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War and media ethics

There was hardly any space in the media for those who vanished in thin air after the atomic bombing Photograph: (Others)

WION Kolkata, West Bengal, India Oct 18, 2016, 11.31 AM (IST) Sanhita Chatterjee

Act 1 Scene 1

TV set. Tonight’s news debate. 

News anchor: “shut up!!!” (shouting loudly)

Mute panelists on TV. The mute audience watching intently.

Scene 2

Cut to two mass communication students having breakfast. 

One of them is reading the most popular news daily in the country – a feature story. 

Student one: “Hey take a look, this is a really interesting story”

Student two: “It is interesting, wait this piece looks familiar. I think I read about this somewhere”

Student one: “Where?”

Student two: “a book, wait” (After searching around a bit). “Here you go!”

Student one: “Oh god! Look! It's totally plagiarized!”

 

Scene 3

Cut to media studies classroom. The teacher is teaching the subject Media Ethics.

Teacher : “…so you see the Media is also bound by the ethical norms of the society”

Student: “Excuse me, Mam! But what is the point of studying media ethics?”

Teacher: “Sorry?”

(Disclaimer: Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead or actual events is purely coincidental)

As a media educator, the hypothetical picture painted above is not far-fetched.  Every time I enter the classroom, I know that the day is not far when a student will blurt out the question that is on everyone’s mind – “What is the point?”

Plagiarised. Biased. Sensationalised. Abusive. Fabricated. Jingoistic.

These are some of the words that are roughly used to define media today, none of these words or the meaning they carry are even remotely close to the ethical code of conduct that media should ideally abide by. Earning populist fame by grabbing eyeballs has become the currency that is being exchanged for trading in ethics. In turn, the society is being sensitised towards the creation of a reality where following ethics can actually lead to facing serious consequences than breaking the law.

News and current affairs programs are being packaged with extra-dressing on the side, some with just the dressing, by the time you are done sifting through the dressing you find that your plate is actually empty. It is this emptiness that is being sold to the viewers and the latest dish being served is war. Not the war against poverty or inequality but against terror.

Act II

Flashback.  

The New York Times (NYT) carried the following headline in bold on 6 August 1945:

FIRST ATOMIC BOMB DROPPED ON JAPAN; MISSILE IS EQUAL TO 20,000 TONS OF TNT; TRUMAN WARNS FOE OF A 'RAIN OF RUIN'

Journalist Sidney Shalett ran another piece on the bombing on the front page of NYT with the following sub-headings: 

New Age Ushered; Day Of Atomic Energy Hailed By President, Revealing Weapon; Hiroshima Is Target; 'Impenetrable' Cloud Of Dust Hides City After Single Bomb Strikes

On August 9 when another atom bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, W. H. Lawrence send a wireless telegram to the New York Time, depicting the result to be 'good'. 

Cut.

The devastation caused by the nuclear bombs, named Little Boy and Fat Boy, have been not only been massive but also everlasting. The ones who vanished into thin air, there was hardly any space for them in the media. Since the bombs were dropped in and around residential areas, the casualties included men, women and children. Those who managed to survive have lived a life of horror trying to tackle the ill effects of radiation exposure. None of this was mentioned in the news headlines. 

The media, under influence of the army and the State, published only that which was handed out to them; all the reports hailed the event as a great scientific feat for human civilisation. 

There was no one who presented a different story and those who did were not part of the mainstream and their voices were muffled by the loud voice of mainstream media. The effect of which was that, even years after the bombs were dropped, the headlines feared to mention the devastation as the first successful launch of weapons of mass destruction. The mastermind behind the distribution of these biased news reports was a man named William H. Lawrence (mentioned above), the then public relations officer of the Manhattan Project, which was responsible for developing the atomic bombs.  

In fact, Major General Leslie Groves, the head of the Project from 1942-1946, and most of the army think tank, believed that they needed the media on their side to create a consensus that the bombs were going to help establish America as a superpower and bring in a new age of atomic energy. 

For this purpose, William H. Lawrence of the NYT was hired to be the public relations personnel in the project. He was in charge of writing press releases that were attuned for the general public in such a way that the bombings looked good. For his service, he was rewarded with the Pulitzer Prize in 1946 in war reporting. The rest of the US media followed his lead and published that which was officially given to them by Lawrence.

The media stalwart, Walter Lippmann and Herb Elliston, the then editor of Washington Post, both, later on, went on record in unison against the bombings. They said that the unsuspecting bombing on Japan had left them with a lasting regret that the country they so loved was responsible for the first nuclear bombing in the world. In fact, Elliston went on record in 1953 to say that his only regret was the editorial support his paper gave to the justification of the bombing.  

However, both Truman and Paul W. Tibbets Jr., the retired brigadier general who was in charge of carrying out the bombings, defended their stance till the day they died. In fact, when Tibbets died in 2007, it stirred up the whole debate about the necessity of the bombings. The pacifists, of course, were flagged as 'left-wingers', 'wacko communists', 'ultraliberal Americans', 'idealistic fools', 'libtards' and 'anti-nationals'. Whereas, the war supporters were hailed as true nationalists. The supporters declared Tibbets as a national hero. Thus, keeping the age-old debate and divide alive. 

It is this divide that helps sustain an entire industry of arms and ammunition alive by keeping all efforts of peace at bay. Thus, pacifists have always been the soft target, dismissed in general as 'libtards' for wanting to protect innocent lives who are nothing but collateral damage in a war. 

Act III

Back to the present now. The times of self-reliance.

The mainstream media houses have resorted to playing the role of the judge and the jury alike - leaving no space for free thought. In fact, the episodic trial by media has become a part of the staple diet just like the never-ending soap operas. 

One might argue that journalism today is providing a way of letting out our daily frustrations at this imaginary enemy that we as a nation are being goaded to throw brickbats at. The one hour of anger directed at a borderline fictional target not only takes our mind off of our own struggles but also gives us an hour of much-wanted respite.

Of course, the assault on our senses does not end at night, it is followed up in the morning by the papers that come to our doorstep. Giving us a brief on the latest products that are up for grabs, followed by the news reports where we are again thrown head along into a pool of issues that need to be resolved immediately. With violence, if necessary. After all, burning hyper-reality is better than facing reality. 

Despite the slow wilting of our ethical values, the choice to remain blind rests with us at the end. Even now, the electorate is the most powerful unit of a democracy. Choosing to close our eyes at this hour will only lead to loss of countless innocent lives. Before getting worked up on revenge we might want to consider what history has taught us about war and the ways of the media. 

The media will not take any responsibility for our blindness, it is high time we take control and end our reliance on media trials. No, it was not okay to remain silent when a girl’s modesty was being outraged, students were being harassed, guests were being shouted at and larger issues were being sidelined to propagate the interests of a few. It is high time that we wake up and say no to this mindless rage that will not only destroy lives of our neighbours but burn down our own homes. 

If not to the 'libtards', we shall be answerable to our future generations. Imagine telling your child that you thought climate change and human rights were not what you fought for, but war. War that violates human rights, war that destroys nature and war that does not profit humanity except those few who invested heavily in the weapons of mass destruction and have the media at their command. 

 The few remaining victims of humanity’s first nuclear war will tell you a very different story from the ones the media made the US citizens believe. We cannot absolve ourselves from our duty as citizens just because the media thinks or says it is okay, the end responsibility lies with us.

 

Sanhita Chatterjee

She is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Journalism and Mass Communication, Visva-Bharati (A Central University in India). She is an academic with keen interest in media criticism, gender studies, film studies and political communication.

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