As Turkish putschists shut down highways, attacked government buildings and took broadcasters hostage, world media outlets struggled to provide sober reports of the coup. During the chaos, some listeners told us on Twitter that they’d appreciate an On the Media Breaking News Consumers Handbook coup edition. Coups are especially tricky to report on because they're mainly about perception and narrative. Plotters and the government are both trying to establish dominance, and misreporting can determine whether the attempt succeeds or not.
Naunihal Singh, author of Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups, says the first step for a successful military coup is to take control of radio and tv broadcasters. From there, they can literally and figuratively control the narrative.
Brooke speaks with Singh about how to understand coups through the media, and how to understand whether an attempt will succeed or fail.
"Cops or Criminals" by Howard Shore
BROOKE GLADSTONE: During the chaos of coup reporting, some listeners told us on Twitter that they’d appreciate an On the Media breaking news consumers’ handbook, coup edition. Happy to oblige, but the truth is we just don’t see coups that much anymore. Researchers Clayton Thyne and Jonathan Powell looked into this and found that while in the ‘60s there were roughly 12 coup attempts around the globe per year, now there are three, if that.
Interestingly, we also found that plotters today are generally more successful than in the past. For instance, much of the Arab Spring, despite the optics, involved military coups in tandem with popular uprisings. Many of these coups were messy but they succeeded in bringing down the government anyway. That didn't happen in Turkey.
Naunihal Singh is the author of Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups. He says what happened in Turkey was a textbook fail.
NAUNIHAL SINGH: The most important thing is that a coup has to appear to be inevitable. The way you do that is by seizing control over the major TV stations or radio stations. You shut down the ones you're not using, so that you can control the narrative.
CORRESPONDENT: We begin in Thailand, a country where the constitution has been suspended, TV and radio stations are only committed to broadcast military announcements –
CORRESPONDENT: The military has cut off at least three pro-Morsi satellite television stations. Al Jazeera says security forces raided its Egyptian television channel and detained some of its staff.
CORRESPONDENT: …government soldiers claimed have staged a coup in the West African country of Mali. The rebel troops now control the state-run broadcaster.
CORRESPONDENT: The soldiers issued a statement. They said they had taken control of the presidential palace.
NAUNIHAL SINGH: You make a broadcast which says, we have already succeeded.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, we talk a lot about bad reporting in breaking news situations. We talk about the fog of natural disaster and, of course, the “fog of war.” Tell me about the fog of coup.
NAUNIHAL SINGH: If you mount a coup, the very first thing you have to do is make it clear that the government isn’t in charge or at least create a good deal of uncertainty about who is. Then the next thing you do is you fill that vacuum of power by making it clear that you are the person who’s in charge. When journalists rush to judgment, oftentimes they're being manipulated by one party or the other.
CORRESPONDENT: The military tries to overthrow Burundi’s president while he's out of the country. Thousands take to the streets to celebrate.
CORRESPONDENT: The leader of Burundi’s failed coup is reportedly arrested. The president is said to be back in the country.
NAUNIHAL SINGH: Very often, reporters will talk about the military but, actually, what's happening during the coup is you're having a struggle for power within the military; it’s one faction against the other. And so, talking about the military is actually part of the spin. When they claim that they’re in control, it's usually premature. The purpose of it is to create self-fulfilling expectations. Because all of the key leaders in military units will believe that the junta is in charge, they will then throw their support their way and they will try to suppress opposition to it. In so doing, they will then become in charge.
In the old days, governments had monopoly over broadcasting and, in that case, it was easy. You’d go to the capital and you’d take over the main broadcasting facility. These days, it's more complicated. You have satellite TV, you've got cable. What Erdoğan did was he got on CNN Türk, which they had failed to shut down. They shut it down afterward.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you’ve got your broadcast station.
NAUNIHAL SINGH: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Step two is your statement. What do you say? And, here, you could tell right away that the Turkish coup was on really shaky ground.
NAUNIHAL SINGH: What I thought they did wrong was that they had the newscaster read the statement.
[SOUND OF TURKISH NEWSCASTER]
And that lacked credibility.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And it was an anonymous statement.
NAUNIHAL SINGH: Yeah, you didn’t actually know who was at the heart of the coup. As a matter of fact, to this point, we’re still not entirely sure. But if they had stepped up themselves, that might have generated more confidence.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
NAUNIHAL SINGH: If you’re a general and you put your face out there and you say, I'm taking charge, people will believe that he's only going to do that if he actually believes he can succeed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So to assess a coup’s chances, look for faces and names.
NAUNIHAL SINGH: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It shows confidence in the effort.
NAUNIHAL SINGH: And if you're trying to defeat the coup, it has to go the other way. A great example of this is in Spain in 1981, the King of Spain, Juan Carlos, got on TV and he broadcast a statement where he was opposing the coup. And he did so in his military uniform, with all his medals.
[AUDIO CLIP/KING JUAN CARLOS]
It was with that broadcast that he defeated the coup.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, at first it seems like Erdoğan had lost the narrative game. There were Twitter rumors that he was in a plane circling over Germany, asking for asylum, on the run, while the plotters shut down the airport. What are the decisive locations if we, as news consumers, want to try and forecast the success of a coup attempt?
NAUNIHAL SINGH: The main symbolic targets. The Parliament building doesn't have any tactical relevance. What it does have is symbolic relevance, the same way you take down one side’s flag and you put up another. Bridges and airports, the airport is what connects a country to the outside. You’re showing, no, you’re the person who's in charge.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There are a lot of people who suggest that social media can disrupt the usual patterns. What do you think about social media as something that can change the course of a coup?
NAUNIHAL SINGH: I think the jury’s still out. The more social media approaches what broadcast media can do, reach a very large number of people in a short period of time and create common knowledge.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The public square.
NAUNIHAL SINGH: Exactly. That's what's critical. Twitter is very good for spreading information but it spreads it privately.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And now let’s talk about the visuals.
NAUNIHAL SINGH: Mm-hmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Cast your mind back a week ago, Friday, all these images of chaos and confrontations between police and protesters. When you see violence on the streets during a coup attempt, what should you make of that?
NAUNIHAL SINGH: The stronger the coup makers, the more bloodless, quick, orderly and almost silent a coup is. The more violence you have, the weaker the hand they have to play, the more they have to use force to compensate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you know this particularly in the case of Turkey, right, its previous coups?
NAUNIHAL SINGH: The previous coups were all either bloodless or the 1960 one had three deaths, I believe. And this was definitely bloody. In Ankara, for example, the Air Force was attacking targets.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As unpopular as Erdoğan is in many circles, even those who condemn his repressive policies opposed the coup because they saw it as worse. It was a case of what they saw as the lesser of two evils. You have an authoritarian figure and you have the prospect of his undemocratic ouster. Do you see that a lot?
NAUNIHAL SINGH: [SIGHS] Deciding which side to back during a coup is always very tricky. And, yes, sometimes you have people who believe in democracy and if they believe the current government has authoritarian tendencies, it becomes a very difficult choice for them. Sometimes, it goes the other way. So when General Musharraf took power in Pakistan, he was generally greeted with support by liberals who thought that he was saving them from an Islamist elected government. Now they changed their minds very quickly.
What would be interesting is seeing what people in Turkey feel today. However, now it's becoming increasingly difficult for people to speak their mind in Turkey.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, as we watch the coverage, we should repress the urge to cheerlead.
NAUNIHAL SINGH: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Especially when a coup aims to topple an authoritarian strongman, that's what we're likely to do.
NAUNIHAL SINGH: But the question is what comes next? When you look at the Arab Spring countries, only Tunisia is a stable democracy now. I remember how much optimism and hope we had when Mubarak was forced to resign.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That brings me to the very last question, and it isn't so much about how the coup was covered but how it isn't because, as we've often seen, the news crews and generally the world's focus tend to wander off after the shootings stop.
NAUNIHAL SINGH: Yeah. The news cycle on Turkey has been very short. When the coup happened, a number of media outlets reached out to me for commentary and, unfortunately, I was flying back into the country on Saturday morning and I found that by Saturday night media attention had shifted to the RNC almost entirely. And this has me concerned because there are some very important developments in terms of what’s happening in Turkey today, and I would hope that the media would be able to spare some of their bandwidth for what's continuing to go on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So then you would offer as your last point for this breaking news consumer’s handbook on coups, don't look away.
NAUNIHAL SINGH: Most definitely. The same way that the news media gets used during coups, to create a narrative, afterwards, when we shift our attention away, there are still things that are going on. Our narrative should not be, the coup is over, there’s nothing of interest that's going on anymore. If we cared about Turkey two days ago, we should care about them today, as well.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Naunihal, thank you very much.
NAUNIHAL SINGH: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Naunihal Singh is the author of Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic Military Coups and a professor of political science at the Air War College. You can find our Breaking News Consumer Handbook, Military Coup Edition, on our website, onthemedia.org.
BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week’s show. On the Media is produced by Meara Sharma, Alana Casanova-Burgess, Jesse Brenneman and Dasha Lisitsina. We had more help from Micah Loewinger, Emma Stelter and Isabel Cristo. And our show was edited – by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Casey Holford.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.