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Media terrorism

Ralph Peters bangs one out of the park today, echoing and expanding on the sentiment behind my earlier post on “I hope we win”. A few tidbits:

The truth is that today’s media shape reality – often for the worse. The media form a powerful strategic factor. They’re actors, not merely observers.

The media is a key strategic factor today. And it is profoundly dishonest for so powerful a player to pretend it bears no responsibility for strategic outcomes.

The selectivity with which the news is reported shapes opinion, here and abroad. The news we see, hear and read from Iraq is overwhelmingly bad news. Thus, the picture the American electorate and foreign audiences receive is one of spreading failure – even though our occupation has made admirable progress.

We’re on the way to talking ourselves into defeat in the face of victory. Much of the media has already called the game’s outcome as a loss before we’ve reached half-time. Even though the scoreboard shows we’re winning.

To an extent few journalists will admit, terror as we know it depends on the media as its accomplice, amplifying the terrorist’s deeds and shaping successes out of terrorist failures – the opposite of the media’s approach to American efforts.

From the terrorists’ perspective, 9/11 was, above all, a media event – a global demonstration of their power.

This is not an argument for propaganda, or for turning our press into mindless red-white-and-blue cheerleaders. But the media must face up to the responsibility that goes with their influence.

The terrorists, from Arafat to Hussein to bin Laden, all count on the media as a critical element in their campaigns, relying on the faux objectivity of “the cycle of violence” and moral relativism to conceal their barbarity, counting on the instinctive oppositionism of the Western media to undermine support for the war, and relying on the “news appeal” of bad news to give their side the bully pulpit while draining the life out of our victories.

The media have to understand that they are not neutral bystanders, but, against their will, have been made into combatants in this war. The only question is, whose side will they aid? So far, the verdict is pretty clear that the mainstream media, unwitting as it is, is giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

24 comments to Media terrorism

  • Chris Josephson

    All I can say is thank God for the Internet and for Weblogs. The stories from conventional media are not worth reading. All they concentrate on is the bad to the exclusion of any good.

    I don’t want ALL good news. I want BALANCED news. Good and bad. It seems the journalists we have reporting from Iraq can only report the bad.

    My view is it’s because the journalists, for the most part, didn’t want us to go to Iraq and when we did wanted us to pay for it with lots of casualties. Now they are paying us back for having such a relatively easy victory. They don’t report the progress.

  • The media have to understand that they are not neutral bystanders, but, against their will, have been made into combatants in this war. The only question is, whose side will they aid? So far, the verdict is pretty clear that the mainstream media, unwitting as it is, is giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

    Mr. Dean is far too kind to the media; their approach to “news” is quite deliberately anti-US.

  • lucklucky

    The media in general was against the war, not only because the war in itself, but because it was to be made by someone called G.W.Bush, that they hate more than anything else. Then it went in a series of dire predictions that didnt show up, because they are completely disconnected from reality. Now they are just continuing to sing the same song. Facing the error is too costly.

  • George Peery

    Everything Ralph Peters says is quite true. And yet, the tone of much of the anti-media commentary suggests that the Iraq War and its aftermath are being treated qualitatively different from the way the “prestige media” treats other stories.

    I’m not convinced. The media always places a premium on coverage of mayhem, catastrophe, incompetence, corruption, etc. The press platitude, “When it bleeds, it leads”, wasn’t concocted first on 20 Mar 03.

  • Jacob

    The media is the enemy. So, bomb the NY Times !

    In serious: the battle agains terrorists must be fought not only in Iraq with bombs, but also on the media front. Why is this front neglected by the warriors (the administration)? Why don’t they innundate all media regularly, daily, with bulletins indicating the progress being made in Iraq ? Why don’t they invite reporters to visit Iraq, and take them on tours, boasting of acheivements ? Why do they wait for the reporters to take the innitiative and seek out the info, instead of bringing it to them ?
    The media is biased, clearly. But this is the media we got, we got to live with it. The administration needs to do a better job of informing the public, through the media and through other channels (speeches, radio broadcasts, press releases etc.).

  • R.C. Dean

    George – I suspect that it is not so much the media that has changed, as the environment and context in which they work. Leading with bad news, instinctive oppositionism, etc. are probably a healthy check on officialdom in ordinary times, but you put these same traits into play in the current age of asymmetrical warfare, and things change.

    What plays as healthy cynicism in times of peace becomes an aid and comfort to the enemy in wartime.

  • Theodopoulos Pherecydes

    I wonder how many people there are who, like me, have given up on newspapers? I buy one newspaper per week. Each Saturday I buy the New York Times on my way to quality time with my son and grandchildren. My son and I work the crossword puzzle, then I throw the rest away.

  • FeloniousPunk

    RC Dean -

    “What plays as healthy cynicism in times of peace becomes an aid and comfort to the enemy in wartime.”

    I believe the media as a whole are far past healthy cynicism. A lot of editors and reporters are in outright opposition, and color their coverage accordingly. I think the media is enamored of the power it has, and at some level realizes that it is only powerful at the expense of the government and the people it serves. When the country is flat on its back, the media is at its peak. And if the country isn’t flat on its back, well then the news can be twisted and twisted until it is.

  • Guy Herbert

    Though lots of media organs–blogs too–have difficulty separating information from opinion, it isn’t the news that is the problem, it’s how we react to it.

    That’s the point of terrorism (a trademark of the Mikhail Bakunin corporation, branches all over). Bombs don’t make it terrorism. Though “anti-terrorism” legislation the world over implies it does, political motivation doesn’t make it terrorism.

    Terrorism doesn’t set out to destroy property and injure people as an end, but as a means to generate reactions of precisely this sort. If we don’t trust people to sort out what they think for themselves in conditions of freedom of speech, then we’ve moved voluntarily from a situation in which you can’t trust some media pronouncements, to one where you must assume everything is an official lie.

    Whether bin Laden or Langley is in charge at that point is more a matter of taste than one of degree. Terrrorism is used by governments too. But often they rely on other people’s bombs to provide the atmosphere of terror in which people can be prompted to give away their freedom.

  • George Peery

    R.C., you seem to accept the point of view apparently held by Sec Rumsfeld after 20 March, i.e., that a psychological message of (apparently) overwhelming, unbroken Coalition successes was a cornerstone of the military campaign to undermine the Ba’athists; therefore, that a steady drum-beat of “positive” news was practically a patriotic duty.

    If this was Rumsfeld’s perspective or intention, I understand (while considering him, at best, naive). But there was never any reason to believe the press would buy off on this. Sure enough, they didn’t — and haven’t.

    F. Punk — You think the media is biasd. So what? Maybe you feel better after your rant.

  • R.C. Dean

    George – I am not sure that I am willing to go as far as you imply. I recognize that the media (and all of us) are in a tough spot, but surely the first step in figuring out how best to handle things is to recognize that the media is a strategic actor, that the terrorists count on the media acting in predictable ways, and that the media, when it acts in those ways, is aiding the terrorists exactly as they wish it to.

    What is the answer? Not purblind flag-waving polly-annaism, I am sure. One of the great strengths of the US is its constant self-criticism and self-improvement. Cutting off a major mechanism for that to happen will not help us win the war or otherwise benefit our society. Rather, the media needs to be aware of the role they play, and be more intelligent, less short-sighted, less reflexive, in determining what and how to report.

    If we are doing badly in Iraq, I want to know sooner rather than later so we can fix whatever is broken. However, if we are doing well in Iraq, I want to know that as well, so we can build on, rather than abandon or undermine our successes. Currently, the media functions to filter out one kind of information, and in so doing undermines our efforts and aids our enemies. There is no easy or obvious answer to this problem, but it is a very real problem.

  • George Peery

    R.C., your comments are thoughtful. I have — and do — share many of them.

    But I’m (apparently) far more pessimistic than you about the prospects for bringing Big Media “to heel” over the long haul, even a little bit.

    Over the past several weeks, there has been an outpouring of comment (much of it on the Internet) critical of the media’s negative coverage in Iraq. This is very welcome, and there’s some evidence that it’s had some effect. Even (!) the NY Times has shown an apparent attempt at better balance.

    But it should go without saying that positive press coverage from Iraq will go nowhere without positive events in Iraq. Readers of Bernard Lewis, David Pryce-Jones et. al. will know this is an extraordinarily difficult thing the “coalition of the willing” has undertaken in the heart of the Arab Middle East.

  • veryretired

    The primary occupation of “The Media” is entertainment. Everything else is secondary. Thus, in the case of any military action, much less one which was so heartily opposed by many of the elites, the emphasis is on drama, bloodshed, scandel, pathos, explosions, and above all, good video.

    This is no different in quality or emphasis than the internal news reports dispensed daily by the national or local news outlets. If a reputable professor or scientist announced a major breakthrough in some complex subject, and there was a big, deadly car crash on the same day, which one would lead the 10 pm report?

    The cutest news reader, or the reporter who is willing to write reams about the latest trendy problem, from the approved point of view, gets the prizes. And sells the most ad space.

    The sooner everyone gets over the utterly meaningless phrase “journalistic integrity” the better. It has the same moral weight as “legal ethics”.

  • Well no, the primary occupation of the media is to sell ads and subscriptions, by delivering whatever sells best.

    Which seems to be entertainment, and mostly bad stuff over on the news side. I’m lumping sports in there with entertainment.

    Bread and circuses for everyone!

  • Jacob

    The “media as entertainment” meme isn’t entirely correct. There are many kinds of media. While tabloids offer entertainment (i.e. trash) and sell in the millions, there are also “serious” papers like The Times, or The NY Times. They sell much less, but still a good quantity, for a segment of the population that demands serious information and analysis. So the question of bias is relevant and correct – why are most “serious” papers biased, all to the left ?
    Of course, papers have never been impartial, they allways had an agenda – only there were many papers, each with a different agenda, so you could get good information by reading several papers. Seems that nowadays there is much less diversity in bias – it’s mostly one way.

  • Cydonia

    “The media have to understand that they are not neutral bystanders, but, against their will, have been made into combatants in this war. The only question is, whose side will they aid? ”

    Just wondering how you think they should be made to “understand”.

  • Jacob

    “The media have to understand that they are not neutral bystanders, but, against their will, have been made into combatants in this war. The only question is, whose side will they aid? ”

    The media have allways been combatants in all wars, and not “against their own will”. It is only that they usually are on the side of the country they appear in. Even that is not allways so, you could sometimes find, in free countries, papers taking the other side – but these cases were exceptions in the past, whereas today they are the norm, in the US and UK.

  • R.C. Dean

    Just wondering how you think they should be made to “understand”.

    Loss of market share to media outlets that do a better job of presenting a useful view of things that is not structurally biased against “our” side.

    Moral and social suasion from outraged citizens.

    Perhaps their own consciences might put in a belated appearance.

    Not terribly hopeful, I know.

  • Carleton Wu

    Mr Mercer hits the nail on the head.

    Some libertarians hold principle above politics. For example, some libertarians understand that the media operate in a free market to maximize profits.

    Other ‘libertarians’ whine about free markets, but suddenly develop a rash when the free market offers what people apparently want to comsume (ie ‘if it bleeds, it leads’)- but what is inconvenient to the ‘libertarian’ himself.

    Shorter Robert Dean – “When the media report the truth, they are committing treason (‘aid and comfort’) by failing to support the Supreme Leader.”

  • mad dog

    Careful – they’ll call you a radical… :0)

  • Cydonia

    Carleton Wu:

    “Shorter Robert Dean – “When the media report the truth, they are committing treason (‘aid and comfort’) by failing to support the Supreme Leader.”"

    To be fair to RCD, when he answered my question as to how he would seek to “persuade” the media to spin the news in the way he wants, he did not suggest anything with which a libertarian could disagree.

    Personally I am delighted that the media did not all fall for the pro-war nonsense, but as long as RCD and those who share his views confine themselves to boycotts etc (rather than invoking State power, allegations of treason etc) then I don’t see that anti-war libertarians like me can have any complaint.

  • R.C. Dean

    Geez, I haven’t even boycotted anyone. I think the media is perfectly free (of state suasion) to be idiots, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. After all, you aren’t free unless you are free to be wrong.

    As I pointed out above, I do not want a media that fails to criticize or point out shortcomings. This is an absolutely critical part of the feedback loop that makes Western civilization, and America in particular, the most successful to date. However, too much negative feedback is just as much a distortion of reality as too much positive feedback. If we don’t recognize our successes, we can’t build on them, just as we can’t correct our mistakes if we don’t recognize them.

    The media, for a number of reasons (political bias, if it bleeds it leads, self-image as oppositional, etc.) is providing a distorted feedback loop right now. It just so happens that this distorted feedback is undermining our war against genocidal maniacs. To me, that is something of consequence.

  • Cobden Bright

    “The media have to understand that they are not neutral bystanders, but, against their will, have been made into combatants in this war. The only question is, whose side will they aid? So far, the verdict is pretty clear that the mainstream media, unwitting as it is, is giving aid and comfort to the enemy.”

    The media only publish stories because they think the public are interested in hearing them. The content of the media is therefore primarily the result of the interests of the general population. If the media are unwittingly helping terrorists, then so are the American public.

  • R.C. Dean

    Cobden, I think you seriously underestimate the self-image and self-importance of the media, and its capacity for controlling its own content.

    One has only to go back to they NYT kerfuffle over female membership at the Augusta Country Club to understand that many media outlets publish stories, or at least shape stories, based on what they want the public to hear, not what the public necessarily wants.

    I believe that the public market share for relentless one-sided negativity about the Iraqi situation is probably somewhat less than the 90% share that such stories have in the elite media.