Why is it so dangerous to be a reporter these days? Why are so many journalists being targeted? Two Fox News reporters were grabbed in Gaza, held for nearly two weeks, exploited for propaganda purposes, and then released. They were lucky. Some 30 other reporters have been killed this year, according to the Freedom Forum; hundreds have died in the line of duty in the past decade. And it would be naïve to think that the problem isn't going to get worse.
Reporters, meanwhile, like to say that they are there, in the battle zone, to "tell the story" -- although most people know, or at least most people believe, that reporters are there to shape the story, to shape opinion in a certain way. Therefore, depending on one's point of view, journalists are either an asset, or a liability; but they are anything but neutral. And cable news, in particular, running 24/7 worldwide, is perhaps the biggest prize of all. So whether the network is Fox, or CNN, or the BBC, or Al-Jazeera, it's little wonder that reporters find themselves being cajoled, threatened, supplicated, and perhaps even enlisted in conspiracies. And oh yes: sometimes they get killed. Reporters are, literally, "in the crossfire." And maybe soon, politicians, too -- even presidents -- will be similarly targeted in the crosshairs.
This is, after all, the Information Age. So those who traffic in information, one way or another, are going to be big players in this Age. Just as the Industrial Age led to the industrialization of war and to continuing revolutions in strategy -- machine-made weapons yielded up blitzkrieg, aerial bombardment, and "total war" -- so the Information Age, too, has been yielding up new kinds of thinking. Today, gaining control of the spin, or the storyline, is as important as controlling a city or a province.
As an example, consider what's happening in Afghanistan. The news hasn't been very good of late, at least from a Western point of view. But perhaps one contributing factor to the downbeat coverage has been the effectiveness of the neo-Taliban forces at playing the media. We might consider, for instance, this passage from Tuesday's edition of The Toronto Star, part of a larger story on the combat deaths of five Canadian soldiers. Here's Graham Fraser's report:
In the initial reports of the fighting in Panjwaii district, perhaps the most disturbing was the Taliban contradiction of the NATO casualty claims.
"They are saying that they have killed 200 Taliban but they did not kill even 10 Taliban," said Mullah Dadullah, the Taliban military commander for south and southeastern Afghanistan.
"They are just destroying civilian homes and agricultural land. They are using the media to do propaganda against the Taliban," Dadullah said in a satellite telephone call with an Associated Press reporter. ... This Taliban commander has a satellite phone, the phone number for Associated Press, and some views about the value of propaganda. [Emphasis added.]
Welcome to the world of media-asymmetric warfare. In this Information Age, the tools of info-distribution are widely held. Just about everyone now has access to sat phones, videocams, and the Net. And so the question before the world is this: Who does a better show for watching eyes and listening ears? Who stages a better PR blitz?
It's obvious that the US is doing a bad job. But don't take my word for it: Here's Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, speaking in March of this year, four-and-a-half years into the Global War on Terror: "If I were rating, I would say we probably deserve a D or D+ as a country as to [how] well we're doing in the battle of ideas that's taking place."
So who's doing a good job? Well, as we look around the world media landscape, what are the enduring images? Most obviously, there's 9-11. It sounds almost cruel to say it, but at one level, the attack on the World Trade Center ranks as one of the most spectacular pieces of "performance art" ever. Was it evil? Of course. Was it effective? You bet. The events of Black Tuesday might have galvanized Americans into righteous militancy, but they also made Osama Bin Laden a household name -- and made him a hero to many.
Just how many admire Bin Laden, five years later, became clear last month, when CNN ran a special documentary on the al-Qaeda chief -- a documentary that was so woozy with romanticized Arabism that even The New York Times, hardly a bastion of Western chauvinism, was moved to observe about the show's producers:
"They themselves seem half-seduced by the portrait of the pure-hearted Arab revolutionary that has so captivated parts of the Muslim world. With the heavy rotation of soulful portraits of the soft-voiced prophet of jihad with Super 8-style movies of the warrior on horseback, parts of 'In the Footsteps of bin Laden' could almost double as a recruiting video for Al Qaeda." [emphasis added]
In the meantime, the world is awash with jihadist imagery and meme-ry. We've all seen, whether we've wanted to or not, the beheading videos, the IED-exploding videos, and the post-suicide-bombing carnage videos. These are repulsive to most people, but attractive to some -- enough, anyway, to keep the various insurgent movements going and growing, especially in the era of YouTube.
And now, the new actor on the world-media stage is Hezbollah, which might have lost the battlefield war against Israel, but surely won the mediafield war. Assured of a plum role, the Shia militia is ready with its summer look and winter look. To us, they might appear as Islamofascists, but to the people of their region -- who never thought that fascism was a bad thing, anyway -- they come across as heroic counter-crusaders.
These Muslims aren't just operating on the battlefield, they are consciously operating on the mediafield. The mediafield is the larger political, intellectual, and historical landscape in which all our thoughts -- about war, peace, and everything else -- are played out. The idea that war is bigger than the battlefield is not new, of course: In On War, published almost two centuries ago, Carl Von Clausewitz asserted, "War is not an independent phenomenon, but the continuation of politics by other means." The electronic media didn't exist in Clausewitz's time, of course, but if he were alive today, he would recognize that the battlefield is the more lethal subset of the mediafield.
But wait, there's more! Now we see that the mediafield just got deadlier. We might have thought that the principal source of enemy propaganda came from the Middle East, but now we learn that a new and noxious spigot has opened up in our back yard, in Great Britain. If you believe that the Great Satan of the current mediafield is George W. Bush, then you're going to love a new made-for-TV movie, "Death of a President", which premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival this Sunday, the day before the fifth anniversary of 9-11. No doubt there will be some cheers, or at least smiles, in the audience as a CGI-ed President Bush is shot and killed.
For the record, Peter Dale, chief of the UK's More4 TV, denies that his film is advocating any such thing, or even that he is putting assassinationist thoughts into the international meme-stream. As he puts it, the film "raises questions about the effects of American foreign policy, and particularly the war on terror." That is, Dale would have us believe that he is just asking innocent questions -- you know, as Rush Limbaugh might ask aloud about the killing of, say, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Just asking! Dale's obvious false-frontery led Alex Massie, writing in The Scotsman, to observe: "I think we know what those 'questions' are: would America have brought this upon itself? Isn't a bully with a bloody nose still a bully? Wouldn't the killing be justified or, failing that, wouldn't it be understandable?" Massie puts his finger on it: "Death of a President" is, at minimum, an indictment, and, at maximum, an enticement: C'mon, somebody, be a hero for the anti-American team. Hurry up and rid us of this troublesome president.
So that's the mediafield. It's apparent that America can triumph on a battlefield, but the mediafield is a different story. So far, at least, as Rumsfeld says, we haven't been doing very well.
And the greatest media event of our time -- the first big WMD attack on a city in the 21st century -- is still ahead.
In the meantime, reporters find themselves on both the battlefield and the mediafield. They aren't just pawns, they are major pieces. And they aren't just passive, they are also active. So of course they are spun, schmoozed, and sat-phoned -- and, sometimes, targeted for kidnapping and killing. Do something to a newsgatherer, and you've gathered yourself some news.
So the struggle to shape world public opinion -- who's good, who's bad, who's winning, who's losing, who deserves to live, who deserves to die -- continues with escalatingly deadly intensity, featuring new asymmetric eruptions all across the mediafield. Including in such unlikely fronts as Toronto, Canada.
James Pinkerton is TCS Daily's media critic.