"Demonology. The outcome of such wagers, and the ongoing tension between information technology and governmental control, is about much more than market share. At its worst, television can foment and sustain the most violent of ethnic wars, as it did in the former Yugoslavia. Croatian and Serbian television routinely demonized each others' populations as terrorists and fascists, and the Serbs spared little effort in casting the Muslim-dominated government of Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic as the second coming of the Ottoman Empire.
Occasionally, Serbian and Croatian television would use the exact same footage to document wartime atrocities, but with the identities of the victims and murderers reversed."
[of course, the angelic American mass media would never do such a thing .... JP ]
From ........... U.S. News & World Report
November 11, 1996
All propaganda, all the time
Or how democracy lost the information war
It's understandable if the evangelists of the television age are feeling pretty pious these days. In recent years, television has recorded for the world the joyous destruction of the Berlin Wall and the courageous defiance of Tiananmen Square. CNN pictures of the massacre at Srebrenica helped shame President Clinton into action in Bosnia. Independent Russian TV crews in Chechnya brought the Russian people the story of the brutal war that Kremlin leaders did not want them to see. "Television's impact on the world community cannot be overstated," Rupert Murdoch once declared in a moment of characteristic hubris. "When Lech Walesa was asked what caused the phenomenal collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, he pointed to a television set."
Murdoch may have spoken too soon. Like any revolutionary technology, television has its dark side. And with the number of sets now past 1 billion and counting, it's the dark side that is increasingly on display around the world. Comprehensive content analysis is expensive, and scarce. But a little global channel surfing is far from encouraging. "Television is probably the most effective technique being used to whip up passions and keep recalcitrant citizens in line, or otherwise promote nationalistic ideas," says Leonard Sussman, a senior scholar in international communications at Freedom House in New York.
Just before Taiwan's presidential elections last spring, for instance, China's state-controlled television--which is orchestrated by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's favorite bridge partner--blanketed the airwaves with footage of Chinese military exercises in the Taiwan Strait. Both Taiwanese and Chinese viewers could hardly miss the message, conveyed as it was by a parade of the latest weaponry, the roar of missiles and soldiers pointedly proclaiming their willingness to die if necessary to prevent Taiwan from asserting independence. To the Chinese viewer, Japan is also a dangerous neighbor. Chinese Central Television frequently pumps out films on Japan's military aggression against China in the 1930s and during World War II and the Nanjing massacre. "They treat the Japanese like monsters," says James Lilley, a former U.S. ambassador to China.
Television is no less provocative on the Korean peninsula. In the North, political programming is roughly one part glorification of Kim Jong Il, the reclusive "Dear Leader," one part castigation of South Korea as a country in thrall with Japan and one part historic revisionism in which the Korean War is the result not of the North's surprise attack in 1950 but of reactionary forces in South Korea in collusion with Japan and the United States. (The South returns the favor mainly with derision; one North Korean defector has become a popular television comedian by ridiculing the North as, among other failings, a country where honeymoons consist of a bus ride around Pyongyang.)
Click to Africa, where TV is the perfect medium for making the big men look bigger. Or Indonesia, where just days after the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded to two human-rights activists from East Timor, President Suharto is idolized by the cameras as he visits the territory to be proclaimed East Timor's "father of integration."
Channel One. Industrial democracies may increasingly have access to all news channels all the time, yet for most of the world's viewers television remains a strictly controlled medium. The number of television sets around the world has tripled from 398 million in 1975 to over 1.2 billion today, with most of the growth coming in the developing world (China went from 800,000 sets in 1975 to about 300 million today). But most of the world's governments keep a tight grip on local broadcasting networks. According to a 1996 survey by Freedom House, of 187 governments, 92 own outright the television broadcasting infrastructure, while 67 have part ownership.
Despite the spread of satellite technology, breaking open these monopolies is surprisingly difficult. The United States invested billions during the cold war to create a radio broadcast network that, along with BBC radio, provides widespread access to more-objective information than most governments offer their publics. But television is a hypnotic beast, and "people will tend to watch bad TV before they will listen to good radio," says Kim Elliott, an audience researcher for Voice of America. "It's the medium of least resistance because you don't have to use any imagination."
Replacing cross-border radio with cross-border TV would be an obvious solution if TV signals, which are much weaker than short- or medium-wave radio signals, were not so easy to jam. U.S.-sponsored Television Martí is beamed into Cuba from a blimp, but thanks to the Castro regime's jamming the only way most Cubans can see it is on videotape at the U.S. Interests Section office in Havana--if they dare.
Adapting to an information war that has moved to new terrain, the Voice of America last month inaugurated a satellite TV broadcasting network that will soon beam limited programming in Mandarin, Farsi, Thai, Arabic, Russian and English to anyone with a satellite dish.
But that will remain a very limited audience for years to come, because many of the governments that now have a monopoly on the television message impose restrictions on the ownership of dishes. (According to reports received by U.S. analysts, the Saudi religious police have made a sport of shooting out key electrical circuits on contraband backyard dishes.) Expecting that dish technology could eventually outflank efforts to restrict ownership, many governments--China and Singapore, in particular--have tried to pre-empt the demand for private dishes altogether by building cable systems that will download and then distribute many satellite programs, leaving the government firmly in control at the switch. "The wager is that what people are seeking is not information but choice," says Kenneth Donow of VOA.
Demonology. The outcome of such wagers, and the ongoing tension between information technology and governmental control, is about much more than market share. At its worst, television can foment and sustain the most violent of ethnic wars, as it did in the former Yugoslavia. Croatian and Serbian television routinely demonized each others' populations as terrorists and fascists, and the Serbs spared little effort in casting the Muslim-dominated government of Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic as the second coming of the Ottoman Empire. Occasionally, Serbian and Croatian television would use the exact same footage to document wartime atrocities, but with the identities of the victims and murderers reversed.
Even weather forecasts on the main Serbian television news show promoted the ideal of Greater Serbia. After the forecasts for Serbia and Montenegro, the presenter would make a quick sweep of the weather in Serb-occupied territory in Croatia and Bosnia, with each area lighting up on the map in turn. In trying to explain the Balkan wars, Milos Vasic, an independent Belgrade journalist, observes that if U.S. television were run by the Ku Klux Klan, America would soon have a civil war, too.
BY TIM ZIMMERMANN
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