Gag Order

Isolate the seers. Make their dream seem like a nightmare. Fix their tongues so they can’t get their story straight.

– Sekou Sundiata, Space: A Monologue

“Vision is always,” Donna Haraway argued, “a question of the power to see and perhaps of the violence implicit in our visualising practice.” [Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Feminist Studies, Vol. 14, No. 3, Autumn, 1988:pp. 575-599 ]. Journalism is one of the most potent mediums of sight for millions of readers and viewers who turn to corporate newspapers, television and cable news, and online media to see their political, social, cultural, and economic world and ascertain the most critical issues of concern. But with this power of seeing comes the power of silencing. Journalism usurps itself the authority to decide what we see, where we look, whom we see, whom we ignore, and who is silenced. Journalists speak for the world, tempering its passions, politics and protests into frames that fit the priorities and interests of power.

Journalists have tremendous power. The world is filtered for our “comfortable concern” through their eyes, voice, and arguments. They tell us what to see and how to interpret it. It is her voice that we trust and follow. But she possesses a second, even more, significant power – that of being seen as objective, balanced and fair.

Not just anyone is granted this power, and journalists know it and jealously protect it. But to do that, they have to veil the methods of production. “In realism,” John Tagg once argued, ”it is the product that is stressed and production that is repressed.” [John Tagg, “A Means of Surveillance: The Photograph as Evidence in Law,” In Barry Smart (Ed), Michel Foucault: Critical Assessments, Volume 7, Routledge, 1995:51-–52]. Journalists protect this power by consistently placing themselves at the centre of their work and presenting themselves as the only voice with authority to pass judgment, draw conclusions, offer insights, and arrive at conclusions. They defend this power to control the narrative. But where does this power–to be seen as objective, and to control the narrative–come from, and what does it protect?

To understand that we have to turn to literature. One of the most powerful moments in J. M. Coetzee’s novel The Life and Times of Michael K. when a nameless wartime medical officer becomes impatient at his patient Michael K’s refusal to comply with his medical treatments. Looking down at his ward’s emaciated and weakened body and frustrated at his failure to cure him, he screams, “You are going to die, and your story is going to die too, forever and ever unless you come to your senses and listen to me. Listen to me, Michaels. I am the only one who can save you. I am the only one who sees you for the original soul you are. I am the only one who cares for you.” The medical officer’s humanitarian ideals recede in the face of Michael K’s refusal of recognition and affirmation and turn into a desire for domination and control.

As he surrenders to his frustrations and lashes out at Michael K, we hear in words the medical officer’s belief in his power to compel speech, to define the victim’s narrative, to preserve his memory, and to determine whether he lives or dies. The nameless medical officer’s power is god-like, captured most vividly at the end when he decides that Michael K’s life was not even worth living; “In fact, his life was a mistake from beginning to end. It’s a cruel thing to say, but I will say it: he is someone who should never have been born into a world like this. It would have been better if his mother had quietly suffocated him when she saw what he was and put him in the trash can.” [J. M. Coetzee, The Life & Times of Michael K, Penguin Random House, 1985: 151,155].

The nameless medical office has the power to speak, represent and preserve. Moreover, Michael K can only talk in terms given to him by his benefactor and only achieve recognition if he reacts in ways recognisable by his benefactor. Of course, what is left unspoken is the structures of power and privilege that have placed the two subjects in their relative positions. The medical officer is blind to the political, institutional, racial, and economic forces that have created him and his role and those that have made Michael K. and his victimhood. As Julietta Singh reminds us, “By obscuring and enforcing one’s power in the humanitarian effort, by upholding the narrative of humanitarian benevolence and disavowing material complicities, humanitarian characters come to reproduce the very structures of power they desire to dismantle.” That is, the interlocutor can only “come to understand themselves as the kinds of subjects that do good in the world by ignoring the masterful material relations that enable their work.” [Julietta Singh, Unthinking Mastery: De-humanism and Decolonial Entanglements, Duke University Press, 2018:102–103].

This power of voice and the desire to control the narrative is fundamental to the discipline of journalism. In the way they practice their craft and narrate their works, journalists, too, veil “masterful material relations” to economic and political power. The power of the narrative–to make it, to change it, and to disseminate it–resides entirely with the journalistic body, which values the ability to “construct the narrative, to hold mastery over its production and their particular positions within it.” [Julietta Singh, Unthinking Mastery; Unthinking Mastery: De-humanism and Decolonial Entanglements, Duke University Press, 2018:114].

“In modern societies,” Stuart Hall argued, ”the different media are especially important sites for the production, reproduction, and transformation of ideologies…[it is] by definition, part of the dominant means of ideological production.” [Hall, Stuart, “The Whites of their Eyes: Racist Ideologies and the Media,” In Dines, Gail & Humez, Jean M., (Eds) Race and Class in Media: A Text-Reader, Sage Publications, 1995:19-20]. Journalism produces “representations of the social world, images, descriptions, explanations, and frames for understanding how the world is and why it works as it is said and shown to work.” [Ibid.]. It does this by carefully curating the choice of topics, the issues to highlight, and the kinds of opinions allowed onto their pages. It does this by centering the journalists as the narrator of the world, and controlling who gets to speak.

This curation operates through specific normative frameworks, or as Chomsky argued, through “the unquestioned premises that guide reporting and commentary, and the general framework imposed for the presentation of a certain view of the world.” [Chomsky, Noam, Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies, South End Press, 1989]. The “unquestioned premises” and “general frameworks” determine what we assume is a commonsense understanding of what is credible, acceptable, civil, just, and appropriate. This determines who is worthy of hearing, believing, and being seen as an authority. The voices that make it into our media as “experts” or those recruited to produce the stories result from deliberate or unconscious filtering.

We rarely question a journalist’s privilege to speak and narrate. But no journalist stands outside ideology, beliefs and opinion. There can be “no brute vision,” Copjec reminds us. “No vision is devoid of sense.” [Copjec, Joan. “The Orthopsychic Subject: Film Theory & The Reception of Lacan,” October, #49, (Summer, 1989), Page 53–71.]. A journalist’s observations, witnessing, seeing, and knowing are not transparent but ideologically and epistemically informed. “Between the subject and the world is inserted the entire sum of discourses which make…visuality different from vision, the notion of unmediated visual experienced.” [Bryson, Norman. “The Gaze in the Expanded Field.” In Foster, Hal (editor) Vision And Visuality, The New Press, 1988:91-92]. These discourses determine the line between the “true” and the “false,” the relevant and the useful.

For another example where a photojournalist erases the history of the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and centres the Western actor as the only creator of DRC history, see Genocidal War As A Game.

Julietta Singh calls it “authoritative knowledge” tied to a drive for domination and power. “The material and ideological…cannot be easily parsed.” She argues. “The conscious and unconscious choices we make…reveal…the ways that…we remain bound to structures of …[domination and]…violence we wish to disavow.” [Singh, Julietta, Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglements, Duke University Press, 2021:10].

The material conditions, privileges and political power that allow a reporter to travel to far regions and represent the world, to speak for the people she encounters, to interpret their statements, to analyse and draw conclusions from it, are hidden. Their entanglements in the creation of the violence, suffering and pathologies they come to document, comment on, summarize and present for our “comfortable concern,” are never examined or acknowledged. [Said, Edward, Reflections On Exile, Harvard University Press, 2000:97].

However, when challenged, their response tells us how they understand their societal role.