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Two cheers for the media

Bloody media. Always complaining. Thus Rumsfeld at the end of last week, himself complaining about all the newspapers featuring looting instead of liberation.

Last night, I caught John Simpson of the BBC opining that the fall of Saddam is of no significance to any country outside of Iraq, and I don’t know where to start, so hopelessly mistaken does that strike me as being. The argument was that because Saddam’s regime was a “dead end”, it couldn’t therefore be of any greater consequence when this inconsequential regime was toppled. And then various other Talking Heads took it in turns to agree. They didn’t seem to understand that there could possibly be anything between America invading a country and smashing all its statues and bombing all its bunkers and decapitating all its leaderships, and having no effect on a country whatsoever, despite having lots of bases in a newly liberated country right next door. Twats.

Nevertheless … Nevertheless, as this guy for one (and kudos to Instapundit for linking to this guy given the kind of thing this guy says about him) points out:

# of important news stories Glenn Reynolds broke during war: 0
# of important news stories journalists broke during war: All of them

It’s from these same media people that I get the evidence in the light of which I choose to regard their editorial biases as biased, their conclusions and prophecies and prognostications as mistaken, or not as I please. The media are still the people supplying the news, even as they try to spin it in ways that the samizdata related blogosphere mostly disapproves of.

The media are, I think, rather like Windows. There are all sorts of things wrong with them, but, with occasional cock-ups and catastrophes, they get the job done, approximately speaking. If you are prepared to put a bit of effort into learning how they work, you can usually dig below the surface and get what you want, if you really do want it.

When that CNN guy revealed that they’d been concealing the truth in order to keep the flow of nice TV footage, I can’t say that I was especially surprised. Only the candid way he admitted to it struck me as in any way out of the ordinary.

As to the present coverage of the Iraq war that Rumsfeld was so irritated by, I would far rather have the media biased against what the powers-that-be are doing than biased in their favour, even when I agree, approximately speaking, with the powers-that-be.

Suppose our newspapers and TV screens had indeed swamped all mention of looting and pillage with falling statues and cheering crowds and nothing else. Would the world in general, and Iraq in particular, really be better places? I say not.

Perhaps the problem is that the media do several different jobs. Two in particular have been seen colliding with one another in recent weeks, namely reporting, and complaining.

The complaining, as is natural just before a military campaign is being embarked upon, has taken the form of prophecying a succession of disasters. And the reporting has consisted mostly of admitting, sometimes through gritted teeth, that most of these disasters have not occurred. Iraq has not proved to be Vietnam. Baghdad has not been Stalingrad. When Baghdad fell with hardly a skirmish, we were told. When that statue fell, we saw it. When the Iraqis finally felt sure enough to smile and cheer, we saw their smiles and heard their cheers. And we drew our own conclusions, to the effect that our original conclusions about all this had been right, and that the media’s had been mostly wrong. Are we really going to begrudge the media one genuine disaster, one which neither the blogosphere nor they foresaw, in the form of the looting that is now still going on?

They may be exaggerating this story, but it is definitely a story and they are quite right to be telling it.

Non-looter Iraqis have been shouting at camera crews that the bloody looters are making their lives a misery, and doctors have complained that their hospitals have no drugs or security guards. Well, good. Good for the camera crews and good for the Iraqis. Who suffers from these complaints? Coalition leaders impatient for their triumphs and their rounds of applause? Tough. Who benefits? The good citizens of Iraq and the wounded of Iraq and their carers, who get their law and order and their drugs about two days quicker than they would have done if the media had merely been blowing fanfares of praise to the soldiers and their commanders. There’ll be plenty of time for handing out testimonials and retractions and apologetic analyses concerning what went right, albeit mostly from different people to the original Cassandras. Meanwhile, things are not completely perfect and the Cassandras are still complaining. Quite right. That’s one of their jobs. And another part of their job will be to say: oh it’s stopped, and oh, it wan’t that bad, as and when it stops, and if it turns out that it wasn’t that bad.

Meanwhile, you can interpret the complaints about looting very differently to the way that the complainers are mostly interpreting them now. One way of discussing Iraqis cursing the Coalition for screwing up the first few days of the peace is to say: the Coalition is screwing up the first few days of the peace. Which they did. But another is to say: well, thank God the Iraqis feel safe enough to call the Coalition a bunch of arseholes for screwing up, and to do it on camera. Maybe law and order is a couple of days away yet, but civilised politics, the sort where you can call Bush and Blair a couple of wankers without having your tongue cut out and bleeding to death in a basement, has started as of now.

The media are rather bad at dealing with important problems where the problem is knowing exactly what the right thing to do is. Most of what most of them know about such things ain’t so. But when the problems are urgent, and the answers are pretty obvious – subdue looters, anaesthetise the wounded when they are being operated on, feed the starving, switch on the damn lights, comfort the bereaved – the media are at their best. Instead of the murderously sedate solving of the problems (or not as the case may be) away from the glare of the TV lights that those in authority would prefer, unaccompanied by any embarrassing questions about why they hadn’t thought this through a month ago, there must instead be an undignified scramble to sort things out, accompanied by the lies and contradictions of press officers. It must be galling to get onto world-wide TV to complain about not knowing where in hell your next thirty meals are going to come from, but still not to get a meal. But such arrangements save lives, nevertheless.

Rejoice, rejoice, says the blogosphere about this war, now winding down. I say, with the media and against the blogosphere: hold the rejoicing, there’s still work to be done. Now, Rumsfeld, about those anaesthetics …

Stepping back and looking at the larger picture, would all that military planning – the stuff that mostly went very right indeed – would have been done so well had the soldiers not known that failure would involve not just the hell of battlefield reverses but the further hell of being sneered at by those media arseholes? And were they not further encouraged in their work by the thought that success would means far fewer friends dying, and wiping the smug sneers off the faces of the arseholes? That’s a big stick, and a big carrot. The media tried to destroy the military attack on Iraq. But they didn’t destroy it. And because they didn’t destroy it they made it stronger.

Looking at the even bigger picture, for “military attack on Iraq” read: everything. The media, the complaints department of capitalism. They demand the impossible, and sneer when they don’t get it. When they do, they move immediately on to the next impossibility. Hurrah for capitalism. It finds creative uses even for socialists, which is more than you could ever say for socialism.

The price of freedom is eternal vigilance, and the price of vigilance is the arseholes who do it mouthing off about what they think about what they see on their various vigils. It’s a price well worth paying, I say.

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10 comments to Two cheers for the media

  • Johan

    “The media are, I think, rather like Windows. There are all sorts of things wrong with them, but, with occasional cock-ups and catastrophes, they get the job done, approximately speaking. If you are prepared to put a bit of effort into learning how they work, you can usually dig below the surface and get what you want, if you really do want it.”

    Problem with this is that many (too many) don’t bother put down some effort in learning how the media work or to dig below the surface. Their knowledge about the liberation of Iraq is limited to the coverage on various news channels. And nothing more. Everywhere I look and ask, I see the same thing; repetition of newspaper headlines and a catchy anti-USA-get-out-of-Iraq slogan pouring out from ordinary people. People chose (more or less) to soak in what is given to them. If they are only given one side of a story (like this war), they are happy with that piece of information and would they bother do some own research and critical thinking? Heck, why? They already know all they need to know, right?

    As of the coverage of this war, I can only speak from a Swedish coverage point of view. If I wouldn’t bother go here (samizdata.net’s Truth is marching on…glory glory…and so forth), or look up ordinary newssites, my view of the war would be naive and narrowminded. When the statue of Saddam was torn down, “experts” were discussing whether or not the people were cheering because of that or because of something else (food anyone?). This happened on one of the major newschannels in Sweden. The very next day, I heard (almost) the exact same lines I heard on TV, find its ways out from my classmates. All of them. The exact same thing.

    God, take me away from this forsaken place….

    (Yes, I am considering getting a greencard to USA as one samizdata.net commentor advised me ;-))

  • Johan

    …but a good blog, Brian. Good points made.

  • S, Weasel

    And the third cheer for us Homer Simpsonses, punching that remote like senior-thesis lab rats, trying to get away from it. I mean, they’re always droning on and on about something.

    I don’t believe how badly NBC mangled what has to be the funniest Rumsfeld soundbite ever. I howled at my car radio.

    What he said was, “you have to understand, you’re seeing the same pieces of footage over and over again. Twenty times a day, you see some guy coming out of a building clutching a vase. And after a while, you start to ask yourself…how many vases are there over there?”

    The drone who reported the punchline without telling the joke has a tin ear. And I’m supposed to trust him to tell me the story?

  • That’s why I don’t watch tv news. I don’t want to see the same fifteen minutes of footage over and over again. That’s really all tv is for: the headlines and the images. You have to dig for the details. (PS: that blog you linked to seemed to miss the point about blogs vs. the media — but then again, so do many bloggers. Unless a blog is actually run by a reporter who puts his stories on his blog first — highly unlikely, if he wants to be paid — then blogs are not really a source of news. Glenn Reynolds is a law professor, not a reporter. Blogs are a source of links to interesting articles, and opinions on various things. That is all, but it’s not important. Before the internet we were pretty much limited to whatever letters to the editor the papers chose to print to find out what non-media people actually thought of world events. Now, for better or worse, we know.)

  • Jacob

    Indeed, the media paint a biased and distorted picture of reality, and most people aren’t capable or interested in digging deeper and geting nearer the truth. They accept what they are told at face value, and get a distorted picture engraved in their minds. From now on – reality isn’t what really happened, but the distorted picture in the mind.

    Whenever I read something in the media, of which I have personal knowledge – I see how ignorant and false the media reporting is. Then I go and read another 1000 items, about things I cannot know independently – and tend to accept more or less what I read, maybe with a small discount, which still leaves me far off the truth.
    The problem is – there is a massive monolitic bias in one direction – leftwards. There aren’t many biases in different directions, canceling out one another. And we depend on the media for information. The Blogosphere tries to correct this. Still, we live in an imperfect world.

  • “# of important news stories Glenn Reynolds broke during war: 0
    # of important news stories journalists broke during war: All of them”

    True. Blogs don’t replace journalists. Blogs replace editors.

  • mad dog barker

    It might well be argued that there is no objective opinion only subjective. As a commercial journalist the best one can do is to produce a statistically widely held opinon and attempt to sell it to people who want it. Journalists are all subject to free market forces if they seek to make their living from their writing. For example compare CNN’s domestic American and Middle East transmissions, was it the same war?

    Unfortunately free market forces are not always the quickest way to reveal all aspects of particular situation. The more that unbridled free market forces get uninvolved the more short term chaos reigns. Don’t believe me – look at any typical market near closing time. It is not bad – it just “is”.

    So to attempt to state exactly what is happening now in Iraq and environs is just premature wishful thinking. For example the scenes of joyfully liberated crowds (everywhere, apparently) are now being followed by reports of US troops using automatic weapons on demonstrating civilians. Not of course that this is a new thing (although there might be mitigating circumstances in this case) but it does go to show that this adventure will have many aspects and will not be measured in days or weeks or months.

    It will be measured in years. The Northern Ireland peace process still requires the presence of British troops and that is 30 years after they were initially sent in. It is now several years after the signing of the Good Friday agreement and while there is some lessening of violence there is no political accord.

    Oh before I forget – Happy Birthday Good Friday Peace Agreement. I certainly hope liberation of the Iraqi people fares better.

  • Johan

    “blogs are not really a source of news”

    true Andrea Harris, they are not, but many times I find the links provided, and certain issues brought up here, to be more useful than, let’s say, half an hour of newsreporting on TV. And more accurate.

  • Jacob

    mad dog…
    “It will be measured in years. ”
    Absolutely correct.
    But an important first step in the right drection has been taken, successfully.
    One of the principal goals – denying the terrorists support and access to WMD in Iraq – has been acheived.
    It is this that many biased commentators and reporters in the media try to belittle.

  • Interesting how you speak of “Cassandras.” Cassandra had the gift of prophecy, but was cursed so that her prophecies were never believed. I think the comparison is quite accurate myself, but I wonder if a Crusader really wants to be making it?