The Proud Duck
Friday, May 21, 2004
Since it appears that a couple of people a week are still reading this site, notwithstanding the utter absence of new content since March, maybe I should start each post with a hearty mea culpa. I'll abbreviate it "MC" and move on.
In last Sunday's Los Angeles Times, which I subscribe to mostly because it contains the local "Daily Pilot" paper and because of the "Frazz" comic strip (the OC Register's comic page is a big steaming amateurish pile of ... ink), the paper's editor John Carroll gave himself and his fellow "real journalists" (as opposed to the "pseudo-journalists" on Fox News or the Web) a big, fat, preening, self-congratulatory kiss on the backside -- which would speak wonders for his flexibility, if I weren't only being figurative.
The gist of the column was that REAL journalists owe a duty to the public to be ever-so-careful in verifying the facts they present are correct, and making sure the public is informed of the things it needs to know. (What it needs to know, of course, is determined by Carroll and his friends.) He pointed to a study that suggested watchers of Fox News were more likely than consumers of other media to subscribe to certain "myths" about the war on terrorism.
Of course, as many people pointed out, the "myths" the study focused on were all generally "right-wing" myths, including the idea that Saddam Hussein was linked to al-Qaeda or that weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq. (Actually, there is evidence that both "myths" are true; whether it is persuasive evidence depends on your standard of proof.) The study ignored pervasive "left-wing" myths, like the concept that President Bush said Iraq was an "imminent threat" (he didn't); that the war would be easy (ditto) or that he claimed Iraq had sought uranium in Niger (he didn't say that, and now it appears that Iraq did, in fact, do so.) A fair study would have discovered that the converse of what it found is also true -- left-leaning people are drawn to left-leaning media, and tend to have left-leaning misconceptions. And that wouldn't have been news at all.
After asking rhetorically how the newer, non-liberal media outlets could have left their readers and listeners so "in the dark" as to swallow these "myths" (dang, I'm getting like Reuters with the scare quotes here; next thing you know, I'll be referring to "terrorists"), the Times promptly buried the discovery of a sarin gas artillery shell in Iraq on page 8. And then dropped the story pretty much altogether -- there may have been a follow-up story buried somewhere equally deep, but I've been too busy to see much but the front page, and there was certainly nothing on this potentially earthshaking discovery there.
The irony gives me a headache. The Times faults other media for supposedly failing to report the whole story -- and then, not even a week later, buries major news deeper than a dead Pharoah. It's hard to avoid the suspicion that the like-thinking Times staff of "real journalists" just don't think the sarin gas is newsworthy, and that their thinking is colored by their political perspective.
WMD found? Move on, nothing to see here; let's raise the bar a little higher for refutations of our "Bush LIED!" charge and go back to important stuff like Iraqi thugs getting the "Pulp Fiction" treatment.
This brings us to the question: can what the press chooses to emphasize effect the outcome of a war? Clausewitz recognized that a country's will to fight is as important a component of its warmaking abilities as its actual armed forces. Since literally destroying the American armed forces is generally not a high-probability outcome, especially for lightly-armed irregulars, the only real strategy that can conceivably work is one based on attacking the country's will. The North Vietnamese used this strategy very well, and the jihadists seem to be learning from their example. Convince enough people that the war on jihadist terror, or any of its battles, isn't worth the cost, and they win.
An enemy focusing on a will-reducing strategy would try to control the flow of information to the other side's public. He would emphasize stories that make the other side look bad, or that side's cause hopeless, and suppress stories that detract from this picture.
Where is the line between responsible journalism, with its commitment to telling the whole story and informing the public, and propagandizing for the enemy?
It's a tough call. Journalists don't necessarily have to support the enemy to present the news in the same manner he would want; the nature of American media is to pay more attention to bad news than good. "If it bleeds, it leads," and all that.
The problem is that I think the coverage of the Iraq war goes beyond this built-in bias for bad news. So many American journalists have essentially the same mindset -- a kind of conventional-wisdom liberalism, sharing its assumptions (and utter lack of historical perspective) with so many other organs of establishment culture. For many journalists, Vietnam is the template; if the troops aren't home by Christmas one year after the first shots are fired, it's a quagmire. Others have a misguided understanding of the principle of evenhandedness that leaves them constitutionally incapable of taking their country's side in any particular quarrel.
The media's incessant coverage of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, which has continued far longer than any normal people seem to want, is an example of this. The proper thing to do would be to investigate the abuses, punish the guilty, decide on some reasonable measures to minimize the risk of a recurrence, and move on. The more we flagellate ourselves over this, the more ammunition we give to our enemies. Let's clean our house, acknowledge the shame, and turn our backs on it. That means no wallowing, no Senators posturing, and no using it for political advantage.
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