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Communication breakdown
Media and government power facilitating popular decisions at odds with public interest

December 17, 2004

Excerpts form the introduction to Bring 'Em On: Media and Politics in the Iraq War (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004), by Yahya R. Kamalipour.

One is left with the horrible feeling now that war settles nothing; that to win a war is as disastrous as to lose one. -- Agatha Christie (1890–1976)

Although media practices in general reflect and reinforce identifiable cultural norms and public expectations, at times of crisis, political agents and media gatekeepers modify their communication practices to protect or implement dominant political interests and goals.

In the case of Iraq, the George W. Bush administration sought domestic public approval for a "preemptive" war by campaigning on several themes, including the threat of "weapons of mass destruction," the gruesome nature of the Saddam Hussein's regime, the possible links between Iraq and the terrorist group al Qaeda, and finally the patriotic duty of Americans to support their troops.

In contrast to the independent media, alternative press, and most media around the world, the U.S. elite media deemed the Bush administration's rhetorical appeals newsworthy and legitimate. Hence, the media provide favorable coverage and promotion, often by dramatizing the same copy points emphasized by government speakers.

From President Bush's announcement of the "axis of evil," the September 2002 launch of the Iraq crisis, the United Nation's Resolution 1440 on Iraq, Colin Powell's UN speech justifying intervention, and the international diplomatic negotiations among UN Security Council, European Union, and Arab League members to the refusal of France, Russia, Germany, China, and Turkey to support military action; the international antiwar protests of millions; and the buildup to military intervention, U.S. elite media coverage acted and reacted to the ongoing struggle for international power with noticeable allegiance to the American administration's pronouncements.

Yet the complex interactions among Pentagon and White House strategists, UN officials, administration publicists, military experts, journalists, talk show hosts, and international publics cannot be summarized as simply the outcome of standard journalistic practice or castigated as media manipulation. To unravel and fully analyze the development of U.S. public support for the war, the process must be understood in a larger politico-historical and cultural context.

Bring 'Em On: Media and Politics in the Iraq War highlights the complex links between media and politics by providing appraisals of communication activities as the result of institutional power and cultural norms. Individual chapters consider major communication events that politically and culturally prepared the world for the U.S. and U.K. military actions.

Other books have recounted the political process leading to the 2003 war on Iraq, and some have even assessed and critiqued media coverage before and during the war and occupation. However, this book provides a more organic and holistic explanation of the intimate connections among dominant cultural norms, political agent activities, and media practices -- connections essential to the construction of the necessary public support for the first "preemptive" and yet preventive war of the modern age.

In doing so, this volume focuses on investigating the interactions between media, political elites, and cultural norms and practices. A model of communication and institutional interaction is presented that identifies the marginalizing of public participation in political discourse:

--Elites own and control media that create spectators.
--Elites influence and control government agencies and political parties that only infrequently allow secondary public participation through opinion polls or electoral contests.
--Elites direct cultural institutions (from entertainment media to public schools) that encourage consumer spectatorship rather than citizen involvement.

Thus, political and cultural leaderships act not with undeterred power and not as the result of sinister manipulation, but rather with considerable public consent arising from the "common sense" of ingrained, institutionalized political practices and cultural expectations. Accordingly, media and government power so configured facilitates popular decisions at odds with public interest.

Paved with Good Intentions
In the fourth year of the third millennium, it has become quite apparent that we, as human beings, have made no progress toward elevating humanity to its potential level of civility. In fact, the current atmosphere of world affairs attests to a total breakdown in communication, trust, civility, international law, human rights, and freedom, and a lack of progress in terms of humanity and social/global justice.

This book is paved with good intentions, and in this respect it is intended to challenge our mindsets, senses, and intellects vis-à-vis war, media, and politics. I started this introduction with a few thought-provoking quotations and would like to punctuate it by the words of Mahatma Gandhi:

What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless,
whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?

Yahya R. Kamalipour, PhD, is professor international communication and head of the Department of Communication, Purdue University Calumet, Indiana. He is managing editor of Global Media Journal ( and co-editor of the just-released book, Bring 'Em On: Media and Politics in the Iraq War.

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