As we watch the horrifying pictures of the carnage in the recent Israel-Hamas confrontation, we should concentrate not only on the terrible loss of life and damage, we should also focus on the role of the media. This is not to minimize what we are watching and listening to. Rather, it is to realize that the media plays an important role as a projection of force for both sides.
Public opinion matters. And public opinion is formed through written words, and more and more through images. Who can forget the picture of U.S. soldiers raising the flag on Iwo Jima taken in February 1945 by Joe Rosenthal? Who can forget the famous photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt of a couple kissing kiss on V-J Day in Times Square?
More recently, who can forget the 1972 iconic photo taken in Trang Bang by AP photographer Nick Ut that shows a young girl running naked on a road after being severely burned on her back by a South Vietnamese napalm attack? The first image transmitted the heroism of U.S. soldiers in the Pacific theatre in World War II. The second captured the jubilation at the end of the War. The third photo is quite different. Instead of heroism or relief, it captured the horrors of the Vietnam War, the very real consequences for young children of the use of napalm. For many, it represented all that was wrong with the War and its infamous policy of winning the hearts and minds of the people. For many, it was the turning point, leading to massive resistance and the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Governments, armies, members of civil society have learned the lesson of the importance of public opinion. They have learned the importance of manipulating opinion as well. Press briefings by articulate public relations officers are part of military campaigns, as indeed they have become part of any campaign. For the military, chosen reporters are “embedded” with troops. Authorities control what the media witnesses, oversee what it reports, leak documents to the chosen who are “on board”.
As we watch the news of the recent confrontation, we should understand that those who present the news are not objective. They have made choices about what to report and how to report. In the United States, no one questions the politicization of the news – Fox News’ relationship with the Republican Party is flagrant. Why should the international news media be any different?
The use of words and images has become part of modern warfare, not as violent or deadly as physical weapons, but a weapon nonetheless. We must be vigilant, therefore, in watching the watchers.