Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Un-Diverse Newsrooms

Robert D. Kaplan has a perceptive article in the November Atlantic Monthly on "The Media and the Military." Really it has as much to do with "class prejudice" as it does with the military.

Ever since the American-led invasion of Iraq last year, when hundreds of journalists were embedded with military units, people in media circles have been debating whether journalists lose their professional detachment under such circumstances and begin to identify too closely with the troops they are covering. A journalist I met recently in Iraq told me that whenever he returns from a stint with the military, he gets a string of queries from journalism professors, wanting to know if embedded journalists have become, in effect, "whores" of the armed forces.

Having spent much of the past two years embedded with U.S. military units around the world, I find such fears to be a case of class prejudice. As with many forms of prejudice, the perpetrators are only vaguely aware of it, if at all.

Even with the embed phenomenon the media still manifest a far more intimate—one might say incestuous-— relationship with politicians, international diplomats, businesspeople, academics, and humanitarian -- relief workers than with the U.S. military. Given that all these groups push various political agendas, it is fair to ask why embedding has struck a raw nerve.

The common denominator among the non-military groups is that they derive from the same elevated social and economic strata of their societies. Even relief workers are often young people from well-off families, motivated by idealism and a desire for adventure. An American journalist would most likely find it easier to strike up a conversation with a relief worker from another Western country than with a U.S. Marine or soldier, especially if that Marine or soldier were a noncommissioned officer. This is not necessarily because the journalist and the relief worker share a liberal outlook; a neoconservative pundit would fare no better with the NCO, for example. The NCO is part of another America —- an America that the media elite is blind to and alienated from.

I am not talking about the poor. The media establishment has always been solicitous of the poor, and through much fine reporting over the years has become intimately familiar with them. I am talking about the working class and slightly above: that vast, forgotten multitude of Americans, especially between the two cosmopolitan coasts, with whom journalists in major media markets now have fewer and fewer opportunities to engage in a sustained, meaningful way except by embedding with the military.

The U.S. military -— particularly at the level of NCOs, who are the guardians of its culture and traditions —- is a world of beer, cigarettes, instant coffee, and chewing tobacco. It is composed of people who hunt, drive pickups, use profanity as an element of ordinary speech and yet have a simple, sure, demonstrative belief in the Almighty. Though this is by and large a politically conservative world, neoconservatives might not feel particularly comfortable in it. Some neocons, who have taken democracy and turned it into an ideological ism, wouldn't sit well with Army and Marine civil-affairs and psy-ops officers who pay lip service to new democratic governing councils in Iraq and then go behind their backs to work with traditional sheikhs.

The meat-and-potatoes military is about practicalities: it does whatever is necessary to, say, restore stability in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, Army Special Forces work regularly with undemocratic warlords and tribal militias, and see no contradiction with their own larger belief in democracy. Arguing over abstractions and refining differences between realism and idealism is the luxury of a well-to-do theory class.

The military is an unpretentious environment in which, for instance, the word "folks" is commonly used for people both good and bad. When, after 9/11, President George W. Bush drew snickers from some writers for his reference to al-Qaeda terrorists as "those folks," it was an indication not of Bush's poor speech habits but of the regional and class prejudices afflicting the media establishment.

I find it difficult not to quote the whole piece. It comes around to something I've noticed and often commented on: in the three newspapers I've worked at for the past 21 years, I've probably had 500 newsroom co-workers, and not a single combat veteran among them; and only one who owns guns and shoots them for pleasure.

To deny that this is an issue for the media is to deny a basic truth of writing: though journalists assume the mantle of professional objectivity, a writer brings his entire life experience to bear on every story and situation. A journalist may seek different points of view, but he shapes and portrays those viewpoints from only one angle of vision: his own.

The blue-collar element that once kept print journalism honest has been gone for some time. Journalists of an earlier era may have been less professional, but they were better connected with the rest of the country. The mannered intrigues of the well-heeled Washington and New York media world have come to resemble those of the exclusive Manhattan society that Edith Wharton chronicled a hundred years ago.

How many members of this world really know people in the active-duty military or the National Guard? The East Coast media's social circle is much more likely to include aging sixties protesters than Vietnam veterans. Of course there are exceptions to all of this, but exceptions don't cut it.

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