Gonzo meets gizmo meets politico meets journo

The Media At War
November 3, 2000

The British public has no interest in a war which drags on indecisively." So says the invincible Lord Copper, proprietor of the The Beast in Evelyn Waugh's satirical Scoop . "A few sharp victories, some conspicuous acts of personal bravery on the Patriot side, and a colourful entry into the capital. That is The Beast policy for the war."

It is also something like a text for The Media at War . One of its most compelling themes is the Kama Sutra coupling of the media and the military: a multiform complicity between gonzo and gizmo, politico and journo.

An almost prurient aspect of these acrobatics is the commentary on them by the acrobats themselves. This ranges from "the journalism of attachment" (Martin Bell) to "objectivity only comes back into fashion when the black-out comes down" (Macdonald Hastings) to the weirdly weary eschatology of Michael Herr in Vietnam: "You don't know what a media freak is until you've seen the way a few of those grunts would run around during a fight when they knew that there was a television crew nearby; they were actually making war movies in their heads, doing little guts-and-glory Leatherneck tap dances under fire, getting their pimples shot off for the networks. ... A lot of correspondents weren't much better. We'd all seen too many movies, stayed too long in Television City."

Susan Carruthers treats all this with sense and sensibility, but headlong. Her book is presented as "a synoptic introductory study, offering a synthesis of existing scholarship, but also adopting a fresh approach, based on an examination of media before, during and after conflicts of varying kinds throughout the 20th century".

As an introduction it is exceptionally accomplished. In fact, it is so expertly synopsised and synthesised that, in a curious mirror-imaging of scholarship and subject, it takes on something of the character of the product it discusses. Like The News at Ten , The Media at War is breathless, segmented, digested.

So, for example, "American servicemen's contribution to the war effort was impressed upon civilian America through the documentary record of many of Hollywood's most celebrated and popular directors, such as John Ford, William Wyler and John Huston, who temporarily enlisted with the armed forces' photographic units". Unexceptionable, apparently, if anodyne. Yet a glance at Huston's complex output could make this section sizzle - The Battle of San Pietro (1944), for example, with the dead put into sacks and the voices of the dead on the soundtrack; or Let There Be Light (1945), made to demonstrate that "nervous and emotional casualties were not lunatics".

Similarly, discussion could be richer. "In guarding the gate, news editors are guided... by 'news values': criteria which enable them to judge a story's newsworthiness. Is it topical, proximate, timely, or relevant?... What financial and personnel commitments are required to cover 'somebody else's war'?" Carruthers is keenly interested in humanitarian intervention, and its concomitant, humanitarian selection. Here, surely, is a golden opportunity to compare the selection criteria of the news editor with those of the cabinet minister - to find, perhaps, that they differ rather little.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, University of Keele.

The Media At War: Communication and Conflict in the 20th Century

Author - Susan L. Carruthers
ISBN - 0 333 69142 3/69143 1
Publisher - Palgrave (formerly Macmillan Press)
Price - £45.00/£14.99
Pages - 321

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