Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Press is too liberal? Reality and the New York Review of Books

The New York Review of Books has recently published an article with the disturbing title, "The Press: the enemy within". There's more than a whiff of McCarthyism in a title like that, but as one might guess, this is not a McCarthyism of the Right. The burden of the article is to paint the key institutions of the news media as pawns of the Establishment in general and the Pentagon in particular.

These kinds of articles need to be taken with some seriousness, in part because they reflect what many American liberals think about the press, and in part because they reflect what many reporters think about themselves.

The central proof of the press's conservative bias is the failure of the press to realize that Saddam Hussein did not have WMDs. But the article goes on to run through several criticisms that pretty much anybody would agree with: the search for ratings, the cult of celebrity, and the willingness of the press to invest much energy in puffing things like Time's 100 most influential people at the expense of real news.

But the article seems most exercised about the failure of the press to give sufficient print to civilian casualties in Iraq, and allegations of American atrocities: "When NBC cameraman Kevin Sites filmed a US soldier fatally shooting a wounded Iraqi man in Fallujah, he was harassed, denounced as an antiwar activist, and sent death threats. Such incidents feed the deep-seated fear that many US journalists have of being accused of being anti-American, of not supporting the troops in the field. "

Of course, Sites was harrassed in this way for very good reasons. The "Iraqi man" was an armed terrorist whom the soldier believed was pretending to be dead--a tactic that terrorists had been using to kill numerous American soldiers. After the Sites video was used to whip up much anti-American hysteria all across the world, a careful review vindicated the soldier. But not before much damage had been done to the reputation of the country.

More to the point, the press coverage of Fallujah highlighted the exact opposite problem: the basically complete indifference of the press to American victories and successes, and a single-minded focus on casualties and atrocity allegations. The end of 1984 battle of Fallujah was a brilliant piece of soldiering: the Americans cleared a major city of terrorists in a short period of time with exceptionally few American casualties. Yet the press basically ignored the tremendous success of the battle, the skill and bravery of the American soldiers--and invested a vast amount of coverage instead in the Sites video. In football terms, this was like winning a major playoff game, and finding that the headline the next day focussed on a sportwriter's claim that the hometeam should have been called offsides.

The real problems of the press are much different, and they transcend any standard liberal/conservative divide:

1. The press sends reporters who with few exceptions are simply unqualified to cover the war. In order to cover the war, a reporter should be expert in three areas: a) they should be fluent in Arabic; b) they should experts in Iraq and Islamic culture; c) they should know something about war. But few American reporters have any expertise in any of these three areas. The NY Review rightly notes part of the problem with the war reporters: "The simple lack of language skills is one reason. Captain Zachary Miller, who commanded a company of US troops in eastern Baghdad in 2004 and who is now studying at the Kennedy School of Government, told me that of the fifty or so Western journalists who went out on patrol with his troops, hardly any spoke Arabic, and few bothered to bring interpreters."

2. The press doesn't understand strategy: this again is related to the fact that the reporters basically lack a military background, and don't know an M-1 from an M-16. It's not an exaggeration to say that Americans get better covervage of the Super Bowl than they get of the war in Iraq. The team that does the Super Bowl coverage will mostly be composed of ex-NFL pros, often hall-of-famers. The contrast with the military ignorance of American war reporters is striking. By contrast, the NY Review is easily impressed: "The nation's principal news organizations deserve praise for remaining committed to covering the war in the face of lethal risks, huge costs, and public apathy. Normally The Washington Post has four correspondents in the country, backed by more than two dozen Iraqis, as well as three armored cars costing $100,000." Pathetic. That's substantially less than any network will invest in covering a Washington Redskins football game. But I suppose the Redskins have higher television ratings.

3. The press doesn't know how to prioritize coverage. Related again to #1 and #2. Decisions about what to emphasize depend on understanding the flow and progress of the war. But in the absence of any real understanding of war, the press finds it easier to simply hype the casualties to the exclusion of anything else. So in a study of the coverage by ABC/CBS/NBC from January through September of 2005:

Few stories focused on the heroism or generous actions of American soldiers. Just eight stories were devoted to recounting episodes of heroism or valor by U.S. troops, and another nine stories featured instances when soldiers reached out to help the Iraqi people. In contrast, 79 stories focused on allegations of combat mistakes or outright misconduct on the part of U.S. military personnel.

8 vs. 79. But the NYReview of Books thinks that the press isn't focussing enough on atrocities and civilian casualties.

Conclusion: in the most important war of our generation, the major news media simply cannot be relied on to cover the war in an accurate and informed way. The real coverage is now on-line: StrategyPage, AustinBay, Juan Cole, and the milblogs are the only place where anything like serious coverage is going on. And that is at a certain level good news: the soldiers actually fighting in Iraq report that morale is high and that we're winning. One can hope that at some point the press will cover the story.

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