On Media: Imagining a “peace” correspondent

The “Retired General” as cable news fixture; Is it high time for a counterbalance? (from the New York Times)

In which a tweet gets this writer thinking.

Yesterday I was looking through my Twitter feed, when I noticed a tweet from Peter Hart, “Activism Director” of the left wing/progressive media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). I don’t always agree with their conclusions, or the worldview that underpins their criticism, but their narrative on the media is substantially closer to reality than that of right wing media watch groups. Mainstream journalists would do well to pay more attention to FAIR’s commentary than to live in constant fear of their right flank.

But I digress. The tweet itself was one fuming at ABC’s hiring of more retired generals to provide military analysis. This is what he wrote:

Peter Hart of media watchdog FAIR seems here to be very impressed with the credentials of ABC’s new hires.

This got me thinking; obviously the tweet was in jest, but what if networks had peace correspondents? What would they report on? Do some outlets already have such a beat? Here, first, are a few visions of what a “peace” correspondent would be?

One direction the beat could take is a focus on diplomacy and statecraft; looking at how states solve conflicts aside from war, and counteracting the phenomenon of “mainstreaming war” by portraying diplomacy as it actually is; the primary means of resolving international conflict and not simply foreplay to military action.

Another direction would be, and I think this is where Peter Hart would lean more towards, is coverage that emphasized the “human impact” of war. If we look back to the massive intelligence community and American media fuck-up that was the buildup to (and in the case of the media, initial months of) the Iraq war, we can see that the ubiquitous presence of retired generals on television led to skewed views of the probability of conflict, the case for war, and the ease of war. The video below is of a PBS Newshour (then the The Newshour With Jim Lehrer) report on the practice, pivoting off of this infamous New York Times expose of the Pentagon’s use of retired generals to influence public perception of the impending invasion.

Even worse, even if the information they were given wasn’t being slyly manipulated by the Pentagon, this military based frame does ignore the on the ground effects of military action. Here is another clip detailing the overreliance of cable heavyweight CNN, specifically, on military analysts.

A peace correspondent, then, would be a counterweight to that, presenting stories of the country that was to be attacked, humanizing the “other side,” if you will, and shedding light on the nuance of the politics of the region. Even looking at last year’s Libya intervention, we can see that most of the initial coverage was—admittely cool looking—shots of cruise missiles flying off of military ships and warplanes zooming off carriers. The imbalance between such, to be blunt, gung-ho coverage and more nuanced analysis of the consequences of intervention in the region, to the Libyan people, and such was so severe that it gained notice from establishment media critics. Below is Howard Kurtz criticizing this problem on his CNN program during the start of the bombing last year:

Perhaps the third direction is straight beat coverage of peace movements; following antiwar activists, covering antiwar protests, and the like. Arguably, a “dissent” correspondent would be good here, a correspondent who specifically was tasked to cover grassroots movements on the ground, and give the perspectives of protesters. This is an interesting idea that I might explore in another post.

So with those 3 visions set out, I wanted to take this further and look at whether media around the world (I’m going to limit this to English language, non “alternative” media) have correspondents filling any of these sorts of roles. The first vision, diplomacy correspondents, are more or less standard fare at more internationally aware media outlets. CNN has a UN correspondent , NPR has numerous foreign correspondents but apparently not one assigned to covering diplomatic matters, the New York Times has a DC based “diplomacy” correspondent , Al Jazeera has several correspondents with diplomatic reporting experience,  and the Washington Post  has their own diplomacy correspondent.

In terms of the second vision, I thought the first place to look would be The Guardian. As a publication that tends to look at the world from the sort of left wing prism as FAIR, I thought this would be a nice place to see such a concept at work. The Guardian does have a diplomatic editor, but no “peace” correspondent. Looking at other outlets, there is one I came across in looking up sources for this called the Peace Reporter. Funded by an Italian NGO providing medical assistance to war victims, the site claims to want to present the human side of war in an aim to prevent conflict.

So to conclude, should media organizations have peace correspondents? I would argue the term is less a real idea and more a sort of rhetorical peg to get one to think about the generally pro-conflict orientation of the media. For reasons I’ll explore in another post, I don’t think the media is pro conflict because they are ideologically right wing. Not at all; in fact the media seems to take this approach because they simply have a bias towards novelty, towards conflict, towards excitement. And as anyone who has picked up a copy of Civilization or Rise of Nations has probably experienced firsthand, where’s the fun in a peaceful victory?

Of course, the problem is when this mindset is applied to conflicts in which real people can and do die.

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