* Miller, David, ed. (2003). Tell Me Lies: Propaganda and Media Distortion in the Attack on Iraq. London: Pluto Press, pp. 310.
* Seib, Philip (2004). Beyond the Front Lines: How the News Media Cover a World Shaped by War. New York: Palgrave-MacMillan. pp.185.
* Baum, Matthew (2003). Soft News Goes to War: Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy in the New Media Age. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, pp. 353.
News media maintain a critical social role, and recent works by Seib, Baum, and Miller offer valuable contributions to a vast body of literature on this subject through their focus on changes that are reshaping that role. Each of the texts grounds itself in the notion that media are vital for the preservation and development of democracy in an evolving global community, but from there they offer divergent yet equally important perspectives. Focusing on war and U.S. foreign policy, Beyond the Front Lines, Soft News, and Tell Me lies offer readers valuable understanding of ways in which media shape and influence public opinion.
In Beyond the Front Lines, Seib contends that "news media's job is to educate the public about the new causes and contexts of conflicts as well as the dynamic of political and economic globalization" (p. xii). His analysis of U.S. coverage of the invasion of Iraq reveals how U.S. news outlets struggle with this endeavor as they fail to provide crucial context. Highlighting these failures is a new global journalism comprised of numerous Internet and international news sources that is forcing U.S. media to confront their shortcomings.
During the Iraq invasion, U.S. media were critiqued for their use of embedded reporters, the lack of international bureaus, real-time vs. informed reporting, and sanitized coverage. Beyond the Front Lines acknowledges these criticisms but focuses more on the difficult task faced by reporters attempting to balance an identity as detached journalists with the reality of American citizenship. Even as he recognizes the production of numerous inaccurate stories, i.e., the legend of Jessica Lynch, the author's assumption that U.S. media institutions demand objective and unbiased accounts overshadows the critiques. Stating that "precision in war coverage is...elusive" (p. 77), Seib applauds the efforts of U.S. journalists and argues that "during the Iraq war, most American journalists positioned themselves on that middle ground" between reporting and saluting (p. 86).
This forgiveness is not evident when considering the biases exhibited by Middle Eastern news organizations or the reliability of online news venues. Thanking technology for providing a voice for the silenced, these new players in the distribution of news deserve skepticism. He cautions that "web-based information... does lend itself to deception" (p. 95), and singles out Al-Jazeera to explain that "credibility and objectivity are not the same thing" (p. 107). U.S. media giants successfully transform military generals into objective military analysts, but Al-Jazeera needs reminding that access to important sources does not justify reporting propaganda as fact (p. 107). The argument that Arab media must offer more than the "Arab point of view... [because] Arab people deserve the truth..." (p. 113) needs to be expanded; otherwise media coverage during war time will remain problematic.
Matthew Baum's Soft News offers a similar understanding of news media's ability to shape political understanding, but shifts the focus to changes in the U.S. news landscape that are impacting public opinion and political decision making. Grounded in both political science and communication, Soft News establishes a news dichotomy that reveals coverage differences found in traditional hard news programs and the more recent television genre represented by The Daily Show, Access Hollywood, and Entertainment Tonight. For Baum, these coverage variations raise important questions concerning the extent and circumstances under which entertainment programs (i.e., Soft News) convey news about serious political issues (p. 5). Studying the influence of soft news will hopefully lead to insight detailing if and how contrasts in coverage "affect policy outcomes" (p. 5).
Comparing public opinion surrounding the Vietnam, Korean, and Persian Gulf wars, Soft News documents the increase in soft news programs and asserts that legions of politically uninformed have become more attentive to foreign affairs just as they have become less interested (p.19). As Baum explains, "the net effect is that traditional news programming has been supplemented, and in some respects supplanted, by a variety of new types of entertainment-oriented information programs...[that] place a greater emphasis on human-interest-oriented stories" (p. 37). The increase in soft news programming offers disinterested individuals a perspective lacking context and an oversimplification of complex issues as stories are framed in ways that highlight entertainment over information. As soft news shows grab a larger market share and people look to them to obtain their "news," the political decision-making process may ultimately feel the repercussions.
Soft News meticulously supports the claim that "learning about politics or foreign policy from the soft news media is...not necessarily equivalent to doing so via traditional news outlets..." (p. 71). But in the end, Baum places a positive spin on the fact that soft news has reshaped public opinion concerning foreign policy, especially for those individuals who are traditionally politically inattentive, with his conclusion that such programming has the potential to "democratize foreign policy" (p. 282).
Miller's Tell Me lies supports the notion that media are a vital institution with heightened significance during times of war, but parallels to the other books end there. This compilation coalesces the thoughts and concerns of numerous journalists and public intellectuals and offers evidence and criticism of mainstream media's inherent problems. Particular attention is paid to a strengthening relationship with government institutions that is leaving the public with self-serving media organizations operating as propaganda machines.
While Seib offers apologies for these problems and Baum argues that media are more competitive than ever, Tell Me lies claims that corrupt democracies in the United States and United Kingdom survive in part because lies are continuously told as "mainstream media act as ciphers for the powerful" (p. 6). Beginning with John Pilger's dispatches prior to the March invasion of Iraq, contributors share their thoughts and fears regarding the undemocratic exploitation of mainstream media by the Bush/Blair faction. Misreporting War, one of four sections in the book, argues that mainstream media rarely confirmed information offered to them by U.S. and U.K. government officials, and that "most of these stories were generally given more credence than they should have been" (p. 137).
Instead of deploring Middle Eastern news organizations for their biased and slanted reporting, contributors to Miller's text indict idealized western media outlets that provide military strategists and foot soldiers for the increasingly important information battle.
Tell Me lies offers the reader a comprehensive discussion and a critical look at the consequences of a commercial media system that misinforms and deceives while focusing more and more on the bottom line. Thankfully, just when readers near a point of frustration and depression, Miller offers a glimpse of hope. Including comments from media reformists like Chomsky, Alternatives (part four), praises the efforts of media activists around the world who are working in the margins of mainstream media to ensure that democracy is restored and preserved worldwide. Whether it's an Internet blogger, a rebel reporter at the BBC or NBC, a fearless member of Al-Jazeera, or an independent journalist armed with a camcorder and notepad, voices of dissent continue to challenge the stories of the mainstream. These democratic and often revolutionary forms of mediated communication offer hope as they help shift the balance of power "from governments and big media to a global mass of people" (p. 285).
In the end, Seib, Baum, and Miller don't determine if media are watchdogs, guard dogs, or lapdogs, but they do remind us that media are worthy of study as they remain vital to democracy and global understanding.
East Carolina University…