The Pen and the Sword: Press, War, and Terror in the 21st Century


Calvin Exoo

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  • Praise for this Book

    “I am very enthusiastic about the book's clear and forthright vision of systemic crisis, involving the social institutions of media and government. Prof. Exoo takes a very strong structural approach in his explanation; this is the most detailed analysis of media representations of the current war that I have seen. The chronological development of the journalistic narrative of the war is engaging and persuasive … This work is a good example of how responsible academics can contribute to the public dialogue.”

    —Harry W. Haines, Department of Communication, Trinity University

    “The writing is fantastic: Very easy to read, to understand, and to synthesize. The arguments are well crafted and well documented. This is the most up-to-date analysis of the media coverage of the Iraq War I have read, and it would put news coverage of the run-up to the War into context. … It's a fun read, it's accessible for students, and it's timely. What more could a professor ask for?”

    —Alison D. Dagnes, Department of Political Science, Shippensburg University

    “The news media pay a lot of lip service to the importance of objective reporting and to their role in maintaining a healthy democracy. This book successfully challenges both assertions. … Exoo's book provides an exhaustive illustration of what's wrong with the news media, using a very relevant and timely example.”

    —Robert Heiner, Department of Social Science, Plymouth State University

    “This text will challenge students to reexamine their beliefs about the news media, helping them to become more critical citizens. In doing this, the text would engage students’ attention in crucial developments in the media, in politics, and in the intersection of the two.”

    —Paul R. Brewer, Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee


    For Diane.


    View Copyright Page


    This book is about the politics of the mass media in a post-9/11 world. Since that fateful day, terrorism and international conflict—the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—have been the number one subject of American news. The book's goal is a comprehensive review of how the media have told these momentous stories, and why they've told them in that way.

    The stakes in this matter could not have been higher. War and peace, life and death—indeed hundreds of thousands of lives and deaths—swayed in the balance. The thesis of this book is that, at this most crucial moment in American history, the mass media have failed, miserably, in their capacity as watchdog of the people. What's more, the book argues, this failure is not an aberration, but an especially vivid illustration of the chronic failure of contemporary media in performing their indispensable democratic function.

    Unlike other books that have told parts of this story, this one is in position to see it whole, to tell it from start to finish—from 9/11 to the Obama moment—to explain why it happened, and to use this chronicle of tragedy as a doorway to a critical perspective on mass media.

    We hope that this compelling subject will be of interest to students in courses on the mass media, popular culture, journalism, and American foreign policy. The years following 9/11 have been crucial in the history of these subjects and will probably be remembered, like the McCarthy era or the Vietnam War, as a dark night of American politics. The students who will become our future mass media, journalism, and foreign policy professionals will want to know what happened and why.

    A major pedagogical hurdle, in such courses, is getting students to see the news as something other than “the way it is,” as Walter Cronkite used to call it, something other than a naturally occurring set of objective facts that are good for us to know. This book's case study is a tonic for that problem. Indeed, students may be shocked by the record of tendentious, mendacious news coverage they find here, and led to ask, Why? This is how teachable moments begin.

    We also hope that some unique features of this book will help students understand this momentous subject.

    • In addition to examining what the press has said about war and terror, each chapter will also offer a “reverse content analysis” of what the press did not say—the important stories that were somehow deemed “not news.” We'll see that these excised stories tend to be part of a larger untold story of America in the world—the story of American empire.
    • Explanation is the work of theory, and this is the only politics and media text firmly grounded in social theory. We begin with the theory of democracy and the press advanced by Madison and Jefferson, and proceed from there to Antonio Gramsci's theory of cultural hegemony. With these tools, we can see both the promise and the peril of our mass media: the power to open minds, and the power to close them.
    • Because not just news media but all media affect our thinking about war, this book also examines the war stories told by the press's corporate first cousins, the non-news media: movies, advertising, and entertainment TV.
    • An Introduction and Conclusion to each chapter will show students the chapter's argument and main points in miniature before they begin, and help them think about what to take away from the chapter at the end. Because this book diagnoses the media's condition as chronic, our final conclusion will offer thoughts on how, in this time of enormous flux, we might reform our media to better serve democracy.
    A Map of the Book

    To help us understand how the news covers war and why, we'll begin with the building blocks of serious thinking about social issues-political theory. In Chapter 1, we'll be introduced to theories about the media and

    • democracy, and the press's unique capacity to enable it, and
    • hegemony, and the media's capacity to disable democracy

    We'll also meet the media's hegemonic message about American foreign policy—the dominant, press-preferred story of America's role in the world. This is the story of a beneficent America, carrying the torch of freedom, like Prometheus, to the world. And finally, we'll turn to the alternative, untold story of the United States’ role in the world—the chronicle of American empire. This account will be our first use of “reverse content analysis,” a method employed throughout the book, which asks, What important stories are not in the news, and why? In these two stories of American foreign policy—the press-preferred and the untold tale—we'll begin to see that the press's post-9/11 errors of omission and commission are not an acute attack of one-sidedness, but a chronic condition.

    With Chapter 1 as our introduction, we'll be ready to begin our study of how the press has covered war and terror in the 21st century. Our story begins, unavoidably, on September 11, 2001. In Chapter 2, we'll meet the horror of that day head-on; we'll examine coverage of the ensuing debate and of the war in Afghanistan. Here we'll see a pattern emerging: At a moment when America most needed the media to be a marketplace of ideas, offering many sides of the story, the press instead became a censor of ideas, offering only one side, one story.

    This was the uplifting and entertaining story of American right and might overcoming a powerful and incomprehensibly evil enemy. Meanwhile, as our ongoing reverse content analysis will show, the argument that war in Afghanistan might have been ill-advised, costly in terms of money and mayhem, and dysfunctional in its outcome appears only as a forlorn parade of unreported facts and uncovered stories. In the end, our argument is not that the war in Afghanistan was wrong or right. The argument is simply that there were two sides to this story, and only one was told.

    In Chapter 3, we'll examine coverage of the public relations campaign for war in Iraq. It is a tumultuous tale with a colorful cast and would be a ripping good yarn altogether, if only it weren't so tragic. It is a story of foreign policy Vulcans ascendant; of agendas hidden and false; of the New York Times, duped like a rube by hidden persuaders; of a nuclear tale that went down the tubes; of an infamous “sixteen words”; of a cabinet member's “web of lies”; and of an entertainment media enlisting.

    It is also a story of protestors crying in the wilderness; of profiles in courage: reporters who bucked the tide and got the story right; of Cassandras treated as traitors; and of scoundrels treated to promotions. Through it all, the story is one of an obeisant press in the face of a deceitful White House, leading to a simple truth both had forgotten: War is hell.

    But that truth was not yet in view as the war broke out and “concluded” in the spring of 2003. Instead, as we'll see in Chapter 4, coverage of the war was a patriotic hymn to the thrilling power of America, and an entertaining fascination with the techniques and technologies of battle: war as football, war as PlayStation.

    We'll see that, more than ever, the experts chosen to explain the war came from a very selective, pro-war Rolodex. For “balance,” one writer said, there were retired generals as well as active ones.

    In this chapter, we'll also review the history of press and Pentagon relations since Vietnam, which led to the “sheer genius” of embedded reporting. We'll examine the dynamics and results of embedding, as well as the news from the “Platform for Truth,” and the military's treatment of unembedded, and thus unwelcome, reporters.

    We'll also continue our reverse content analysis by asking, What happens, in a “good war,” to “bad facts,” like civilian casualties? Finally, we'll focus on the war's iconic moments: a “daring rescue” that wasn't; the “pure emotional expression—not staged, not choreographed”—of a toppling statue that was, in fact, both staged and choreographed; and the moment of “Mission Accomplished.” We'll see that, indeed, truth is often war's first casualty.

    In Chapter 5, we'll follow the news coverage from the “Mission Accomplished” moment to the present. We'll see that something about our mass media has changed—and not for the better. In Daniel Hallin's definitive account of the Vietnam War, the press begins in its default position, which is pro-war. But as public opinion and elements of elite opinion begin to turn against the war, the press also discovers an antiwar story (1986). In Iraq, that doesn't happen. Instead, as Iraq descends into the chaos of Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, ethnic cleansing, and civil war, the press clings to an increasingly untenable, pro-war story.

    In Chapter 6, we'll ask perhaps the most important question of all: Why? The unsettling answer will be that the media's failures of post-9/11 coverage were not a temporary lapse of judgment. That, indeed, these failures grow from deeply rooted structures and practices of the news business: from U.S. news’ commercial imperative, from its continuing overreliance on officials as sources, its susceptibility to the machinations of the public relations industry, its vulnerability to advertisers and owners, from the emergence of a tendentious and powerful right wing within the mainstream media, and so on. These factors, together with the crucible of fear created after 9/11, have placed us, in Matthew Arnold's ominous words, “On a darkling plain … where ignorant armies clash by night.”

    This diagnosis means that the prognosis is not good. As the media status quo persists, coverage and knowledge of our world and our options are likely to be woefully incomplete. For that reason, Chapter 6 concludes with some thoughts about media reform, suggesting that our current system of “rich media, poor democracy” can be improved.

    Our Omnipresent Media

    “Imagine,” Plato asks, “the condition of men living in a sort of cavernous chamber underground. Here they have been from childhood, chained by the leg and also by the neck, so they cannot move and can see only what is in front of them. At some distance higher up is the light of a fire burning behind them; and between the prisoners and the fire is a track with a parapet built along it, like the screen at a puppet-show, which hides the performers while they show their puppets over the top. … Behind this parapet imagine persons carrying along various artificial objects, including figures of men and animals in wood or stone or other materials, which project above the parapet. Prisoners so confined would have seen nothing of themselves or of one another, except the shadows thrown by the firelight on the wall of the Cave facing them. … Such prisoners would recognize as reality nothing but the shadows of those artificial objects.”

    Little did Plato know how prescient his parable was. It is almost as if, unwittingly, he had peered into the future and seen that our lives would one day be dominated by a shadow show of flickering images. A show controlled by fewer and fewer, more and more powerful puppeteers.

    Does it stretch the truth to say so? Does Plato's allegory overstate the media's hold on our consciousness? You could, as Casey Stengel used to say, look it up. Here's what you'd find:

    • In the average American household, the television set is on more than seven hours a day. The family of that household will spend about 70% of their nonworking, waking evening hours watching it. When asked where they learn about “what's going on in the world,” a sizable majority of Americans now answer, “Television.”
    • This is particularly true when we are at war: 80% of Americans said they “watched TV more closely” during the Iraq conflict.
    • Almost all of those close viewers were tuned to one of just five networks, each owned by one of the handful of companies that now control most of the magazines, book publishers, movie studios, and radio and TV networks and stations in the United States.
    • On an average day, a majority of American adults will flip through a newspaper. A majority of them will be reading a paper owned by 1 of just 10 major corporations.

    Although our main focus, in this book, will be on the news media, we will also pause occasionally to look at what the non-news media, such as movies, ads, and prime-time TV, are saying about war and terrorism. We'll do this because, as we'll see, these media, like the news, are important sources of our thinking about politics. As we do this, we'll find that often the same few companies, guided by the same corporate goals, own both the news and entertainment media. Once again, we'll learn that we spend a lot of our time and resources in their cave. Consider the following:

    • On an average day, the individual American sees about 3,000 ads. By the time of high school graduation, she or he will have spent about one-and-a-half years watching TV commercials. More than three quarters of this advertising, now costing over $260 billion a year, is “brought to you by” just five giant advertising agencies.
    • On a recent weekend, Americans paid $155 million to share a single cultural experience: the opening of The Dark Knight. In any given year, Americans make the pilgrimage to their local movie theaters about one and a half billion times. Most of those visits will be to only a handful of “blockbuster” movies produced, once again, by the six largest media corporations, which altogether claim over 90% of the film industry's revenues. At the time The Matrix Reloaded was released, 95% of Americans knew something about the movie, but at the same time, two thirds of our population could not name any of the Democratic candidates running for president.
    • Four firms now own 90% of the music released in the United States. One company, Clear Channel Communications, Inc., owns 70% of all U.S. concert venues, plus 1,240 radio stations.
    • The number of companies now commanding half of all U.S. Internet user minutes is four.
    • Altogether, Americans now spend about $1 trillion a year on media products.

    Does Plato's parable exaggerate the media's power? Not by much.

    The Argument in Brief

    It would seem important then to consider this shadow show. To understand it fully, we need to ask not just what the media is and does, but why. The latter question is the work of theories. This book will look at mass media through the eyes of cultural hegemony theory. It suggests that those who own or control a society's “idea factories”—like the media—can use them to urge their own ideology on others.

    This process may sound simple and straightforward. It is not. It is complex and subtle. So subtle in fact that those who produce that hegemony are not, for the most part, consciously trying to. They are just doing their jobs. But written, as it were, into their job descriptions are needs, routines, and values that result in hegemony. Those demands and routines arise mainly from the “commercial imperative”—the media industries’ voracious appetite for profit. So this book spends time trying to understand how that imperative shapes the process of making mass media.

    Of course, a book about war, terror, and media is interested in more than the process by which those media are made. Ultimately, our interest is in the product that emerges from that process. In particular, we'll ask, What are the media's messages about international conflict? And what effects might those messages have on our political life?

    Press messages about the Afghanistan and Iraq wars will be described in detail in Chapters 2 through 5, but here we can say this much: Those particular messages about war conformed to the general contours of the media's two foundational hegemonic messages:

    • The first message is a massage. With the tinsel and glitter of sex, violence, and celebrity gossip, the media divert our attention from the hard work of political and social problems. Of course, when problems go unaddressed, the status quo is maintained, which is just fine with those who are prospering under it, and not so fine for others. As we shall see, even matters as weighty as war can be, and have been, spun into the cotton candy of infotainment.
    • When they do talk politics, the media tend to applaud the viewpoint of the powerful, a viewpoint that may not be best for everyone—especially not for working- and lower-class Americans, or for those people in the Third World who may find themselves standing like Indians on the plain of American global ambition. As we shall see in Chapter 3, the press played “Follow the Leader” in its 2002 and 2003 coverage, relentlessly framing Iraq the way the White House did, as America's enemy, even though other frames were readily available. The consequences for the Iraqi people have been devastating.

    All of this is yet to come. But let us begin by acknowledging that a quiet coup has occurred in American life. We are its willing prisoners, watching its images by its firelight. Seeing it clearly and making out its meaning for our politics and society will not be easy. After all, it's dark down here. But it seems important to try.


    Let me express my deep and heartfelt gratitude to the colleagues, students, friends, and family who are the sine qua non of this book.

    Thank you:

    To the reviewers of this book, for your keen insights and your gracious encouragement: Todd L. Belt, Department of Political Science, University of Hawaii at Hilo; Kenton Bird, School of Journalism and Mass Media, University of Idaho; Paul R. Brewer, Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; Alison D. Dagnes, Department of Political Science, Shippensburg University; James N. Druckman, Department of Political Science, Northwestern University; Michael M. Franz, Department of Government, Bowdoin College; Harry W. Haines, Department of Communication, Trinity University; Robert Heiner, Department of Social Science, Plymouth State University; Janet McMullen, Department of Communication and Theatre, University of Northern Alabama.

    To Todd Armstrong, Senior Acquisitions Editor at Sage, for your wisdom and support; and to Aja Baker at Sage, for your efficiency and sanguinity.

    To my dear colleagues in the Department of Government at St. Lawrence University. The testament of their work reeducates me every day about commitment to what we do, to scholarship and teaching.

    To two colleagues, in particular, whose friendship has been with me in better and in worse, in sickness and in health. To Alan Draper, whose influence can be seen throughout this book, and who has shown me, by his wonderful example, how scholarship and leadership should be done. To Kerry Grant, my teaching partner, who has taught me so much about the media, about teaching, about life. Above all, thank you, Alan and Kerry, for the filia that Aristotle called a virtue, for the amicitia Cicero wrote a book about.

    To Patty Ashlaw, secretary for the Department of Government, for your infinite patience and your unfailing good cheer.

    To my students at St. Lawrence University, for making mine the most wonderful job in the world. When I say, “This is my truth, now tell me yours,” you let me hear your voices, which are by turns so brilliant, so thoughtful, so funny, so decent, so humane. Thank you for reassuring an aging man that the future is in such good hands.

    To my beloved mother and brothers and sisters, whose love taught me about the caritas that “beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.”

    To my sons, Joshua and Christian, and to the daughters I wished for, Brigette and Kate. When the time is right for “pessimism of the mind,” your infinite spirits are my “optimism of the heart.”

    Above all, thanks to my coconspirator, yokemate, best friend, love of a lifetime: the pilgrim soul to whom this book is dedicated.

    The news media's story of U.S. foreign policy is one of a beneficent America, bringing human rights and democracy to the world. But through the grainy pixels of this 1983 television image, we begin to see that there is another story of America's role in the world. Here we see Donald Rumsfeld arriving in Baghdad to cement the U.S. relationship with Iraq—after Hussein has used poison gas to kill his own people, as well as Iranians. Subsequently, the United States provided Hussein with “a veritable witch's brew” of chemical and biological agents, as well as technology for biochemical weapons and the Bell helicopters used to spray deadly toxins on Iraqi Kurds, killing an estimated 5,000 in the village of Halabja in 1988.
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    About the Author

    Calvin F. Exoo is professor and chair of the Department of Government at St. Lawrence University. He is also the author of Democracy Upside Down: Public Opinion and Cultural Hegemony in the United States and of The Politics of the Mass Media. His numerous articles on the politics of the mass media have appeared in such publications as Polity, New Political Science, the Journal of Ethnic Studies, the New York Times, the Times (London), the Baltimore Evening Sun, and the Los Angeles Times. In 2006, Exoo was selected as a Saul Sidore Lecturer at Plymouth State University, and in 2009, he was named Outstanding Faculty Member by the senior class at St. Lawrence University.

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