Cameras Shoot Where Uzis Can’t

Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, by releasing audio- and videotapes of themselves, have given new life to their movements of rebellion — or at least the illusion of new life — which, in the age of mass media, may amount to the same thing.

Defying reports of their own deaths, they appear to speak from beyond the grave. While they may be virtually alone and on the run, these tapes, which are then broadcast by radio and television stations around the world, assume some of the power of the media they use, creating the appearance of a potent force that can counter American military might.

”They can use these media to create a kind of illusion,” said Daniel Czitrom, a professor of history at Mount Holyoke College and the author of ”Media and the American Mind: From Morse to McLuhan.” ”Even though it doesn’t take much to make a tape, people think if they can put this tape out, there must be a lot of people behind it. It’s kind of like a business card. It creates the appearance of someone representing an important organization. And in our media-saturated world, something doesn’t exist unless it appears on television.”

Inexpensive modern media, like the audio- or videotape, have helped level the playing field between small rebellions and large established states. They can reach huge audiences regardless of where they are or their level of literacy. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was exiled by the Shah of Iran in 1964, but because audiocassettes of his sermons circulated through clandestine networks, he could assume immediate control over the opposition when he returned in 1979. In Somalia, opposition to the dictator Siad Barre took the form of oral poetry dictated onto audiocassettes. Barre tried arresting the poets, but the cassettes continued to multiply, and the people who gathered to listen to them formed a nucleus of armed resistance. During Somalia’s civil war in the early 1990’s, northern Somali rebels kept up the appearance of strength when they were on the run by operating a radio station from a transmitter strapped to the back of a camel.

To scholars of the history of news media, this is both radically new and extremely familiar. Before the modern age, said Mitchell Stephens, a professor of journalism at New York University and the author of ”A History of News,” it was very difficult to determine whether someone was or was not dead. ”After the death of Joan of Arc, there were four or five false Joan of Arcs running around Europe, claiming to be her,” he said. ”There were several pretenders claiming to be the royal princes that Edward III held in the Tower of London and had executed.”

Many of the gory habits of the early modern age — public executions, placing heads upon pikes and providing the bloody shirt of a victim — arose from the need to prove the death of adversaries, Mr. Stephens said. The Pentagon clearly understood this when it decided to release the photographs of the sons of Saddam Hussein to convince a skeptical Iraqi public that they were, in fact, dead. Mr. Hussein and Mr. bin Laden are using the same media to do the opposite.

Marginal rebels have successfully used all modern media, from the printing press onward, against the established order. ”The technology of writing by itself didn’t have that much effect,” Mr. Stephens said. ”When you had one or a few copies of a text, it was easy to suppress.” Two hundred years before the Protestant Reformation, figures like John Wycliffe and Jan Hus preached reformist messages, but Wycliffe was expelled from his teaching position at Oxford and Hus burned at the stake, and their movements snuffed out. But when Martin Luther presented his theses in 1517, within two weeks copies were all over Europe, thanks to the printing press. ”With print you have censorship,” Mr. Stephens said. ”There’s really not much need for it before that.”

Religious groups in particular have been at the forefront of exploiting new technology: the first known printed book was the Gutenberg Bible, while the first social revolution spurred by print was the Reformation. ”Each new technology has stimulated utopian visions of evangelizing faiths,” Mr. Czitrom said. ”The first words that Samuel Morse transmitted through the telegraph were ‘What Hath God Wrought?’ ”

In its early days, radio was a much more anarchic medium than it has become, Mr. Czitrom observed. ”Before you had the regulation of radio, you had amateur radio buffs, ham radio operators broadcasting from home, as well as newspapers, hotels, colleges and all sorts of other organizations jumping in,” he said. It appeared to be a highly decentralized medium, much like the Internet today, but this potential was checked by strict regulation.

”Many people were not happy with this cacophony of voices,” Mr. Czitrom said. ”After the sinking of the Titanic, when rescue efforts were hampered by wireless operators clogging the air waves, they passed the Radio Act of 1912.” But it wasn’t until the 1920’s, when large national broadcasting companies like CBS and NBC emerged, that government took firm control of radio and issued licenses to private companies.

In 1927 Congress created the Federal Radio Commission, and part of its intent, Mr. Czitrom said, was to limit the political use of radio. ”It gave preference to commercial stations while discouraging what it termed propaganda stations, particularly those run by labor and educational organizations,” Mr. Czitrom writes in ”Media and the American Mind.” By 1937, 210 of a total of 685 stations and 88 percent of the wattage power were in the hands of NBC and CBS, his book notes. In Europe, most radio was strictly controlled by government.

Despite all this, radio did give a boost to some marginal political movements. ”In the 1920’s, there is a tension or dialectical relationship between the powerful modernizing forces of new technology and the rise of a kind of fundamentalist reaction to it,” Mr. Czitrom said. ”On the one hand, you have radio, Hollywood, the mass production of cars, the creation of national consumer markets, and on the other hand, the growth of fundamentalist Christianity, the Scopes trial, Prohibition, the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, the anti-immigrant movement, all of which are a kind of backlash to modernity, but which use, often very skillfully, the new media to promote their causes. In many ways, you see the same phenomenon at work now, with Khomeini and Osama bin Laden being deeply antimodern movements, using new technology.”

Although regulation blunted much of the subversive potential of radio, it did not entirely kill it. In the 1960’s, pirate radio stations, operating from boats off the shores of Britain, helped to promote the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Eluding the control of the BBC, they helped introduce a social and musical revolution, Mr. Czitrom said. In Italy, where television was also a state monopoly, pirate radio stations were used by far-left revolutionary groups to create a counterculture and even to help organize political violence. Curiously, their challenge to the state broadcasting system paved the way for the emergence of the private television empire of Silvio Berlusconi, now the country’s prime minister.

Indeed, Western governments have often used pirate broadcasting. The broadcasts of Radio London into Nazi-occupied Europe helped to keep the hopes of the antifascists alive. And the BBC and Voice of America, as well as the increasing availability of television sets and VCR’s, are thought to have played an enormous role in the collapse of the Soviet empire. Millions of easy-to-copy videocassettes began to circulate in Eastern Europe in the 1980’s, creating a powerful network of resistance. ”The VCR killed Ceausescu even before his execution,” writes the Romanian scholar Vladimir Tismaneanu. ”It was the most important factor in terms of creating a mass consciousness.”

Perhaps because Western democratic governments have exercised dominant control over new broadcasting media, they are particularly upset when this technology is used against them. The American government arrested Ezra Pound and confined him to St. Elizabeth’s mental hospital because of his pro-fascist broadcasts during World War II. Would it have done so had Pound limited himself to writing pro-fascist tracts?

”There is something about the personal nature of these media and the fact that they come right into every corner of your home that makes it feel like more of a violation,” Mr. Stephens said. ”Suddenly, as I am driving in my car, Saddam Hussein’s voice comes in over the radio.”

”We are used to virtually all information about the world passing through London, Paris or New York,” he continued. ”Now stations like Al Jazeera have changed that. People in Africa and Asia may get their news from other sources.”

The subversive potential of new technologies, Mr. Stephens said, has only begun to be tapped. ”I think it’s important to realize that these are still very young technologies,” he said. The spread of high-speed Internet connections, for example, could further decentralize and revolutionize broadcasting.

But today’s subversive movements may need to worry about being undermined by the same media forces tomorrow. ”Iran is a good case in point,” Mr. Czitrom said. The Iranian government has worked hard to confiscate satellite dishes to keep out foreign broadcasts. And just this summer, in a weird twist on the uses of new technology, the Cuban government has been accused of jamming the broadcasts of Iranian dissident groups based in Los Angeles that are sending pro-democracy broadcasts to Iran.

– September 20, 2003

Published at The New York Times


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