Thomas Sowell believes the press is giving us a distorted version of reality by overplaying the Abu Ghraib scandal and other setbacks in Iraq, possibly undermining the war effort.
THE AMERICAN Civil War was not about conditions at the notorious Andersonville prison in Georgia, and the war in Iraq is not about conditions at the Abu Ghraib prison. Terrible things happened in both military prisons, but that was a small part of both these wars.
When our troops are putting their lives on the line for this country, thousands of miles away, surely it is not too much to ask of the rest of us back home to act like adults and put things in perspective – even during an election year. That includes the media. Sometimes the Fourth Estate seems more like a fifth column.
I’ve seen the “fifth column” reference made several times of late and am uneasy with it. I understand the argument–that negative press coverage hurts our cause–and sometimes lament the passing of the “good old days” when the American press was decidedly on our side. We should be careful, though, in arguing that those who aren’t actively helping are intentionally trying to undermine the war effort. With the exceptions of some extremists in the commentariat, I don’t think any serious figure in the American press is rooting for us to lose. I just think the commercial aspect of the press, its preference for bad or shocking news–“If it bleeds, it leads,” “man bites dog,” etc.–and its evolution in the last 30-odd years into a cynical institution have overriden its former instinct to actively support our war aims once we’re engaged.
The story of what happened at Abu Ghraib prison was told by the American military authorities months ago. This was not some cover-up that the media exposed. What the media did, irresponsibly, was send inflammatory photographs around the world.
In an age when some in the media are gross enough to release photographs of Princess Diana’s dying moments, perhaps it is too much to expect forbearance about releasing photos that can only help our enemies around the world.
CNN had the forbearance to withhold information about far worse things that were done during the Saddam Hussein regime for fear of having their Baghdad office closed down. But apparently that was more important than the war in Iraq.
Some say the camera doesn’t lie, but it can grossly mislead. If these same photos were released at some future time, after those responsible had been court-martialed and punished, that would present a very different picture and the military authorities would be freer to pinpoint blame.
I agree with Sowell here about the priorities issue and the fact that the drip-drip-drip of photos aren’t truly “news” but just added sensationalism. That said, it’s the job of the Administration, and especially the Defense Department, to manage these things. Rumsfeld and company allowed the press to get out ahead of this story, allowing the president to get blindsided by events. Further, it has done a lousy job of damage control. Machiavelli taught us centuries ago that bad news must be delivered swiftly. Once the story hit the press, DoD should have been burying them with all the information available.
The feeding frenzy over prison conditions in Iraq is just the latest in a long series of irresponsible media outbursts. The first sandstorm that forced allied troops to pause on the road to Baghdad brought out media cries of “quagmire.” Missing items from an Iraqi museum while the war was raging provoked an international orgy of indignation against the United States – and nothing like an apology when the items were later found, in the hands of Iraqis.
The current urban warfare in Iraq, bad as it is, does not compare with the disaster created by the last big German counterattack in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. Yet nobody called that a quagmire or a sign that we were losing the war – and, in fact, the Germans surrendered less than six months later.
It is hard to think of a war in which we did not confront terrible setbacks at some point, including the American military defeats in the war for independence, the British burning of the White House during the War of 1812, numerous bloody disasters during the Civil War, and Pearl Harbor in World War II.
No one in World War II demanded that President Franklin D. Roosevelt present them with a timetable for the end of the war, much less for when our military occupation would end in Europe. Nor did anyone demand to know how much the war would cost in dollars and cents.
Sowell is certainly right here. As I’ve noted before, we lost more people in the first few minutes of the Normandy invasion and Iwo Jima–and at countless single battles in the Civil War–than we’ve lost during the entirety of our mission in Iraq. The presence of a hostile press, born of Vietnam and Watergate, and of the 24-hour news hole has made perspective impossible to achieve. Indeed, the blogosphere is itself at the leading edge of this phenomenon, attempting to analyze events in real time long before the information is in. But, again, it’s the job of the administration to deal with this not-so-new reality and get their message out. We’ve done a poor job of informing the public about our progress in Iraq and of convincing people that there’s a plan in place. While the press as a whole was hostile to this mission, there are a number of reporters and major columnists who are predisposed to favorable coverage if they’ve got good things to report.