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.

FILED UNDER: Iraq War, , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Paul says:

    So…. the media goes stupid over a few panties on people’s heads and it is Rumsfeld’s fault?

    Where the the media’s responsibility?

    Let’s look at facts. So far he have 7 people who put panties on prisoners’ heads. It is now approaching a month at the top of the news cycle.

    The term overkill seems woefully inadequate.

  2. Kate says:

    I agree with Paul. Presumably, the media is made up of adults, who have a responsibility to their professional code of conduct and to report the whole truth – not just their sensationalist, entertainment-quality version of pick and choose truth. Or lie. Or whatever.

    There may be few who want to lose the war in Iraq, but there are many who want to lose for the time being in order to achieve their political aims. They think there’s a difference – that the latter serves a greater good.

    While information dissemination is an important role of government, it is not the primary one. In a democratic society, we should be able to depend upon those whose job it is to desseminate information to behave with ethics, honesty and responsbility.

    At this moment, they are not.

  3. rockefeller says:

    I honestly doubt that there is anyone in the mainstream press who seriously wants the U.S. to “lose” in Iraq.

    I know some people may feel vindicated with their anti-war position if the United States doesn’t achieve all their goals. But I don’t think they want that to happen.

    Kind of like a “I told you so, Unfortunately” kind of position.

    I think understanding that is the key to understanding the other side.

  4. Kate says:

    If the coverage were even, and placed equal emphasis on the progress, and corrections for past errors in reporting, I’d agree with you.

    But it isn’t and they don’t. Every time the media pundits have been proven wrong, or premature, the story is trampled by the goalpost movers.

    These actions speak much louder than tacking on insincere disclaimers like “unfortunately” to sentences that start “I told you so…”

  5. Dave says:

    Let me display my own cynicism about the press’s cynicism: What makes you think they would give “all the information available” any coverage? It’s not like it suits their biases, so obviously it’s not news.