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“Kill the Messenger” Chronicles Media’s Role in Conflicts From Rwanda to Mexico

(Image: Prometheus Books)

“Kill the Messenger” Chronicles Media’s Role in Conflicts From Rwanda to Mexico

(Image: Prometheus Books)

Karl Marx was not a militant on the barricades but a journalist who wrote frequently for the New York Herald Tribune on great issues of the day, like the American Civil War. But when he retired to the London Library to write of capitalism and history, he seemed to forget the power of the pen, instead conceiving of murky “material contradictions” as the key origin of consciousness and historical cycles.

Nearly a century later, my sociological hero C. Wright Mills commented that it was easy to overlook the role of mass media because “in Marx's day, there was no radio, no movies, no television; only printed matter, which … was in such shape that it was possible for an enterprising individual to start up a newspaper or magazine.”

Given the times in which he lived, Marx can be forgiven for thinking the essential struggle was over the means of material production, even if he himself was a working journalist and not a factory producer. As late as the early 1960s, as an ambitious young university newspaper editor, I was hardly aware of the power residing in the media either. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) made us aware of the power of photos of beaten protesters and the practical urgency of press releases bringing northern media attention to southern injustice. But it was not until Marshall McLuhan's “Understanding Media” (1964) and “The Medium Is the Message” (1967) that Marxism became completely inverted, that is, the media that had been considered mere “superstructure” for Marx now became the material basis of consciousness itself. In a typical observation, McLuhan merrily announced that “Heidegger surfboards along on the electronic wave as triumphantly as Descartes rode the mechanical waves.” A historical shift toward digital cognition, from the printing press to the computer, was unleashed. The endless struggle of the many against the few changed from a battle over the means of material production to one over who controls the production of information. The new corporate serfs surfed the Web. The Canon became more powerful than the cannon. Something called media studies all but replaced Marxism and coexists now alongside gender, racial, and
environmental studies in the core university curriculum.

This environment is the setting for this book on the media's role in a number of the world's bloodiest and most persistent conflicts, including those in the former Yugoslavia, South Africa, Rwanda, Nazi Germany, Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Chile, Mexico, and Taiwan, and addressing violence against young girls and the debate over global warming. The author, Maria Armoudian, is an Armenian by background, which might explain her personal engagement in these long and painful struggles over identity. She is the host of a weekly talk show on KPFK, the Pacifica radio station in Los Angeles, and a fellow in political science and international relations at the Center for International Studies at the University of Southern California.

Armoudian tells each of these horror stories with a fine journalist's eye for drama and narrative, as well as the unique ability that certain journalists have to focus on unspeakable episodes that most people prefer not to know or pass on to their children. In fastening her attention to so much pain, she also finds threads of redemption in the bravery of so many journalists. Hundreds of journalists (to be exact, 850 since 1992, and 72 in 2009 alone) have been killed as eyewitnesses to violence. These people were not detached and neutral bystanders; given the growth of secrecy, journalists are an enemy to the institutions they cover.

This work is a survey of media patterns in conflict and crisis situations. But it is clear from Armoudian's account that the “mainstream media,” whether state or corporate controlled, have largely acted as an instrument for shielding government, corporate, or military interests. There are exceptions – for example, in the case of special investigative reporters, or for media that find niche markets with a countercultural bias – but in general, the “mainstream media” reflect the status quo.

We lack a new C. Wright Mills to take this question further and reveal whether there are interlocking directorates, for example, that connect the supposedly independent media with the interests of the state or corporations. Take the case of Iraq and Afghanistan. Are there top journalists today who are “assets” of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as there were in the 1950s? The matter is shrouded in secrecy. Or are there social connections that produce a common mind-set, as in the case of the New York Times' Judith Miller, who wrote the misleading front-page articles about mysterious aluminum tubes that shaped the official justification for the 2003 Iraq invasion? Is it only accidental that in a “free media in our free society,” virtually no mainstream editorials have appeared to urge the withdrawal of all our troops from Iraq and Afghanistan – an opinion shared by as many as 25 to 50 percent of the American people, depending on how the survey questions are asked?

If the media fail their critical function in the run-up to wars, it is also true that the media sometimes serve to interrupt the war makers when doubt has spread into key institutions, as in the case of the 1971 Pentagon Papers disclosures by the New York Times or the 2010 publication of the WikiLeaks documents by the Times, Guardian, and Der Spiegel. Are papers like the Times capable of intellectual growth on their own, are they responsive to complaints from the reader market, or do their editors and publishers represent particular viewpoints within the national elites? How are individuals chosen to be on their editorial boards? What are the roles of their publishers? Who decides to delay a story at the request of the White House or the Pentagon? We simply don't understand the internal processes, which are kept opaque by the same journalists who demand transparency of others. But obviously the mainstream media is not a monolith, though it moves in mysterious ways. But Armoudian does suggest the cutting-edge role of an “independent media,” the underground press, and more recently the blogosphere, in reporting important news far ahead of the mainstream. This is not a new phenomenon, as she notes. The story of the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam was reported first by a passionate young reporter for the Pacific News Service, Seymour Hersh, who soon after became one of the country's leading investigative journalists at the New York Times.

When I began writing and reporting, the concept of an “investigative reporter” was unknown – or at least unmentioned – in the schools of journalism and among budding writers. The niche of investigative journalism grew in the default of mainstream journalism and was incorporated (along with the editorial-opinion page) as a response to the rapid growth of the counterculture and so-called underground papers in every city and on every campus in the country. Publications like Ramparts went further, not only scooping the mainstream media but becoming glossy and successful in their time.

Armoudian gets it right that social movements invent their own media and propaganda organs, shedding light on conditions that otherwise go unreported but that, in time, gain the attention of the mainstream media and the wider public. They also reflect an alternative community of meaning to the media narratives that typically reduce the news of protests to fringe or violent behavior. The alternative media wrests control of the all-important naming process from the elite media and hands it to writers and spokespersons who represent the authentic voices of protest. They provide vital information, a sense of belonging, and direction for those at the current margins. They do not wait for the mainstream media to catch up. They begin to embody a new ethic: We write ourselves into history. We write, therefore we exist. (Or is it, perhaps, we exist, therefore we write?)

I am not sure that media studies, as an analytic framework, can see that “all the news that is fit to print” is itself a wholly inadequate description of the journalistic mission. The very phrase “fit to print” suggests a censorial and elitist standard. Real news – like the four North Carolina students who began the sit-in movement in February 1960 – is not really news as conventionally defined when it is most important, at the moment of its inception. There is a response to McLuhan that says the revolution will not be televised – at least not at its birth.

Mills believed that the differences separating a “community of publics” from a “mass society” were fourfold: (1) in the ratio between givers of opinion and recipients; (2) in the possibility of answering back; (3) whether there were possibilities of acting on information; and (4) whether people have “genuine autonomy from instituted authority.” In a “public,” he wrote, “virtually as many people express opinions as receive them,” “public communications are so organized that there is a chance immediately and effectively to answer back,” there are “ready outlets for effective action,” and “authoritative institutions do not penetrate the public, which is thus more or less autonomous in its operations.”

How far we are from the autonomous public, one might say, especially after reading Armoudian's accounts. But Mills too was a journalist, though describing himself professionally as an academic sociologist. Through his opinionated works, he became more than an objective observer but was participatory observer as well. He realized that through his writings and criticisms he could alter the subject matter at hand. The “subject matter” included his own role. Where Mills was very much a loner, a whole generation of Maria Armoudians has become media reformers, a collective presence inside and outside the media world representing a journalistic community of conscience. Instead of viewing media as an objective institution, she sees herself and her peers as inescapably part of its dynamics. Her most interesting chapter, I believe, is the final one, in which she conceives of building a better media as part of building a better society, complete with a concrete and international code of conduct for all journalists. Her closing image, drawn from the Quaker tradition, is one of journalists who are “holding candles to the darkness.” May more be drawn to this moral core of a profession at risk.

Maria Armoudian will read from the book at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Anaheim, California from 7-9 PM on Friday, November 11.

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