Media Literacy and the Fog of War

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Comparisons of the current U.S. engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan to America’s war in Vietnam have abounded in recent years—but particularly since the death in July of Robert S. McNamara, the former U.S. secretary of defense. Mr. McNamara himself had spent his last years pondering the moral quandaries of all military conflict, agreeing with the assessment of Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, who, in recalling the American firebombing of Japanese cities during World War II, said, “If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.” “What makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?” Mr. McNamara wondered aloud.

This question and other, more fundamental ones about the reasons for going to war—Did the North Vietnamese really attack us at the Gulf of Tonkin? Did Saddam Hussein really have weapons of mass destruction?—have often perplexed American citizens. Still, the odds of getting answers were probably better during the Vietnam War—the conflict that defined Mr. McNamara’s career—than they are today.

“Being McNamara’d” entered the nation’s lexicon as an expression for disinformation about the war. Nevertheless, television networks during the 1960s and ’70s broadcast unedited footage of firefights from Vietnam on the nightly news. The New York Times waged a courageous and successful battle for its First Amendment rights in publishing the Pentagon Papers. News reporting had a profound effect on the war itself, eroding public support for its continued prosecution.

Fast-forward to today’s sanitized and streamlined coverage of the current military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Pentagon rations information about these conflicts through daily briefings and embedded reporters. Only the recent lifting of the government ban on images of fallen soldiers’ flag-draped coffins has reminded Americans in a palpable fashion of the human cost from these wars.

That contrast was driven home to us during the past year as we sorted through hours of documentary footage from the landmark 1983 Public Broadcasting Service documentary series “Vietnam: A Television History.” Our work—part of a unique, federally funded educational project combining the efforts of WGBH Boston, the University of Massachusetts Boston, Columbia University’s Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, and Teachers College—has left us convinced that changes in the news media, together with an end to the draft and compassion fatigue in the face of the 24-hour news cycle, have combined to put recent wars in a more ambiguous cultural and psychological space for Americans than the Vietnam War inhabited in its day.

Now, more than ever, we must teach students to read between the lines—to become media critics who understand who controls and shapes the information and images we see.

We believe education has a major role to play in fighting this trend. Student engagement is critically important to the nation’s civic life, especially as voting and community service by young people trend upward. Research indicates that teaching history improves students’ interest in public life, especially when it’s taught in ways that encourage the students to dig deeply into controversial issues, debate alternative positions, and participate in service-learning. And while Vietnam hardly qualifies today as a controversial topic, it certainly offers lessons that apply to our current military engagements.

But for teachers, it is no longer enough to simply assign reading, whether of history or the news. With the recent implosion of America’s newspapers, journalism is now largely in the hands of either a few surviving corporate behemoths or the blogosphere. Both have their own axes to grind, and neither is devoting much in the way of resources to war coverage. Rising costs and declining revenues have decimated the foreign bureaus of most American newspapers, even as television networks sent scores of film crews to Los Angeles to cover Michael Jackson’s funeral.

Then, too, the very nature of media is changing. This is the generation that communicates via Twitter, Facebook and MySpace; that learns via cellphone images; and that takes its history from the movies. One study found that for many young people, the single most important source of knowledge about the Vietnam War is the film “Forrest Gump.”

Thus now, more than ever, we must teach students to read between the lines—to become media critics who understand who controls and shapes the information and images we see.

Other nations are doing this, making media literacy a staple of the curriculum. Students in these countries are taught the skill of deconstructing both images and written accounts in much the same way they are taught to analyze Shakespeare or primary sources in history.

We would do well to follow their example by designing more classes that ask: What information is made available to us? Who controls and shapes it, how is it presented, and what kind of critical skills do we need to have to make sense of it? Otherwise, as even the man considered the primary architect of the Vietnam War essentially conceded near the end of his life, we will doom ourselves—in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and wherever else we might find ourselves—to a future of being McNamara’d ad infinitum.

Vol. 29, Issue 01, Pages 26-27

Published in Print: August 26, 2009, as Media Literacy And the Fog of War
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