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BOOK REVIEW | Global Media Go to War: The Role of News and Entertainment Media During the 2003 Iraq War

Berenger, Ralph D. (ed). Global Media Go to War: The Role of News and Entertainment Media During the 2003 Iraq War. Spokane WA: Marquette Books, 2004. Paperback. 369 pages. ISBN 0-922993-10-6, $49.95.

Reviewed by Naomi Sakr, Westminster University

Have journalists, editors or media owners learned any lessons from their coverage of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003? Will conflict be covered any differently in future? To pose these questions is to ask for detailed assessments of reporting on the invasion and insights into what might prompt media professionals to reflect on their working practices. Global Media Go to War is a copious source of such assessments and insights. 

Sandwiched between powerful contributions from two European veterans of media policy analysis, Cees Hamelink and Kaarle Nordenstreng, the main body of this book contains an introduction plus thirty chapters representing the work of some fifty authors. Their collective expertise encompasses an exhaustive range of issues and perspectives. An early section analysing framing, language, and propaganda is followed by others on war reporting across the globe, from the US, Europe and the Arab world to Australia, Hong Kong, India, and South Africa. A further section delves into the "War in Cyberspace," including chapters on indymedia and Weblogs, while the four final chapters consider audience responses, including perceptions of credibility.Two appendices provide a chronology of the invasion and a detailed list of journalists killed in Iraq between March 2003 and May 2004.

Ralph D. Berenger, in a note about the book's cover, remarks that the image of a US soldier draping an American flag over a statue of the fallen Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein, evoked diametrically opposite readings from audiences of different identities. As editor, Berenger sees this opposition as a compelling reason for having collected these essays. Many of his contributors teach courses on journalism. But this does not bring much coincidence of views. When Howard Schneider, a Washington Post reporter, bitterly remembers the gratuities extracted from him by Iraqi civil servants on official salaries worth just $2 per month, his focus is not Iraq's impoverishment under UN sanctions but the commitment shown by American reporters who stayed in Baghdad even as their working conditions went from extremely bad to even worse. When Abdullah Al-Kindi (one of seven contributors with Arabic names) documents aggression and harassment affecting journalists, his focus does not extend to controls imposed by Arab governments other than the US-backed Iraqi Governing Council and its ousted predecessor. Instead he focuses on actions by US television networks and the US military, declaring that US shelling of the Palestine Hotel on April 8, 2003 confirms that the "warring sides were deliberate in their attacks against the mass media and reporters." That judgment in turn appears incompatible with another in a chapter on the emotional effects of war coverage, to the effect that the "Bush administration seemed intent on having the whole world witness what was really happening" (p.305). 

Inevitably perhaps, with such a diversity of authorship, approaches to source citation range from rigorous to casual. But there is ample evidence here to support the argument in Cees Hamelink's preface that ordinary people, wherever they live, will only be informed properly about matters of public interest if they proactively insist upon it. One of many examples is Jack Lule's analysis of recurring metaphors in news. He demonstrates how the NBC Nightly News failed to provide a site where the decision to go to war could be debated. Instead, through choice of language and use of metaphor, it portrayed the US as being on a "seemingly inevitable path to war" (p.103).

Similarly Abdullah Schleifer takes issue with those journalists and news anchors working for Arab satellite channels who, he says, live in a "parallel ideological dreamworld" (p.228), where they indulge their emotional commitment to Arab nationalism. No similar weight of evidence emerges from this volume to suggest that polarised positions might become less polarised in future.

In their careful study of weblogs as a source of information about the war, Barbara Kaye and Thomas Johnson report that nearly three quarters of their respondents judged weblogs to be more credible than print or broadcast media. But their findings also show that weblogs, like other media, attract readers seeking confirmation of their existing views.

About Naomi Sakr

Naomi Sakr, a senior lecturer in the School of Media, Arts and Design at the University of Westminster, is the author of Satellite Realms: Transnational Television, Globalization and the Middle East (I B Tauris, 2001), editor of Women and Media in the Middle East (I B Tauris, 2004), and a contributor to recent books on media reform, international news, the regionalisation of transnational television, and governance in Gulf countries. Her principal research interest is media policy in the Arab Middle East.

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