Monday, September 12, 2005

War and Media

Once again stealing an idea from Mike...

Mike's post ("Is the US Media Undermining...") on John Hinderaker's column is an important one because it highlights what in the last two decades has become a reflexive go-to of right-wing apologists, attack dogs, and lap dogs--blaiming "the media" for reporting a story that makes the Republican Party look bad rather than blaming the Republican Party for generating that story in the first place. (The Democrats do this too, of course, but not with the same savvy or bloody-minded inevitability.) So, following Hinderaker's thinking, the reason Americans are souring on the war is not that the war is turning out to be more deadly, prolonged, confused, counterproductive, and WMD-free than we'd been lead to believe but rather that the media are pointing that fact out. To me, this is like saying that it's not my fault for being overdrafted at the bank but is instead the bank's fault for sending me a letter telling me so.

(Speaking of which, John Hinderaker, if I send you the address for my Citibank branch, will you write a letter for me explaining that it's their fault I'm overdrafted and that they therefore owe me money. I'll pay you 15% of what they pay me.)

The problem, as Mike also points out, isn't that the news from Iraq is often bad (as well as good). It's that the Bush administration led us to believe that the news would be better and (remember those WMDs!) different. In a democracy, people should get the straight story from their elected officials, that means giving us the good and bad news. Part of that means admitting that there is bad news, rather than blaming the media for inventing it or "distorting the true picture."

However, the media's most conspicuous failures on the Iraq war don't involve their coverage of current events but rather their coverage of the lead-up to the war, during which they were complacent, uniquisitive, and complicit about alleged evidence proving that Hussein had WMD and the capacity to deploy them. If the media--and the President--had been bit more skeptical about the WMD claims or about the fantasies of cakewalk victory and occupation that expat Iraqis with axes to grind were handing the neocons, we might not have had a war, or we might have at least had a more realistic plan for occupation. Or any plan for occupation.

Since we can't rely on this administration for an honest assessment of progress and difficulties of anything involving the Iraq war or for much else beside it, we need the media to do better during the war than they did before it. What Hinderaker takes as unpatriotic and unproductive carping is in fact a patriotic imperative.

Hinderaker seems to forget that a little healthy skepticism about the government's claims and a willingness to report bad news is not only patriotic but can also actually--when the facts justify it--promote a war effort rather than "undermine" it. Consider for example that war so near and dear to his heart, World War II. On Dec. 8, 1941 a Chicago Daily Tribune article (written Dec. 7) began its description of the bombing of the Pearl harbor story with some bad news: "War struck suddenly and without warning from the sky and sea today at the Hawaiian Islands. Japanese bombs took a heavy toll of American lives. Cannonading offshore indicated a naval engagement in progress."

The story then followed with a little healthy skepticism of US government claims by pointing out that Berlin radio had broadcast a Japanese claim that many us ships and planes had been destoryed in the attack but that "Army and navy and White House officials in Washington were inclined to regard the reports as German propaganda and classified them as 'rumors.'"

The main difference between Roosevelt and Bush in this regard is that Roosevelt changed the classification from "rumors" to "facts" once the facts became clear.


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