News and Dissent
The Press and The Politics of Peace in Canada
Publisher: Ablex, Norwood, N.J.
Year Published: 1991
Pages: 308pp Price: Cloth, $69.95, Paper $37.95
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I think it's fair to assume most people are concerned about peace. What Robert Hackett is also concerned about is how the media dealt with this issue in the 1980s. News and Dissent delves with care and responsibility into relations between the media and the peace movement in Canada during this turbulent decade.
In 12 chapters plus an epilogue, Hackett digs deep into several issues that affect how we hear, read, and see what is reported to us, as well as who and what decide exactly what is it that we hear, read and see.
As he explains in chapter one: "It would, of course, be foolish to claim that the news media are in any sense the major determinant of war and peace. The question of media effectively must be approached with caution and clarity. Politicians and social movements sometimes exaggerate media power as a scapegoat for their own political ailments." He continues: " Rather, media work through a nexus of other factors, ideological and institutional, domestic and international."
Hackett, a media specialist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby B.C. goes to great lengths and into great detail about how public curiosity and interest can influence much about what gets reported. It would seem that social movements are able to get media attention when there is a lot of "dis--ease" on certain issues.
Hacket explains how the news media can create a particular "environment" to set the path of foreign policy. Media influence on foreign policy makers is not restricted to information provision. By emphasizing particular events, the media can place new and possibly unwelcome issues on the political agenda, affecting the priorities of policy makers." The Mashat immigration affair springs immediately to mind.
"...news is produced by organizations that have specific news-gathering nets that to some extent predetermine what is to become news, quite apart from the quality of events in themselves." Advertisers also exercise their power by providing most of the revenue that media outlets need to stay in business. If they prefer conservative consumers and these consumers prefer conservative news, the media will tend to provide it.
A major problem with the media's coverage of peace and related issues is the lack of specialists. There never seems to be a problem finding journalists who specialize in sports or fashion, but for peace and security issues, there are very few journalists who remain as specialists. Most news organizations don't want to go to the trouble developing a single area of expertise in their reporters. Generalists are less likely to get directly involved in the story and are therefore less likely to question the angles chosen by their superiors.
It also doesn't help that there's little financial incentive for reporters to remain in one field. There's also their own and their editor's anxiety of their becoming stale in a particular beat, and their avoidance of long-term foreign assignments for fear of missing promotion opportunities at home. "Most journalists are likely to be oriented toward their career more than any particular beat or topic," Hackett writes. "Some of the specialists I interviewed stuck with it out of a strong personal interest in the field, but they recognized themselves as a minority."
Hackett devotes a chapter to the Cold War in relation to peace and security, NATO, the arms race, communism, and the peace movement.. Focusing on the peace movement at the time, Hackett stresses the negative and steotypical attitudes of the media and the general public towards the movement. Peace activists were generally seen to be "... naive, ill-informed and emotional and /or as political extremists or suspect, indeed as virtually treasonous."
Turning to the military, Hackett says it's only recently it has been more interactive with the media. The military enjoyed a quiet, influential role in society until the 1970s when its position and purpose bagan to be questioned. Peace activists expected to be questioned by the main-stream media. The military didn't expect to be attacked or doubted.
While the defence industry and those who fund it enjoy "... economic and political clout without needing to mobilize public opinion," peace activists need coverage and find it invaluable.
The over-reliance of Canadian news media on American coverage is touched on throughout the book. The major criticism is that Canadian news organizations don't give their reporters enough free rein to fully cover an issue independently. Much seemingly Canadian content on peace issues is just American reporting revamped.
As valuable case histories of coverage, Hackett has selected the US bombing of Libya in 1986 and the Annual Walk for Peace in Vancouver. Each gets a chapter.
The coverage of the U.S. bombing of Libya relied overwhelmingly on official "Western" military and political sources. Experts in non-violent conflict resolution were virtually blacked out. Demonstrators were treated as action subjects not to be quoted at all, let alone in depth. Coverage of the Walk for Peace, on the other hand, went from a simple mention in the Vancouver dailies to wide and deep coverage, demonstrating how a non-violent local event can become accepted as a legitimate news topic.
News and Dissent is very thorough. It provides in-depth analysis of the function of the media in relation to both the peace movement and the military. Much of the information is backed up with references to other writers and publications, thus providing an extensive bibliography for further reference.
Because Hackett is a responsible academic - and this to his credit - his language tends to be academic. Many sections could have been expressed with a bit less academic vocabulary. The general format is that of a textbook.
News and Dissent is a " must" for the student of journalism or the mass media or for anyone doing in depth research on the mainstream media's treatment of war and peace. Hackett's observations of 1980s coverage are all too applicable today. With the Gulf War coverage, one might say, in spades.
[Review by Barrie Zwicker]