Friday, May 06, 2005

Terrorism and the Media

The Media Report on ABC Radio National this week aired a perspective on terrorism that is unfortunately all too often ignored by mainstream media, especially in the United States and here in Australia.

Phil Rees, author of Dining with Terrorists, was talking to ABC journalist Richard Aedy, about the media’s selective use of morally loaded language and the impact such terminology has on the public perception of events.

Rees correctly identifies emotive labels such as “terrorist” and “freedom fighter” as impediments to a thoughtful and thorough understanding of the nature, context and history of conflict.

His point of view is not clouded by pseudo-philosophical arguments about moral equivalence or moral relativism versus moral absolutism. Rees talks plainly about the substance of the issue, the nature of the conflict, the tactics of the combatants, the motivations behind the struggle.

But it is an uphill battle to convince the average pundit that the real world contains many shades of color and countless hidden facets. Most people want “black and white” certainty and decisive “good versus evil” action, without having to worry about facts.

And so we have a situation whereby information and communication can be used to shape consensus, irrespective of the actual facts.

A classic example of this was the media coverage of the Iraqi WMD story. Prior to the invasion, the mainstream media relentlessly channeled government propaganda, never bothering to challenge the veracity of official statements, simply an endless recitation of completely bogus accusations, on the basis of which, supposedly, we invaded Iraq.

Since then, of course, the mainstream media has been reluctant to admit its grievous collective failure, its abandonment of responsibility, its neglect of core principles, its betrayal of the general public and more broadly, humanity at large.

Phil Rees has made a brave attempt to inject some intelligent thought into the task of journalism by actually applying the notions of impartiality and objectivity to the way he thinks about his subjects.

Some critics seem to regard this approach as tantamount to condoning the tactics and activities of the people Rees interviews and observes, an accusation that typifies a common trend toward discouraging free and intelligent debate. Does Bob Woodward, author of Bush at War and Plan of Attack, condone the war in Iraq? Does it matter?

Journalism is important, not least for the information it contains, but perhaps more so for the values and ideals implied by the viewpoint of the journalist. Some journalists seem to let their viewpoint colour their perceptions and obscure their perspective to the point where their opinions become nonsensical. Rees is not one of them.

The way we talk about issues affects the way we think about them, and vice versa. If we want to attain a good understanding of a subject, it helps to recognise our own inherent biases and preconceived notions. It is sometimes hard to see another perspective, or reassess cherished ideas, but such mental agility is often a prerequisite for insight and understanding.

Rees offers a sound and incisive critique of Islamic jihad and the so-called global war on terror (GWoT), uncontaminated by the emotive labels and hysterical fear-mongering that passes for news and current affairs in the mainstream media.

He makes a convincing argument that the “global war on terror” is actually a predatory politico-military agenda designed to justify the Pentagon’s continued existence as the post Cold War world’s dominant military force.

I think it is worth considering the viewpoint Rees offers and perhaps pay a bit more attention to the way the media portrays actors and events on the world stage.


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