A Century of Media, a Century of War
Awarded the Jesuit Book Award (click here for more info)
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In her work, A Century of Media, A Century of War Robin Andersen follows in a line of academics who have addressed the role of the U.S. media in covering (or not covering, as the case may be) various military conflicts. The underlying thesis of the book is that the media in the United States—from journalists to filmmakers to video game producers—have made war an acceptable part of democratic life by draining the horror from military conflict, and replacing it with a sanitized, viewer-friendly version of events. This, Andersen suggests, serves the interests of both the political elites who utilize military conflicts for the maintenance of power (at home and abroad), and the leaders of media corporations who are loath to present a view of the world that might make selling movie tickets or advertising time more difficult.
The work is divided into four sections, and is a chronological look at the history of the relationship between various facets of the media industry and war. Starting with World War I, Andersen moves through the conflicts of the 20th century, providing evidence of the general failure of the U.S. media to provide nuanced, contextualized information from various fronts. Andersen also addresses the role of popular culture (particularly U.S. films and video games) in reinforcing the narrow, ethnocentric view of war constructed by the news media. War, she argues, has become commodified, and she refers to the mix of military conflict, information, journalism and entertainment as militainment. This process is the result of a combination of political economic imperatives, professional media routines, narrow (primarily neo-conservative) ideological frameworks and, at times, raw jingoism and xenophobia. The end result, Andersen argues is that it is difficult for ordinary U.S. citizens to fully understand the complexities of the military conflicts their governments and troops are either directly (e.g. World War I and II, Vietnam, Grenada or the Gulf War), or indirectly (e.g. Nicaragua or El Salvador) involved in, and thus exercise their rights and duties as members of a supposedly democratic community.
What makes this book worth reading is the fact that Andersen attempts to link war propaganda with various branches of the U.S. media industries. Rather than looking at journalism only (a fairly common methodology within this genre of research), Andersen includes analyses of a variety of media products, and attempts to link them, economically and ideologically, using her militainment framework. The important point Andersen makes here is that we cannot look at the work of journalists and news organizations only if we wish to understand the role of “the media” (plural) in contributing to an atmosphere conducive to the promotion of, and support for, military conflict. News is but one part of a broader meaning-making machine, Andersen argues, and the interplay between the United States military and the film and video game industries are particularly interesting. Another area in which the book excels is in Andersen’s discussions regarding the U.S. media coverage of conflicts in Central America, which undoubtedly has much to do with the fact that the author did work in the region as a graduate student.
However, while Andersen’s aim to provide an overview of a century of media coverage of war is laudable, her work suffers somewhat from this ambition. In her efforts to provide a nuanced, multi-layered view of war propaganda, she occasionally loses focus. In a number of instances Andersen tries to do too much in too little space which results in some of the chapters (for example, the chapters on war propaganda during World Wars I and II, CNN, and the Military-Entertainment Complex) feeling thin and leaving the reader with the notion that more evidence is required in order for the author’s assertions to hold. In addition, because the chapters are made up of a series of short sections and subsections the book does not adequately flow. This structure is present throughout the book, and generates the feeling that the work is a series of separate, occasionally idiosyncratic observations, rather than a flowing argument. Finally, Andersen makes a glaring omission by not discussing the war in the former Yugoslavia under the Clinton administration: an event surely worthy of consideration when writing a book on the history of the mediation of military conflict.
The book would have perhaps benefited from a narrower focus (A Decade of War, perhaps?) and a more flowing structure, but, in the end, Andersen’s book is a worthy addition to previous literature on the (uncritical) role of the media during times of war and military conflict.
Assistant Professor in Media & Communication Studies
Karlstad University, Sweden
© the war and media network, 2007