Media Beat, Apr. 20, 1994
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon
War on the Tube: So Close Yet So Far Away
Television brings war into our living rooms. That's the conventional wisdom.
And so, we might be tempted to believe that news broadcasts with grisly footage from Bosnia or Rwanda make warfare real to us.
But the room where we sit in front of a TV set could hardly be farther from the realities of a war zone.
A war "is among the biggest things that can ever happen to a nation or people, devastating families, blasting away the roofs and walls," says media critic Mark Crispin Miller. But at home "we see it compressed and miniaturized on a sturdy little piece of furniture, which stands and shines at the very center of our household."
There's never any need to dig shrapnel out of the sofa. And while television "may confront us with the facts of death, bereavement, mutilation, it immediately cancels out the memory of that suffering, replacing its own pictures of despair with a commercial, upbeat and inexhaustibly bright."
But such limitations of the TV-viewing experience are only part of the problem with relying on television to understand the wars of the world. A bigger impediment is that some wars don't make it to the shimmering little box at all.
We're likely to assume that television is showing us the most horrendous and "important" wars. Yet news broadcasts are highly selective, for reasons that include political and racial biases.
Bloody events in Bosnia, for instance, have frequently dominated news programs. But we rarely hear a word, or see even a few seconds of videotape, about the war in Angola -- where the victims are black Africans, and the United States government bears major responsibility for the carnage.
The rebel force known as Unita -- long backed by U.S. officials who supplied massive aid -- lost an internationally-supervised election to Angola's ruling party in 1992. Immediately, Unita launched a new military offensive. Since then, half a million Angolans have died, according to the British magazine New Statesman.
As the magazine reported in March , the human suffering is immense in Angola: "Inexorably, month after month since the elections in September 1992, Unita's reign of terror has worsened, outstripping in horror the familiar scenes of starvation and factional or ethnic killing in Somalia, Liberia, Sudan, or Burundi. Yet this is a war the international community had the power to prevent."
The Unita killers owe a great deal to Western support. "First the Portuguese colonists, then the South Africans in pursuit of regional dominance, then the U.S. in the name of anti-communism created and nourished [Jonas] Savimbi and his Unita. This past two years have seen the United Nations appeasement compound" the tragedy.
But American media rarely discuss U.S. culpability or U.N. appeasement in Angola.
Writing in the New Statesman, journalist Victoria Brittain recalls: "Every year since the mid-1980s, I have interviewed dozens of displaced peasants who described attacks on their villages by Unita, kidnapping of young men and boys, looting, beatings, and killings, while in hospital beds the rows of mutilated women bore witness to the mining of their fields. Defectors from Unita told more chilling stories of mass rallies at the headquarters in Jamba where women were burned alive as witches. These were not stories the outside world wanted to hear about Unita, whose leader was regularly received at the White House."
The New Statesman article concludes: "Angola has been destroyed by Unita leader Jonas Savimbi's determination to take by force the power successive United States administrations promised him, but which the Angolan people denied him in the polls."
Since the election -- rather than isolate Savimbi as the terrorist leader that he is -- the U.S. and the United Nations have tried to placate him with concessions, more negotiations and access to material aid.
Meanwhile, the American news media tell us little about Angola -- where the U.N. estimates that 1,000 people die each day.
Why don't we see Angola on the evening news? Or on the front pages?
Why have we seen so many stories about the Bosnian cities of Sarajevo and Gorazde, but none about the horrible sieges of Angolan cities like Cuito, Huambo and Malange?
For much the same reason that we rarely get any news about East Timor. Since December 1975, when Indonesia invaded that island nation and began to slaughter the native population, a protracted holocaust has been underway. More than 200,000 Timorese -- a third of the entire population -- have died at the hands of the occupiers.
The murderous Indonesian regime, allied with the U.S. government, has used American aircraft and other military aid to do the killing. Despite the U.S. link -- or perhaps because of it -- we haven't seen the massacres in East Timor on our TV screens.
We see news reports about the Kurds inside Iraq, suffering from the brutality of the Iraqi regime. But we rarely get news of the Kurds inside Turkey, suffering from the brutality of the Turkish regime.
Even when thousands of Turkish troops invade northern Iraq to attack Kurdish foes, as they did in mid-April, the event gets virtually no U.S. media coverage. Can you imagine the news coverage if Iraqi troops had invaded Turkey (a close U.S. ally) in pursuit of Kurdish guerrillas?
What we see on television only gives us fleeting glimpses of war. And the selectivity of those glimpses renders some victims invisible, their anguish ignored. Conveniently.