Mass media has made a dramatic contribution to the American public’s opinion and daily views. Everyone remembers where they were when they saw the first coverage of the twin towers coming down. Everyone remembers because they saw it over and over, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Everyone remembers the country coming together in response to a terroristic threat, that the media pummeled into the brains of the American public. Everyone remembers the beginning of the war, and the day that President Bush stood on that Navy ship and proclaimed victory. Mass media has had an impact as never before, with journalists embedded with soldiers in the fight.
According to Matthew Baum, this change has occurred since the 1980s. This change has occurred with the way that mass media has responded to world events and the way in which they present them to the American public. What the public learns about these events has changed as a direct result of the impact of the mass media. “More media outlets cover major events than in the past, including the entertainment-oriented soft news media. When they do cover a political story, soft news outlets focus more on ‘human drama’ than traditional news media – especially the character and motivations of decision-makers, as well as individual stories of heroism or tragedy – and less on the political or strategic context, or substantive nuances, of policy debates.” (Baum, 2006, 1) Incorporating this human drama has attracted many Americans who previously ignored most political news, by way of soft news media. Baum highlights several changes that have occurred, particularly with the soft news media:
· More media outlets cover major political events than in the past, including the entertainment-oriented soft news media.
· When they do cover a political story, soft news shows do so differently than the traditional news media, focusing more on ‘human drama’- and especially the character and motivations of decision-makers- as well as individual stories of heroism or tragedy, and less on the political or strategic context, or substance, of policy debates.
· Many Americans who previously ignored politics now attend to some information about major political events, such as wars, via the soft news media.
· Less-politically engaged Americans who learn about major events from the soft news media are more suspicious of the motives of political leaders and less supportive of their policies than their non-soft-news-consuming, or more politically engaged counterparts. (Baum, 2006, 6)
According to Baum, the entertainment industry has introduced soft news programs because they make foreign policy more palatable by making it entertaining. Doing so makes this information more appealing to the general public, and as a result raises public attention to foreign policy crises. “No political event better exemplified this process or its implications than the 1991 Persian Gulf War, which the mass media, most notably CNN, transformed into one of the most successful ongoing television sagas of all time.” (Baum, 2006, 12) The following quote from Danny Schechter, a former producer at CNN and ABC’s news magazine show 20/20, illustrates this point:
“It started with the Gulf War – the packaging of news, the graphics, the music,the classification of stories. . .Everybody benefited by saturation coverage. The more channels, the more a sedated public will respond to this.. If you can get an audience hooked, breathlessly awaiting every fresh disclosure with a recognizable cast of characters they can either love or hate, with a dramatic arc and a certain coming down to a deadline, you have a winner in terms of building audience.” (Baum, 2006, 7)
The media and the military have used Hollywood’s ability to impact the opinion of the general public to rally support for the war, and then in turn to rally support against the war, utilizing what has become known as soft power. Soft power can be defined as the ability to get what you want by attracting and persuading others to adopt your goals. It differs from hard power in that it uses attraction rather than coercion to influence others. Without credibility it fails. According to Joseph Nye, this soft power is developed by both U.S. culture and U.S. policies, and influences the American public through Hollywood, higher education, and civil society. (Nye, 2003) Because of the impact that the media has, it is frequently used as an instrument of war. Mass media has the ability to impact public opinion as never before.
Harold Lasswell spoke of this power of the media. “The danger springs from the deliberate control of news by modern propagandists. The citizen depends upon what he can see and hear, and if his supply of information is poisoned at the source for partisan purposes, the conscientious democrat may be the innocent dupe of interests for which he has no sympathy. An axiom of democracy is that it depends upon public opinion founded on free access to facts. The citizen of our day wonders if there are any facts or only rival frauds.” (Lasswell, 1941, 35) The military understands their ability to influence the public through the use of mass media. The manner in which the media portrays international conflict is controlled by the military to a great extent and done so for their benefit, and done so in an effort to control information.
The process of embedding journalists with military units is used a means of controlling what journalists are allowed to report on. By choosing which units a reporter is embedded with the military can control which parts of the war will receive military coverage. In addition, journalists who are embedded with soldiers are more likely to back what those soldiers are doing and present them in a positive light. The manner in which the military has been involved in conflicts demonstrates the important role they play in international matters. It has often been said that every conflict is fought on at least two grounds: the battlefield and the minds of the people via propaganda. “The good guys and the bad guys can often both be guilty of misleading their people with distortions, exaggerations, subjectivity, inaccuracy and even fabrications, in order to receive support and a sense of legitimacy. Propaganda can serve to rally people behind a cause, but often at the cost of exaggerating, misrepresenting, or even lying about the issues in order to gain that support.” (www.globalissues.org) Johann Galtung, a professor of Peace Studies, identified points of concern regarding journalism and propaganda as summarized below:
· Decontextualizing violence: focusing on the irrational without looking at the reasons for unresolved conflicts and polarization.
· Dualism: reducing the number of parties in a conflict to two, when often more are involved. Stories that just focus on internal developments often ignore such outside or “external” forces as foreign governments and transnational companies.
· Manicheanism: portraying one side as good and demonizing the other as “evil.”
· Armageddon: presenting violence as inevitable, omitting alternatives.
· Focusing on individual acts of violence while avoiding structural causes, like poverty, government neglect and military or police repression.
· Confusion: focusing only on the conflict arena (i.e., the battlefield or location of violent incidents) but not on the forces and factors that influence the violence.
· Excluding and omitting the bereaved, thus never explaining why there are acts of revenge and spirals of violence.
· Failure to explore the causes of escalation and the impact of media coverage itself.
· Failure to explore the goals of outside interventionists, especially big powers.
· Failure to explore peace proposals and offer images of peaceful outcomes.
· Confusing cease-fires and negotiations with actual peace.
· Omitting reconciliation: conflicts tend to reemerge if attention is not paid to efforts to heal fractured societies. When news about attempts to resolve conflicts are absent, fatalism is reinforced. That can help engender even more violence, when people have no images or information about possible peaceful outcomes and the promise of healing. (www.globalissues.org)
The Pentagon has a great deal of influence on Hollywood. “Military documents were released in 2001 that illuminated the influence of the Pentagon on Hollywood, showing how producers have been willing to alter plots (often to present U.S. forces in a more heroic light) in order to gain access to expensive military hardware and property.” (Lacy, 2003, 1) The military cooperated with the making of films such as Air Force One, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, Top Gun, The Hunt for Red October, Behind Enemy Lines, and Golden Eye. After the attacks on September 11, 2001, the Pentagon arranged a conference with Hollywood directors, screenwriters, and producers to influence what they would produce. (Lacy, 2003)
“The cinema becomes a space where commonsense ideas about global politics and
history are (re)produced and where stories about what is acceptable behavior from states
and individuals are naturalized and legitimated. It is a space where myths about history
and the origins of the state are told to a populist audience. One can think of the
contemporary war films–such as U-571 and We Were Soldiers–that rewrite history into
one where historical and moral ambiguity are replaced by certainty.” (Lacy, 2003, 1)
During the attack on Fallujah, the American citizens were fed stories of victory and
success. Minimal attempts to paint the war as “another Vietnam,” or a “quagmire,” were
immediately dispelled by the administration. “We are closer to war than ever before–hardly half
an hour goes by without some embedded ace breathlessly reporting, in real time, from the front,”
But the war we are seeing is bowdlerized, PG-rated…. At a moment like this, the media should
be an irritant–shocking us, shaking us, making sure that we’re as alert and uncomfortable as
possible in the comfort of our living rooms.” (Robertson, 2004)
Photographer Peter Turnley took similar photos along the “mile of death,” a stretch of
highway where Iraqi soldiers were hit by American bombs. The day after the war ended, the
U.S. military was burying the incinerated bodies in large graves. In December 2002, Turnley
wrote of his experience, images he didn’t see published in the media. Some photos show bodies
that were beheaded and soldiers bulldozing the dead into a grave. Turnley wanted to prompt a
discussion of these images, knowing full well there was more to come. “What they do
represent is a part of a more accurate picture of what really does happen in war. I feel it is
important and that citizens have the right to see these images.” (Robertson, 2004) Perhaps
America wasn’t ready to see these images of war. Perhaps the Administration did not want the
American citizens to see these images of war. These images of war would challenge the
President’s claim for the necessity of war and the methods used to “free” the people of Iraq.
“Reporting on Iraqi civilian deaths was notably skimpy or skewed. On the CBS Evening
News one night, Dan Rather gave the death toll of U.S. and British soldiers, and then said the
death toll of Iraqi soldiers and civilians was ‘uncertain.’ But reporting by non-U.S. media—
especially Al-Jazeera and other Arab television networks–forced American reporters to mention
the subject, though the images of the casualties were hard to find, and sympathy was often
lacking.” (Jensen, 2003) The Bush Administration and military officials would have us believe
that there have been no civilian deaths. Should we accept that all of the civilian population of
Falluja, 300,000 men, women, and children, fled the city while insurgents stayed entrenched
exclusively in the Shuhada neighborhood? Clearly, not all civilians could have fled the city.
Reuters reports that an official from a Sunni Muslim group in the city claimed that about one-
fifth of civilians remained. Further, Reuters also gives an account of “scores of civilians killed
in Falluja,” while a BBC reporter confirms that he saw “local people and fighters killed on the
streets.” (LaLonde, 2005)
“Like Desert Storm, in 1991, Operation Iraqi Freedom had been a relatively painless and dazzling success only because it was incomplete. In both cases victory was declared before a critical part of the operation had even been attempted.” (Kaplan, 2004) The Bush Administration was quick to pronounce victory and put a quick to end the war, yet the “victims,” the “civilian casualty count,” continues to go unstated. This war is a political vice as use by both the media and campaigns alike. Those who report the death toll, are viewed as individuals trying to impact elections. Those who understate the death count are accused of doing so to continue this battle. “The claim that 100,000 civilians were killed in Iraq derives from a study done by an international research team led by Les Roberts of Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, which included researchers from Columbia University and Al-Mustansiriya University in Iraq. The research was done in Iraq in September 2004 and was published in the online edition of the Lancet on October 29, so that it would appear days before the November 2004 presidential election.” (Miniter, 2006) Miniter claims that for an accurate civilian death toll, a visit to the website, www.iraqbodycount.net, will provide accurate statistics. This website provides statistics in a range from 47,000 to 52,000.
According to Allan and Zellizer, “more than 3,000 correspondents, ranging from backpack journalists working alone with wireless digital equipment to television anchors and their production crews, were assigned to cover events across the Middle East.” (Allan & Zellizer, 2004) How is it possible that with 3,000 journalists providing coverage on this conflict, the American people have yet to know the truth? It has been stated that specific media censorship, public relations, and other forms of manipulation have been taken by the military and the Administration in an attempt to shape media coverage. On a systemic level, it has been suggested that the media has been its own censor in an attempt to support the US empire.
The Global Policy Forum, www.globalpolicy.org, provides a great deal of insight on the falsehoods, or slanted view of the Iraq War. The Los Angeles Times published a story that told of a Pentagon contractor that was hired to pay Iraqi media for positive stories about the outcome of the war, making sure that none of it could be traced back to the United States. Capital Hill Blue reported a story on the intentional command of the military to instruct soldiers returning home to provide positive stories to the media. It was an order, and soldiers follow orders. The Guardian, reports on the death counts of civilians, “We were told that the Iraqis don’t count. Before the invasion began, the head of US central command, General Thomas Franks, boasted that ‘we don’t do body counts’. His claim was repeated by Donald Rumsfeld in November 2003
‘We don’t do body counts on other people’) and the Pentagon last January (‘The only thing we keep track of is casualties for U.S. troops and civilians’).” (www.globalpolicy.org, 2005) Reuters makes claims of the U.S. military preventing journalists from being able to accurately report on the war. Reuters had written to Virginia Republican Sen. John Warner, head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, informing him that U.S. forces were limiting the ability of independent journalists to operate. Reuters Global Managing Editor, David Schlesinger, called on Warner to raise widespread media concerns about the conduct of U.S. troops with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Schlesinger made claims of “a long parade of disturbing incidents whereby professional journalists have been killed, wrongfully detained, and/or illegally abused by U.S. forces in Iraq.” (www.globalpolicy.org, 2005)
Clearly the American people are not being informed of the truth with regards to the Iraq
War. The civilian death counts is somewhere in between 47,000 and 600,000. Is this because of
the media’s coverage of the war? Is this due to the influence of the Administration on the
reporting of the media? This is politics at its best and at its worst. It’s about which side of the
fence you’re on. Mike Whitney, in Disappearing Act, Fallujah and the Media, “The role of the
media in the siege of Falluja has been nearly as extraordinary as the battle itself. The siege began
on November 8, but by Nov. 15 the military had declared “victory” and the story disappeared
from all the major media. It was as if the Pentagon had simply issued an edict forbidding any
further coverage of the conflict, and the press left without protest.” (www.counterpunch.org,
2004) Whitney points to the for-profit, corporate nature of media, and their desire to maintain a
positive image within the American public. The media just disappeared as though giving the
military full freedom to level a city, all in the name of good-natured democracy.
The media has failed the American public with respect to the Iraq war and particularly
the U.S. led invasion of Fallujah. The media has failed to remain objective in their reporting.
The military and the U.S. government have failed to allow the media to do their job in an
effective manor by censoring their reports and providing financial gain to those who were willing
to place a positive spin on the Iraq war. It may be decades before American citizens learn the
truth about what has taken place, if ever. The military and the Administration have been
effective in controlling the information that is reported by the media. The Administration’s plan
in Iraq has not been adequately questioned. The Administration’s plan to embed media within
the military paid off as part of an effort to control what information is dispersed. In the end, it is
the American people who have lost, and the civilians of Iraq who have lost their families, their
lives, and their homes. In an effort to provide democracy to the people of Iraq, the United States
has failed miserably. The United States have only helped them determine that our democracy is
defined by our Administration and our media.
What is occurring currently is no different than the situation that was created during the
Vietnam War. Walter Cronkite, one of the most trusted men in television journalism, visited
Vietnam during the war. Upon his return he made the following statement at the end of
his evening broadcast;
“For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam
is to end in a stalemate. This summer’s almost certain standoff will either end in
real give-and-take negotiations or terrible escalation; and for every means we
have to escalate, the enemy can match us, and that applies to invasion of the
North, the use of nuclear weapons, or the mere commitment of one hundred, or
two hundred, or three hundred thousand more American troops to the battle.
And with each escalation, the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic
disaster.” (Walter Cronkite)
Given that most of the American public relied on the evening news to inform
them on the war in Vietnam, this statement was sure to have an impact. This report was
bound to influence the public and create distrust in the American government, resulting
in a push for Congress to take action. As President Nixon would reflect on the Vietnam
war, and the end result, or American loss;
“The War in Vietnam was not lost on the battlefields of Vietnam. It was lost
in the halls of Congress … in the editorial rooms of great newspapers …and in the
classrooms of great universities.” (Richard Nixon)
The perception of the war was, in fact created by the media, particularly the evening
news. As the stories poured in against the Vietnam war, the resolve of the American people
changed and ultimately they would condemn this conflict and the government for creating it.
Clearly broadcast journalists were not the only ones reporting on the war, but they had a power
that could not be found in print journalism. They had impact. They had the ability to come into
the living rooms of Americans, and declare the state of the war, and their fears of impact of this
war. It was this impact, which would ultimately lead 65% of the American people to believe that
the conflict in Vietnam was not only a mistake, but immoral. (www.globalsecurity.org)
In light of this change in the American public opinion, and declining support for the war,
American military representatives began to ridicule the journalists trying to cover the war.
Journalists believe the military commanders were lying about the success of the war, and
military commanders referred to the daily military briefings for the press as the “Five O’Clock
Follies.” Along with these changes, network coverage of the news was doubled in length, from
15 to 30 minutes. Generally it took 24 hours for news reports from Vietnam to reach New York.
Journalists like to believe that their presentation of the Vietnam war, or other coverage,
was objective and balanced. Robert Howard of the University of Florida analyzed the objectivity
of national network news broadcast in 1972. In his dissertation, Bias in Television News, a
Content Analysis, he presented the following conclusions:
(1) Almost forty-seven percent of the stories were unbalanced.
(2) Almost two-thirds of the stories contained elements of bias.
(3) Forty percent of the stories were directional, favoring one side or the
other of an issue Of those directional stories, almost twice as many were
unfavorable as favorable to the referent.
(4) All three networks were equally biased, with NBC being the most balanced
And most neutral, while ABC was the least balanced and least neutral.
The media was accused of being politically “liberal” during the Vietnam War just as they are
today. Despite their attempts and claims to be objective, they were in direct conflict with a
conservative administration. Coverage of the war was one-sided. It did not present a fair picture
of opposing viewpoints on the issues of peace negotiations, the problem of American POW’s, the
nature of the U.S. military presence, or on a larger canvas-the significance to the United States
of the struggle between Communist and non-Communist forces in Southeast Asia.
“The answer, as must be obvious, is that the public’s information about the
war was obtained, to a very great degree, from the media, a media that was
buttressed for the first time by a new and powerful medium, television. The
power and impact of television was the deciding factor in turning American
opinion from one of supporting the U.S. defense of South Vietnam to one of
opposing it.” (www.globalsecurity.org)
There is not a general consensus regarding the role and impact of the media in Vietnam.
Some researchers have concluded that the negative media coverage of the Vietnam War led to
the demise of the government’s policies and what was concluded as the loss of the war. Some
researchers believe that the press only reported what was really happening. This view contends
that by doing so, the media eventually exposed the mistakes of the government and military.
Both sides do agree that the relationship between the press and the military in Vietnam, and the
news coverage, had an impact, both positive and negative, on the government’s policies in
Vietnam. (Barber & Weir, 2002, 1)
By the mid-1960’s, television had become an important source of news for the American
public. By 1966, 93 percent of American homes owned a television. As televisions became
more popular in the home, more Americans began to get their news from television than from
any other source. During the Vietnam War more and more Americans turned to television as
their primary source for news. Television is “consistently evaluated as more attention-grabbing,
interesting, personally relevant, emotionally involving, and surprising.” (Neuman, Just, Crigler,
1992, p.56) The visual element of television provided the American public with an up close and
personal view of the war. As a level of trust developed between the viewing audience and the
anchormen, like Walter Cronkite, the bias that was held by the reporters began to coincide with
the opinions of the American public. (www.warbirdforum)
By the fall of 1967, 90 percent of the evening newscast was devoted to the war and
roughly 50 million people watched television news each night (Bonior, Champlin, Kolly, 1984,
p.4-5). Prior to this development, the war had gained strong support from the media, the public,
and Congress. The American public believes the military reports that the U.S, was making
progress. Support began to decrease in the fall of 1967, but the major turning point in
television’s coverage of the war occurred during the Tet Offensive in late January 1968. The
media portrayed the Tet Offensive as a defeat for the U.S. military. The percent of television
stories in which journalists editorialized news jumped from 5.9 percent before Tet to 20 percent
in the two months after. (Hallin, 1986, p.170) The perception of the American public began to
take a dramatic turn as media coverage increased. Films of military casualties also jumped from
2.4 to 6.8 times per week (Hallin, 1986, p.171). The media increased coverage of the decrease in
morale among American soldiers. Most of these negative references included increasing drug
use, racial conflict, and disobedience among the U.S soldiers. (www.warbirdforum.com)
According to William Kennedy, (The Military and The Media: Why the Press Cannot Be
Trusted to Cover a War) the coverage of the Vietnam War changed the relationship between the
media and the military. Kennedy refers to this as a disaster of major proportions.
“An important study dealing with military-media relations already
had been done at the War College, in 1969, by three lieutenant colonels and a
colonel who had fought as battalion commanders in the 1968 Tet Offensive in
Vietnam. That study was based on a statistical analysis of Tet coverage by the
major national media, print and broadcast. It concluded “that the Tet Offensive
was an Allied victory . . . portrayed inaccurately to the American people and
thereby [it] resulted in a psychological defeat. . . . Allied victory in Vietnam is
adjudged from the disproportionate and awesome military losses suffered by the
enemy; the favorable performance of the South Vietnamese Armed Forces; the
failure of the people to support the Viet Cong; and the endurance in adversity . .
. evidenced by the Government of South Vietnam.” (Kennedy, 1993, 110)
Despite Kennedy’s rationale of the media responsibility for the failure of the American
public to support the Vietnam war, the facts are there. The media reported what they
had seen and experienced first hand. They had proof in pictures.
Did the media have an impact on the American public? Or did the American public have
an impact on the media? During the Vietnam War, journalists were not embedded as they are in
the Iraq War. The result was that the military did not have as much control over their reporting
as they currently do. The media show the human side of the war, as they should. War is a
human catastrophe, and costs human life. It should be humanized.
The citizens of the United States were not satisfied with the reasons for entering the
Vietnam War, nor were they satisfied with the progress of the war. Protests began mounting
against the war, as the war was failing. There were conflicting reports in the media. The use of
Napalm and Agent Orange began to leave the American people with the sense that they could not
trust their own government. The cost of the Vietnam war was an increasing burden to the
country and one that most people did not believe should not be paid by the citizens of the United
States. The war did not seem to be progressing in a positive manner, yet the President continued
the battle. The draft also caused strong emotions among many as people were forced to go into
battle, a battle they didn’t believe in. Further, those who chose not to go to war caused further
upheaval on both sides of the issue.
The media had a responsibility to expose the actions of the United States government,
whether good or bad. Without their input, the general public would not be able to access any
information about the war. Freedom of speech guarantees the right of the press or anyone to
share their views with the public. It becomes the responsibility of the listeners and viewers to
choose what they will believe or not believe. The American public has the ability to do their
own research and make up their own mind.
Dr. Edward J. Epstein, says that the three national network news programs are loaded
with bias, due in large part to the liberal views of a small group of men who have final authority
about what is actually broadcast. He makes the following points:
1. Virtually all our national news is filtered through and controlled by
a group of men in one city, New York.
2. Most national-news footage is drawn from just four metropolitan
centers – New York, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles.
3. National “news” is, in fact, routinely created by starting with general
hypothesis rather than actual happenings.
4. Events that are visually exciting are more likely to get air time than
others which may be equally or more significant.
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