Television War vs. Television Peace


The Iraq War has been the most extensively televised war in history. The whole world has been watching, though seeing very different versions of the conflict. With the end of the large-scale fighting, the next question is whether television can also be used to promote an Iraq Peace.

In this war, the U.S. government has taken extraordinary steps to create stories and scenes for American television to broadcast. These have been consciously from the point of view of frontline American soldiers. One result has been an alarming casualty rate for journalists. But another has been to rally tremendous and immediate support from the American viewing audience.

By contrast, Saddam Hussein's strange attempts to use TV—no one could be sure whether he or body doubles were on the screen—to rally support for fighting against the U.S.-led coalition have apparently counted for little, but what we might call Arab TV, the networks most prominently led by Al-Jazeera but also including Abu Dhabi TV and others, has clearly emerged as a geopolitical force. This TV, principally by and for Arab audiences, has seen the war through different lenses from those covering the American audience's war.

Arab TV has naturally reached an audience willing to accept a view of the war from the defenders' side just as American TV has been broadcast to an audience prone to an opposing view. The natural tendencies of the different audiences, though, have not been challenged by their respective TV mediums but apparently have been exacerbated. Now, in the wake of the military fighting, the American and Arab TV businesses will find themselves still in conflict but, perhaps for the first time, broadcasting to overlapping audiences. Certainly. we should hope and expect that all the American media will reach the people of Iraq, with our splendid cacophony of channels and Western opinions. And the U.S. must expect that Arab media will seek expanded audiences not only among the Iraqis but also among millions of other Arabs perhaps more engaged in TV than ever.

In post-war Iraq, the critical imperative for the U.S. is to demonstrate that the means are justified by the ends. America needs to find and display on TV for Arab audiences Saddam's weapons of mass destruction and the evidence of the brutality of his regime. Most Americans already believe that Saddam was a brutal, evil dictator who acquired terrible weapons, but millions of Arabs need to see these truths to believe them. This proof can be provided in compelling manner only by TV, ideally both American and Arab in ownership, distribution and audience.

Indeed, an essential building block of an enduring peace in Iraq will be the creation of an economically healthy Iraqi-based broadcasting industry. A main element would be a bill of rights that would bring Arab and American TV, Al Jazeera and Fox, into marketplace competition. The post-war authority in Iraq should immediately license three or four television stations in each major city, permit any satellite TV distribution, open the telephone network to any Internet access provider, and reject any censorship (other than necessary for military security).

In short, a media bill of rights should be one of the first declarations of governance by a post-war authority in Iraq. By creating a marketplace of ideas, the new caretakers of that damaged land will guarantee the success of peace.


War Stories

The networks had nearly 50 reporters in and around Iraq and last week, a few of them took time to talk to Broadcasting & Cable's Allison Romano about life during wartime