Speak and New Speak: How Language Did its Bit for the US War
Effort in Iraq
following is an extract from Joanne Tucker's paper delivered
at the conference.
it is important to mention from the start that Al Jazeera, Abu
Dhabi, Al-Arabiya, Al Manar, all these and a host of other Arabic
satellite news and programming networks did not exist over ten
years ago. Independent, or Arab world perspective news and views
packaged in the language of and for an Arab audience did not
Basically Arab audiences watched what we all watched in times
of conflict or crisis for the pictures and analysis. There were
no credible independent TV news outlets. CNN and the BBC, along
with other US networks dominated the information air waves,
particularly during the Gulf War of 1991. Analytical and visual
coverage of any newsworthy event never originated from the Arab
Since then, we have embarked on a new information era. We have
real time, around the clock, satellite coverage of wars in the
most remote locations. What catapulted Al Jazeera into the current
stratosphere of fame was that it was THE window on the war in
Afghanistan. Al Jazeera was in the unique and enviable position
of having the only access to 24-hour live pictures, because
of a costly investment into a satellite uplink which the Board
of Directors had agreed to against their better instincts two
years previously. This in a country which no one considered
fertile investment ground from a news value or media viewpoint.
September 11, Afghanistan attracted the world's attention for
mainly two things. Being Osama bin Laden's country of residence
where he occasionally married his children in open air, Bedouin-style
ceremonies, and the destruction of the giant Buddha statues
by the Taliban. Al Jazeera had a full-time correspondent reporting
from this huge and impoverished land mass two years before a
date became the starting point of a new historical era.
point that is important to make is that this latest war, possibly
more than any other in our media-saturated environment, is a
war about language and perception. Phrases such as "information
operations" (formerly known as "information war"),
"perception management," "media management"-these
are just a few of those in fluent use by the military to describe
strategies in this war. It is a war primarily and predominantly
for the hearts and minds of the people.
been said by more than one expert, there is no military solution
to this conflict, but whoever dominates the information channels
and wins peoples' hearts and convictions is likely to win the
new, global war on terror.
these people, whom the different parties to this War are trying
to win? In shaping perceptions and influencing minds, you first
speak to your domestic electorate and then to an international
audience. Governments, more than non-state actors, care most
about winning over their own people. Outright victory in military
superiority, as has consistently and predictably proven to be
the case with the United States and its ally Israel, can turn
to loss without the continued support of your own people and
without dividing the support of people under occupation for
spends $400 billion a year on its military forces, personnel,
and weapons programs, but without information dominance, this
investment in the government's view will not yield value for
money. To illustrate, we can look at some new uses of words
to describe important elements of this war. "Body bags"
have been renamed "human remains pouches." Coffins
bringing home the bodies of dead servicemen or women from Iraq,
are referred to as "transfer tubes." Breaking tradition
with the past, President Bush has not attended a single military
funeral for one American killed in Iraq. The death toll of Americans
stands now at over 500.
No photographs for media publication are allowed of the dead
arriving at the US Army Base in Della Ware, and flights of wounded
soldiers heading for the Walter Reed Army Medical Centre in
Washington DC are always scheduled to land after midnight. Pictures
of American dead and wounded are erased from the national memory.
the wounded thousands returning home are not coming back with
scratches or broken wrists. These are young men and women with
permanent lifelong disabilities, lost limbs, lost eyes, paralysis
etc. Certainly the uglier aspects of the reality of war are
not covered by US media for the obvious reasons that they do
not help maintain support for the same War.
Arabic news channels promoting sensationalism? Is Al Jazeera?
They have been accused of being "over the top," very
sensationalist, very tabloid in their coverage of the war, and
I would like to quote some of those accusations. Before I do
so, words such as "invasion," "military occupation,"
"resistance," "imbalance of military powers,"
"humanitarian crisis," "mass detentions"
- these are words that, if mentioned on mainstream TV would
produce an overwhelming reaction. What "invasion"?!
This was a "war of liberation," a "campaign to
free Iraq and Iraqis" from an evil dictator with weapons
threatening his neighbours and the world. America was "helping
Iraq to become the bastion of freedom and democracy" that
would light the way for other nations across the Middle East.
would receive phone calls at all times of the day and night
when I was editor the English website, during the launch of
Al Jazeera's temporary site covering of the War in March and
April 2003. I would get calls from a variety of media outlets
across the USA and the world. Reporters or programme anchors,
whether TV, talk show, newspaper or radio, would call me and
ask, "What are you talking about, an invasion? What occupation?
What resistance?" If you mentioned signs of a nascent resistance
to the American military presence in Iraq, based on reports
from our correspondents on the ground, we were immediately accused
of bias and sensationalism. What humanitarian crisis? Very little
of the effect of War on the people on the ground was shown on
mainstream American TV news screens. Which is not to say that
some hard-hitting TV news and current affairs programmes on
major networks in the States or in Europe did not offer a much
broader, deeper and more subtle view of what was happening -
because they did. But on US TV screens, this was the exception
rather than the rule, and very rarely on prime time.
mainstream American TV audiences, who did not expose themselves
to other news outlets in print, radio, satellite TV and on the
internet, were not well informed about major issues driving
the war or affecting its consequences.
was accused of outrageous sensationalism for sometimes mentioning
facts and showing pictures of high news content value that were
simply ignored by mainstream western coverage.
are two new interesting studies highlighting the editorialization
of news in the US and the narrow focus shaping public opinion
in major newspapers. News coverage in the run up to the War,
these studies conclude, were agenda-driven either out of wilful
ignorance, negligence of thorough reporting, or to keep the
story along preconceived political notions.
these studies, by Michael Massing in the February 26 issue New
York Review of Books, looks at news article coverage of the
war in the months building up to it. The other, by Chris Mooney
in the March issue of the Colombia Journalism Review, examines
in detail the editorials of six major US newspapers. Both of
these studies analyse the extent that the broadsheet press in
the US asked or did not ask questions about the reasons for
going to war given by top US officials. TBS
Tucker has been with Al Jazeera TV for over two years. She was
managing editor of the Al Jazeera Net English website during the
site's temporary launch covering the War and in the run-up to
its official launch in 2003. She has worked as a producer and
reporter for the BBC for six years in between other stints during
her broadcast journalism career, and she leaves Al Jazeera this
month to head a documentary film production company, making films
in English and Arabic for global distribution. She can be reached