Lindsay Palmer (2018). Becoming the Story: War Correspondents since 9/11. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press.
In sum, while updating the history of those who write the histories of wars of our time every day, Palmer’s book is remarkable in its sensitivity to the plight of US, British and Canadian conflict correspondents working under systemic pressures not of their own making, as well as in its nuanced and critical understanding of the internalizations of such systemic pressures by these journalists.
ISBN: 9 78 025208321 1
It is a commonplace to say that journalists are historians of the here and now. Given such an important social function, it is more frequently that a historical lens should be trained upon journalists. And never more so than in the case of those journalists who pursue the historically most coveted and covered news topic – war.
Lindsay Palmer’s recent book provides such historical analysis with an in-depth look at US, British and Canadian conflict correspondence between 2002 and 2012. At first glance, this time-period would appear too recent to be worth historicizing already (p.158). But the historical purpose served by looking back at this not-so-long-ago period, while the imprints of news reported from the myriad conflicts of this decade are still fresh, becomes clear as one progresses through the book. Palmer shows how the conflict correspondents of this decade continued to labour under similar socio-pathologies as that of the past century. At the same time, she shows that war reporting morphed performatively and discursively (p.18) during this decade as industrial, technological and political changes (p. 9-15), created new conditions of work for conflict correspondents.
At the heart of Palmer’s account of these continuities and changes are three thought-provoking observations. She argues that US, British and Canadian news media practices conformed to the broader zeitgeist of neo-liberalism in these countries during this decade. In conjunction with the economically motivated trend towards disinvestment in foreign news bureaux, she argues that such ‘neo-liberal bent’ (p. 21) meant that conflict correspondents came to be seen and shown as ‘free, neo-liberal subjects of melodrama’ (p.67) who report on wars, rather than as interlocutors of news about conflicts gathered through the labour of entire news-teams. This individuated understanding of conflict correspondence interacted with a contemporaneously ascendant ‘safety culture’, Palmer describes, whereby the safety of journalists reporting from warzones became an industry-wide concern in US, Britain and Canada during this period but which, nonetheless, assigned responsibility for such safety upon the individual journalists’ actions and decisions. This individually focused understanding of safety, Palmer points out, served to obfuscate the systemic forces and factors which shaped conflict correspondents’ ‘paradoxical’ (p. 160) perceptions of acceptable ratios of risks versus rewards in a conflict zone. In addition, Palmer also pays attention to the multifaceted – consistently ambivalent in her assessment – discourse regarding digital ‘new’ media that pervaded the news media industry during this decade. She does an admirable job of illuminating how this alternatingly celebratory and castigatory views towards digital media, interacted with the aforementioned ‘safety culture’ within the practice of conflict correspondence.
Palmer’s approach in this book, is firmly based on the theoretical understanding of how ‘sociopolitical others’ are representationally ‘framed’, and how such representations differ based on the ‘recognizability to power’ of these ‘others’. In her application of this theoretical understanding, based on Edward Said and Judith Butler’s discussions (p. 20-23) of the politics which underlie how distant populations come to be represented for Western audiences, Palmer goes beyond just representations in news-texts and shows how even the practice of conflict correspondence is affected by such politics. This approach helps keep in view for the readers, the heterogeneities and contradictions (p.3) within both the ‘production culture’ (p. 22) of journalists as well as the news content produced by them (p. 169-171), simultaneously.
The reader is presented with a very readable account in this book. The chapters chronologically follow five memorable cases where conflict correspondents became the target of violence. Palmer presents her arguments based on the events, public discussions and news produced (or not produced) regarding the violence committed against Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in 2002, Bob Woodruff in Iraq in 2006, Maziar Bathari and Nazila Fathi in Iran in 2009, Lara Logan in Egypt in 2011 and Marie Colvin in Syria in 2012. The result is an accessible yet analytically rich account of how wars were being reported by what Palmer terms the ‘anglophone war reporting industry’.
This term however can lead to a small criticism. There is no acknowledgement that the analysis of ‘anglophone’ news media in this book does not include accounts of conflict correspondence practices in Australia or New Zealand. While these two settler colonies are the obvious omissions within any discussion of Western ‘anglophone’ media, it can be said that the adjective ‘anglophone’, if no further qualifications are added, should also include English language news media of other British and American post-colonies around the world (e.g. Kenya, India, Philippines etc.).
A second criticism that might be warranted, is slightly larger in scope. One of the points where professional role perceptions and practices among journalists intersect is in how journalists regard ‘becoming the story’ themselves, while reporting, as a professional anathema because it is perceived by them as detrimental to being ‘neutral’ and ‘objective’ observers of news events and actors. There is insufficient exposition of this well-documented perception among journalists in Palmer’s analysis. It is not till page 145 that the reader is presented with the passing observation that the disappearing relevance for professional journalists in today’s global media-scape may be contributing to a new predilection among journalists towards becoming part of the story. Further elaboration could have enriched the analysis presented in the book. As it stands, room is left for the potential critique that the focus on the five previously mentioned moments of rupture – when the storytellers did become the story – makes the historical account presented by Palmer one based on exceptions, rather than the rules, within 21st century conflict correspondence.
Such criticism, if levied, would be too harsh. Palmer presents an inclusive and nuanced analysis of not only political and economic inequalities, but also racial and gender hierarchies within the practice of conflict correspondence. She shows how women correspondents working within US, British and Canadian news media remain as social ‘others’ within the ‘macho culture’ (p. 110-111) that (still) permeates 21st century war reporting. Palmer also analyses the role and experiences of ‘local’ news-staff who work for international news organizations and the different standards of ‘safety’ applied for these individuals (p. 94). Her account of these conflict correspondents’ experiences, is an important contribution to the growing understanding of the role played by ‘local’ journalists reporting on ‘home’ conflicts for ‘foreign’ audiences. Particularly, Palmer argues very effectively against a priori assumptions that underlie regarding who is ‘local’, who is ‘foreign’, and, what is ‘home’ for these journalists who come from varied cultural backgrounds (p.79).