To what extent has the ‘War on Terror’ enabled emerging informational forces, such as Al-Jazeera and WikiLeaks, to successfully challenge US and Western hegemony in the global media landscape?
This is a research paper written in December 2010 for my unit on Popular Culture and World Politics at the University of Bristol.
This paper assesses how Western hegemony in the media sphere, with the US as its “global behemoth” (Thussu 2007: 12), is facing significant challenges from emerging informational forces. The impact of Qatari TV station Al-Jazeera and the WikiLeaks whistle-blowing website will be examined in relation to the international ‘War on Terror’ led by the US in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001. This detailed case study follows a theoretical discussion about media control and its geopolitical implications.
The role of news media in the formation of popular opinion on current affairs has never been in doubt. Michael Parenti observes that “for many people an issue does not exist until it appears in the news media” (1993: 1). Today, the constantly evolving nature of news coverage and technological development within the media industry has created an information super-society, in which people – particularly Westerners and those living in developed countries with high Internet penetration rates – enjoy access to an unprecedented wealth of potential news sources. The global media landscape is “a complex terrain of multi-vocal, multimedia and multi-directional flows” (Thussu 2007: 12).
These diverse media flows are a product of the “globalisation of the digital revolution” (Thussu 2007: 2). As the spread of communications technology is “transforming and shrinking the world” (Nye 2004: 30), dominant media narratives – originating in the United States and other powerful Western countries – are being constantly questioned by a proliferating collection of news outlets which uphold different sets of ideological, cultural and political principles.
Various geopolitical actors have created their own state-funded international media networks, catalysing a movement of “growing reverse traffic in transnational media flows” (Thussu 2007, 4). Al-Jazeera (Qatar), Press TV (Iran), CCTV (China) and Russia Today are just four prominent examples, but these are not the only informational forces competing to influence popular opinion. WikiLeaks, a not-for-profit operation “devoted to exposing secrets of all kinds” (Guardian 2010), has emerged as “a new media organisation that could upend the sacred cows of traditional journalism” (Stray 2010). The site’s release of thousands of classified US government documents throughout 2010 arguably confirmed its status as a media game-changer.
Furthermore, a notable trend in ‘citizen journalism’ has surfaced in recent years. This can be broadly defined as “when the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools in their possession to inform one another” (Rosen 2008), as opposed to relying on traditional media sources. The abundance of blogging, podcasting and online community networking, coupled with the availability of affordable audiovisual equipment, has empowered an “active audience” (Thompson 2006) to effectively carry out the work of journalists themselves.
The US media: a propaganda machine advancing soft power goals?
Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky analyse the US mainstream media using a propaganda model, by which “money and power are able to filter out the news fit to print, marginalise dissent, and allow the government and dominant private interests to get their messages across to the public” (2002: 2). The authors argue that this is done in several ways, including the selection of right-thinking personnel who internalise priorities and definitions of newsworthiness that conform to the policy of their employers (ibid: xi) and, therefore, the media owners – many of whom are described by Parenti as “rich conservatives” (1993: 33). Herman and Chomsky note that independent “experts” are often used “to fix the basic principles and ideologies that are taken for granted by media personnel and the elite, but are often resisted by the general population” (2002: xi); Debrix states that media productions seek “to not allow us to perceive or experience any reality that has not been previously massaged, manufactured, or operated by the medium itself” (2008: 4).
Television, as “the popular cultural form of the late 20th century” (Storey 1996: 9), plays a key role in this propaganda model. TV news is a crucial factor in the formation of popular opinion. In a fascinating study of practical reporting techniques, John Fiske discusses several perceived flaws of TV news journalism, stating that its feigned objectivity is often “the ‘unauthored’ voice of the bourgeoisie” (1987: 289) and that “news reports are essentially prewritten; all the reporter does is fill in local details” (ibid: 286). News reporting also often “works to claw back potentially deviant or disruptive events into the dominant value system” (ibid: 288). In other words, TV news is used by power elites to create a common view of social order which infuses public perception of events with its own ideological ideals.
Media has become a vital source of “soft power” (Nye 1990) for the United States, both at home and abroad. Soft power is “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments” (Nye 2004: x), which are the essence of hard power. It is the art of crafting an “intangible attraction” (ibid: 7) towards American political values, and manifests itself in countless ways – from media coverage of key events to the way government agencies employ special liaisons “to work with Hollywood in order to improve their public image” (Jenkins 2009: 229).
The popularisation of Nye’s concept as a strategic tool has established today’s media landscape as a geopolitical battleground, with states fighting an information war for the “hearts and minds” (Nye 2004: 1) of the global public. The proliferation of state-funded international news networks is just one feature of this conflict. Nye argues that “hard and soft power are inextricably intertwined” (ibid: 30), stating that “if the current economic and social trends of the information revolution continue, soft power will become more important in the mix” (ibid).
In the context of America’s dominant status as hegemon of the “global media bazaar” (Thussu 2007: 4), the propaganda model carries significant geopolitical soft power implications. Herman and Chomsky acknowledge that the model has been “fuelled by the globalisation of business more generally, the associated rapid growth of global advertising, and improved communications technology that has facilitated cross-border operations and control” (2002: xiv). Analysing the global media landscape in these stark terms magnifies the political significance of rising non-Western, “de-Americanised” (Thussu 2007: 4) information flows.
Rather than being concentrated in Western centres, “the one-way vertical flow has given way to multiple and horizontal flows” (Thussu 2007: 20) as media power is “distributed among many mini-centres or satraps located in regional hubs” (ibid: 4) like China, India and Brazil. In countries such as these, the Internet is a driving force: it has the potential to serve as “an important informational hub” (Hafez 2007: 115) which “differs from the classical media in many ways” (ibid: 101). The millions of new users in these emerging states have ushered in a trend of “increasing multilingualisation” (ibid: 103) and diversity in the online world, which some analysts argue is “changing the culture of the Internet itself” (German 2010).
This can certainly be interpreted as a major challenge to continued Western hegemony, but it is also important to note an increasing sense of disillusionment amongst Americans about their own media. The 2010 Gallup Confidence in Institutions survey found that just 25% of respondents had “quite a lot” of confidence in newspapers, and only 22% in television news (Morales 2010). A desire for something new is plainly evident; organisations like Russia Today and Al-Jazeera clearly hope to fill this niche. RT employs promotional slogans such as “Any story can be another story altogether” and “Question More,” appealing to people seeking a different angle, while Al-Jazeera English claims to reach over 140 million homes (Mason 2009) and is openly ambitious about cracking the wider US market.
The War on Terror
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 took at least 2,752 lives (Dunlap 2009), spanning 77 different nationalities; the event “touched every [US] citizen and challenged many previously unassailable beliefs” (Ryan 2004: 377). President George W. Bush moved swiftly in response: a ‘War on Terror’ began with the invasion of Afghanistan in October that year, assisted by a Coalition of allied powers including Britain. In March 2003, a similar multinational force controversially invaded Iraq without being sanctioned by the UN Security Council.
Broadly speaking, the overarching goal of these ongoing military operations – as outlined in President Bush’s National Strategy for Combating Terrorism – was to destroy global terror networks by “taking the fight to the terrorists themselves” (Bush 2003). The President stated other key objectives as reducing terrorists’ ability to communicate with each other, isolating them from potential allies and identifying future plots (ibid), while his administration adopted a mantra of fighting for “freedom” as it “repeatedly portrayed the conflict as a war between good and evil” (Kellner 2002: 144).
With so many American lives at stake, the government’s media campaign focused on building public support for aggressive actions. As Robin Brown notes, “the ‘War on Terrorism’ is a war that is also waged through the media… Mobilising, informing and persuading [the population] are integral to the conduct of war” (2003: 87). This section examines how, and with what degree of success, the US government has used the media to convey its key messages, assessing major challenges to its desire for narrative dominance and analysing the situation in wider terms of Western media hegemony.
Francois Debrix argues that the shocking images of 9/11 – two airliners slamming into the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Centre – produced a tide of meanings that were “overwhelming and incomprehensible for the public and politicians alike” (2008: 3). The catastrophe revealed a meaninglessness behind dominant media representations at a moment when the public was least prepared for such a lack of meaning (ibid: 4). A “temporary stoppage of public discourse by politicians, pundits, technocrats, pseudo-experts, intellectuals, and ideologues” (ibid: 3) gave rise to a new era of tabloid geopolitics, in which “vengeful and destructive strategies” (ibid: 5) are deployed while the media use a constant series of non-events to re-establish banality and normalcy in public life (ibid: 4).
Tabloid geopolitics is “the result of mediatised discursive formations that take advantage of contemporary fears, anxieties and insecurities to produce certain political and cultural realities and meanings that are presented as commonsensical popular truths about the present condition” (Debrix 2008: 5). Simply put, it is a thorough exploitation of received values relentlessly manipulated to control popular opinion. In a post-9/11 world, Debrix asserts that tabloid geopolitics bears “a fundamental responsibility for the deployment of extremely violent ways of thinking, viewing and practising international politics today” (ibid: 18), exemplified by the belligerent media representations that emerged during the initial stages of the War on Terror.
Evidence has been gathered in a range of studies looking at the media coverage of these historic events. Michael Ryan’s investigation into the framing of the Afghanistan invasion by the US press concludes that “editorial writers for America’s 10 largest newspapers presented a singular narrative that supported military intervention in the war against terrorism, and they assumed positive outcomes” (2004: 367). Other findings include reliance by editorial writers on official government sources and that not one of 104 articles suggested President Bush was wrong about any aspect of the war on terrorism (ibid: 374).
The major US national television networks “repeatedly beat the war drums… without even the relief of commercials for three days straight, driving the country into hysteria and making it certain that there would be a military response and war” (Kellner 2002: 147). This had the effect of unleashing “an orgy of patriotism such as the country had not seen since World War II” (ibid: 149).
In accordance with the propaganda model, a series of “experts” – often with known ties to the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex – were “hired by the television corporations to explain complex events to the public” (Kellner 2002: 148), although they were essentially “more propaganda conduits for the military than independent analysts” (ibid). An investigation by The New York Times uncovered the revelation that, beginning in the build-up to the Iraq war, the Bush administration “used its control over access and information in an effort to transform the analysts into a kind of media Trojan horse – an instrument intended to shape terrorism coverage from inside the major TV and radio networks” (Barstow 2008).
The ploy sought to keep these analysts on message by exploiting “ties to military contractors vested in the very war policies they are asked to assess on air” (Barstow 2008). In other words, the administration was effectively purchasing guarantees of favourable coverage by offering the reward of beneficial business relationships for contractors the experts were known to represent.
Another method of dictating media representations employed by the US and its partners was “to create Coalition Information Centres (CICs) in Washington, London and Islamabad to control the news agenda and rebut opposition claims” (Brown 2003: 93). The activities of these hubs include producing briefing materials, organising press conferences and listing official media appearances – all in line with a designated “message of the day” (ibid).
This sophisticated strategy illustrates the US government’s acute awareness of the need to avoid a repeat of the Vietnam War – which has been enshrined in American popular consciousness with the widely expressed belief that “the media, particularly television, were responsible for US government failures” (Herman and Chomsky 2002: 170). However, as will now be demonstrated, significant informational forces – in the form of Al-Jazeera and WikiLeaks – are actively challenging these prevalent US representations of the War on Terror, and, subsequently, the continued Western hegemony of global media.
Al-Jazeera was launched in 1996 with $137 million from the Qatari government, which provided the funding as a loan rather than a direct subsidy so it could “disassociate itself from Al-Jazeera’s editorial content” (Sakr 2001: 58). The station rose to international prominence in 2001, when the US anti-terror campaign in Afghanistan was taking off. As the only TV network already in the country since 2000, it had “unique access to footage that was much in demand by Western media organisations” (Sakr 2007: 116) – including a series of recorded speeches by the Al-Qaeda kingpin Osama bin Laden.
Its establishment accompanied sweeping Qatari reforms in the media sphere, which allowed the new channel to cover topics avoided by the rest of the Arab media, as it was free from the institutionalised censorship enforced in other countries (Sakr 2001: 58). Al-Jazeera’s name became “almost synonymous with ambitious media innovation on behalf of the global South” (Sakr 2007: 118) and an English-language news website was launched in 2003. A corresponding TV channel began broadcasting in 2006, with the intention of furthering the mission to offer “an alternative to dominant news agendas and news reporting available from the West” (ibid) and “provide impartial competition for CNN and the BBC” (Mason 2009).
Al-Jazeera flaunted its counter-hegemonic credentials by airing footage of dead and captured Coalition troops early in the Iraq war, which attracted criticism that the station was sympathetic to Saddam Hussein (Seib 2005: 602). Other striking examples included “making a hero out of Ali Abed Minkash, a peasant who reportedly shot down a US Apache helicopter near Kerbala and was repeatedly shown standing proudly with his ancient rifle” (Black 2003). Senior Al-Jazeera journalist Faisal Bodi (2003) stated in a Guardian article that his organisation was supplying a “corrective” view to the official line that the military campaign was going to plan, citing examples of untruthful reporting about the Baghdad offensive on Western TV.
In Afghanistan, Al-Jazeera reporters were allowed to remain in Taliban-controlled territory after Western journalists had been ordered to leave; news outlets unable to reach these areas turned to the Arab network for help, and its logo appeared in newscasts around the world (Seib 2005: 602). However, this did not prevent the station from facing certain operational difficulties: “few other news organisations had as many personnel imprisoned or interrogated by Western institutions in connection with events in Afghanistan and Iraq” (Sakr 2007: 121) and it was “difficult for Al-Jazeera to get any of its journalists embedded with US or British troops” (ibid: 122). In a bitter dispute with the Bush administration, the station claimed its crews in Iraq were “subject to strafing by gunfire, death threats, confiscation of news material and multiple detentions and arrests” (Torriero 2003).
Philip Seib attaches wider significance to the emergence of Al-Jazeera as a key global media player, stating that its most important achievement may be the “establishment of Arab media as a viable alternative to Western news organisations and its role in attracting global recognition of Arab media voices” (2005: 604). As evidence he cites the growing number of Arab news outlets, including numerous satellite channels, to which the Iraq war gave “an opportunity to engage in critical reporting and to cover events in the Arab world in the broader context of global politics” (ibid: 605, 606).
By acting as trailblazer in this powerful counter-hegemonic media flow, Al-Jazeera has “created an unprecedented space for pan-Arab public discussion” (Sakr 2007: 129), hugely eroding the influence of Western news organisations in the Middle East and among millions of Arabic speakers in a widespread diaspora, as well as reaching large international audiences with its ambitious English expansion. This has considerably hampered US soft power efforts to win hearts and minds in the immediate vicinity of Afghanistan and Iraq, where unpopular military operations are still ongoing, and where Al-Jazeera possesses “credibility that eludes Western media” (Seib 2005: 602).
During the second half of 2010, global headlines were regularly dominated by WikiLeaks. This rising informational force has been described as “the world’s first stateless news organisation” (Rosen 2010), due to the fact that it has “no paid staff, no copiers, no desks, no office” (Khatchadourian 2010). In the words of founder Julian Assange, it is “an uncensorable system for untraceable mass document leaking and public analysis” (quoted in Khatchadourian 2010), which has pioneered “scientific journalism” as a self-verifying media practice that “allows you to read a news story, then to click online to see the original document it is based on” (Assange 2010).
The site’s exposure of classified US government information pertaining to the War on Terror catalysed several major news events. In April it released military footage from Iraq that “depicted American soldiers killing at least 18 people, including two Reuters journalists” (Khatchadourian 2010) in a helicopter attack, after camera equipment had been mistaken for weaponry. Then, in July, WikiLeaks published over 90,000 classified military logs that provided “an unvarnished image of the war in Afghanistan – from the perspective of the soldiers who are fighting it” (Gebauer et al 2010), working closely with The New York Times, The Guardian and Germany’s Der Spiegel. This was followed in October by arguably the largest classified military leak in history: nearly 400,000 secret field reports from Iraq covering 2004 to 2009. In November, a “pivotal moment for journalism” (Bell 2010) and a “recasting of modern diplomacy” (Jenkins 2010) came about when WikiLeaks – once again collaborating with other media outlets – began releasing 250,000 secret US government cables, which exposed the State Department’s backstage policy workings and views of foreign powers.
Key findings from the leaked Afghanistan logs included a series of bloody military errors which caused hundreds of unreported civilian casualties (Davies and Leigh 2010). The tranche of Iraq war documents was even more damaging to the Coalition: allegations emerged of “torture, summary executions and war crimes” including detainee abuse, thousands of civilian deaths (Davies et al 2010) and fatal ‘friendly fire’ incidents which had not been made public (Meek 2010). Veteran journalist Simon Jenkins (2010) described the disclosures as an “astonishing insight into the minds of fighting men seemingly detached from the ethics of war”.
The ‘Cablegate’ scandal that erupted in November 2010 produced a string of incendiary revelations, including:
- The US instructed its diplomats to steal personal information from UN officials, including DNA, fingerprints, iris scans and credit card numbers (Assange 2010);
- Pakistan is secretly sponsoring major militant groups, including the Afghan Taliban, despite receiving billions of dollars in aid as part of its public alliance with Washington (Walsh 2010);
- the British government promised to protect US interests during the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war (Assange 2010);
- President Barack Obama’s administration is “playing hardball to get other countries to take freed detainees from Guantanamo Bay” – for example, by agreeing to meet the Slovenian President only if the nation would accept a prisoner (Assange 2010);
- the US military has been charging its allies a 15% “handling fee” on hundreds of millions of dollars being raised to develop Afghanistan’s army, which prompted Germany to threaten cancelling such contributions (Traynor 2010);
- the scathing (although not altogether surprising) official view that Afghanistan is “a looking-glass land where bribery, extortion and embezzlement are the norm and the honest official is a distinct outlier” (Shane et al 2010).
While some of these findings may not come as news to informed experts, shedding light on the private observations of US diplomats in such a revealing way has demonstrated a clear “mismatch between what they claim and what they do” (Jenkins 2010). The leak has emphatically reinforced a widely-held opinion that “security and counter-terrorism concerns have pervaded every aspect of American foreign policy” (Garton Ash 2010) and exposed “the extent to which the US and its allies see no real prospect of turning Afghanistan into a viable state, let alone a functioning democracy” (Naughton 2010).
Similarly to the case of Al-Jazeera, WikiLeaks has encountered considerable operational difficulties since the beginning of Cablegate. In the heat of sustained verbal attack by the Obama administration and American politicians, its domain name – WikiLeaks.org – was effectively killed by a web hosting company, and the site was removed from Internet servers owned by Amazon, which came under political pressure (Arthur and Halliday 2010). Several key financial companies such as Visa, MasterCard and PayPal also ended relationships with WikiLeaks (Greenberg 2010), greatly restricting the site’s ability to receive the public donations which sustain it.
However, signs are emerging that these efforts to suppress WikiLeaks – which are subject to varying theories about the US State Department’s potential choreographing role – will be doomed to fail. The site “maintains its content on more than 20 servers around the world and on hundreds of domain names” (Khatchadourian 2010), which effectively places it “beyond the reach of any government or legal system” (Rosen 2010). It employs “a deliberately Byzantine system of virtual tunnels that conceal the origins and destinations of data” (Heffernan 2010), which makes the original sources of leaks incredibly difficult to track down.
Moreover, any potential US prosecution of WikiLeaks or Julian Assange would, according to law scholars interviewed by The New York Times in December 2010, “encounter steep legal and policy difficulties” (Savage 2010). In addition to the organisation’s stateless nature, a key issue lies in the fact that WikiLeaks itself is not the source: it does not engage in espionage or solicit material, but merely distributes information after receiving anonymous virtual drop-offs. The American legal landscape for protection of government data appears to have been “exposed as unprepared for the mass dissemination of leaked electronic documents on the Internet” (ibid).
The rapid rise of WikiLeaks has provided a fascinating look inside the War on Terror which pre-technology journalists could never even dream about. Some observers argue that an informational paradigm shift has taken place: “For most of history, government has enjoyed an easy superiority in adjusting the ebb and flow of information. Now the rules of the contest have changed” (Glenny 2010).
First of all, by laying down “a milestone in the new news ecosystem” (Madrigal 2010), WikiLeaks has instigated a media sea change in several ways. As a non-profit organisation, working with a staff of volunteers who are not all professional journalists, it operates outside the propaganda model and in the finest traditions of citizen journalism. By releasing secret material online to the general public, it empowers citizens by granting open access to this information – which can be freely interpreted and spread using numerous means at the audience’s disposal.
Secondly, the 2010 leaks redefined the parameters of media agenda-setting, illustrating that “governments, however well intentioned, do not have the best judgement in terms of what is right for citizens to know” (Bell 2010) and that “the established media no longer necessarily gets to make that call either” (ibid). For better or for worse, diplomacy – traditionally “a closed activity, limited to small groups of people” (Brown 2003: 88) – has been cracked wide open by Cablegate, which has established that “there is no longer such a thing as a safe electronic archive” (Jenkins 2010).
In this absorbing confrontation with the US government, WikiLeaks has set out “the first real battleground between the political establishment and the open web” (Bell 2010), demonstrating that the Internet as an informational force may be totally “beyond the reach of authority” (Hafez 2007: 101). The site’s extensive security features mean that “a government or company that wanted to remove content from WikiLeaks would have to practically dismantle the Internet itself” (Khatchadourian 2010). No matter what happens to Assange or his site in the near future, the information released by WikiLeaks will be out there forever.
The rise of Al-Jazeera and WikiLeaks as prominent informational forces has significantly undermined Western global media hegemony. These organisations, aided by declining public support for the War on Terror, have strongly contributed to shattering the tabloid geopolitical discourses which dominated Western news agendas after 9/11. A media atmosphere in which the American government “could count on being able to deliver its message to the world through US news organisations” (Seib 2005: 613) has all but vanished. Increasing globalisation and regionalisation mean that “in the decades ahead, we can expect only more Al-Jazeeras, adding to an ever greater torrent of information, as regional ideas spread around the world and become global” (Miles 2005: 426). Moreover, as Robin Brown notes, “the increasingly seamless global information environment makes it harder to separate what is done in one part of the world from another” (2003: 90).
Joseph Nye’s prediction that “American pre-eminence will diminish” (2004: 30) as “private sources of soft power… become increasingly important in the global information age” (ibid: 17) looks to have come true. The War on Terror, conceived by President Bush as a strategy to exert US military supremacy on the international stage, has arguably elicited a reverse effect in terms of global media flow. It is important to remember that this erosion of hegemony has been mirrored in the economic sphere: the United States suffered heavily from the world financial crisis, while emerging nations such as China, India and Brazil, and the oil-rich Middle East, felt less fiscal pain. As these geopolitical trends develop, and the Cablegate saga rumbles on, the “struggle over information flows which define power relations in the global information economy” (Thussu 2007: 30) will become ever more significant.
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