Jul 8th 2010

The Fourth Estate Indeed!

by Michael Brenner

Dr. Michael Brenner is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations. He publishes and teaches in the fields of American foreign policy, Euro-American relations, and the European Union. He is also Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. Brenner is the author of numerous books, and over 60 articles and published papers on a broad range of topics. These include books with Cambridge University Press (Nuclear Power and Non-Proliferation) and the Center For International Affairs at Harvard University (The Politics of International Monetary Reform); and publications in major journals in the United States and Europe, such as World Politics, Comparative Politics, Foreign Policy, International Studies Quarterly, International Affairs, Survival, Politique Etrangere, and Internationale Politik. His most recent work is Toward A More Independent Europe, Egmont Institute, Brussels.

War is the enemy of democracy. A protracted war is its nemesis. That means not only undermining civil liberties but an erosion of the honest discourse that is the essence of democracy. A truthful press is the first casualty.

The press' performance in Iraq and Afghanistan has been appalling. They have continually failed to meet their responsibilities to American democracy. There are three paramount functions that the press is supposed to perform: to inform accurately, completely and fairly; to observe critically the conduct of our government and to shed light on any dubious activities; and to sustain a public dialogue on policies of consequence. The media generally have fallen far short of this standard.

The bill of indictment is a comprehensive one. For years the press served as propagandist and cheerleader for everything that the Bush administration did. Even the august New York Times'played this role - most notably in acting as a vehicle for transmitting the skein of lies that paved the way for the Iraq adventure (remember Linda Miller & Michael Gordon on WMDs).. Let us recall as well its decision to bury the story of illegal surveillance and wiretaps of Americans in the U.S. for a year because, as its Executive Editor feebly said, the paper's policy is not to display details of legal matters. This is the rational of a kept press in an autocracy.

Second, passive acceptance of embedding on the Pentagon's terms has rendered most journalists loyal domestics most of the time. Ninety percent of the reporting from Baghdad (75% from Kabul) has been little more than a cut-and-paste collage of official communiques laced with the occasional calculated leak. It could have been done in New York or Washington just as well at less sweat. Reporters were unable even to communicate with the locals in their native language. Why didn't someone at the NYT think of telephoning Yousef Ibrahim (their senior Middle East correspondent of yesteryear), who is still active in the Gulf, instead of relying on a bunch of novices? It wasn't until three years into the Iraqi occupation that someone came up with the breakthrough idea of using Iraqi journalists as stringers. As a consequence, the gross distortions embedded in official explanations of what was happening were not subject to critical analysis or challenge.

Three, this state of affairs helps us to understand the paucity of reporting about Iraqi politics. Insightful reports on the behind the scenes politicking among Iraqi factions was a rare find. This despite the fact that Iraqi politicians at the other end of the Green Zone could be reached easily and safely by golf cart or skate board. Our ace journalists missed everything: inter alia, the split between Sunni tribes and the violent Sunni fundamentalist groups; Washington's massive support for Aliya Alawi (three times); Chalabi's self-exposure as an accomplice of Tehran (even when he was feeding the Bushies Iran-serving and self-serving tall tales); anything having to do with the Sadrists - most significant being how the Iranians forced al-Sadr to cease and desist at the time of the combat in Basra and Baghdad with Maliki/Petraeus in early 2008; how Maliki outsmarted us on the SOFA agreement; the impact of Baghdad's Sunni/Shi'ite civil war on the constellation of political forces in Iraq.

This failure explains the resilience of the great 'Surge' myth that deserves a Pulitzer Prize in the Fiction category. Embedded journalists are compromised journalists - as we understand what 'embedded' means nowadays. If David Halberstam and his colleagues had been similarly 'embedded,' the country would have swallowed whole the fictional tale of success in Vietnam. Most recently, it was embedded journalists, including the Washington Post's star reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who for a whole month told us of Marjah, an imaginary city of 80,000 when in truth it is a dusty crossroads village. Hastings of Rolling Stone is on the mark when he says that if he wanted to be a Pentagon publicist, he would have studied advertising instead of journalism.

Specifically, how well has the press served the public interest in its explication of the Obama administration's judgments and choices on Afghanistan? Here are a few basic questions that deserve clarification. (1) Who is the enemy? In December, Obama said it was al-Qaeda; in June it was the Taliban. Are they identical? What distinction is made between Afghan Taliban and Pakistani Taliban? If the core of the movement is now across the border, how can our forces in South and East Afghanistan achieve an enduring 'victory'? (2) Yet, if we move into Pakistan, what dire consequences await us? What are the chances of the Pakistani government giving us permission to take over the Northwest quadrant of their country? What is likely reaction were we to do so without its permission? (3) Obama has said that this is a war we must win? How is that high stake reconciled with a commitment to begin withdrawing forces a year from now? (4) What is the definition of 'success"? Why have we still not gotten an answer from the White House or Obama's minions? (5) The McChrystal affair has exposed the unhappy reality that each of the President's senior officials is flying solo. What does Obama plan to do about this other than urge them to play nicely together?

Has the press demanded answers? I'm not aware of any serious effort to do so. Have we gotten answers from the White House? I'm not aware of any except the mumbo-jumbo on Sunday morning talk shows that passes intellectual muster only by the press participants' kindergarten standards.

Is this judgment too harsh? I suggest a mind experiment. Let's fast forward to next year's Super Bowl. It's Super Bowl fortnight. Let's imagine sports coverage of the superficiality and credulity that has marked the press' treatment of our overlapping interventions in the Greater Middle East. Imaginable? How long would any paper/network offering that sort of vapid coverage stay in business? The prosecution rests.

There are no straightforward fixes for this situation. After all, it is just one expression of the sharp deterioration in American public life generally. Honesty, integrity and fairness are crucial to making hard national choices and to establishing responsibility. Never in abundant supply in any country, they have become so scarce as to threaten the coherence and accountability of our political life. Virtual journalism is one of its symptoms.

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Apr 8th 2020
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