Pleading with the international community to note the moral distinction between predator and prey, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared on FOX News Sunday: “We are using missile defense to protect our civilians, and they’re using their civilians to protect their missiles.”
But chillingly, that was an understatement – and the Western media has blood on its hands.
Welcome to the rise of Corpse PR.
It was the Vietnam War that shattered the paradigm. During the days of our Greatest Generation – and all the generations that preceded – technological limitations kept information at a sword’s distance. Rumors and whispers slithered like snakes in civilian quarters, but the ultimate litmus test was the battlefield.
Did we win or lose?
Nations traditionally won public support by winning battles, and they lost public support when they were defeated. It was that simple: Win the war and keep the costs manageable. The public will follow.
On a certain emotional level, war has always been a battle for hearts and minds, but for most of human history, hearts and minds were secured by victory. Public support and military success were inexorably intertwined.
Vietnam was the first war in which moral outrage was a military tactic wielded via mass communication. By transporting the realities of war to American television sets, our nation’s will to fight was weakened. Accusations of war crimes date back to pre-Biblical conflicts, but when these allegations are accompanied by video, they’re impossible to dismiss. Such is the visceral grandeur of images.
Alas, images are also very easy to manipulate.
An image is a symbol, and symbols are inherently meaningless… until you give them meaning. The new sphere of combat is the PR battle to cement an image’s meaning amongst our media gatekeepers, because that’s the key to propagandizing the masses. A shocking image can trigger any number of powerful emotions, and how society’s gatekeepers frame these emotions – specifically, the contextual narrative that accompanies bloody images – is the new frontier of modern warfare.
It’s an especially attractive tactic for terrorists because:
1. There’s minimal personal risk when the victims are civilians (and terrorists have never minded dead civilians).
2. It’s inexpensive. Rockets and bombs cost millions; a Twitter pic of a dead body costs nothing.
3. The mainstream media’s mantra of “if it bleeds, it leads” has turned Corpse PR into a weapon capable of achieving objectives that are otherwise militarily unattainable.
But reason #3 doesn’t have to be.
Hamas uses children as human shields, hides missiles in schools and hospitals, and puts civilians in harm’s way because there’s a tangible PR benefit.
They’ll stop when there isn’t.
War is brutal and horrifying. It consists of mangled bodies, broken buildings and unspeakable acts of barbarism. But for all its horrors, civilized society has long distinguished between soldiers and civilians. In a quixotic attempt to govern the ungovernable, we’ve created the concept War Crimes – because morality demanded it.
Incentivizing war criminals to endanger civilians should also be a crime.
Media outlets must do more than mindlessly regurgitate violent images; they must also provide the proportional, contextual narrative. Failure to do so is the difference between independent-minded reporting on a war and incentivizing the bloodshed of innocents.
We’ve reached the tipping point when “if it bleeds, it leads” has bloodied the hands of far too many media members… along with the bodies of far too many civilians.
The only way to defang Corpse PR of its effectiveness is to shine a bright light upon it: Yes, broadcast the horrible images of civilian deaths when appropriate – and then explain why the civilians were in such close proximity to Hamas’ weapons and militants; explain why the civilians were directed to disobey Israeli warnings to vacate a militarized zone; and explain why Hamas deliberately decided to pursue these tactics.
Media outlets have two options: Continue to enable the PR tactics that contribute to the deaths of women and children, or take proactive steps to demotivate the practitioners of Corpse PR.
Because morality matters, too. Even in war.
Especially in war.
Free speech doesn’t include shouting fire in a crowded theater, and in the name of morality, “All the news that’s fit to print” shouldn’t include waving bloody shirts at the PR bequest of war criminals.
Scott Pinsker is a marketing expert, publicist, and author.