Defending the Media’s Right Flank
By J. R. Dunn
Recent weeks have seen the appearance of editorials by Max Boot and Rich Lowry attempting to make the case that the media (by which they mean the legacy media more or less exclusively) has always been correct about the situation in Iraq and that to dispute their reportage – and the conclusions drawn from it – is a grave error on any number of levels.
“If you wanted to figure out what was happening over the last four years, you would have been infinitely better off paying attention to [the media] than to what the president or his top generals were saying,” says Boot.
While admitting to “some biased, slipshod news coverage”, he finds most of the reportage in such outlets as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, and the New Yorker as no less than “heroic”, and makes particular note of the number of reporters killed, as if this counts as evidence of veracity in and of itself. Attacking the media, Boot insists, could
“deflect blame from those who deserve it, in the upper echelons of the administration and the armed forces”.
I somehow doubt there’s much possibility of that happening.
Lowry takes it upon himself to correct Laura Bush’s position that the “the drumbeat in the country from the media … is discouraging.” Taking evidence directly from the media itself, Lowry finds that the reportage of that very same media is unshakable, a procedure that once upon a time somebody at 35th St. could have told him was “an exercise in tautology”. All U.S. gains in Iraq are trivial, the situation is deteriorating, all hope lost. And it’s all Bush’s fault. Conservatives have lost touch with reality, and
“need to realize that something is not dubious just because it’s reported by the New York Times“.
Conservative opposition to the Iraq War is nothing new. Two of the most noted figures in American conservatism, William F. Buckley and George Will, have both registered their disapproval of the war effort repeatedly. (Buckley as recently as this week, in his editorial “Yes or No to Bush?”, in which he suggests the United Nations as the solution.) Their objections stem from the claim that the Iraq War – and, presumably, the larger War on Terror of which it is part, though neither has gone quite that far - is in violation of basic conservative principles. Both see the war as a Wilsonian adventure, an attempt to remake the world in America’s image by exporting democracy to regions not suited for it. This is a respectable stance, one worthy of debate (though we could probably do without Will’s open disdain, clearly expressed in pieces such as this recent example.)
But it’s one thing to dispute the specific nature of American response to Jihadism. It’s another to side with the element that has steadily undercut U.S. efforts since before the war ever started.
Quite apart from the fact that it’s easily possible for both the Bush administration and the media to be mistaken in part or in toto on the matter, a possibility ignored by both Boot and Lowry, there are three points both have overlooked:
The brief against legacy media coverage, far from being confined to “some biased, slipshod news coverage”, is virtually endless (at times it seems that every new day brings another example) and systemic. This will not come as news to AT readers. The list could fill this page and beyond: Abu Ghraib, atrocity hunting, Eason Jordan, compromised Arab stringers, non-reportage of U.S. efforts, the cop acting as the ABC source who has at last been identified but not produced (leaving more questions unanswered than answered), near-consent to manipulation by terrorists and guerillas. (This last aspect is underlined in a recent piece by the always dependable Amir Taheri, “Iraq: Why the Media misstep”. Taheri points out that most of the translators and “fixers” utilized by the media were in truth ex-Baathists. If the media is “right”, it follows that the sources they use must be “right” as well, doesn’t it?)
None of this is in question – every last incident and more is on record and attested to. I imagine it’s possible to derive the “right” conclusions from such a process of malfeasance, irresponsibility, and dishonesty, but I’d need to have it explained to me in some detail before I’d accept it.
Beyond Iraq, the media has opposed the entire War on Terror, no matter how it’s fought, who it’s fought against, and whatever methods are used. Recall the coverage of the liberation of Afghanistan — the “brutal Afghan winter”, the Soviet experience, (nobody brought up the fate of the 1841 Kabul expedition, but only because they hadn’t heard of it), and so forth. We’re hearing the same today concerning Somalia. The spectacular Ethiopian victory is grudgingly reported, only to be bracketed by predictions that terrorism, revenge strikes, and “further instability” will result. (As in this example from UPI, a “situation analysis” is which the chief expert consulted is a spokesman for the “U.S. Institute for Peace”.) But it could be worse. The Philippines, where Abu Sayyaf is being ground to pieces, is evidently under complete news blackout.
And since the topic of the New York Times has been raised, we’ll merely mention such items as the exposure of the CIA prison program, of Jihadi financial transaction surveillance, of overseas telephone record collection, and of the domestic radiation surveillance program. Such coverage is being carried out by the same people who are setting media policy for Iraq, using the same techniques, and for the same purposes. It’s a single ball of twine, all interconnected, and you can’t support one strand without supporting them all. My guess is that neither Boot nor Lowry would support the rest of it, which leaves them in something of a state of logical contradiction.
The third point is the question of how much responsibility the media has for the course the war has taken. Lowry and Boot are both blunt in their answer: none. It’s all Bush, Rumsfeld, and the generals. A virtual echo of the media’s own judgment of itself, which fails to take into consideration the easily demonstrated fact that the media acted as enabler and mouthpiece for the forces that opposed the war from the start — opposition that often forced the administration into convoluted and counterproductive measures that could have been avoided otherwise.
First above all is the year-and-a-half delay in carrying out the invasion in order to obtain permission from the UN. A quick and dirty campaign would have curtailed many of the problems we’ve faced ever since, by denying Saddam Hussein, the Baath Party, Syria, Iran, and Al-Qaeda time to prepare. Dynamism is the first rule in warfare, a fact that Boot, at least, should not need to be told. Striking quickly gives you the advantages of momentum, surprise, and shock, advantages we cheated ourselves of in Iraq, with consequences evident to all. This is far from the sole example — a large book could be (an no doubt will be) written analyzing deliberate obstruction by politicians, retired officers, diplomats, country singers, and, for all I know, tattoo artists. The media, which carried much of the water for this crew, has to share the blame.
There exists a real question as to whether the West at large and the U.S. in particular will be capable of defending ourselves in any meaningful sense in the wake of Iraq. The role of media is central to that question. We are moving into a dangerous period, facing a reinvigorated Jihadi network, a nuclear-capable Iran, and a world encouraged and confirmed in cheap anti-Americanism. The compulsive adversarialism thus far displayed by the media will not be acceptable under those circumstances. There are, as Edward Luttwak has pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, ways forward even after an open defeat in Iraq. But they must be carried out with discretion and care, free of the media hysteria that has crippled virtually every other aspect of the War on Terror.
In claiming the media is “right”, Boot and Lowry are effectively aligning themselves with the forces of hysteria. This is indefensible, even on their own terms. There will be no lack of opportunity for recrimination following Iraq, no matter how it works out, and plenty of blame to go around. The media should not be immune. This country’s legacy media have gone a long way in creating Iraq as it is; and cannot be allowed to duck responsibility.