Wednesday, December 20, 2006

New Harvest of Shame

[posted by Callimachus]

Today, Captain Ed joins some others in warning against getting too carried away by the "liberal media" meme.

Certainly the media has its biases, but it simply cannot be as wrong as many of us would like to believe. Unfortunately, mainstream media outlets undermine their own credibility when they continue to insist that obvious examples of egregious malfeasance, such as Rathergate and the Eason Jordan scandals, never occurred.

Someone commented here a few days ago that we go to war with the media we have. In this case, we have done better than that -- we have found sources on the front lines who report directly to us, so that we can hear good news when it occurs. However, the bad news is also occurring, and we cannot write all of it off to bias. Lowry talks about realism in the non-political sense, which is to base policy and decisions on fact and not wishful thinking. Again, though, the issue is still one of credibility: can we trust the media sources that have played fast and loose in the past?

The thing about the media is, we're natural crusaders. We love a good crusade. Almost the entire history of the modern mainstream American media (by which I mean since circa 1960) is a balance sheet of power and crusading.

You build up the authority-capital of a large readership/viewership by your accurate and aggressive reporting. And then you spend it by using the power of influence that comes with a large, trusting readership in a democratic society. You bring the public's attention to a perceived problem so often, and with such dramatic skill, that the public can't ignore it. The problem then automatically becomes an issue. Ed Morrow's "Harvest of Shame" remains the classic example.

The structural risk in that, of course, is that the walls between the reporting and the crusading only hold up if you, the journalist, walk them carefully every day and re-stack the stones. It's hard ethical drudge-work. Good fences make more than good neighbors, but the will to do that is weak among too many reporters.

Iraq 2003 was a particular trial for this muddle-headed media. Because it was, in its conception, just the kind of crusade the media loves: Right an old wrong, overthrow a dictator, empower his victims, aim for a birth of freedom and liberty in a wretched region. It was everything Morrow wanted out of "Harvest of Shame."

As I observed them, the neo-conservatives were more like the media people I work alongside, temperamentally and ideologically, than any set of people I have ever seen in U.S. government. Perhaps it's not the first important movement in U.S. politics whose founders and leaders were, primarily, media minds with day jobs in the publishing business (Kristol, etc.). But it's one of the first.

Yet Iraq 2003 ran the media's idealism headlong into the other mission of the modern U.S. media: To oppose and distrust presidential power and attempt to bring it into disgrace. And George W. Bush, in himself and in his chosen inner circle, aggravated that tendency in a high degree.

When the war began, many important voices in the media privately were committed to Iraq's failure, because any other outcome would mean Bush's success. Their words and views have been noted and execrated. But a great many people in the media, I strongly suspect, felt torn loyalties to their clashing ideals when the thing began. The enthusiasm of the embedded reporting was real. The neo-con hopefulness caught like a spark in much of the media mind. Few dared say it openly in print, as Michael Kelly did, but many, I suspect, felt it. Might a president and the U.S. military, this time, for all their glaring historical faults, be right?

The tipping point in the media mind arrived quickly; probably around the time of the looting of the antiquities museum in Baghdad (as confused and exaggerated as the reporting on it was) and the first Iraqi family accidentally gunned down at a U.S. military checkpoint.

After that, Iraqi violence was "spiraling out of control" in the headlines on a daily basis, regardless of the ups and downs of the reality in-country. I have long sensed an other-than-objective quality in the U.S. media's reporting of this war (the European and Middle Eastern media have their own agendas here, much less complex than ours).

Its reporting has a vindictiveness I have come to feel as rooted in a dimly sensed betrayal. Read Andrew Sullivan (a journalist, though not a reporter), among the many turning leaves of the neo-anti-war blog movement, to see it in a high and refined degree. The war teased their idealism, an idealism that never felt quite at home anyhow with these journalists' sense of themselves as hard-boiled and unfoolable and contrarian to presidential authority. And it quickly let them down.

Had the post-Saddam era gotten off to a better start, the same media we now endure could have embraced the birth of a free Iraq. Not all of them, of course. The hardcore BDS cases would remain. But there is a movable mass in the trade that could have come down on either side of that phony "good war/bad war" split.

You'd still have had the same set of facts, the same templates of the news story. But the facts would have been fit into the frame differently: The reconstruction and hearts-and-minds "good news" would have turned up in print, instead of being dismissed as boondoggle and propaganda. The "bad news" would have been put in context and regarded as tragic missteps, not the true story. They would not be reporting the Iraq we see today. Because the coverage changed the war, changed the perceptions of everyone involved in the war. Not everyone agrees with me about that.

Instead of watching with naked glee as U.S. public support for helping the Iraqis eroded, the U.S. media would have felt obligated to redouble its efforts to shore up the public's awareness of how much that help was needed, how vital it was to the overall balance of good and evil in the world, including our own children's future. It could as easily have become the next crusade. And a precipitous and humiliating "exit strategy," instead of being seen in the media as the only viable strategy, would have been presented, correctly, as the dawn of a new "Harvest of Shame."