The US has pulled out all the ammunition at its disposal in its mission to sell brand America during the current war in Iraq. But like all PR campaigns, there is more than a little manipulation involved.
There are of course two wars. One for territory and one for hearts and minds. The investment in both cases is incredible and the PR war is as shocking and awesome as the blitzkrieg on Baghdad.
9/11 was the world’s blackest and most successful photocall ever: horribly creative in its conception, deadly in its execution and appalling to witness as it unfolded live on TV.
America now has a point to prove, in media and military terms. The two are inextricably intertwined: military success – and the on-going image of America – may be utterly undermined without effective media manipulation.
The US has responded to the challenge as only a superstate and media goliath can. It has created a massively resourced, technologically sophisticated, industrial-scale communications machine to drive home its message. With 2,000 journalists accredited to the army, there are now more reporters in the Gulf than there are combat troops in Afghanistan.
In Qatar, there is a comms centre conceived by a Hollywood set designer, built in Chicago and shipped out wholesale in time for early previews of the main event. It features every possible plasma-screened, hard-wired, broadbanded technical gizmo that the world’s richest state can raise.
Selective war footage and reports are streamed in by the hour and a constant schedule of multimedia powerpoint briefings informs the assembled world press of developments in the campaign. Openness and access are ostensibly omnipresent as never before in war, to the extent that 500 journalists have been “embedded” with ground forces in the field.
Of course, the trumpeted access to full facts is a fiction. Though the communications centre may be awash with information, the truth is not in volume, but in selection. No matter how seemingly extensive the raw material, since it is subject to rigorous editing before release, the picture is partial.
The claim is that the media machine is taking information from the battlefield and turning it into knowledge. But knowledge of what? Those who refuse to take the proffered information at face value would say knowledge of an exercise in subjective interpretation, not objective truth.
For verification, ask Donald Rumsfeld. He gave the game away, unintended, when he said “what you are seeing now is not the big picture”. The US’s communications operation is ensuring that the international community just sees the trees.
This is part of a corporate-style PR, advertising and marketing strategy. Like any giant business, America has a brand position that it must communicate. The core messages are integrity, might, right, mission and civilised values. The communications objective is a naked assertion of power. The product being promoted in Iraq is mean-what-I-say, don’t-mess-with-me America. Every product needs its strapline (“for mash get Smash”), so “shock and awe” is the three word sell.
The target market is the world, and access can only be assured by providing the media with what it needs. Making programmes costs big money: if the material is offered up on a plate, and the recipient has been artfully persuaded of its objectivity, the job is done.
Print and broadcast media need America right now, much as they need the celebrity agents who grant access to the stars. Because they control access, those agents control the message: journalists may not like it, but they knuckle under because their editors need celebrity stories to secure sales.
The deal over Iraq is analogous, except in one crucial respect. America controls access, it controls the message, but in this instance, the journalists and editors are the delighted. They are the recipients of masses of information that forms the raw material for rolling analyses, commentaries and blow-by-blow accounts of the conflict. It’s cheap telly, but serious: a 24-hour live war, which America is winning.
After all, when George Bush rightly complained about probable infringements of the Geneva convention in the parading of US service personnel on camera for Iraqi TV, how many commentators went to the archive to dig out footage of Guatanamo Bay?