[Reader-list] Marketing a War

Harsh Kapoor aiindex at mnet.fr
Sun Oct 14 22:51:25 IST 2001

The Hindu
Sunday, October 14, 2001

Marketing a war

WHILE those Tomahawk missiles that cost a million and a half dollars 
apiece are busy flattening out a faraway Third World country that 
would be hard put to scrummage together total assets, military or 
otherwise, of a million dollars, we are getting vivid, blow by blow 
accounts of the attempts that are on to assuage First World Fear. 
President Bush is swearing in America's first ever director of 
homeland security. Former Governor Ridge, he tells us, is a patriot 
who has heard the sound of battle. ``He is a man of compassion who 
has seen what evil can do."

So the alerts go out across this well organised nation, and reports 
come pouring in. Of coast guards mobilising to guard 88,000 miles of 
coastline, of queues of trucks and vans waiting to be checked before 
they can enter Manhattan, of airport queues building up because of 
unprecedented security checks, and ready- for-the-worst Americans 
telling the cameras with cheerful stoicism that they are prepared for 
the inconvenience. Director Ridge is on the job, doing his bit. ``I 
encourage all Americans to have a heightened sense of their 
surroundings. I am counting on every American to help us defend 
America in this war.''

Of course the poor dears are worried, you will say, after the horror 
of September 11. Except that back in 1991, as a new convert to cable 
TV and Cable News Network (CNN), I remember watching in disbelief 
that as those Scud missiles began dropping over Iraq, Americans in 
the United States were being offered counselling for enduring the 
trauma of watching their soldiers go to war.

Psychologists were in TV studios, urging early recognition of the 
symptoms of anxiety and stress. First World fear is not just 
palpable, it is always on camera. The White aggressor always has a 
face and a family, the brown victim is very hard to spot close up on 
the TV channels, even ours. Finally, by Tuesday night last week, the 
BBC had pictures of life returning to Kabul streets, vegetable 
vendors tying their spinach into bundles, people shopping for food.

Is the relative absence of pictures on the ground from the area under 
attack because Al Jazeera was not putting out enough footage of 
damage, death and destruction, or because it was not getting picked 
up by the channels that the Indian news channels were picking up 
from? The great irony of this war has been that almost all footage of 
the actual bombing has emanated from this Arab channel. The Taliban 
kept most of America's mighty networks at bay, and this Qatar channel 
(pronounced ``gutter'' by the woman from CNN) did brisk business, 
offering its footage to the world at large, including Indian news 

What you got from BBC, Channel News Asia, CNN and Fox correspondents 
were piece-to cameras from Islamabad or Peshawar. As their reporters 
squint into the sun from the rooftop of the Marriott, faces red 
presumably with the heat, and say their piece, against a faraway 
backdrop of brown and green, the folks back home doubtless imagine 
that they are on the battlefront.

"Operation Enduring Freedom" will perhaps do for Al Jazeera what the 
Gulf War did for CNN. Make it a household name across the globe. To 
the accusations of being a propaganda tool for Osama the Elusive, 
Ahmed Sheikh, one of the channel's leading lights said indignantly to 
Shankar Aiyar of Channel News Asia,`` We have our own policy, we work 
on norms of journalism, freedom for all points of view. America is 
the greatest advocate of the freedom of speech, now they come and 
say, you shut up. Coming from Americans this is shocking, 
unbelievable.'' Lectures on press freedom and independence from 
Osama's most reliable conduit to the outside world. What a crazy war 
this is.

All the stuff you can find on the Internet (being faithfully 
regurgitated by my fellow hacks in the morning newspapers each day) 
tells you that this five-year-old channel has made a name for itself 
in the Arabic-language news business with often- acclaimed reporting 
and an independent editorial policy that is rare in the region. We 
are objective and independent, its chief executive asserts. But you 
cannot help wondering how kindly Bin Laden and Co. would take it if 
Al Jazeera decided tomorrow that it would not oblige every time he 
chose to communicate with the outside world. May be he knows it will 
not do that, given what a marketable commodity every word that falls 
from his lips, is.

It could be a while before anyone knows which of the two wars will 
succeed more: the one waged with Tomahawks, or the one with peanut 
butter and jam, or if you prefer, with baked beans and potato 
vinaigrette. But it makes for great copy. A beaming Colonel Bob 
Allardice told us after dropping 37,000 packets of this ingenious 
menu on three million starving Afghans, that it had been an 
outstanding success. (You really have to admire Americans for their 
unshakeable faith in the rightness of the American Way.) But there 
was carping almost instantly, in response. Medicine Sans Frontieres 
wanted to know which medical handbook recommended peanut butter and 
strawberry jam to counter malnutrition. It also asked sourly how the 
U.S. knew that the food was getting to the right people, that people 
would know it was safe to eat, and that it was not dropping on land 
planted with mines. Poor Uncle Sam. Can it ever get it right in the 
eyes of the non-American world? Fortunately, there was not much self- 
doubt on evidence. The TV channels like to help keep the morale of 
the aggressor up. Opposition is a containable sound bite from Times 
Square in New York. A placard from a protestor telling Bush he has 
been fired, a bustle of peaceniks chanting 1-2-3-4, stop the bombing, 
stop the war.

And then there was the coverage from our home squad of eager beavers. 
"Jawabi Hamla", brought to you by MDH pakora masala on Aaj Tak. 
"Headlines" sponsored by J. Hampstead on Zee News. The latter would 
announce the headlines, take an ad break, give you the headlines, 
take an ad break, and then come back with the news. Just in case you 
had any doubts about why they were in business. And Aaj Tak was 
telling those who asked that it had the sensitivity to reduce the 
ads, hadn't we noticed?

On the Sunday that Madhav Rao Scindia was killed, the channel 
apparently touched a record of 45 minutes of sponsored programming in 
one hour. Thirty minutes of ads, 15 minutes of sponsored items, like 
the weather. That finally prompted big chief Aroon Purie to step in 
and rescue the news from the ad clutter.

We did not see CNN, BBC and Channel News Asia drown their news in 
commercials. For all their faults, the big boys get some things 
right. And while assiduously copying their war rooms, maps and 
pointers over here, our home-grown channels might have also taken a 
cue on the etiquette of reporting distress.


E-mail the writer at sevantininan at vsnl.com

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