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Sandy Tolan

Sandy Tolan

Posted January 24, 2009 | 03:53 PM (EST)

The Journalist and the "Other" in Times of War


Note: This essay appears as part of the Craft and Folk Art Museum's new exhibition, "Exploring the Other: Contemporary Iran through the lens of Iason Athanasiadis," running from January 25 to March 29, 2009.


What is the ethical responsibility of the journalist in telling the story of the Other? And what larger forces come to bear in shaping that story in the press?

These questions take on special importance in times of conflict. Throughout history the Other has served as fodder for campaigns of war and conquest. From the "savage" Geronimo to the "terrorist" Nelson Mandela; from the Cold War Russian bear to the grim-faced dictator Saddam, the portrayal of the Other - accurate or not - has long been political and strategic. At the heart of each enterprise lies the dehumanization of the Other to serve specific policy goals: clearing the land of its native inhabitants; maintaining a system of race-based control; readying a nation for war.

Today's wartime journalists must contend with a powerful mix of government and commercial interests that help set the agenda for the press. In the buildup to the Iraq war, the Pentagon and State Department set the über narrative: the "irrefutable" story of weapons of mass destruction. Giant media corporations, driven by profit over public interest, backed that agenda, drowning out (or sometimes buying out) smaller critical voices with thundering music and repeated scenarios of international calamity. Only a few mainstream American journalists openly questioned the "truth" of Iraq's WMD, and some willingly aided the war agenda with flimsy and misleading reporting.

Resisting such powerful forces can be daunting, especially when the Other has been thoroughly vilified. Making matters worse are the economics of journalism: more consolidation, fewer independent voices in the mainstream, disappearing foreign bureaus. Yet it is essential to the free flow of information in a democracy that citizens hear from independent-minded journalists who dig hard for the real story; who compare the reality on the ground to the official line from Washington; who look beyond the official narrative, and explore an entirely new one. Such efforts can help re-humanize the Other by portraying the lives and struggles of ordinary people: the fruit vendor in the street; the children in school uniforms, coming home for lunch; sweethearts stealing a moment by the seashore at dusk. It matters what you ask, who you talk to, where you point your microphone or camera.

By necessity, contemporary campaigns making the case for war essentially ignore such humanity, focusing instead on a single maniacal despot or the threat of WMD. Media outlets in step with this master narrative thus prepare the ground for the missiles that will fall on the people we never actually saw, much less ever got to know.

And yet, against powerful tides of war, there have always been strong swimmers: Journalists who, despite the obstacles, come to the ground and tell an honest story of what they saw and heard. From George Orwell on the battlefields of the Spanish Civil War; to David Halberstam and his dispatches from Vietnam; to Raymond Bonner and Alma Guillermoprieto in El Mozote, El Salvador; to Anthony Shadid in contemporary Iraq and Lebanon: ethical, honest witness remains the most fundamental antidote to distortion.