Remember the Maine?           

In the first 48 hours of news coverage of the horrific tragedies in Manhattan, Arlington, and a Pennsylvania cornfield, the dominant voice has been that of President George W. Bush and his administration.

Appropriately. Journalists must provide our elected leader and his team extensive time and space.

But American journalism cannot be an extension of the press office of the White House or Pentagon and still serve the public. With the whole nation literally looking on, America’s news media must struggle to find some balance. It most go beyond those--Republicans or Democrats--whose political interests may profit from unleashing the might of the world’s most fearsome military.

An escalation of metaphors

Did you notice the shift in the Administration’s central metaphor? On Tuesday, the president spoke within a criminal justice frame. He looked to “punish those responsible,” to “bring them to justice.” By the second day, however, the metaphor had escalated from crime to war. A war of “good versus evil.” A war against those who hate America because, as he said the day before, “we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world.” 

Humans reason in metaphors; they’re instrumental in shaping public opinion. But a metaphor is like an iceberg, most of it is below the surface.  Moving from a crime frame to a war frame may seem trivial, but the baggage, or entailments, of the new frame hijack the substance of  the debate.

Why shifting from crime to war matters

When we think of crime, we think of a process of apprehending suspects, gathering evidence, an impartial trial with rules of evidence, open to public scrutiny. The government’s goal is justice. Punishing the wrong people would be a travesty. Harming the innocent along with the guilty would constitute an egregious failure of the system.

War, on the other hand, is an all-out deadly struggle. It’s not carried out at the individual level, but whole nations are involved. In war there are enemies to be destroyed, not suspects to be tried.

A war is prosecuted by generals planning in secret, not lawyers in open court. In war there are no trials, only executions. In war, the paramount goal is victory, not justice. In war the innocent are expected to die. “Collateral” damage is regrettable, but acceptable. No modern war has been fought without massive civilian suffering.

If journalists accept the metaphor of war, they are preparing the public for its entailments.

“The language of war has its consequences,” Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute pointed out on the ethics website it operates for journalists. “It anticipates formal declarations. It imagines counterattacks. It begins to define and dehumanize an enemy. Within the current frame, that enemy is ‘likely’ to look a certain way and dress a certain way and practice a certain religion. The collateral damage of building a culture of war is xenophobia and paranoia, much if it directed at our own citizens.”

There are other consequences Clark didn’t mention. In war citizens give up privacy and civil liberties to government in favor of security. Domestic needs go begging as military expenditures soar. Most importantly, while the prosecution of crime may lead to justice--a necessary precursor of lasting peace--the prosecution of war frequently sows the seeds of the next conflict. Its resolution is based on might, not right.

Differences between U.S. and world media coverage

In watching U.S. news media cover the aftermath of these terrorist atrocities and comparing it with coverage in other nations, much was the same--the shock and horror. But there was also a salient difference. The tone of U.S. coverage was surprise that the nation’s symbols of military and economic might were so savagely attacked. It was as if an innocent bystander had been caught in the crossfire.

Media elsewhere explored why so many people around the world--and particularly in the Middle East--believe their misery is a result, at least in part, of callous American power.

Paul Chilton, a professor of linguistics in England has been following American coverage. He writes: “The intifada has been raging, Palestinian anger mounting, and American policy in the Middle East increasingly criticized. Iraq is bombed almost daily by British and American planes. The extent to which the US is perceived as a regional and global perpetrator of economic and political injustice is simply ignored.”

A recent visitor to Egypt spoke of daily newscasts there showing the most graphic violence in Israel and the cognizance that American-made tanks and warplanes are engaged with unarmed or lightly armed Arabs. Israel used an earlier generation of these weapons to subdue Egypt within the memory of most Egyptians. And though the United States rebuilt Europe and showed compassion to a defeated Japan, its more recent cold-war history of siding with anti-democratic forces in Central America, in Chile, in Iran,  rankles.  And there’s the ironic legacy of the U.S. shipping weapons to the Afghani Mujahadeen--when they were fighting the Soviets--with whom it now contemplates going to war.

A little history

In 1964, an uncritical Congress and national media rushed to escalate the Viet Nam war after a minor incident in the Tonkin Gulf. (Two U.S. destroyers attacking the North Vietnamese coast apparently sparked retaliation by several torpedo boats and radioed for air support--which couldn’t locate any attackers.) Afterwards, tens of thousands of young Americans died along with more than a million Vietnamese.

In 1898, New York’s biggest newspapers beat the drums of war to enlarge their circulations. “Remember the Maine” their headlines shouted as they blamed Spanish treachery for the catastrophic explosion on the U.S. battleship, Without any evidence, (the Navy in 1976 determined that the Maine exploded from spontaneous combustion in its coal bunkers), Hearst and Pulitzer papers goaded the nation into a war that claimed the lives of 5,000 American servicemen, tens of thousands of Spaniards, and as many as 600,000 Filipinos--killed or starved when the U.S. crushed its independence movement. 

American news media will serve us best in the long-run, if they balance the viewpoints of those who would take us to war with others. And they would do well to be wary of adopting the Administration’s metaphors as their own.

--John McManus