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"Kill The Messenger": New Book Examines How the Media Has Perpetuated Both Good and Evil

Maria Armoudian's book offers an unflinching look at media's capacity to shape the world, for better or for worse, breaking down how society and the media perpetuate evil.

Maria Armoudian’s Kill the Messenger offers an unflinching look at media’s enormous capacity to shape the world…for better or worse. Much of the book’s power comes from the detailed examination of the latter: Armoudian reviews the work of journalists working in some of the most disheartening moments of 20th Century history. Her creatively constructed and fast moving narrative sketches how civil society gave way to nightmare genocide in Germany, Bosnia and Rwanda—and then, case by case, shows how murderous hatred of “the other” was encouraged, amplified and legitimated by the media.

The horrors that human society is capable of inflicting upon itself are many, but it is striking how easily these three disasters seemed to come out of nowhere, how decades of coexistence and community so easily gave way to mass murder and generalized inhumanity. Armoudian’s initial task is to explore both how this became possible in general, and how the media contributed to the transformation in particular—how a message and the `frame’ it propagated shaped the attitudes and discourse that helped drive prejudice and suspicion to dehumanization and mass murder.

(Armoudian also asks us to reflect upon our own contemporary media landscape—riven as it is with simplistic narratives of good and evil, conspiratorial enemies and righteous allegiances. We dismiss at our peril the antics of right-wing radio and television commentators as they vie with each other in outlandish denunciations of a hypothetical liberal agenda to turn the nation into a state-driven “socialist” nightmare. Irrationality, channeled and amplified by the media, is a potent historical force: A 2010 poll Armoudian cites informs us that 14% now genuinely believe Obama may be “the anti-Christ.” Given the evidence she marshals in the first half of her book it is naïve to believe that the impact of radio and television in particular can be easily brushed aside. “It can’t happen here” may be a comforting thought, but Kill the Messenger strongly suggests that it is not an informed one.)

Had Armoudian simply driven home the message that media, far from being secondary or ephemeral, has the independent power to contribute significantly to the emergence of unimaginable horrors, her book would have made an important contribution. The particular strength of the effort, however, is that it seeks, and succeeds, in doing more. Armoudian explains in the Preface that she wanted to demonstrate “two things: first, how deeply the media can affect our lives—for good or bad—and second, now more than ever, it is vital to create, empower and support responsible media that educate, explain, and elevate, and to discard those approaches that merely blame, deprecate and divide.”

In the remainder of the book Armoudian turns her attention to surprising moments when—often in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, as well as danger—journalists helped to re-establish community and to break developing cycles of violence. The compelling example here is Burundi—a nation split along similar ethnic lines as neighboring Rwanda, and faced with potentially equally unstable political dangers. In Rwanda the media exacerbated tensions and incited the population to violence. While Burundi did not escape unscathed, it managed to avoid the inhuman levels of inter-ethnic violence that tore its neighbor apart. Part of the success, Armoudian argues, was due to the efforts of journalists who consciously and courageously used media as a tool to help hold a frayed national community together.

Rwanda’s outrageous Radio Téleévision Libre des Mille Collines famously and insidiously built popular support for genocidal violence—including broadcasts that called openly for extermination. Counterposed to this was the work of journalists at Studio Ijambo in Burundi. Armoudian’s engaging report of the creative work of this group offers a modern example of media’s power to help pull a nation back from the brink of potential disaster.