Common Cents: Media Portrayal of the Gulf War and Other Events

James Winter (author); Montreal: Black Rose, 1992

By Ed Silva (reviewer)

James Winter, who teaches mass communications at the University of Windsor, reads a lot of newspapers very, very closely and he doesn't think they are giving us the whole story on the big issues of the day.

He offers five case studies to document the shortcomings of the media. The chapter tides suggest something of the cases made and the author's good humor. Beyond "Truth as the First Casualty" (the Gulf War), there is "Continental Divide" (the Free Trade Agreement), "Meech Lake Discord" (the constitutional talks), "The Socialist Hordes" (the NDP governing Ontario), and "Showdown at the Oka Corral" (the armed forces vs. the Mohawks).

The author's good humor is important because his analysis is unremittingly critical, and on the basis of his extensive documentation, rightly and depressingly so.

For example, many Peace readers will likely already know something of what was left out of the Gulf War coverage. Recall how dumb the smart bombs were in their unreported (until later) un-surgical killing of civilians, and unexplored (at press conferences) implications of bombing life-supporting power plants and water systems. If war is hell, then the Canadian media failed to document it fully and to ask the lords of destruction why they unleashed it. This and much, much more make up the details of Winter's study of what was left out of the coverage.

Again, the media images of the Forces vs. the Mohawk nation are still in our minds. But Winter thinks the media gave us much less than we needed to

know about the deeper land claim wars that give fuller human meaning to the battle at Oka.

Winter's analysis of why the media fail to tell us these-and the other three stories-in greater, more useful depth gives us some basis for hope and perhaps humor. First, he rejects the essentially elitist view that the everyday newspaper reader and TV viewer is too dumb to understand the whole story. Second, he rejects as well the idea that media "consumers" are so jaded that they "demands" the poor reporting they get. Third, he also rejects the "false consciousness" idea that readers and viewers are too "duped" to want the whole story, although he sometimes adds polling data to show the media's role in shaping shorter-run popular understanding, which seems to undercut this rejection.

Winter thinks reporters and editors can and do tell much more nearly the whole humanly useful story when given a fuller chance. This is clear when they write good books about their badly reported big stories. Winter makes this point most effectively in his look at hooks about Mohawk land claims, and we see the point as well in the many books now coming into print on how the press was managed during the Gulf War.

So the flaw in the media coverage isn't poor technical reporting and editing skills. Rather, it's how those skills get used in the media.

For example, media reporters overwhelmingly use "official sources" to be "objective" and, in the best cases, "balance" these "officials" with "loyal opposition" voices. This, of course, leaves out all other voices and visions. Wilson thinks this is done because it suits media owners and managers, sparing them libel actions and the ill will of the powerful folks at banks, department stores, and big plants, who-in their turn -help create and sustain the world's official sources and loyal oppositions.

The resulting news is thus really the "common cents" minted and circulated by the media. It is the meaning of his title: that the media consistently offer us an essentially biased sense of social reality, rather than the "common sense" needed to make our society better. Media should serve our basic human needs for food, shelter, meaningful work and play, and thereby facilitate our common quest for peace with justice.

Clearly, Winter-and we-are in something of a contradiction here. On the one hand, our hope is in the unrealized potential of the media's frontline reporters, editors and technicians, who can tell us the whole story we need to know. On the other hand, that potential is frozen in the media's owners and managers' power to determine that we see:

more or less the official story. What seems to be required is some means of fufilling this potential. Here Wilson is unclear, apart from his closing comments that big changes seem required. But perhaps this lack of clarity concerning the way forward is not unreasonable. Perhaps this is the "big story,, that we're all in the middle of, just now.

Reviewed by Edward Silva

James Winter will speak at University of Toronto's University College on Nov 25, free admission.

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1992

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1992, page 29. Some rights reserved.

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