A Case Study of Functional Subjectivity in Media Coverage: The Gulf War on TV

Lise Garon (Laval University)

Abstract: This paper tests the hypothesis of functional subjectivity through empirical data about international media coverage. The Gulf War was chosen as the test case. Twenty-eight evenings of prime-time news, from CNN, TV5, CBC, and CBV--all subject to the same military propaganda and censorship--were compared in order to determine the relationship between subjectivity in television news reports and the media's hypothetical influence strategies. The four networks took an ambiguous stance toward military information. However, their subjective reports were compatible with their national positions and possible influence strategies that aim to capture the public eye.

Résumé: Ce texte vise à vérifier empiriquement l'hypothèse de la subjectivité fonctionnelle dans l'information internationale transmise par les médias. L'étude de cas a porté sur la guerre du Golfe. Vingt-huit soirées de journaux télévisés, chez CNN, TV5, CBC et CBV, tous soumis à la même propagande militaire et à la même censure, ont été comparées dans le but d'examiner si le dosage objectivité/subjectivité ne pouvait pas correspondre à de possibles stratégies visant à capter ou à maintenir un auditoire. Les données recueillies indiquent que ce dosage a été compatible avec les situations nationales respectives des quatre réseaux et la gestion de leur image.

The media coverage of the second Persian Gulf conflict has been extensively commented on by scientists, the public, and even journalists, most of whom criticized the unbalanced and biased coverage of the war with shock and dismay. From winter 1991, when Wolton (1991) set the tone which prevails to this very day, most of the debate has centred on the role of journalists as almost willing victims of manipulation. No other theme has inspired as many articles to the scientific world (Fico, Ku, & Soffin, 1994; Fleury-Vilatte, 1992; Gerbner, Mowlana, & Schiller, 1992; "The Gulf War in the Media," 1992; etc.) as the media's performance during the war.

From this controversy, we have learned that the media generally performed poorly regarding the public's right to know. As far as ethics is concerned, the issues seem to have been explored exhaustively and hardly anything more can be added. However, subjectivity in the media is not only an ethical problem; it is also an objective social phenomenon. As such, it deserves scientific examination and explanation by media researchers no less than in other branches of sociology, for instance, the sociology of knowledge.

Subjectivity in the sociology of knowledge

The phenomenon of subjectivity has long been discussed by sociologists of knowledge. The neo-Marxist perspective (Adorno et al., 1979; Althusser, 1982; Habermas, 1979; Prieto, 1975), for instance, has attempted to establish that knowledge is structured by the perspective of a class or group whose ideology it reproduces and historical ends it serves. Writing on the subject of political communication, Althusser (1982) claimed that ideologies are the "ideological apparatus of the bourgeois state" and their goal is to generate political consensus, mobilization, and legitimacy. Writing on the subject of subjectivity in science, Prieto (1975) argued that the act of acquiring (or issuing) knowledge is also the act by which a thinking subject positions himself in his social environment. The subject learns about the world through the various social networks he participates in. He also learns that he has a place to preserve or a position to conquer among social actors.

All sociologists, of course, do not accept historical determinism. Nonetheless, they generally agree that knowledge can never be objective because it is historically and individually determined by experience and socially determined by the functions it serves. As a matter of fact, from Durkheim (1985) to Feuer (1978), Feyerabend (1979), Kuhn (1983), or Lakatos & Musgrave (1970) on scientific knowledge to Mannheim (1956) and Pareto (1968) on ideologies, subjectivity has been considered inevitable and omnipresent in human knowledge by classical and neo-Marxist sociology as well.

If objectivity is impossible in science and in ideologies, why should it be otherwise for the media? After all, processing the news is also processing knowledge. In this process, the media need only to decide what is worthy to be released to the audience. In doing so, they investigate, among all possible elements of reality, the more useful ones for attracting their audience. Therefore, their overall knowledge of facts can hardly be complete or balanced. Similarly, journalists are in search of information that is useful for their individual careers. Strangely enough, in the field of media studies, the debate on the social functions performed by subjectivity has hardly been opened yet. Except for a very few, studies of the Gulf War coverage have restricted their preoccupations to the "unbelievable" subjectivity in news reports.

However, our data about the Gulf War coverage by television show that subjectivity, far from being a nuisance to the global media industry, may be designed to attract a worldwide audience. This hypothesis seems to work within each national context as well; from the U.S. and Canada to France, individual network subjectivity patterns seem to comply with the different national audience expectancies and the media search for higher ratings and improved positioning. This inspired the theory that subjectivity is functional and even instrumental in character. Media may claim to be objective. At times, they can perform not too badly in this point of view. However, if the functional subjectivity hypothesis holds, objectivity can never become an important characteristic of international information and /or crisis coverage.

The concept of subjectivity has born several meanings in the sociology of knowledge. For practical purposes, this exploratory analysis of media subjectivity uses an element common to all these meanings: subjectivity, in this paper, simply means distortion of reality produced in the process of (issuing) knowledge. As a conceptual counterpart, objectivity consists as an accurate vision and /or representation of reality. In conventional media research, such accuracy is measured by neutrality (not taking sides) and information balance indexes. As for the concept of influence, it will be represented here only through the ultimate objective of the media: that of capturing the public eye. Intermediary aims, such as influencing foreign policy, will hardly be considered.

With these very simple concepts, this paper will try to solve the following problem: Subjectivity in the Gulf War coverage has been denounced but how can it be explained? Explanations currently proposed concern military strategies (like "Les médias dans la guerre," 1991) and organizational weaknesses of the media (like Wolton, 1991). Both explanations leave the impression that the media were victims of a powerful war propaganda machine. There is no doubt, of course, that war propaganda can control information efficiently and the recent advances in satellite technology may have caught the media organizationally unprepared to face an unprecedented competitive situation. However, are the media totally innocent?

A complementary hypothesis to these two explanations will be proposed as an answer: all actors, and not only the state, create their own legitimizing ideology and their own seductive propaganda. War propaganda, for instance, is well known as a form of communication that deforms reality to entice, frighten, or persuade. Similarly, should we not consider the media as actors (not only witnesses) of the public sphere who generate their own propaganda (functional subjectivity) through the news stories they produce about the war while they seek to camouflage the shortcomings in information in order to attract or maintain their audience? The data of this study converge on this complementary explanation.

No one, of course, would deny that the search for truth is a noble principle that sometimes inspires foreign correspondents to heights of resourcefulness and provides a daily source of motivation for reporters. However, perhaps the main function of objectivity is not to produce honest information. Rather than that ethical objective, the main function of objectivity, or at least its assertion, may serve to protect the media's credibility and maintain an audience in a competitive context. This hypothesis implies that the ethics of objectivity are subsumed by this vital and specific objective of the media: capturing the public eye. The media must reconstruct reality in ways which will allow them to survive and become influential among the social actors. This process may imply considerable distortions of reality and variable dosages of subjectivity and objectivity. In extreme cases, such as wartime, objectivity may still be present but reduced to a ritual ornament of media discourse, at the expense of the informative function.

In fact, capturing the public eye belongs to a more general category that has little to do with objectivity: influence. In order to capture the public eye, each medium may try to convince the audience that its programs are the most entertaining, that it always tells the whole truth, that its editorial standpoint always provides new and deep insights into actuality, that it is useful and even essential to society, and so on. In order to reproduce such an image efficiently, the media do not have to be objective but they do have to look so. The media's power is essentially nothing but influence over its public (in the sense of persuading it to tune in).

By media, of course, I mean the organizations themselves: functional subjectivity does not necessarily refer to bad reporting by unskilled or dishonest reporters (although it can also bear this meaning, at times) but rather pertains to marketing strategies and organizational culture. The 1995 Congress of the Radio-Television News Directors in New Orleans gave hints on how news networks assess their position in the competitive context of the coming twenty-first century. As the number of networks has grown larger and larger, the traditionally leading CBS and others are reaching unprecedented decreases in audience ratings, while CNN and eventually RDS threaten to ruin them by the apparent realness of direct information that connects the audience's living rooms to the scene of big events through live coverage and instant news. Testimony to the news directors was expressed by representatives of audiences with the following faithlessness: "As you pretend to broadcast on fair information, we trust you less and less and we are better off watching what is actually going on without your screening the news" (for a summary report from the congress, consult Sicotte, 1995). One can thus understand how the media's management contributes to functional subjectivity; in recruiting, normalizing professional practices, supervising, evaluating, giving promotions, and /or firing news reporters, they must see to their survival in face of their new competitors (CNN, RDS, etc.), which they tend to imitate (doing as much) and win over (doing better and different) at the same time.

If the ultimate end of the media's influence strategies is to capture the public eye, can traces of influence strategies be found in the media's presentation of news events? If so, do such strategies go against the ethics of objectivity? This is one issue that has received very limited attention (except, perhaps, and too briefly, by Luostarinen, 1992, and somewhat more substantially by O'Heffernan, 1994) in the debate about the Gulf War coverage: did the media, as an institution (not only individual journalists), take advantage of the war to deploy their influence strategies at the expense of the truth? Did the media more or less consciously manipulate their audience in order to stand up to the competition, even to the point of concealing the deficiencies of the information they broadcast? In short, did the media produce their own propaganda to trick their audiences into tuning in? This study of television coverage of the war suggests that such was the case.

Both manipulated and manipulating, television coverage of the second Gulf crisis raises the issue of influence strategies in public communications in a way that pertains to the media specifically, and to television more particularly. As a witness, on the one hand, television is led to relay the influence strategies of other social, military, or political figures; fed with official information, it is constantly exposed to the threat of official manipulation or retention of information. As an actor on the other hand, as this account suggests, television tends to develop its own survival and positioning strategies. Its practices, such as sometimes reinforcing military propaganda while at other times attempting to neutralize it, may result in contradictory reports but they never threaten its image.


Twenty-eight evenings of prime-time news from four television networks available in Quebec, all subject to the same military propaganda, were analyzed in order to assess the social functions of subjectivity in television news reports. The corpus initially included 1,740 stories and was reduced to 290 units through random sampling at intervals of 6. Thirty-one percent of stories were from the CNN network, 14.8% from TV5 ("Antenne 2" 's footing as broadcasted by TV5. TV5 is a Canadian-European consortium), 22.4% from CBV (Radio Canada's French network), and 31.7% from CBC. The two international networks, CNN and TV5, were the main products of the global media industry available in Quebec to the francophone and the anglophone audiences. As for the two Canadian networks, French CBV and English CBC, their higher credibility with respect to international information made them, in our view, the closest competitors to CNN and TV5. All four networks broadcast extensive live coverage of the Gulf conflict.

The observation period stretched from the eve of the land offensive (February 20, 1991) to the first weeks of the coalition victory celebration (March 17, 1991), a period in which propaganda procedures would have been fully operational on both the military and the media sides. Systematic content analysis was used for the study. Intercoder reliability level was greater than 90% for all variables.

The news story was chosen as the basic unit of analysis. The news story can be defined as a presentation by a narrator, marked by a beginning and an ending that are cued either visually (e.g., returning to the announcer after a film sequence or after a report from a special correspondent, or changing to another announcer), verbally (e.g., "Meanwhile . . . ," "Moving on . . . ," "And now from Washington..."), or through sound (e.g., a pause in the announcer's speech). No time-length measures of the stories were taken because this study was not meant to measure information balance. It was a mere qualitative test for the functional subjectivity hypothesis. Besides, subjectivity was not assessed through the traditional "favourable, neutral, unfavourable" categories but from qualitative indexes such as "Censorship Portrayed" or "Stories' Sources" being either "present" or "absent."

Following probability statistics standards, the data presented below are drawn from tables with Chi-square values (a reliance /independence measure) of less than 0.1000. Consequently, they concern only pairs of variables that are closely related. In order not to be misled by a relatively "low-size" sample (290 units), chi-square values of 0.1000 and more were discharged as ambiguous and non-usable. In the closely related variable figures, the general structure of variables and indexes suggested the idea of functional subjectivity. Such coherent results are unlikely to be caused by distortion in the sample (the probability for a margin of error of 5% or less is not more than 6% for a random sample of this size).

The ambivalent positioning of television in face of the official line

Unsurprisingly, the analysis confirmed the networks' bias in favour of operation Desert Storm (e.g., Fico et al., 1994; Fleury-Vilatte, 1992; Gerbner et al., 1992; Luostarinen, 1992; "The Gulf War in the Media," 1992; Wolton, 1991; Young, 1991). However, it also uncovered a surprise; the portrayal of the conflict differed from the official military information, at times in contradiction with it, at times reinforcing it. In short, had military control over information and the media's organizational weaknesses been the only factors at work, subjectivity in the war coverage would have always been consistent with the military perspective. What, then, could explain the following variations? Should not the thesis of the media being victimized by military propaganda be revisited?

In contradiction with military propaganda

Television mentioned daily not only the United Nations' decisions against Iraq's invasion of Kuwait but also the Arab-Israeli problem (in about 20% of stories). Besides television's predilection for the coalition's viewpoints, the opinion of "the man in the street" in Arab countries was fairly often heard (in 14% of stories) as was the case for the official Iraqi viewpoint (portrayed in 23% of stories). Such war news, even if rarer than other items, are not in line with military propaganda.

It must first be noted that the Arab-Israeli problem provided Iraq the pretext for not pulling out of Kuwait: Iraq will leave Kuwait, Saddam Hussein said, only if Israel complies with the United Nation decision ordering Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Arab territories. In the name of the international law and order, Iraq thus used the Arab-Israeli problem to justify its presence in Kuwait and defy the ultimatum the United States had also issued in the name of international law and order! Far from being a totally docile instrument of the coalition's propaganda, television thus appeared, at times, as a social actor preoccupied by international law first, no matter which side was doing the denouncing.

The second set of data also went against the coalition's line. Broadcasting the opinion of "the man in the street" in Arab countries and the official Iraqi viewpoint somewhat counterbalanced the tendency of the television landscape to favour the coalition. At the same time, it resulted in exotic or dramatic scenes.

Both controversy about international law and dramatic exotic scenes from the Middle East were likely to be attractive to the audience and added to the media's lip service to the ethics of objectivity.

Reinforcing military propaganda

Observers cited above (Fico et al., 1994, etc.) criticized television for personifying the conflict, presenting it as a clash between Bush and Hussein. Our data soften this assertion: nearly 60% of the stories featured the U.S. armed forces while President Bush appeared in only one quarter of the stories. On the Iraqi side, the military appeared as often as President Hussein. To accuse television of personifying the conflict is exaggerated in the case of both leaders, but it is especially untrue on the coalition side, where military personnel stole the show. By training the spotlight on coalition military personnel rather than on leader George Bush, press relations officials preserved the image of an international coalition under the aegis of the United Nations. In fact, television turned this piece of propaganda toward its own end; uniforms, weapons, technological demonstrations, and fireworks are more dramatic, and more likely to captivate an audience, than unexciting footage of civilian George Bush.

The coalition's explicit objective was the liberation of Kuwait and the protection of the other Arab States in the Persian Gulf region. However, those concerned, the Saudis especially, were rarely seen on television (in 16% of stories), while their American protectors took center stage (in 40% of stories). This imbalance--concentrating on personalities and values from the audience's own culture--could do nothing but help television attract an audience.

In short, while television did yield to military propaganda, it was not completely victimized; the choices it made, between reinforcing and neutralizing propaganda, coincided with cultural proximity to the Western public and spectacular footage. Thus, one actual social function of media subjectivity comes to light: to attract and maintain an audience.

The military and the media: Between conflict and co-operation

It has often been argued that poor war coverage is due to the dominant position of the military institution in the war game: the army controls access to information on the battlefield through the accreditation of correspondents and through the pools; censored material and daily press conferences provide most of the raw materials; and any offending reporter or media affiliate is under the constant threat of being barred from interviews or having its accreditation revoked. The rules of war thus exposed the four networks to manipulation and propaganda. In this respect, functional subjectivity also means that it is wiser for war correspondents to comply routinely with the military-established rules than to bypass them openly for objectivity's sake.

However, the contradictory media reports, sometimes reinforcing propaganda and sometimes opposing it, imply that television had a maybe limited but nonetheless real capability for autonomy in the war game. In order to "create" news about the conflict, it could use the expert opinions of journalists and specialists, give itself over to speculation or analysis of the causes and effects of the conflict, question the actual objectives of the coalition members, and broadcast reports and interviews not just from places subject to censorship but from elsewhere around the globe. Such was the media's area of manoeuvrability.

Within this area of manoeuvrability, television networks largely followed the line of the military and its strategies, but not beyond the limits of credibility and decency. In fact, television at times dared defy the military by broadcasting conflicting information on the war, such as about the Israeli-Arab problem, the opinion of the Arab man of the street or, when the war was over, the massacre of the defeated Iraqi troops in the desert.

Such alternating of two roles--overwhelming support and little but fair critiques--was also reported by Entman & Page's study of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the television network ABC (Entman & Page, 1994). Note that the balance between both roles (in frequency, impact, or otherwise) matters less than the requirements of the media's (influence) game in framing the stories, portraying censorship, and choosing its sources. Let us have a closer look at how it worked with our four networks.

Framing the stories

To interpret an event is to lend it meaning and make it understood. It is the media's service to the public to interpret the news. However, Wolton (1991) has argued that raw facts are not truth but mere facets of reality, and he has accused the media of failing to perform their duty during the conflict by broadcasting a profusion of raw, unprocessed events.

Our data contradict Wolton's opinion: of the 290 war stories in the sample, 44% included interpretation of some kind. Television news interpreters included experts (61% of interpreted stories) and journalists (47%). Among these, very few (14%) were Arabs.

These figures say nothing of the depth or quality of the media's analysis of events nor the extent to which it lent support to military propaganda; one might say that this is one limitation of content analysis, but 44% of stories is, by no means, a negligible amount. Wolton's criticisms of the media merit reexamination; the media were anything but passive transmitters of military information.

However, the small number of Arab commentators on the Gulf conflict is striking, for there were plenty of Arab academics, diplomats, and scholars whose expertise the networks could have used. Arab news interpreters might have been able to help balance information which stressed the coalition viewpoint while downplaying the Iraqi position. And yet, all of the television networks in the sample made limited use of Arab commentators.

Their reason for doing so is far from surprising: a parade of Arab commentators on the screen would have been fatal to the networks' drawing power. Just think what it would be like to have Arab experts on the screen every day explaining why your country should be (or should not be) fighting an Arab nation! No doubt that closer cultural proximity to the audience was needed. Even in the absence of collusion between the military and the media, their respective influence strategies sometimes converge; media subjectivity is, again, functional.

Censorship portrayed

Ten percent of the sampled stories portrayed censorship, and only very sparingly since the networks occasionally admitted their limited access to information and broadcast a timid reminder that military censorship existed, either by announcing a "blackout" on information, or through verbal or visual indications ("censored by..." or "cleared by..." written across the picture). Explicit denunciation of censorship was totally absent from the coverage.

In sum, censorship was a peripheral item on the war agenda. This is a paradox considering the "live broadcast" paradigm that ruled the airwaves at the time. Censorship was ever present in the war news world, so should we not have heard about it every day? How can the paradox be explained? Did the media fear that daily appearance of censorship on the screens would have become fastidious to the audience? The explanation is too easy; repetition certainly was not infrequent where other dramatic themes were concerned!

Actually, the theme of censorship could not be used but sparingly in order to maintain the suspense in the war drama: how could the networks illustrate, day after day, the scarcity of hard news without risking boring their audience? A closer examination of the censorship scenes revealed that they were always associated with high-tension stories, emphasizing dangerous possible outcomes. The theme of censorship never served to explain that information was being managed as a war tool and that the media could not inform accurately. For instance, it was never mentioned on TV that private interviews with soldiers were not permitted in the Middle East and that soldiers could deliver their comments to war correspondents only in the presence of army officers. This, again, is coherent with the functional subjectivity hypothesis; it would have been embarrassing for the networks to admit their own relative powerlessness by overstressing censorship in their news reports. Matters went differently after the war, when the theme of censorship was used to introduce fresh war news once more, in the disclosure of the massacre of Iraqian troops on the highway between Kuwait City and Bassorah. By protecting their own image, and neither explaining nor questioning censorship except after the war, the networks contributed to distorting reality in a way that was not harmful to their image.

In a meeting organized in Ottawa by the Canadian Institute for Peace and International Security, shortly after the war, journalists blamed censorship for their poor coverage of the Gulf crisis (Young, 1991). Was censorship the only problem? It would be misleading to make censorship a scapegoat for all the networks' sins (although saying so could protect the media's image then). The model of mutual exploitation of the military sources and the global media industry, as developed by O'Heffernan (1994) and applied to our data, suggests that official war news was used to the advantage of the media as long as it could be, and was discarded as manipulation after the war, when it became convenient for journalists to shift from war drama to controversy without losing the benefits of either.

Sources for television stories

Sources for television stories follow the same pattern as the previous variables (television positioning in face of official line, story framing, and the portraying of censorship); the actual balance of official and media processed news in the Gulf War was not biased to the point of threatening the media's credibility. To the contrary, it gave the media the opportunity to stand up in the competition for audience and to produce moving stories, notwithstanding the resulting subjectivity of the overall coverage, either from official or original materials.

As a matter of fact, original news was created by the networks in 61% of stories, as opposed to the official statements that appeared in only 33% of the stories. Therefore, the four networks broadcast more or less original materials twice as often as official news; the latter failed to dominate television coverage of the conflict. These figures in no way indicate that television did not perform its role as a social actor, in spite of Wolton's impression (1991) that official statements prevailed in the war coverage. They also indicate that TV actually had some opportunity to balance the news (i.e., in the 61% of the stories with original materials), in spite of journalists' claims in Ottawa after the war.

However, it should not be taken for granted that official news was less useful to the media than original news. Three reasons suggest it was quite convenient, to the contrary. First, official information was a godsend to the networks, for it supplied them news without effort, even if it also served to reinforce state propaganda, as Ed Turner testified (Young, 1991).

Second, each medium did not have the choice; in order to stand up to the competition, it could not take the risk of delaying official news that was likely to be released by its competitors in the meantime. This explains why official war news was broadcasted to the public as soon as available, even before the media had the possibility to check its accuracy (Young, 1991).

Usually, the media broadcast official news first and they only check afterwards. This leads to the third reason why military information was beneficial to the media's influence strategies. Occasionally, principally after the war, official information gave the networks an opportunity to distance themselves from military propaganda by questioning censorship and war information management by the military. Thus the media reacted ambiguously to official news; they first released it rapidly and without expressing unfavourable attitudes toward official viewpoints, except exceptionally. However, whenever they could afterwards, they bit the hand that had fed them. For the media also supply their public with controversy. This is good for their credibility and also good for entertaining the audience.

Stressing this about official news does not mean that original news is normally neutral. As a matter of fact, a new journalistic genre appeared on CNN, TV5, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC and CBV) prime-time news shows. Comprised of edited film clips and a sound track with neither news nor commentary, but with spectacular footage (e.g., weapons, the destruction of war, a soldier playing the guitar, etc.) and slogans (e.g., "the biggest land battle since World War II" on CBC), these "war video clips" plugged into people's emotions. Each told a story: a story of patriotism, of strength or heroism, of victory or peace. They were to be found at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of news programs. Being aesthetically pleasing, spectacular, and moving, these no-news fillers appear well designed to captivate the audience (functionality) and practical for hiding the lack of hard news (that is, usefully distorting reality) at the same time. Consequently, these clips further illustrate the functional character of media subjectivity.

Summary assessment of functional subjectivity

A general pattern of functional subjectivity thus gradually emerged from the analysis of the Gulf War on TV:

(1) The theory of victimization is flawed

Had military control over information and the media's organizational weaknesses been the only factors of subjectivity, news in contradiction with military propaganda (e.g., showing of the Arab-Israeli problem, the Arab man on the street, etc.) and media-processed subjective news (like fillers hiding the lack of hard news) would not have been broadcast by television. Moreover, military regulation of war information did not harm media influence.

(2) Reinforcing military propaganda was good marketing

What is wrong with subjectivity? What could the media have against distorted information released by the military? First, official sources supplied the media news without effort and the race for the freshest news left no time for checking accuracy before broadcasting official materials. Besides, television surrendering to military propaganda coincided with cultural proximity to the Western public and spectacular footage (weapons, uniforms, plane takeoffs, etc.). Finally, observers cited above brought evidence that it was wiser for war correspondents to comply routinely with the military than to bypass them openly for objectivity's sake.

(3) Information against military propaganda was homeopathic medicine for the media's influence

Within its area of manoeuvrability, television networks largely followed the line of the military and their strategies, but not beyond the limits of credibility and decency (otherwise, the ratings mentioned below would not have gone so high). At the same time, controversy (the Arab-Israeli problem, Iraq's official viewpoint, etc.), drama (censorship minimally portrayed over demonstrations of military technology), and exotic scenes from the Middle East (the Arab man on the street) were likely to be attractive to the audience. However, subjectivity in war coverage originated not only from military sources but from television as well.

(4) Media-processed subjectivity

Frequent interpretation of war events, minimal portraying of censorship, and video clip fillers helped the show to go on night after night on television (at times, hour after hour) while hiding the scarcity of hard news available.

Censorship, as explained above, helped the media to maintain the suspense about war outcomes and permitted the media to turn official war news to its advantage as long as it could, notwithstanding the deficiencies of official information. The latter was unanimously discarded as manipulation after the war, when it became convenient for journalists to shift from war drama to controversy without losing the benefits of either.

One might object to this discussion that the mere compatibility of subjectivity with possible influence strategies does not prove the functional character of subjectivity beyond any doubt. At worst, it can be mere coincidence. At best, this compatibility may be considered as a necessary condition for the hypothesis to hold true but not a sufficient condition. Suppose, for instance, that in spite of different national situations, leading to different audience visions and expectancies, all media develop absolutely identical subjective ways of broadcasting the same international event. If such were the case, the functional subjectivity hypothesis might weaken to worthlessness.

Let us propose, then, that the functional subjectivity hypothesis will not hold unless different coverage patterns correspond to different targeted markets. We now arrive at a second stage of the discussion. Until now, the networks have proven themselves vulnerable to censorship and manipulation and they seem to have protected their credibility and maintained their audience through a strategic dosage of objectivity and subjectivity in covering the war. Within this general tendency however, different national styles of subjectivity could be observed that provide firmer grounds to the hypothesis of instrumental subjectivity and media propaganda.

The patriotic duty or the public's right to know?

The four networks split differently between the competing ethics of patriotic duty and the public's right to know. They all broadcast subjective information but they were not equally subjective and each subjectivity had its own style. What can explain these variations in subjectivity among the four networks, in their coverage of the same events with the same information opportunities and under the same military controls? A plausible answer will now be proposed: specific national contexts and unequal resources give rise to different marketing (influence) strategies.

How CNN won the war

CNN was the network that most upheld military propaganda, broadcasting the official American viewpoint and that of coalition Arabs more often (in 50% of the stories, compared to 39% for CBV, 32% for CBC, and 21% for TV5), showing Iraqi civilians less often (in 12% of the stories, compared to 18% for CBC, 23% for CBV, and 30% for TV5) and showing images of coalition civilians more often (in 30% of the stories) than its competitors (26% for TV5, 21% for CBC, and 14% for CBV). CNN also made the most frequent mention of international law, especially on the issue of the prisoners of war (in 13% of the stories), whereas CBC and CBV disclosed the issue of the prisoners of war in only 8% and 5% of their stories respectively, and TV5 almost never mentioned international law.

Such agenda-setting signifies complete devotion to patriotic duty. The theme of prisoners of war, for one, furthered allied military propaganda in trying to conquer public opinion: the spectacle of "evil Saddam" martyring "good Americans" could only create fear and loathing in the collective American imagination. As for the Atlanta station more particularly, the sight of the "boys" held prisoner was one more opportunity to pull the heartstrings of its American audience. It is hardly surprising that war propaganda should coincide more closely with the affective function of information in CNN's footage than in that of Canadian or French stations; Americans were among the imprisoned pilots.

As for the coalition's civilians, they were usually seen to be furious with Saddam Hussein or worried about their friends or relatives on the front, crying out in horror over President Hussein's barbarity. Such a spectacle undoubtedly helped fan the flames of enmity between Iraq and the United States and thus projected a favourable image of coalition actions to the public.

In reality, CNN's obvious choice in favour of patriotic duty was the logical (functional) one to make. Ever since the Vietnam War, U.S. military journals have argued that the media were responsible for its defeat and the media, in turn, have been determined to prove the contrary and to display fair American patriotism. Besides, American politics, following the collapse of the socialist bloc, was attempting to achieve world leadership.

One network's special contributor, in a book revealingly entitled How CNN Fought the War (Smith, 1991), gave testimony that CNN was not merely an observer in the Gulf conflict but also an actor seeking to influence the course of events. Without being an open ally of the military, it largely reproduced the military's vision of the conflict and tried to influence public opinion in favour of the coalition. CNN's patriotic stance throughout the conflict made it into a symbol of American power. Thus, the American victory turned out to be also CNN's victory and CNN's subjective war news could not but improve its institutional image.

Canada safe in the backyard

The more balanced and neutral Canadian coverage contrasted with that of CNN. The Canadian networks used official information the least (in less than 30% of the stories, compared to 40% for CNN and over 50% for TV5), created original news the most (in close to 70% of the stories, compared to less than 60% for CNN and grossly 40% for TV5), and provided interpretation of the conflict the most often (in 62% of the stories for CBC and 58% for CBV, compared to 30% for CNN and 18% for TV5). Our data disclose more frequent appearances of Bush (in almost 35% of the stories for CBV and 25% for CBC, compared to less than 20% for CNN and TV5) and Hussein (40% and over for both networks, compared to less than 25% for CNN and TV5) on Canadian screens than on the competing networks. Finally, the Canadian networks showed Iraqi civilians more often (in 18% of the stories for CBC and in 23% for CBV) than CNN (12%), which helped to balance the information they broadcast.

The greater creativity and better information balance of the Canadian networks should not be explained by a stricter sense of ethics but rather by Canadian networks' scarcer competitive resources and Canada's particular situation.

English CBV and French CBC's extensive interpretations in the news bulletins contrasted with the factual style and parsimonious commentary typical of their evening journals. This unusual practice may have been dictated by their competitive disadvantage vis-à-vis the international networks, which were represented in the pools and possessed sufficient resources to ensure continuous coverage. By adding more commentary to its bulletins CBC improved its competitive position. At the same time, this strategy contributed to better counterbalance the official information. Greater personifying of the conflict suggests a similar explanation: with fewer reporters in the Middle East, the Canadian networks could nonetheless add more suspense to their news programs by emphasizing the symbolic dichotomy between "Bush the avenger" versus "wicked Hussein" in the imagery of the conflict. By doing this, however, they weakened one of the coalition propaganda's arguments: that the conflict was a U.N. affair.

Besides, Canada's absence from the journalistic pools probably shielded it somewhat from the coalition propaganda. The Canadian networks thus found no better strategy to improve their competitive position than a more critical attitude. Furthermore, the country's involvement in the war was only symbolic: issuing official statements and sending a few troops and some equipment to Qatar. The Canadian networks' more critical attitude did not put them at risk of accusations of failing to do their patriotic duty; Canada was not really at war.

Moreover, the Canadian networks had all the more liberty as Canadian nationalism was at a low point following the failure of constitutional negotiations at Meech Lake. One can easily imagine the indifference, or even the guffaws, with which Canadians would have greeted a patriotic show at CBV or CBC. Under these circumstances, the public's right to know was a better positioning strategy than the patriotic duty.

TV5's no man's land

TV5 (French "Antenne 2") failed to adopt a coherent position toward military propaganda, sometimes showing the utmost objectivity, and sometimes showing a high degree of subjectivity, even higher than that of its direct competitor, CNN. In its objective posture, TV5 showed the official American viewpoint less often than any of the other networks (in 23% of stories versus 43% at the other networks). Furthermore, it portrayed censorship (in 26% of the stories, compared to 6% for the other networks) and Iraqi civilians more often (in 30% of the stories, compared to 23% for CBV, 18% for CBC, and 12% for CNN), thus implicitly responding to reproaches from its Arab audience that it patronized coalition's victims. However, it is important to remember that scenes of "collateral damage" could only be taped after the war. At that point, open contradiction of military propaganda, such as the disclosure of the massacre on the "Highway of Death," was a belated gesture that could do no harm to a non-American network; censorship and restrictions on reporting had already been suspended. Still, such a gesture did much for TV5's public image; it gave it the opportunity to tell the truth at last. At the same time, TV5 could show itself to be more critical than CNN, its rival in the race for audience, who had a competitive advantage in Peter Arnett's reports from Baghdad.

As for its subjectivity, TV5 made no more use of Arab commentators than did the other networks, despite the presence of a substantial Arab community in France whose contributions could easily have been obtained. Like CNN, TV5 avoided personifying the conflict (Bush appeared in less than 20% of the stories and Hussein in less than 25%), thus contributing to the reinforcement of the U.N.'s image. It was also the network that made the most frequent use of official information (in over 50% of the stories, compared to 40% for CNN and less than 25% for the Canadian networks), produced the least amount of original news (in less than 45%, compared to close to 60% for CNN and almost 70% for the Canadian networks), and the least amount of interpretation (in 18% of the stories, compared to 30% for CNN, 58% for CBV, and 62% for CBC). Consequently, it was definitely to TV5's advantage to portray censorship more often (in 26% of the stories, compared to 6% for the other networks), using it as a scapegoat to protect its own credibility.

Three reasons may explain why TV5 (French "Antenne 2") was caught up more tightly than the three other networks in that old dilemma the media always faced in wartime, torn between their patriotic duty and the public's right to know. First, one must keep in mind that France was a minor power in the coalition. France is also a country that is struggling to maintain its power and influence worldwide, particularly where its former colonies and the Arab world are concerned. Besides, French television was trying to captivate a heterogeneous audience comprised, on the one hand, of 3 million French Muslims and the pacifist far left, and, on the other hand, of nationalist opinion that would not have hesitated to criticize "Antenne 2" for any lack of patriotism in wartime; the coalition's military propaganda was also France's, and to oppose the coalition's propaganda might have meant opposing the nation's interests.

TV5 was facing yet another problem: as an international network and a competitor of CNN, it was represented in the pools (by journalists and affiliates), but with its more modest resources, TV5 needed to find a way to distinguish itself from its competitor. This may explain why TV5 made more abundant use of official information but distanced itself from it by focusing more on censorship, on the suffering of civilians in the war and, after the war, on the damage inflicted by a war that until then had appeared "clean."

In sum, CNN's subjectivity followed a rather unanimous American public opinion in favour of the war and the leading position of the American officials in the coalition; TV5 ("Antenne 2")'s ambiguous position coincided with France's less important position in the coalition and a divided public opinion inside the country; the less subjective discourse of the Canadian networks (both of them) was broadcast in a context of demobilized Canadian public opinion and the symbolic role of Canada in the coalition. The four networks had been subject to the same military manipulation. However, their respective subjective discourses varied according to different national positions, paralleled by different positioning strategies. The counterhypothesis of functional subjectivity, that of different targeted markets and unequal resources having no influence upon subjectivity patterns, is invalidated. This conclusion provides further evidence in favour of the functional subjectivity hypothesis.

One more objection might be raised here: Was media subjectivity efficient? In other words, were the audiences actually influenced into tuning in? The media may have developed strategies for capturing the public eye at the expense of the ethics of objectivity. However, influence strategies may not always work and failures can occur. Even if this question is beyond the scope of the corpus gathered here, it deserves discussion, if the functional subjectivity hypothesis is to be maintained; subjectivity cannot be qualified as functional without minimal evidence that the influential power of the media worked in the Gulf War. In fact, evidence of short-term media influence is provided by comparative data:

Unprecedented ratings: the French networks TF1 and "Antenne 2"'s ratings altogether rose from 29% to an average of 33.8% in January and February, with peaks around 40% (Wolton, 1991). As for CNN, between January 15 and 21, its prime time ratings went up 10 times higher (Bennett & Paletz, 1994). The war agenda had similar effects on the French-Canadian network: CBC had its magazine rating go up from 536,000 in regular season (from 18H00 to 18H30) to 691,000 from January 15 to February 27. On January 17, when a special war bulletin (from 22H00 to 23H15) took the place of The Journal, ratings increased from 781,000 to 1,269,000. The same day on CBC, an entertainment program (from 20H15 to 21H15) was replaced by a long war report that was watched by close to 3 million persons.
A Gallup survey (Iyengar & Simon, 1994, p. 167) reported that 70% of the American public followed the news about the war "very closely" and 80% "stayed up late" to catch the last reports on the conflict.
Public opinion surveys performed by Iyengar & Simon (1994) indicate that the American media coverage of the Gulf War produced substantial agenda setting, priming, and framing effects, notwithstanding censorship, fillers, and subjective coverage.

Were such effects induced by the media's influential power alone? Was it not political leadership effect first? Can it be explained by the nature of the event (war) in itself ? A precise answer to this question would require data of causal analysis that have not yet been published. However, it is reasonable to assume, from what is known about journalism practices, that the media know their audiences and have a fairly good idea of their motivations for tuning in. Accordingly, TV networks profited by the opportunity given by the Gulf War and the ensuing military leadership effects to broadcast high drama, instantaneous news stories, and spectacular footing. In the TV war game, these framing practices proved to be a winning formula over the ethics of objectivity. Incidentally, President George Bush's influence did not last and he suffered re-election defeat. On the media side, however, there are signs that the Gulf War patterns of international news still hold. After villain Saddam lost the war, new lords of darkness appeared on the screens for our entertainment: the Serbs and the Algerian fundamentalists among others. International broadcasting remains more dramatic and spectacular than objective probably because the media have no motivation to change the pattern. What is wrong with subjectivity as long as it is no nuisance? Why should international information be more objective? Who, among the media, is afraid of functional subjectivity?

Research perspectives

Case studies aim at testing and informing generally accepted theories. They also open the way for alternate explanations. Even if they are limited in scope, they are nonetheless necessary to the development of scientific knowledge. Such is this analysis of the "Gulf War on TV." Using a strategic approach, I choose to see the networks not as witnesses but as actors in search of survival and influence. This, as was argued, helps to understand two problems left unsolved by more conventional analysis of the Gulf War coverage: first, the poor information balance produced by media whose credibility should depend upon an ethics of objectivity and, second, the variations in coverage from four networks exposed to the same distorted information called war propaganda.

In conclusion, I believe functional subjectivity opens promising pathways to media research. For instance, it could be investigated not only as good marketing but also as a set of unforeseen long-term effects of media influence. One of these may have been what Hallin & Gitlin (1994) called a culture of war. Hallin & Gitlin ground their hypothesis in the fact that ordinary Americans largely participated in the Gulf War rituals (flags, yellow ribbons, giving blood, buying war publicity products like T-shirts, attending rallies, etc.). Their enthusiastic mobilization responded to a television-manufactured vision of war as a job well done, "largely painless, exciting, and suffused with the good feelings of potency and solidarity alike" (Hallin & Gitlin, 1994, p. 162). Consequently, an eventual remake of the "Gulf War on TV" may well reproduce the same romantic image of war, emotionally appealing to the public, whatever the political context. Hallin & Gitlin's case study of popular culture of war raises the possibility of a longer term influence power of the media over its public: that of cultural change. At the same time, it opens a promising pathway to media research on functional subjectivity.

One more long-term aspect of functional subjectivity could concern the media's organizational culture: Cannot routinized professional practices, too, induce functional subjectivity? As Cook (1994) interestingly proposed, subjectivity can be introduced in the news process not in spite of prima facie neutral procedures but precisely because of them. To enhance the credibility and importance of their news stories, as Cook explained, journalists turn to official sources. Besides, as impartiality is a basic resource of media authority, journalists can hardly initiate public debates or ideological criticism by themselves. So, instead of questioning the actual goals sought by the authorities, they can only assess the effectiveness of foreign policy, for instance, either by discussing strategies and tactics or by comparing earlier promises with later performance. Hence their tendency to rely upon the institutional news beat.


This definition of objectivity derives from journalistic codes of ethics and the regulations of the Canadian Council of Radio and Television, among others.
Information issued by actual actors in the coalition (even Prime Minister Mulroney), by actors on the Iraqi side, and from retired generals was coded "official"; information from other sources was coded "original news." It is interesting to note that official material was supplied for 45% of inquiry reports but official news was present in only 2.7% of interviews. Inquiry reports, in turn, represent 46% of the corpus. Besides, original news can by no means be considered neutral but only as giving an opportunity (sometimes taken, sometimes lost) to counterbalance official information.
One example is the clip What a Wonderful World, March 4, 1991.
Another example is the clip Le prix de la guerre, March 6, 1991, by "Antenne 2" (broadcast by TV5).
For instance, CBC's clip The Biggest Land Battle Since World War II, February 24, 1991.
The expression was coined by Mylène Paradis, a student at Laval University who participated in the study.
Source: an unpublished BBM data analysis by Nicole Beaulac, from Research Services of CBC in Montreal. No such statistics were available from CBV.


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