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

As the book progresses Armoudian multiplies examples of media activists who have put their lives on the line to build democracy and expose injustice—including, among others, the campaign against apartheid in South Africa; struggles in Chile to resist and ultimately bring the Pinochet regime to an end; the patient work of journalists who helped bring peace to Northern Ireland; and the media activism that accompanied the village by village efforts of Senegalese women attempting to end traditional practices of female genital mutilation.

What emerges in the various examples is a larger principle—one that testifies to the power of media to help nurture the critical preconditions of democracy: Facts about the shared world help people act together without being blindly divided by ignorance. By helping to sustain the fragile conceptual frameworks in which we locate ourselves and others, such institutions lay important groundwork for the life of a community—one where differences find ways to share a world held in common.

An inevitable frustration with a work of this kind is that many of the examples are so dramatic that the lessons to be drawn for the American context are often difficult to define with any precision. For the most part the journalists whose work Armoudian introduces us to are struggling against incredible odds in a strictly circumscribed media landscape that is powerfully organized to limit voices—and/or telling their stories in a context structured around a single, overriding violent conflict. These are conditions in which truth is scarce, and a single voice of opposition can ring out and pierce the stifling fog….sometimes.

It is difficult to move directly from the reports summarized in the book to lessons of explicit relevance to the current American context: Far from a scarcity of oppositional messages, we have to deal with a cacophony of voices, and information and media challenges coming from all directions. Certainly, the general point is clear: Courage and a willingness to take on power in all its forms is the sine qua non of any serious effort. However, what we can learn and apply in specific form to our own circumstances from these (mostly extreme) case studies is not entirely clear.

An illustration of the problem is found in a chapter of the work that deals with the lack of popular awareness of the dangers of climate change. Armoudian summarizes the means by which oil giants and other corporate interests have framed a debate far outside the bounds of global scientific consensus. However, it is unclear what a concerned American media activist is to draw from the material presented in the earlier reporting chapters to inform a response to this. The conventional conformity of mainstream media does not work the way it did in Rwanda or Nazi Germany. Speech is not restricted in the United States; it is mainly overwhelmed. The challenge presented to media activists is not so much direct suppression as marginalization.

Clues to a new response are offered in a chapter that provides a bird’s-eye view of interesting community-based alternative models for making and sustaining media projects. Armoudian explores the increasing variety of non-market based strategies for sustaining media, including public ownership, cooperative organizations, institutional partnerships, and participatory, open-source frameworks. She also touches on the ways in which entertainment—Jon Stewart serving here as the canonical example—may provide a more effective platform for broad-based civic engagement with the “imagined community” media helps create. However, these appear mainly as promising signposts pointing in the right direction rather than the kind of detailed examination she is able to devote to the international case studies which make up the bulk of the book.

It is worth reflecting on one or two additional possibilities: Perhaps the most relevant modern example of piercing the conforming media’s smothering fog was Edward R. Murrow’s famous take-down of Senator Joseph McCarthy more than six decades ago. In our own time, Seymour Hersh has demonstrated a singular ability to crack through the nation-wide fog created by official propaganda and mainstream media complacency and cowardice. Naomi Klein has reached a much larger share of the progressive left than most journalists have been able to do. And critically, the modern online progressive media (like that which is carrying this review), still only in their first decade or so of existence, show promise of ultimately being able to generalize this kind of penetrative power.

The deeper challenge remains, however: How to create ways to reach out broadly, regularly, insistently and convincingly to Americans in ways far beyond the current occasional brilliant piercings of the powerful and suppressive veil created by those who (in Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky’s phrase) regularly, day in and day out, ‘manufacture consent.’

The most important lesson to take from Armoudian's important contribution—and from the impressive journalists she profiles—is nonetheless obvious: Even against seemingly impossible odds, even facing down violence and horror, it is possible through patient, committed, and courageous work——as well as a willingness to experiment—to meet resistance and repression, incomprehension and ignorant fear head on… and eventually to help shape new ways of living together as a more free community. Kill the Messenger is an invaluable resource both for those who hopefully will shape a new democracy sustaining media and those who seek to understand its possibilities and the challenges it must confront.


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