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Mainstream, VOL LII No 12, March 15, 2014

West Asia through the Lens of US media

Saturday 15 March 2014


by Satraajit Palchoudhury

In the lexicon of the US, West Asia is described as a troubled periphery. The US diplomats always look at their West Asian counterparts with a suspicious eye. The recent stand-off between Washington and Tehran on the ‘civilian nuclear issue’ stands testimony to the observation made above. After the fall of the pro-US Shah Pahlavi dynasty due to the famous Islamic Revolution that Iran witnessed in 1979, America’s relationship with Iran started deteri-orating.

To America, West Asia has a different place. It’s the oil which attracts the US towards its fold. Being the world’s lone superpower, Washington has never left any opportunity to make its presence felt in the internal affairs of the West Asian countries by playing its ‘democratic card’. Anti-US sentiments are noticeable in the region. The nations that fall under the ambit of West Asia consider the US as their foe and why not? America uses the turmoil in West Asia to its advantage. It is in this context that the role of the ‘US media’ assumes significance.

The Socialists always accuse the US of orchest-rating neo-imperialism. From the former Cuban dictator, Fidel Castro, to the late Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, they never changed their attitude towards the US. Chavez left this world forever but even in his deathbed he didn’t change his thoughts and continued to look at America as the mother of all troubles. But to the US, these don’t matter much. Her policies and programmes will never change come what may; after all, she is the sole superpower.

At this juncture it would be pertinent to throw light on the medium through which America is spreading its ideology or rather trying to make the world believe its versions. The American policy-makers are using their media to the best of their advantage. Let’s recall the first Gulf War which was led by George Bush-I. Till today we remember the name of that ghastly military operation—‘Operation Desert Storm’.

Actually Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi autocrat, attacked Kuwait. From a layman’s eye, it was a matter between Iraq and Kuwait. But America decided to intervene and it took the side of Kuwait since this tiny West Asian nation was its ally. The brutal war claimed many innocent lives. But the first Gulf War assumes significance for students of journalism as a new ‘news channel’ not only carved a niche for itself but also earned a permanent place in the minds and hearts of its viewers. Yes that particular channel is the CNN. It brought the Iraq-US war to the living rooms of its viewers across the globe. The American cruise missiles about which we read only in our newspapers, we saw those in the idiot box by the grace of the Ted Turner-led CNN.

Of course, as the CNN is an American channel it will definitely try to act as a spokesperson of its own motherland. While saying so it would be apt to take into account the propa-ganda model which has been penned by noted academics Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky. This model states that opinions are manufactured in the minds of the ordinary people. The model also states that the media serve the interests of state and corporate power. Today we are living in the age of commo-dification of news. News is nothing but a commodity which has to be sold. But can we defy the reach and impact of the media? Can we defy the fact that the media indeed plays a proactive role in framing the country’s foreign policy?

Once again let’s take refuge in the CNN. By telecasting the first Gulf War we have seen how the American news channel compelled the West Asian diplomats to take its coverage seriously before framing their foreign policies. Barring the Gulf War the CNN also brought the news of the collapse of the erstwhile Soviet Union to the doorsteps of its viewers across the globe.

December 23, 1991 is an important date in world history. Students of history know the significance of this date very well. It was on this date that the much-awaited dream of the West to witness the fall of the Soviet Union came true. It was on this date that Mikhail Gorvachev, the President of the USSR, tendered his resignation. The famous publication, Time, very succinctly expressed the coverage of this historic moment by the CNN in its January 6, 1992 edition. It said: “In 1991, one of the most eventful years of this century, the world witnessed the dramatic and transforming impact of those events on live television by satellite. The very definition of news was rewritten from something that has happened to something that is happening at the very moment you are hearing of it. A war involving the fiercest air bombardment in history unfolded in real time— before the cameras. The motherland of communism overthrows its leaders and their doctrine—before the cameras. To a considerable degree, especially in Moscow, momentous things happened precisely because they are being seen as they happened. These shots heard and seen around the world appeared under the aegis of the first global TV news company, Cable News Network.”

Lt. Gen. Tomas.E. Kelly, the spokesman of the Pentagon, in one of his interviews to Sunday Today admitted that they have used satellite TV to issue warnings to Baghdad. The interview appeared on March 31, 1991 where he said: “While talking about chemical weapons I was intentionally looking at the camera where I categorically said that stern action will be taken against that military commander who will be using chemical weapons. I knew it that our Iraqi detractors are also watching CNN in their backyard.” This itself shows and proves as to how the US uses its media to the best of its ability.

Noam Chomsky also mentioned about three models of media organisation; and they are— corporate oligopoly, state-controlled media and a democratic communication policy as advanced by the bishops of Brazil. In the opinion of Chomsky, corporate oligopoly reduces demo-cratic participation in the media to zero. Regar-ding state-controlled media Chomsky said that the democratic participation might vary, especially when it depends on the prevailing political conditions of that particular country. But the third model, that is, the democratic communications policy, has not been tried as of now and so it would not be proper to pass any comment on this particular model.

The erudite scholar, Noam Chomsky, also talks about capitalist democracy which he says is the natural form of corporate oligopoly and America, accordding to Chomsky, falls under the category of a capitalist democracy. The Egyptians ended the 30-year-old autocratic reign of Hosni Mubarak. He ruled the ancient West Asian country with an iron fist after the assassination of Anwar Sadat but had to eventually succumb before the popular will. Thereafter Muslim Brotherhood won the first democratic election in the country. However, it could not complete its tenure as President Mohammad Morsi was forcefully removed from the hot seat by the powerful and politicised Army. The events in Egypt were telecast by the US media and the man who was in the line of the US media’s fire was Morsi.

Similarly, we have seen the position taken by the US media against the beleaguered Syrian President, Bashar Al Assad, who is trying hard to reclaim his control in his trouble-torn nation which is witnessing a bloody civil war for the past few years.

But West Asia is also now trying to counter the hegemony of the US media. The Qatar-based Al-Jazeera channel is an instance in point. Initially the channel was accused of being the spokesperson of radical militant outfits like the Al-Qaeda as the higher echelons of the Al-Qaeda used to give their interviews to Al-Jazeera with an aim to disseminate their messages. So, a media war is going on. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US has not left any opportunity to thrust its will on West Asia in general and the Third World in particular.

After the end of World War II the US pitched for ‘free flow of information’. But the US had its vested interest. In the garb of ‘free flow of information’ the US wanted to spread its offshoots beyond its borders. The US wished freedom for its advertisers, sellers of comm-unication hardware, publishers, motion picture producers, broadcasters and telecomm-unication firms to do business in foreign lands without any kind of hazards. But America’s concept of ‘free flow’ was challenged and opposed by the Third World countries as they feared that their identity will be at stake, their sovereignty will be at stake.

The Third World then clamoured for a ‘New World Economic Order’ and a ‘New World Information Order’. Their basic demand was the rich nations will have to share their wealth and media resources with them as it will help remove the existing imbalances. But destiny stored something else for them. In the 1980s the Third World countries started witnessing politi-cal and economic collapse. Their shoddy plight once again forced them to knock at the doors of America. The Americans did agree to bail them out but also set certain conditions which the Third World had to accept for their own survival. The ‘New World Information Order’ took a back seat and once again the neo-imperialism of the US began scaling new heights.

Through GATT and NAFTA America institu-tionalised its neo-liberal policies. Be it Iran, be it Syria, Egypt, Afghanistan or any other West Asian nation, the US is trying and will try to portray its version of truth through its lens. To the Third World, the American version will always be considered as a ‘mediated truth’. Saddam Hussein was projected as a monster by US media and it was telecast that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction—an allegation which turned out to be absolutely false. The Iraqi autocrat was tried by the US media and even after his hanging the problems of Iraq have not been solved. One thing is certain: in the 21st century the media will play a pivotal role in framing the policies of their respective countries.

Let’s not pin the blame only on the US media. After all, selling news is a business and the mantra of every business is to earn profit and for the media tycoons it is certainly not a crime to sell the propaganda for their country.


The Global Media: The New Missionaries of Corporate Capitalism by Edward S. Herman and Robert W. McChesney.

Necessary Illusions: Though Control in Democratic Societies by Noam Chomsky.

A freelance journalist based in Silchar (Assam), the author has done his Masters in Mass Communication from the Assam Central University, Silchar.