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Media wars: From Thunderer to Gonzo

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1 July 2010 16:11

With its profile of GEN Stanley McChrystal, Rolling Stone, the house of gonzo journalism, has joined the London Thunderer in the annals of notable war reporting.

By sending William Russell to the Crimea War, The London Times (here's the etymology of the nickname 'Thunderer') created the job of the war correspondent. Russell's reporting brought down a government. The Rolling Stone effort, 155 years later, brought down a general. Both are examples of an enduring truth about important journalism. Send good correspondents to the scene of conflict and ask them to report fully and honestly what they see and hear. The results can move more than headlines.

The element of continuity is a useful starting point for looking at how utterly the media-military landscape is being transformed. In the Industrial Age warfare of the 20th century, government and military had the upper hand on the media through control of the battlefield and censorship of dispatches.

The military still has power over access to the physical ground where the battle is fought. But military and government have lost control over the new space where much of the war is actually won – the media. Welcome to the Media Age warfare of the 21st century.

Prakash Mirchandani captures this shift in an excellent study of the impact of new media technologies: 'Reporting War, Waging Peace'. As he observes, the internet is al Qaeda's command and control centre:

If there is one example of the successful use of New Media technologies to achieve political and military aims, it has been Al Qaeda and its offshoots. Forced to use the technologies early because pressure drove their leadership into hiding, they have created strong, wide-ranging and convincing methods of using the Internet, from military training to enlisting suicide bombers.

Mirchandani has been reporting in the trenches of hackdom for decades, but his paper for the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre is really addressing the military. As you'd expect from a good journalist, he gives those in a hurry a quick 21-point summary at the top. Here's a taste of a couple:

The emergence of the image-as-truth is one of the critical parts of the current New Media usage. Audiences are learning to trust images and videos posted by specific individuals or organisations. These then become the modern ‘nodes of trust’...Traditional communication practices used by government are losing both trust and relevance...This requires government images to populate cyberspace on the basis of their acceptance as truth by informal popular online networks that constitute the‘broadcasting’ element of the new media.

Propaganda is dead. Truth rules. Who decides the truth is, as ever, intensely contested. And the decisive weapons in the truth-defining game aren't necessarily held by the state. Just ask the US military as they grapple with WikiLeaks or Al Jazeera.

Despite the media revolution, Mirchandani argues that independent eyewitnesses and journalists are being eliminated from battlefields, making reliable information about wars even harder to get. The controls imposed on independent observers in conflict zones are now harsher than ever before. Coalition forces insist on embedding journalists and keeping them away from any areas of dangerous battles. Insurgent forces target journalists, through kidnapping, torture and beheading, in an effort to ensure that only their own image-as-truth is projected.

The differences between the London Thunderer and the House of Gonzo is instructive on this point. William Russell reported by standing and watching the battle in the Crimea. By contrast, Michael Hastings' scoop in Rolling Stone came from the 'chateau correspondent' end of the scale: reporting what the general and his staff were saying about their civilian commanders back in Washington.

Many fellow hacks will be troubled by Prakash's suggestion that the concept of the embedded journalist should be taken a few steps further, and that soldiers should be trained to do the jobs of reporters. The freedom-of-the-press arguments are well rehearsed. But editors must also question their consciences about sending out untrained journalists and fixers to lose their lives. 

Read Mirchandani on the media and military, a vivid snapshot of connected worlds which are changing at warp speed.

Photo by Flickr user R.I.Pienaar, used under a Creative Commons license.

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