainstream media outlets in the propaganda system for war and willingness to use these ’embedded’ reports as news; the repeated use of television and Hollywood produced big-budget films that ‘radicalise’ our citizenry towards war and celebrate torture, assassinations (aka targeted killings), kidnappings (aka renditions), invasions and occupations (aka as ‘bringing democracy’). These are all part of the West’s pioneering achievements in reducing serious journalism to mere jingoism and nationalist blather. That our military make extensive use of social media to bring in recruits from low income and marginalized communities, is not considered a worrying ‘radicalisation’ strategy, but a ‘marketing’ strategy.
The fact is that our media have increasingly become cheerleaders for political power, for war, and for economic and social policies that privilege the elite, and eviscerate the majority. What gets publishes is ideology and propaganda, and media outlets are used by political, corporate and military power for precisely this end. Whether it is a Hollywood film produced with close collaboration with the CIA and military intelligence, or fluff pieces about our ‘boys and girls’ at war, editors believe, and owners have created, a medium that isn’t about dissent, or questioning, but about approving and confirming.
We already live in a world where the horrors being inflicted by our imperial agents of war and the consequences of these agents for the lives of millions are being re-written, re-drawn. re-cast and re-constituted as ‘liberation’ or ‘humanitarianism’ or ‘anti-terrorism’ or some other such false construct. We live in a world where ‘terrorists’ like Tony Blair, Netanyahu and others, are offered to us as ‘politicians’ or ‘elected officials’ or ‘the international community’. Our media is riven with political, cultural and social bias, as shown by Ritchen piece and the disparate and diverse set of phenomenon he brushed under the rubric of ‘terrorist’. That ISIS / ISIL does the same, seems to have confused and upset our establishment forces. Our newspapers glorify mass murderers, criminal wars, illegal and cruel practices like torture, kidnappings, indiscriminate bombardment of civilian infrastructure (do I have to remind us of the recent attacks on MSF hospitals in Afghanistan, and now in Yemen?), assassinations and much else. With less and less dissent against state power, and the military machines, and greater and greater reliance on corporate money and political ‘access’, it is media outlets that have become platforms of ‘glorification’, rather than institutions of dissent and investigation. It is only because of this tragic state of affairs can we even believe that seeing and reporting on a crime and criminal is a bad idea, and can have ‘glorifying’ rather than clarifying and informative consequences.
We already live in a world of tremendous media ‘restraint’.
We who have for two decades commissioned and published embedded reports from the field, we who have allowed corporations to influence reporting, we have permitted special interests to decide what is published and argued, we who have sold our media to private interests and who now control its contents and perspectives, we who have accepted editors who sit with politicians and pen acceptable pieces, we who have allowed our media outlets to become advertisement spaces for wars, torture, kidnappings, assassinations, and massacres. That ISIS / ISIL exploits these platforms for its political benefits is not some deviant act, or odd development, but merely a result of lessons well learned, and an exploitation of an infrastructure that even its operatives recognize is the most crucial means of making public opinion and definite ideological concepts in Western society. It is a media savvy organisation, just as our societies are, and just as we use media to propagate our own justifications for war and barbarism. The editor at Le Monde seems to forget the many criminals his paper does ‘glorify’ every day, and the many barbarisms it does justify as ‘necessary’. We seem unable to see a voice other than our own, as having a genuine view of history, a political strategy and goal. To do so isn’t just something that would be ‘nice’, but something that should be an essential form of reporting on it. Instead, it has been ‘reduced’ to simply a barbaric ‘terrorist’ group, about which we know nothing, and about which we let the more egregiously idiotic political policies and actions.
We seem to now be in a panic when the ‘wrong’ people get their hands on it. It seems at times that this is less about ‘restraint’ but more about an elite, political or class privilege and the discomfort that emerges when the ‘wrong’ people and voices grab the reins and speak back. It is a discomfort at seeing our own reality reflected back. It is equally ironic that people purporting to speak out on behalf of freedom of speech are today the first to decide who gets to have ‘freedom of speech’, and who gets to be told to remain silent. Or simply removed because it is the wrong sort of ‘glorification’. But these calls for ‘restraint’ or recommendations for ‘where to focus’, are naive at best, misleading at worst. It ignores the economic, political and ideological forces that inform our media, and instead posit it as a benign machine that is simply meant to focus on ‘the good’ and not ‘glorify’ the bad.
Ritchen concludes with an appropriate ‘liberal’ position, one that on the surface seems reasonable for a ‘citizen’ to ask:
I prefer to be given the opportunity to view the identity photos of the murderers, in part as a way of recognizing that in appearance they often seem so ordinary, and in part to adhere to my responsibility as a citizen to know more of what is going on. Looking at their faces, or knowing their names, in no way is an affirmation of their lives or their deeds, but only an acknowledgment of what unfortunately exists.
There is a passivity about this position; the passivity of a consumer / citizen asking for choice, not a citizen demanding a citizen’s right to know. It is like so much of today’s benign ‘liberalism’ that wants to soft pedal across difficult issues by hiding behind calls for civility, mutual respect, care, consideration, and sensitivity particularly when the voices that are raises disturb the current political and power status-quo. Universities advocating ‘civility’ to Palestinians speaking out against Israeli crimes, privileged white students asking for ‘trigger warnings’ when faced with novels speaking honestly about crimes against the black man, and so on. Ritchen insists that his requests to see and know should not be seen or confused by an affirmation of their lives or their deeds. But why can’t we be open to such an affirmation? Why is it impossible to imagine an affirmation with the struggle, the desperate struggle, of the Palestinians? Why is it impossible to not see that ISIS / ISIL is a result of our failed political and military policies, an outgrowth of the massacres and genocidal violence we inflicted on the hapless Iraqis for over twenty years, and be angered towards those who rather surround themselves with the garb of innocence and victim-hood? Why is it unimaginable that the circumstances or sufferings that may have led to an act of seemingly irrational violence, may actually, when examined, help explain the act, and help us see and understand what we may have to change to prevent it? Isn’t this the role of journalism as well: to ask the uncomfortable questions, and to act as light into dark corners we do not wish to look? The Gellhorn Prize winning journalist Jonathan Cook made precisely this point in his piece How I Found Myself Standing With The Islamic Fascists where he argued:
Living on the margins of any society is an alienating experience that few who are rooted in the heartland of the consensus could ever hope to understand. Such alienation can easily deepen into something less passive, far more destructive, when you find yourself not only marginalised but your loyalty, rationality, even your sanity, called into question.
As we approach the fifth official anniversary of the “war on terror”, the foiled UK “terror plot” has neatly provided George W Bush, the “leader of the free world”, with a chance to remind us of our fight against the “Islamic fascists”. But what if the war on terror is not really about separating the good guys from the bad guys, but about deciding what a good guy can be allowed to say and think?
What if the “Islamic fascism” that President Bush warns us of is not just the terrorism associated with Osama bin Laden and his elusive al-Qaeda network but a set of views that many Arabs, Muslims and Pakistanis — even the odd humanist — consider normal, even enlightened? What if the war on “Islamic fascism” is less about fighting terrorism and more about silencing those who dissent from the West’s endless wars against the Middle East?
How many Moosebruggers (see A Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil to understand this reference) do we need before we have the courage to face the consequences of the values, mores, decisions and practices of our society? It is possible, but only if we know more, and see more, and are shown more and done so with a commitment to holding society and power to account. Selectively presenting a wide sweep of diverse and different phenomenon – all popularly and unthinkingly labelled as ‘terrorists’, to justify setting publishing and journalistic limits of any kind, at a moment in our media history when it’s very independence and credibility is in question, just does not work. I expect stronger, clearer positions from influential media critics, particularly those who are responsible for disseminating their ideas and ideals to a new generation. Not simple recommendations for ‘pleasant’ reporting, and ‘well behaved’ subjects of interest.