The Big Picture(s) [Karl]
In the midst of the still-lingering controversy over the truthiness of The New Republic’s “Baghdad Diarist,” more than a few people suggested that war supporters, unable to discredit the real bad news coming from Iraq, targeted the Scott Thomas Beauchamp stories as a weak link.Ã‚Â I cannot speak for everyone who supports the mission in Iraq, but I would submit that Beauchamp’s apparent fables and embellishments are not a “weak link” to be attacked, but simply an egregious example of the establishment media’s flawed coverage of the conflict.Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Accordingly, what follows is an over view of theÃ‚Â establishment media coverage of the conflict in Iraq.
Though public opinion polls consistently show that Americans consider Iraq to be the most important issue facing the country, establishment media has slashed the resources and time devoted to Iraq.Ã‚Â The number of embedded reporters plunged from somewhere between 570 and 750 when the invasion began in March 2003 to as few as nine by October 2006.Ã‚Â The result was the rise of what journalists themselves call “hotel journalism” and “journalism by remote control.”Ã‚Â Janet Reitman, reporting for Rolling Stone, described the state of the media in early 2004:
When I arrive in Baghdad in April, most American journalists are holed up in their rooms, reporting the war by remote: scanning the wires, working their cell phones, watching broadcasts of Al Jazeera. In many cases, they’ve been reduced to relying on sources available to anyone with an Internet connection…Ã‚Â While Arabic and European media such as The Guardian and Le Monde manage to cover the war on the ground, American reporters seldom interview actual Iraqis. Instead, they talk to U.S. officials who are every bit as isolated as they are, or rely on local stringers and fixers, several of whom have been killed while working for Americans. “We live in a bubble,” grumbles one AP reporter. “If we know one percent of what’s going on in Iraq, we’re lucky.”
There are exceptions of course, though the number of establishment embeds shows they are literally exceptions.Ã‚Â I do not discount the very real danger to Western journos in Iraq, though independent bloggers like Michael Yon, Bill Roggio, Bill Ardolino, andÃ‚Â Michael J. Totten seem to have been able to embed outside Baghdad with nothing like the institutional support available to journalists from the establishment media… and that the number of such bloggers is growing.Ã‚Â Moreover, I cannot ignore the consequences of “journalism by remote control.”
Noah D. Oppenheim, who visited Baghdad for MSNBC’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews,” noted that “The consequence of this system is that, on television, the story in Iraq is no more than the sum of basic facts, like casualties, crashes, and official pronouncements.”Ã‚Â The data back Oppenheim.Ã‚Â The television airtime devoted to coverage of Iraq has plunged dramatically.Ã‚Â Television networks devoted 4,162 minutes to Iraq in 2003, 3,053 minutes in 2004, 1,534 minutes in 2005 and 1,122 minutes in 2006.Ã‚Â The amount of time and space devoted to Iraq coverage has continued to decline through the first half of 2007.
Bad news stories, especially the daily death tolls, consumed an ever-larger share of this dwindling coverage.Ã‚Â In 2003, it consumed 38% of the networks’ Iraq newshole.Ã‚Â In 2004 and 2005, it consumed 44%.Ã‚Â In 2006, it rose to 56%.Ã‚Â James Q. Wilson observed in the Autumn 2006 City Journal:
When the Center for Media and Public Affairs made a nonpartisan evaluation of network news broadcasts, it found that during the active war against Saddam Hussein, 51 percent of the reports about the conflict were negative. Six months after the land battle ended, 77 percent were negative; in the 2004 general election, 89 percent were negative; by the spring of 2006, 94 percent were negative. This decline in media support was much faster than during Korea or Vietnam.
Nearly two-thirds (.pdf) of Americans still rely on network TV as their primary news source.Ã‚Â Thus, it is not surprising that by mid-2005, the Pew Research Center found that the “steady drip of negative news from Iraq” created a widespread awareness of the rising American death toll that was significantly undermining support for the US military operation.
The establishment media has developed ever more creative ways of reporting US casualties.Ã‚Â For example, in April 2007, the McClatchy newspaper chain reported that “March… marked the first time that the U.S. military suffered four straight months of 80 or more fatalities,” without any suggestion as to why the number 80 had any significance.Ã‚Â Indeed, the four prior months averaged over 80 casualties; they just weren’t as evenly distributed.
The establishment media also has become more willing to show graphic video of US casualties at the hands of the enemy.Ã‚Â CNN aired an insurgent sniper video obtained directly from the enemy.Ã‚Â The NYTÃ‚Â posted video of a Marine being shot, reporting his death before his family could be contacted.Ã‚Â ABC News aired video of a Bradley armored vehicle blown up by an improvised explosive device as six American soldiers died inside, then exploited the grief of family members to attack the current “surge” of troops in Iraq.Ã‚Â Similarly, CBS News spiked a story containing video originally posted on an al Qaeda propaganda website, but posted the same video on its own website.Ã‚Â Throughout the conflict, the establishment media has shied away for the truly graphic images of the enemy beheading civilians.
Conversely, there are the stories “journalism by remote control” misses, or chooses not to cover.Ã‚Â As early as September 2003, establishment reporters admitted that “good news” stories were getting short shrift; three years later, nothing had changed.Ã‚Â If anything, by late 2006, the stories missed were getting larger.
Take, for example, the coverage of events in Anbar province.Ã‚Â In September-November 2006, the Washington Post ran a series of articles suggesting that the US military was unable to defeat the bloody insurgency in western Iraq “or counter al-Qaeda’s rising popularity there.”Ã‚Â These stories were echoed in the New York Times/International Herald Tribune, The Christian Science Monitor, NBC News, ABC News, CNN, the AP and others, down to local TV.
But this was not the only picture of events in Anbar.Ã‚Â In “Will the Real Anbar Narrative Please Stand Up?”, Bill Ardolino juxtaposed the WaPo stories against analysis by bloggers and embedded reporters like the Times of London’s Martin Fletcher and Michael Fumento for the Weekly Standard.Ã‚Â Bill Roggio’s military and intelligence sources were angry over the media’s characterization of the secret reports cited by the WaPo.Ã‚Â Roggio examined how the claims made in the WaPo coverage were taken out of the larger context of events in Anbar.Ã‚Â Roggio and the Mudville Gazette’s “Greyhawk” charted the formation and rise of the Anbar Salvation Council — the alliance of 25 of the province’s 31 tribes in the fight against al Qaeda.Ã‚Â Roggio and Greyhawk followed up when the Anbar tribes got US air and artillery support — a development ignored by the establishment media.
We now know which narrative was more accurate.Ã‚Â Al Qaeda was not increasingly popular in Anbar.Ã‚Â To the contrary, the local tribes were overwhelmingly opposing and increasingly waging war against al Qaeda, with support from the US military.Ã‚Â Bloggers — carefully following and synthesizing information from their own sources, military information, embedded reporters, Arabic media and isolated stories in the establishment media over the course of a year — proved to be better remote journalists than those at the WaPo, NYT, CSM, AP, CNN, NBC and ABC (and any others I have overlooked).
Incidentally, as early as September 2004, Roggio had predicted the tribes would eventually turn on al-Qaeda.Ã‚Â This type of development is crucial to winning a war against an insurgency.Ã‚Â Popular support is key to the continuation of an insurgency; Mao Zedong famously advised his insurgents to “move through the people like a fish moves through water.”Ã‚Â Thus, the magnitude of the media’s failure to recognize the import of the rise of the Anbar Salvation Council — and its portrayal of Anbar province as lost — cannot be overstated.
Even now, generally antiwar media outlets are traveling throughout Iraq and revising their opinions.Ã‚Â The Guardian reports that violence is ebbing and wealth returning to parts of Iraq, Der Spiegel concludes that the “US Military is more successful in Iraq than the world wants to believe,” and even Salon’s correspondent concedes that parts of Iraq actually seem to be getting better.Ã‚Â The establishment media still remains largely confined to quarters in Baghdad.
The other major Iraq story of the period was Pres. Bush’s decision to “surge” US troops in hopes of bringing down escalating sectarian violence.Ã‚Â The establishment media’s coverage was less than subtle.Ã‚Â In December 2006, before the decision was made, NBC News was claiming that it was a “lose-lose” proposition for Pres. Bush.Ã‚Â On January 7, 2007, the WaPo reported on the “growing skepticism inside and outside the administration” over the proposal.Ã‚Â NBC News assembled a panel on the surge composed solely of experts hostile to it.Ã‚Â
When Pres. Bush announced the surge, the poll numbers supporting it increased, but the establishment media — especially CBS –focused almost entirely on negative reaction to it.Ã‚Â If civilian casualties went down, it was because death squads decided to lie low, not because so many militia leaders were detained.Ã‚Â Any increase in US casualties — which would be expected from a strategy that put the troops in among the local population and was more aggressive in going after terrorists — would “cast doubt” on the surge, with CNN International launching a similar attack during a report on soldiers being honored for their valor.Ã‚Â A June terror attack on a Baghdad hotel “was a blow struck against the US plan.”Ã‚Â The August terror bombing of the Yazidis came “just as the American military is claiming the troop surge is making real progress,” andÃ‚Â “dealt a serious blow to the Bush administration’s hopes of presenting a positive picture in a progress report on Iraq.”Ã‚Â The NYT claimed the plan was falling short of its goals in July, and so on.
The reality — at least at the moment — is that the new counter-insurgency strategy has turned the trendline of civilian casualties downward for the first time since (semi-)reliable data has been available.Ã‚Â
When the “surge” of troops into Iraq was completed in June 2007, MNF-Iraq launched the largest offensive since the first phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom ended in the spring of 2003.Ã‚Â Operation Phantom Thunder included operations not only in Baghdad, but also in the “belts” surrounding the capital, as well as in Diyala, southern Salahadin, northern Babil and eastern Anbar provinces. The fighting was most intense in Baqubah, the provincial capital of Diyala (a/k/a Operation Arrowhead Ripper).
Bill Roggio had reported that the US military was laying the groundwork for the Diyala campaign as far back as April 2007, adding that it would not kick into full gear until the full compliment of US forces were deployed into Iraq in late May or early June.
In contrast, the establishment media was caught flat-footed when this massive operation was launched.Ã‚Â EmbeddedÃ‚Â blogger Michael Yon’s dispatch after the first day of battle noted that he and NYT reporter Michael Gordon seemed to be the only media in Baqubah. Yon’s next dispatch noted that he and Gordon had been joined by the L.A. Times, CNN, AP and Joe Klein from Time magazine.Ã‚Â However, the AP would “stay only a few days”; Klein helicoptered in and out the same day.Ã‚Â By July 5th, the media would consist of Yon and two others; two days later it would be Yon and a photographer.
The Columbia Journalism Review noted that the L.A. Times was the only major paper to put the launch of the operation on page one and that CNN was the only notable television coverage of the battle.Ã‚Â Operation Arrowhead Ripper made events in Iraq the second-biggest Big Media story that week – and the top story on television — yet very few journalists were actually there.
Among the stories from Baqubah almost entirely missed by establishment media was the US military’s discovery of mass graves in a neraby village.Ã‚Â Michael Yon photographed and videotaped Iraqi and US soldiers disinterring the remains of adults and children.Ã‚Â The media generally ignored the story, even after Yon offered map coordinates, names of Iraqi and US Army officials, his photographs and videotape, and ultimately permission to use his reports free of charge.Ã‚Â The AP’s Director of Media Relations first claimed that it was not reporting the story because the Iraqi police and US military had not issued a press release about it — even though the AP had Special Correspondent Robert Reid in Baqubah.Ã‚Â The AP then reported the story out of Baghdad, based on vague details supplied by a local stringerÃ‚Â who Yon had interviewed.Ã‚Â Ultimately, the AP gave the story bigger play, using Yon’s material — ten days after the atrocity was discovered.
This last example highlights the risks posed by remote journalism’s reliance on local stringers and fixers.Ã‚Â Western journalists in Iraq are likely to not speak the language or know the culture in depth.Ã‚Â News consumers, however, have no idea how the establishment media vets the locals they entrust to translate or relay the events they ostensibly cover.Ã‚Â The risk of relying on biased stringers and fixers is heightened where (as here) the country in question has long been torn by religious and ethnic strife.Ã‚Â A few more examples show this dynamic has unfolded in Iraq.
On November 15, 2006 the L.A. Times reported the claims of locals that a US airstrike killed at least 30 people in Ramadi (including women and children). A Times correspondent in Ramadi said at least 15 homes were pulverized by aerial bombardment.Ã‚Â By other accounts, those killed were adult males, killed by fire from tanks.Ã‚Â The paper never printed the US military’s denial of an airstrike.Ã‚Â The LAT stringer was accused of having ties to the insurgency by someone purporting to be a US soldier; soldiers stationed in Ramadi claimed the airstrike was a complete fabrication.Ã‚Â Investigating the incident, the blogger Patterico found that people with experience in Iraq noted that al Qaeda either pays off, intimidates, or has sympathizers among many doctors in Iraq and that reports from doctors and Ã¢â‚¬Å“local residentsÃ¢â‚¬Â were highly suspect, as they rarely report males being killed.Ã‚Â The LAT ultimately backed off the claims in its original story, but readers never learned whether the stringer had ties to the insurgency.
In October 2005, there was an airstrike near Ramadi, but the reports from the locals were disputed by the US military.Ã‚Â The story was datelined to Baghdad, but a photograph was taken by Bilal Hussein, an Iraqi stringer working for the AP.Ã‚Â Bilal Hussein grew up in Falluja; in November 2004, an AP reporter interviewed him about his escape from Falluja, which was then under attack from US Marines.Ã‚Â Seemingly staged photos Hussein provided to the AP and Reuters in October 2005 were identified at the Sir Humphrey’s blog.Ã‚Â The National Journal reported that in September 2005, Bilal Hussein provided the AP with images that may have been created for the photographer.Ã‚Â Moreover, the National Journal piece on fauxtography suggests that Santiago Lyon, the AP’s director of photography, is not particularly concerned about staged photos, so long as the photographer does not instigate them (and he apparently asssumes that they do not).
Bilal Hussein — and Lyon — were no strangers to controversy.Ã‚Â In 2004, Bilal Hussein photographed three terrorists in the act of assassinating two Iraqi election workers on Haifa Street. The AP’s Lyon admitted that Hussein was “tipped off” by the terrorists about a “demonstration that was supposed to take place on Haifa Street.” The AP was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for these photos, though former New York Times photographer D. Gorton reviewed the various stories the AP told about the incident and found them “confusing and at times contradictory” and that “there is nothing in the information put forward that would definitively answer critics who believe that the photographer may have been complicit in the event on Haifa St.”Ã‚Â Gorton added:
What is clear is that the photograph, in the editor’s own words, fitted into an editorial view that portrayed Iraq as ungovernable and chaotic. Thus, it tended to confirm that notion, to the AP’s readers, just months before the highly successful election.
In April 2006, Bilal Hussein was detained by the US military as a security threat with Ã¢â‚¬Å“strong ties to known insurgents.Ã¢â‚¬ÂÃ‚Â The AP later reported:
The military said Hussein was captured with two insurgents, including Hamid Hamad Motib, an alleged leader of al-Qaida in Iraq. Ã¢â‚¬Å“He has close relationships with persons known to be responsible for kidnappings, smuggling, improvised explosive device (IED) attacks and other attacks on coalition forces,Ã¢â‚¬Â according to a May 7 e-mail from U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Jack Gardner, who oversees all coalition detainees in Iraq.
Hussein’s case has been reviewed at least three times; he remains in detention.
In April 2005, a CBS stringer was arrested as a suspected insurgent.Ã‚Â CBS revealed the man was referred to the network by a “fixer” in Tikrit — Saddam Hussein’s hometown and an insurgent stronghold — “who has had a trusted relationship with CBS News for two years.”Ã‚Â The stringer was ultimately acquitted, but was detained for a year after an investigative judge decided there was enough evidence to recommend the case be tried.Ã‚Â One would hope that the establishment media would have a higher standard for its employees than “not convicted as an insurgent.”
Similar problems arise even in the context of the establishment media’s police sources.Ã‚Â The best-known example is that of Baghdad Police Capt. “Jamil Hussein” the pseudonymous source for over 60 AP stories, most of which were not corroborated by other press accounts, many of which occurred outside the jurisdictions to which he was assigned, and at least two of which were debunked by bloggers.Ã‚Â The AP, by spinning the case as one of whether the source existed, never acknowledged that he was pseudonymous, in violation of the AP’s own policies.Ã‚Â Nor did the AP directly confront the falsity of his stories of destroyed mosques.
“Jamil Hussein,” however, is not the only police source to have supplied dubious stories to the establishment media. In June 2007, the AP and Reuters ran stories claiming that 20 decapitated bodies had been found in a village southeast of Baghdad.Ã‚Â The stories were based on anonymous police sources in Baghdad (15 miles away) and Kut (75 miles away).Ã‚Â The wire services retracted the stories after they were questioned by blogger Bob Owens.Ã‚Â In August 2007, the wire services in Baghdad reported that 60 people were massacred in Baqubah, but Maj. Rob Parke says that no such bodies were found after days of investigation.
The case of The New Republic’s “Baghdad Diarist” is a variation on this theme.Ã‚Â As Bob Steele, the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at The Poynter Institute school for journalists, told USA Today, Scott Beauchamp’s pseudonymity allowed him to make accusations against others with impunity and to sidestep essential accountability that would exist, were he identified.
The risks of remote journalism are amplified by the danger of groupthink.Ã‚Â At its worst, accesss to the same small set of primary (and perhaps dubious) sources can result in the lead story of The New York Times being cobbled together “out of wire reports and late-night recollections from exhausted correspondents.”Ã‚Â Moreover, as Oppenheim observed, “(m)ost journalists did not support this war to begin with, and feel vindicated whenever the effort stumbles.”Ã‚Â Bartle Bull, who has written about Iraq for the New York Times and lived with a family in Sadr City, went so far as to suggest that the errors of hotel journalism were not those of laziness as much as a “weirdly personal” obsession with the notion that Iraq must fail.Ã‚Â I am generally loathe to attribute to malice that which may be explained by incompetence, but it is possibile that both influence the coverage of Iraq.
The establishment media’s attitude toward the invasion manifested itself — until quite recently — in the frequent invocation of Vietnam as an analogy. As ABC News would later concede, questions about a Vietnam-style “quagmire” haunted the president’s Iraq policy since before a single bomb fell on Baghdad. CNN and the L.A. Times were among those doing the questioning, as was CBS News correspondent Bob Simon, who told USA Today that he opposed any invasion of Iraq back in October 2002.
Within the opening days of the invasion, the Baltimore Sun was claiming that “This war in its early stages recalls the pitched battles and bloody skirmishes of the Vietnam War,” while New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd found it “hard not to have a few acid flashbacks to Vietnam at warp speed.”Ã‚Â Barely aÃ‚Â week into the operation, ABC’s Peter Jennings and CBS’s Lesley Stahl had invoked the Vietnam quagmire, while NBC’s Today Show invited The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh on air a few days later to contend that “it’s never too early” to roll out the Vietnam analogy.Ã‚Â The Scripps-Howard News Service warned that saddam Hussein’s “strategy was to drag America into a Vietnam quagmire.”
After Coalition forces toppled Saddam, the trend only intensified.Ã‚Â John Watson, assistant professor of communications at American University, told the CSM that media skepticism set in more quickly than in Vietnam, beginning with the occupation phase and coinciding with reporters leaving the embedded media program — which is what the aforementioned CMPA study showed as well.Ã‚Â In June, CBS’s Bob Schieffer and others were asking whether the US was involved in a Ã¢â‚¬Å“guerrilla warÃ¢â‚¬Â in Iraq.Ã‚Â By October 2003, former WaPo reporter David Maraniss was insisting that “the echoes are immenseÃ¢â‚¬Â between Iraq and Vietnam on MSNBCÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Hardball with Chris Matthews.Ã‚Â On November 14, 2003, Reuters ran a piece headlined, “US War Dead in Iraq Exceeds Early Vietnam Years,” burying deep within the story the fact that the US presence in Vietnam was tiny for the first four years of its involvement, as compared to the force in Iraq.
President Bush was asked directly about the Vietnam “quagmire” analogy by the establishment media again and again and again.Ã‚Â From the outset of the invasion through mid-July 2007, the TV networks each aired hundreds of stories containing the Iraq-Vietnam comparison; CNN, the NYT and the WaPo have done thousands of them apiece.Ã‚Â The AP has compared Pres. Bush’s rhetoric with that of LBJ, the bad intelligence on Iraqi WMDs with the Gulf of Tonkin, and the Haditha killings with My Lai.Ã‚Â Combined with the ever-increasing percentage of stories devoted to the daily death tolls, the message being conveyed by the establishment media was unmistakable.
It might be asked why the establishment media resorted so early and so often to the Vietnam “quagmire” analogy, and so rarely challenged the subjects of their coverageÃ‚Â who invoked it.Ã‚Â The specious Reuters story aside, US casualties in Iraq have been lighter in Iraq than in Vietnam.Ã‚Â At Slate, even after engaging is some very dubious body count inflation — giving terrorists extra credit for each US soldier killed due to improvements in medical treatment and force protection since Vietnam — Phillip Carter and Owen West came up with an imaginary 2,975 comabt deaths in Iraq during 2004, compared to 4,602 real combat deaths during 1966 in Vietnam.
Nor does the analogy hold for civilian casualties.Ã‚Â In Vietnam, the civilian death rate was about 400 per 100,000 per year.Ã‚Â In Iraq, it has been about 150 per 100,000 people per year.Ã‚Â Moreover, only about ten percent of the deaths in Iraq have been caused by US troops. Controlling for population and duration, Iraqi civilian fatalities from direct US action and crossfire through the end of 2006 were 17Ã¢â‚¬â€œ30 times lower than those from bombing and shelling in Vietnam.
There have been no comparisons of enemy casualties, largely due to the establishment media’s Vietnam Syndrome.Ã‚Â Indeed, when Pres. Bush mentioned that in October, November and the first week of December 2006, Coalition forces killed or captured nearly 5,900 of the enemy, ABC’s Martha Raddatz grilled White House press secretary Tony Snow about it.Ã‚Â Reuters and the WaPo were quick to remind readers that the practice of giving enemy body counts “was discredited during the Vietnam war.”
To be fair, military commanders will say that enemy body counts are of limited use in measuring success against an insurgency.Ã‚Â However, WaPo national security blogger William Arkin was alarmed over a “return to a Vietnam-mentality body count system” when the DoD put out a request for proposals to develop “a system of metrics to accurately assess US progress in the War on Terrorism and identify critical issues hindering progress.” The request never mentioned enemy body counts, let alone require that they be a metric of success.Ã‚Â Given the ongoing debate over whether US policy is creating more terrorists than it is killing, it is odd that the establishment media would be against taking such measurements.Ã‚Â This complete aversion is at least partially rooted in myths about invincible guerrillas and insurgents — myths that US Naval War College Professor Donald Stoker argues are a direct result of AmericaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s collective misunderstanding of its defeat in South Vietnam.
Moreover, as Prof. Stoker noted in the January 2007 issue of Foreign Policy, history shows that insurgents rarely win, though victory over an insurgency usually requires a decade, on average.Ã‚Â A Dupuy Institute study for the DoD showed that even post-World War II insurgencies lost 60% of the time. Of course, each conflict is unique, and the differences are as important as the similarities.Ã‚Â Yet this only underscores the problem of the establishment media perpetuating the single case of Vietnam to frame its “big picture” of the conflict in Iraq.
It could be argued that the media suffers from Vietnam Syndrome because civilian Americans in general tend to lack an understanding of military matters, or because academia tended to lose interest in military history in a nuclear, post-Vietnam era.Ã‚Â But even an establishment media dominated by the Boomer generation that came of age during Vietnam knows that Vietnam was not the end of history.Ã‚Â
In December 2005, the NYT published a chart showing that the casualties from the conflict in Iraq pale in comparison to the Afghan civil war of 1978-2002, the tribal conflict in Rawanda that lasted a mere three months in 1994, the ethnic war in Bosnia from 1992-95, the ongoing mass killing in the Darfur region of Sudan, the Nicaraguan civil war of 1978-90 and — perhaps most telling — the internal sectarian and ethnic violence waged by Saddam Hussein against his fellow Iraqis between 1988-91 (even excluding the Iraq-Iran war).Ã‚Â That the establishment media was content to frame the conflict in Iraq as a replay of Vietnam in the face of this data suggests that the establishment media has been operating with a great deal of groupthink.
Perhaps the most telling expression of the media’s hive mind on Iraq, however, may have come last week, when Pres. Bush gave a major speech on Iraq which included his own Vietnam analogies.Ã‚Â Though Pres. Bush spent more time in his speech comparing aspects of the Iraq conflict to the US experience with postwar Japan and with South Korea, the establishment media has a visceral — and near-unanimously negative — reaction against his references to Vietnam.Ã‚Â
The most absurd reaction had to be that of the NYT, which exclamed that Pres. Bush’s “decision to inject Vietnam into the debate over Iraq was bizarre” — this from a paper which has run roughly 3,000 stories with the comparison and which used the word “quagmire” to describe Iraq in the very same sentence.Ã‚Â The paper’s ostensibly straight news coverage sounded the theme common in most of the establishment media, “Historians Question BushÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Reading of Lessons of Vietnam War for Iraq.”Ã‚Â The major television networks all advanced that theme, soliciting quotes from liberal historians like Douglas Brinkley (the biographer of Bush’s 2004 opponent, Sen. John Kerry), Stanley Karnow (longtime friend of the late North Vietnamese spy Pham Xuan An, who worked for both Time and Reuters) and Robert Dallek (whose Bush Derangement Syndrome was on full display earlier this month in the Washington Post).Ã‚Â The Times of London was able to find historians who agreed with Pres. Bush’s general points; somehow, the establishment media in the US missed them.Ã‚Â Conversely, the media apparently forgot to solicit quotes from the historians now pooh-poohing Vietnam analogies during the years in which the media ran thousands of stories using Vietnam analogies.
The establishment media’s other major theme was to suggest that Pres. Bush was hypocritical for raising a Vietnam analogy after years of rejecting such comparisons.Ã‚Â These media giants were seemingly unaware that Pres. Bush had made similar remarks in October 2005 and April 2007.Ã‚Â Moreover, the suggestion of hypocrisy is an ad hominem attack on Bush, rather than a criticism of the validity of his current argument.
A lesser media theme was the suggestion by historian David C. Hendrickson in the NYT — echoed by David Shuster on MSNBC — that the US was actually to blame for the rise of the Khmer Rouge in CambodiaÃ‚Â — as opposed to blaming North VietnamÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s occupation of Cambodian territory from 1965 onwards to launch attacks on US and South Vietnamese forces in South Vietnam.
The L.A. Times suggested that the “real lesson of Vietnam is that its civil war was a nationalist struggle that toppled no communist ‘dominoes’ across Asia.”Ã‚Â But Lee Kuan Yew,Ã‚Â prime minister of Singapore in 1975, argued that the domino theory would have held true had the US not intervened in Vietnam.Ã‚Â And while glossing over the horrors of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the L.A. Times also managed to entirely miss the nation of Laos, a/k/a the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.
In short, the establishment media response to Pres. Bush’s Vietnam analogies ignored the ongoing historical debate over the cause of the horrors following the US withdrawal from Vietnam and favored an ad hominem claim of hypocrisy over an examination of the merits of Bush’s claims.Ã‚Â The establishment media’s newfound hostility to Vietnam analogies tends to confirm the claims of reporters like Oppenheim and Bull that most establishment journalists are obsessed with the notion that the US must fail in Iraq and feel vindicated whenever the effort stumbles.
At this juncture, just to anticipate what more unhinged readers may want to read into this essay, I emphasize that I am not alleging some sort of conspiracy is involved in these phenomena.Ã‚Â A conspiracy involves an agreement among those involved.Ã‚Â The flaws in the establishment media’s Iraq coverage do not arise from some secret agreement but from their preexisting prejudices, misconceptions or ignorance of military history and theory, journalistic biases toward bad news, economic constraints, and so on.
Thus, as a supporter of the mission, I feel no need to discredit all of the bad news coming out of Iraq.Ã‚Â I do note that all of the bad news coming out of Iraq is nowhere near the bad news that came out of Vietnam, despite thousands of news stories invoking that conflict.Ã‚Â Ã‚Â I also note that all of the bad news coming out of Iraq is nowhere near the bad news that came out of other recent conflicts.Ã‚Â It is particularly worth noting that all of the bad news coming out of Iraq is nowhere near the bad news that could have come out of Saddam-era Iraq, had ex-CNN news chief Eason Jordan not suppressed that news and recycled Saddam’s agitprop.Ã‚Â Eason Jordan later resigned from CNN after he baselessly accused US troops of targeting journalists in Iraq — a claim challenged at the time by US Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), but not by the establishment media.
While on the subject, we could apply Vietnam analogies to the establishment media’s performance on Iraq.Ã‚Â In Vietnam, Time and Reuters hired a North Vietnamese spy to cover the war; in Iraq, the establishment media has hired stringers with alleged ties to insurgents and run dubious stories and staged photographs they provided.Ã‚Â In Vietnam, none of the networks made any effort to train their people to comprehend military matters; there was little incentive to learn the language, with the result that most correspondents were isolated from the Vietnamese, their culture, and their problems.Ã‚Â In Iraq, journalists are isolated from most people outside their hotel accomodations in Baghdad.Ã‚Â In Vietnam, the media consensus was that the Tet offensive was an Ã¢â‚¬Å“unmitigated defeatÃ¢â‚¬Â for the United States; Walter Cronkite would claim the US was “mired in stalemate.”Ã‚Â Even the NYT now concedes that Tet “was a military defeat for the Communist guerrillas and their North Vietnamese sponsors.”Ã‚Â Yet in Iraq, the establishment media missed the seeds of the counter-insurgency in Anbar province, the loss of popular support for the jihadis and the biggest battle of the second biggest offensive of the conflict.Ã‚Â Moreover, the establishment media has continued to suggest that this or that individual terror attack “casts doubt” on the current strategy, even as civilian casualties decrease.
Of course, there are differences as well.Ã‚Â The establishment media turned negative on Iraq much faster than it did in Vietnam (or Korea), with much less justification.Ã‚Â In the Vietnam era, Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America, while the phrase “credibility gap” was popularized to describe public skepticism about the Johnson administration’s statements and policies on the Vietnam War.Ã‚Â Today, most Americans believe the establishment media is often inaccurate and more are confident that the US military is providing an accurate picture of Iraq than are confident of the establishment media.
In sum, most Americans do not trust the establishment media coverage of Iraq.Ã‚Â Journalists, including those from establishment media, point out the chronic and systemicÃ‚Â problems with their work. Ã‚Â Yet in some circles, for whatever reason, it is criticism of the establishment media’s Iraq coverage which is seen as odd, rather than the coverage itself.