More than specific events like Abu Ghraib, it is the growing realisation over time of the cost of the war that erodes American public support for the war in Iraq, according to media scholar Daniel C. Hallin. In this interview, the author of the influential book The “Uncensored War” – The Media and Vietnam discusses the media coverage of the Iraq war and comparisons with the Vietnam War.
Daniel C. Hallin is Professor and Chair at the Department of Communication at the University of California San Diego. Hallin has over the last 25 years conducted extensive research on war and the media. In his major contribution to the field, The “Uncensored War”, he addresses the issue of the media’s role in the formation of public opinion of the war, the journalistic reporting of the war, as well as the question of the so-called “Vietnam Syndrome”. This is a term that according to Hallin was created by proponents of a more aggressive foreign policy to refer to the reluctance of Americans, after Vietnam, to consent to the exercise of military power abroad — the concern being that intervention in foreign conflicts could lead to «another Vietnam.»
Hallin has also studied the media coverage of the Gulf War. His most recent contribution to the field of war and media studies, the article «The Media and War», reflected critically on the state of the media and war research field.
This interview took place at the University of California San Diego in late November 2007. Although Hallin’s research focus over the past 10 years has not been on war and the media, but rather on comparative media studies, this interview offered an opportunity for an afterthought from a media scholar highly knowledgeable about media coverage of war and its effects on public opinion.
Helle Sjøvaag (HS): Much of the research on the media-military relationship in times of war has focused on military control of the media. As you yourself have emphasised in your book The “Uncensored War” — The Media and Vietnam, journalists experienced an unprecedented amount of freedom during the Vietnam War — a level of freedom that we have perhaps not seen since. Consequently, research on US media coverage of the wars since the 1980s onwards has focused much attention on military restrictions on journalists reporting war. However, in comparing the media-military relationship during the Gulf War in 1991 with the Iraq War, scholars seem to suggest the military is loosening its tight control of the media. Do you see a trend toward a more peaceful coexistence between the media and the military, or do you think there’s still a lot of conflict there?
Daniel C. Hallin (DH): I think there is more peaceful coexistence. Up until the first Gulf War, the tendency was, at least in the US, for more restriction. After the first Gulf War I think that the military kind of rediscovered that the media is not necessarily damaging to their interests — that actually it can be in their interest to have media coverage. I remember going to a conference after the first Gulf War where all of the press officers — the head press officers for the different military services – were there. The press officer for the army was complaining that the marines had stolen all the glory because he could not get the army officers to allow the journalists to go out with the troops — but the marines would allow them and so the marines stole the glory. So, rediscovering the fact that when you allow the journalists along, most of the publicity you are going to get is favourable. And it could in fact be in your interests to have press coverage. Then with the Iraq War, the policy of embedding gave the journalists way more access than they had had in [the Gulf]. And now of course this has become an unpopular war and so there are tensions, but I do not actually think the tensions are terribly sharp right now. I do not think that there is a lot of hostility in the military. There are complaints that the coverage is too negative but it does not seem like particularly a lot of hostility and not a lot of conflict either.
HS: Military restrictions on journalists have usually inspired loud complaints from the press corps. How loudly are they complaining of restrictions in their coverage of the current war in Iraq?
DH: The journalists are not particularly complaining right now. The journalists complain a lot more in the US about the White House — and this is actually standard. This was true about Vietnam also — that it was not the military that imposed restrictions on the journalists when there were restrictions, it was the civilian leadership in the White House, and this has been true again this time — that the greatest restrictions come from them, not the military.
Photo taken by US Army Cpl. Graner in Abu Ghraib prison, Iraq Oct. 24, 2003. The detainee «Gus» is being pulled from his cell by soldier PFC England as a form of intimidation. (Caption source: salon.com. On copyright: Pictures taken by U.S. military personnel on duty are ineligible for copyright, unless the photographer successfully claims that the photographs were not taken as part of his or her official duties. The photographers of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse photos have not made this claim, and have in fact denied it under oath. (source: Wikimedia Commons).
HS: The Iraq War has been compared to the Vietnam War on more points than one. When looking at the coverage of the two wars, we might see a few similarities. One similarity is perhaps that the media coverage of the two wars has been characterised by what you might call “significant events”, such as the My Lai story and the coverage of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, and the Abu Ghraib story during the current Iraq War. How important do you think these “significant events” are in changing public opinion of war?
DH: I do not think that by themselves they are significant. If you look at the trend line in public opinion I think that you will see that in Iraq, just the same as Vietnam, there are not very many bends in the curves — not like suddenly there is an event and all of a sudden public support drops after that event. What it usually is is a gradual decline. The Tet Offensive did not produce any significant wrinkles in the trend lines in public opinion really. That is not to say it was not important, because there was a lot of very significant discussion and politics that was focused around it. And similarly with Abu Ghraib — I think obviously Abu Ghraib had an important role to play in the decline of support for the war but it did not really dramatically change public opinion by itself. I think the most important thing is just like Vietnam — it is time that matters, and the fact that the war continues on and the casualty rate continues on. It becomes more and more evident that it is not going to end soon, and that is what erodes public opinion more than any particular event.
HS: Is there a fatigue that sets into the public opinion?
DH: There is fatigue, yes, and a kind of growing realisation about the cost of the war, and the fact that it is not as simple as the leaders said. Things like Abu Ghraib, or My Lai — people have a way of explaining those things away. They say that “people got what they deserved”, or they do not really believe that it happened — a lot of people do not. But it becomes harder and harder to explain away — the fact that the war just drags on. That is harder to deny than some of these other things.
HS: One of the other comparisons we can make between the Iraq War and the Vietnam War concerns the growth in one particular medium. In particular, television established itself firmly as a political force during the Vietnam years. Do you see some parallels here to the role of the Internet in the coverage of the Iraq War and the war in Afghanistan?
Vietnam war: Viet Cong dead after an attack on the perimeter of Tan Son Nhut Air Base (photo: SP5 Edgar Price Pictorial A.V. Plt. 69th Sig. Bn. (A) (photo: Wikimedia Commons/ The Vietnam Center and Archive.)
DH: Well yes. In a lot of ways I think that what happened with Iraq is the same as what happened with Vietnam. There are some differences. One of them has to do with digital media technology. I think that that is really important — that the pictures of Abu Ghraib were taken by soldiers with digital cameras. Without those pictures it never would have been a story. I think one of the ways in which it is harder for the military to control the circulation of images has to do with that digital technology and the fact that there are soldiers with cameras who are taking these pictures. So the most negative images of the American military are not created by journalists — they are created by soldiers, and then they are circulated in this way. So digital technology is important in that way — and not just the Internet, but also just the cameras themselves.
Another thing is that the media are more globalised now than they were, and this is related to the Internet. But you have these other providers of information — Al Jazeera is the most important, but you also have the websites that are maintained by the militant groups and so on, and they circulate images too. So the flow of images is less totally monopolised by the big Western news agencies than it once was. With Abu Ghraib I think there are two things that are really important. The story of how it became such a big story – it partly has to do with Seymour Hersh [the journalist who broke the story], it partly has to do with whoever leaked those pictures to the media, but it is also true that even when the pictures were first shown, it was not quite such a big story in the United States until President Bush was forced to comment on it. And the reason he was forced to comment on it is because the pictures were also circulating in the Arab world. There was a big reaction in Arab public opinion, and he felt it was necessary to comment on that. So that fact that there are these other flows of information besides the ones involving Western media — it is not purely national, it is a global flow of information. And Bush has to respond to that.
HS: You wrote an article in Political Communication in 1993 called “Agon and Ritual — The Gulf War as Popular Culture”, together with Todd Gitlin at Columbia University. The article characterises the story of the Gulf War as highly ritualistic story, framed rather romantically in a similar narrative frame as the Second World War. The article also discusses the long term effect of media coverage, and you concluded by suggesting that “next time around” it would be easier to mount support for going to war. Looking at the build-up to the Iraq War — do you think this was the case?
DH: I think that was probably true, but there was another factor – which was the aftermath of September 11th, that made it pretty easy for Bush to send American troops to war. So it is true that in the period after Vietnam it became for a period much more difficult for the President to commit troops to combat, because there was a lot of suspicion of getting involved in war. And I do think that the Gulf War reversed the so-called Vietnam Syndrome to some extent, but then on top of that you had September 11th, which really pushed that into the background. Now of course, things are different again.
HS: Would you say that the media’s build up to the Iraq War was less extensive as the build-up to the Gulf War?
DH: I guess it should be said that in both cases there was a lot of coverage, and there was significant opposition in both cases. But I certainly think that the experience of the Gulf War made it easier for people to imagine that you could have a short successful war, and that you were not necessarily going to just get into another Vietnam. I think that the fact that the Democrats held back from criticising the President — they were willing to vote to go along — I think that has to do with the Gulf War, and the fact that that was seen as a successful war, and they thought that that might be what was going to happen again. They did not want to be on the wrong side of a popular war.
HS: In the article “The Media and War”, that you wrote in the book International Media Research, you diagnosed the state of research on war and the media — pointing to some of the aspects where more research was needed, particularly calling for a greater integration of the field and broader questions such as social theory, historical background and so on. You also argued that there should be more research on war as culture. How do you think the field of war and media research has evolved in the last 10 years?
DH: Well, there is a lot more literature now. The argument that I made about the absence of research about war and culture — I think there is a lot of new work on war and culture, not all of which I have read. I see more and more references to that. I mean, we are in a time of war again where this is a really interesting subject so people are starting to work on it much more intensively. And we are back into a situation where — if you believe our leaders — we are going to be in perpetual war for a long time. So it seems very obvious that the culture — our culture — is in some way a culture of war. You have to understand war in order to understand our culture.
Hallin, Daniel C. (1986) The “Uncensored War” – The Media and Vietnam, University of California Press, Berkeley California
Hallin, Daniel C. and Gitlin, Todd (1993) “Agon and Ritual – The Gulf War as Popular Culture”, Political Communication, Fall 1993
Hallin, Daniel C. (1997) “The Media and War”, in Corner, John; Schlesinger, Philip and Silverstone, Roger (eds.) International Media Research – A Critical Survey, Routledge, London, New York
Hallin, Daniel C. and Mancini, Paolo (2004) Comparing Media Systems – Three Models of Media and Politics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
Helle Sjøvaag is a research fellow at the Department of Media Science and the Department of Information Science, The University of Bergen.