Tag Archives: media critique

Why Revolutions Don’t Get Televised

ABC 7 happened to be at the local bar where I watched Obama deliver his drivel about continuing the occupation of Afghanistan. The channel was interviewing ex-marines who had gathered there about their reactions to Obama’s plan. This is the usual displacement of politics into the military domain that the American media, particularly television, carries out so dutifully. We don’t have debates about the politics of the issue at hand, but discussions about military tactics that foreclose any discussion of the occupation itself. All that’s left to argue about apparently is whether 30,000 troops is enough.

In an excellent report, NYT reporter David Barstow covered the Pentagon’s domestic propaganda program in his 2008 series. Today, a key figure from that program continues his post as Defense Department spokesperson in the Obama administration, according to Media Bloodhound.

The American media thus, turns, Clausewitz on his head: politics is simply war by other means.

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Media Notes: Fanon on Violence of the Colonial Press

I’ve been re-reading Fanon. I needed to clear my head, and he makes it possible to see things clearly. I was struck (once again) by comments he makes in passing regarding the link between colonial violence and reporting. He notes–far more eloquently–what I’ve been trying to grasp about this institution/discourse: the mechanisms, technical and discursive, by which it stages its own ‘objectivity’ and ultimate veracity and what that finally means for the represented. He’s worth quoting at length:

The “ex-native” too often gets the impression that these reports are already written. The photos which illustrate the article are simply a proof that one knows what one is talking about, and that one has visited the country. The report intends to verify the evidence: everything’s going badly out there since we left. Frequently, reporters complain of being badly received, of being forced to work under bad conditions and of being fenced round by indifference or hostility: all this is quite normal. The nationalist leaders know that international opinion is formed solely by the Western press. Now, when a journalist from the West asks us questions, it is seldom in order to help us. In the Algerian war for example, even the most liberal of the French reporters never ceased to use ambiguous terms in terms of describing our struggle. When we reproached them for this, they replied in all good faith that they were being objective. For the native, objectivity is always directed against him.

Can we speak of torture, mass graves, the terrorism of the state? Or, will ‘objectivity’ continue to extract consent from the failing western media industry for ruthless imperial policies? That objectivity too, says Fanon, is a form of violence directed in a Manichean world against the native. Isn’t that after all the structure of most daily reporting, “on the one hand, this, but, on the other hand, that”, on the one hand torture, on the other hand ‘interrogation technique’?

Reporters move far too quickly through most scenarios to really know much of anything. Too often, the photos and the people we call ‘characters’ become artefacts to verify our own authenticity, our having been there. Those are the demands of the field. The characters change, but the larger narrative–the ‘objective’ narrative–is the same. So, for example with Pakistan, the story is quite simply, the Taliban. Now, the stories around that can be of basically two types: 1) follow the narrative straight. These are stories about the latest statements, advances, losses, and crisis instigated by the Taliban and the Army or government’s response to them, or the US aiding monetarily or militarily that fight -or- 2) seemingly disrupt the narrative. These are the stories that are about a brewery in Murree or a high-end fashion show in Lahore, or a sex toys factory in Karachi. The implicit story arc is: Yes, Pakistan has the Taliban and they’re all Muslim, but look, they’ve got fashion and sex and alcohol too! The story works by juxtaposing the broader ‘truth’ of what is Pakistan with local exceptions (alcohol, fashion, sex). But, at heart, it’s a reinforcing maneouvre because really, they’re only newsworthy precisely because they function as exceptions to the larger rule, Taliban.

I would also venture to say that there’s a hierarchy between version 1 and version 2. The second one is for the rookie journalists, the ones starting out who, as wisdom goes, may not be able to handle the real story, the big one. That’s for the seasoned reporters. Those are the jobs we dream of, to report on the important news, the heart of narrative, the quintessential Pakistan.

The funny thing about daily television reporting though is that the voiceover you hear on the packages is rarely the brown-skinned fellow who got banged about all day in the heat, noise and dust of Karachi, Peshawar or Lahore to shoot the latest riot or the most recent bomb blast. His job is simply to grab the standard footage: people making demands, a protest, people crying, blood, dead bodies, a soundbite from an official, a soundbite from a victim. Then, he quickly zooms back to his office, zigzagging through the mass of traffic on his bike to quickly edit the footage down to a sizeable minute or two and send it to the head office in Atlanta, in New York, in Paris, in London. The footage is his, but the story will take shape there, in the center. The are literally oceans between the event and the report of that event. Television, more than print I think, makes it possible to see the simultaneous obsession and complete disregard for being there.

After some traveling around, I now spend my time hanging around the Karachi Press club or the offices of various news organizations. Things here are relaxed like that, (though I’m often the only girl. More on the sexual politics of journalism and breaking into the brotherhood some other time.) . F explains the dynamics of how to pull a story together to me one evening over dinner at the press club. He’s one of the senior folks around, not that old, but a top cameraman/producer for a foreign news organization. That puts him pretty near the top of the hierarchy of the local media though English is a distant second to his primary language, Urdu. (The politics of language. Again, another time.) So, dinner w/ F usually means 7-8 local cameramen, mostly from the Urdu media, and well, me, sitting around a table with cornershop biryani or chicken kaadhai.

“You’ve always got to find the kopi” he tells me in a booming voice. “He’s the guy in the neighborhood who can get you what you want, usually named Ahmad or Salman,” he adds helpfully. “And when you arrive, he immediately parts his way through the crowd, and asks you ‘Yes sir, what would you like sir? oh yes, I know that person. I can get you that person, no problem.” He’s rubbing his hands together eagerly in a caricatured imitation.

In the hierarchy, many in the local scene are the kopis for the foreign media. Over chai and smokes, they trade stories about the gora reporters who are continually stumbling across Pakistan without language or context. This is humour with an edge. Chagrin, but also bemusement. Stories about American reporters getting their geography wrong, the French and their stinginess, the Danish and their racism. I hear about how a local stringer pointed out random patients at a hospital as Taliban victims in Peshawar to a foreign team, or a local journalist being dragged around by a western documentary team that was desperately trying to find characters for a plot line it had written abroad before it got here. Sly civility?

Or perhaps, it’s just the objectivity of dollar bills.

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Chaos Theory: The Press on Pakistan

I’ve just published a media critique of Pakistan coverage by the American press:

Chaos Theory: How Pakistan was Cast as a Failed State Columbia Journalism Review 4.24.09

An excerpt:

Pakistan is on the clock. “A fast-expanding Islamic insurgency…threatens to devour the country,” wrote The New York Times this month. The 175 million-strong nation has been on deathwatch since at least February, when The Atlantic Council sounded the alarm that Pakistan was headed for turbulence within twelve months. Recently, General Petraeus’s advisor shortened the time frame to within six months. “We could see the collapse of the Pakistani state,” said David Kilcullen. “Al Qaeda acquiring nuclear weapons, an extremist takeover—that would dwarf everything we’ve seen in the war on terror today.”

Tick tock. Boom.

It would be difficult to know from recent articles that Pakistanis scored a stunning mass-political victory only a few weeks ago. Instead, the press has been parroting Washington’s conventional wisdom on Pakistan as a country coming apart at the seams. There is no civil society here, only loons and goons that need to be bombed. The U.S. has based its actions on this decades-old story, and that has now helped produce the very realities Washington claims only to describe.

And shortly following my piece, it appears that other commentators have also noticed the breathless tone of the MSM with regard to Pakistan. Here are some:

  1. Commentary: Pakistan Isn’t Falling Peter Bergen, CNN 4.27.09
  2. Time Magazine’s “Reporting” on Pakistan Drone Attacks is Pentagon Propaganda Jeremy Scahill, Rebel Reports 4.29.09
  3. Pakistan Crisis and Social Statistics Juan Cole, Informed Comment 4.26.09


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