Are war reporters manufacturing a picture of a failing war effort?
November 1, 2001 8:22 AM   Subscribe

Are war reporters manufacturing a picture of a failing war effort? Slate's William Saletan makes some interesting points. Reporters get frustrated simply reporting the same stuff each day -- they want news. With the current rarity of dramatic events in Afghanistan, Saletan suggests, media outlets are growing impatient, and letting their "professional biases" distort the picture they present. (Shucks. If only Bin Laden had tried to escape in a white Ford Bronco....)
posted by mattpfeff (27 comments total)
 
Yes, impatience leads to the manufacture of narratives. (Remember that September 11th had no "news agenda", because it was just a series of awful things happening.) But Saletan falls into the same trap:

Since Oct. 7, we’ve killed a lot of Taliban soldiers and destroyed a lot of Taliban infrastructure without losing an American soldier in combat. But according to the media, that’s not the story.

The death toll is frankly unknown; the impact on the infrastructure is hard to establish; Saletan presupposes an established narrative which is being contradicted by the media, when none exists.
posted by holgate at 8:39 AM on November 1, 2001


i'm surprised there haven't been more articles like this. i find it interesting that so many people question information that the government puts out, but tacitly accept the media's presentation of that information as near-Biblical truth. playing devil's advocate is good for democracy, but it needs to be played with every relevant player in the game - including the media and other members of the private sector that have their own interests in this conflict.

There's a similar column in the NY Post today.
posted by lizs at 8:44 AM on November 1, 2001


If only Bin Laden had tried to escape in a white Ford Bronco....)

...thowing the dismembered penis of his abusive lover out the window...
posted by adampsyche at 8:47 AM on November 1, 2001


If only Bin Laden had tried to escape in a white Ford Bronco....)

...thowing the dismembered penis of his abusive lover out the window...


...and then had an affair with his intern...
posted by Qambient at 8:51 AM on November 1, 2001


If only Bin Laden had tried to escape in a white Ford Bronco....)

...thowing the dismembered penis of his abusive lover out the window...

...and then had an affair with his intern...


...and then lost Florida by like 600 votes...
posted by luser at 9:00 AM on November 1, 2001


Lizs, that's the power of the press. It's also why PR is more effective than advertising; if you can get the media to talk about something, it's three times more likely to be believed than if you advertise it.

I think part of the reason we're seeing the media coverage become negative is because of history. The press is sensitive to the appearance that they're acting as a propaganda mouthpiece for the gov't, as they were during WWII and early in the Vietnam war. They're trying to distance themselves from the government so as to appear more neutral, even though the public (those on MeFi, at least) know better.

We may see the reporting shift again to a more balanced approach, but without fuller disclosure from the gov't and a better, independent assessment of the Afghanistan War (there, I said it), I doubt it'll happen.
posted by me3dia at 9:18 AM on November 1, 2001


... and then entered his child into a series of demented kiddie beauty pageants...
posted by Mid at 9:19 AM on November 1, 2001


I think part of the reason we're seeing the media coverage become negative is because of history.

me3dia, that is a fascinating question. Maureen Dowd actually had an op-ed piece in yesterday's NYTimes in which she talked about a historic reversal of perspective: For once, the public is up at arms and the government is being cautious, and thinking long-term.

Some of her words:

In an odd role reversal, the country is more gung-ho than the administration. And the Pentagon seems more skittish about the mounting number of civilian casualties and more consumed with winning Afghan hearts than the rest of America is.

Back then Walter Cronkite famously wondered what we were doing in Vietnam. Now Tom Brokaw presses Donald Rumsfeld about whether we can ever succeed in Afghanistan unless we put in "a division-size force, seize an airport, make that the base of operations."

posted by mattpfeff at 9:27 AM on November 1, 2001


And then been returned to his father in Cuba
posted by Outlawyr at 9:31 AM on November 1, 2001


If only Bin Laden had tried to escape in a white Ford Bronco....)

...thowing the dismembered penis of his abusive lover out the window...

...and then had an affair with his intern...

...and then lost Florida by like 600 votes...

... and then entered his child into a series of demented kiddie beauty pageants...

...and then been returned to his father in Cuba


...and a shark attacked him while he was swimming...
posted by matteo at 9:34 AM on November 1, 2001


If only Bin Laden had tried to escape in a white Ford Bronco....)
...thowing the dismembered penis of his abusive lover out the window...
...and then had an affair with his intern...
...and then lost Florida by like 600 votes...
... and then entered his child into a series of demented kiddie beauty pageants...
...and then been returned to his father in Cuba
...and a shark attacked him while he was swimming...
...and during reconstructive surgery they accidentally sewed back on his abusive lover's penis, which then began to give him orders, you know, like all penises, and it told him...
posted by Zootoon at 9:47 AM on November 1, 2001


Wow, it's alt.mefi.cascade!
posted by MrBaliHai at 9:47 AM on November 1, 2001


If only Bin Laden had tried to escape in a white Ford Bronco....)

...thowing the dismembered penis of his abusive lover out the window...

...and then had an affair with his intern...

...and then lost Florida by like 600 votes...

... and then entered his child into a series of demented kiddie beauty pageants...

...and then been returned to his father in Cuba

...and a shark attacked him while he was swimming...
...and during reconstructive surgery they accidentally sewed back on his abusive lover's penis, which then began to give him orders, you know, like all penises, and it told him...


AND THEN DOUBLE-POSTED a linkless post!!!!
posted by remlapm at 9:49 AM on November 1, 2001


Well, so much for serious discussion...

I might as well join in:

...so he opened an attachment marked "READ_THIS.vbs" and spammed a virus to all of Al'Qaeda...
posted by me3dia at 9:55 AM on November 1, 2001


Donald Rumsfeld eloquently took on the wobblers in his press conference today, by explaining how the U.S. has spent more than a measly 25 days winning most of its previous wars, but still has gone on to win them.
posted by frednorman at 10:03 AM on November 1, 2001


Rummy's comments here.
posted by lizs at 10:22 AM on November 1, 2001


War is inheritently a human failure anyway.
posted by mmarcos at 10:42 AM on November 1, 2001


I find it interesting that this is being portrayed as a flaw in the media. I actually think it is a failure of gov't PR. You have an inflamed population that is prepared to send their sons and daughters to possible death. You have an identifiably evil opponent who harbors an even more evil terrorist and his organization. But support starts petering out or starts to appear to peter out (to some writers).

Why?

Because this war is being fraught with overly tight media control under the rubric of national security. Sure they show a few bombing runs and couple of smart bombs hitting caves but the details are so scarce that there is almost no point in even trying to follow this war. Its like putting together a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle and you only get 2 pieces a day.

The over reliance on national security censorship has resulted in the population being denied their role as supporters. How can you support something if you can't even see a vague outline of what it is? I can't cheer for a sports team that I have never seen or heard play.

The need to loosen up the censorship a bit and release information on some of their broad objectives (or even some false objectives!) and the progress being made towards them.

Squandering popular support might be more of a threat than releasing information.
posted by srboisvert at 12:51 PM on November 1, 2001


More than looser lips in government, I think this war needs less coverage. It's not going to deliver the constant stream of new information and obvious progress that the media is looking for, so they should (gasp!) go home. Report when there's news, not just because it's there.
posted by me3dia at 1:11 PM on November 1, 2001


srboisvert. We live in a culture of instant gratification and instant information. Thanks to TV, Radio, and internet instead of hearing about tragedies and wars we get to witness them live on our mediums, and we are spoiled by it.

This war isn’t going to be won by who has the best army. It’s going to be won by who has the best intelligence. I simply don’t think its the best idea to start giving out information to appease the press just because they have had little to talk about other then the fact all we know is we got attacked and we are responding and some sick person(s) is mailing anthrax.

What else besides the objectives of removing the terrorists and those who harbor them do you want to know? Do you really need to know how many ground troops are on the ground? Do you really need to know their plans and targets? Maybe their average shoe size would be of some use to you.

You can’t cheer for a team you haven’t heard or seen play? do you think is a game?

I hate to break it to you but it’s not a game. People are dead, dieing and will die. And the more info you know about our “objectives” the more they know.

If you really need know what’s going on in Afghanistan you can always charter a flight into Pakistan and walk across the border set up a lawn chair, grab a brewsky and enjoy the show.
posted by Qambient at 2:09 PM on November 1, 2001


Report when there's news, not just because it's there.

I couldn't disagree more. Deciding that "news has happened" is one of the best ways to impose an agenda, and in doing so portray a false impression of what's happening in a region. That's one thing that the BBC does well: by having established correspondents and bureaux, they build up contacts and sources, and get a sense of the context in which events take place; whereas when the world's media descends upon a region for a couple of weeks, unfamiliar with the surroundings and forced to scrabble for translators and guides, you're more likely to get a tourist's-eye view of events.

(There was a piece in today's Private Eye on how ABC World News managed completely to misreport demonstrations in Quetta, simply because they didn't have people on the ground who knew what happened.)

Qambient: you're quite right about the strategic role of intelligence, but the interaction between the battlefield and the home front has been transformed in the last decade. To steal from the Cluetrain Manifesto, "wars are conversations". In short, if you don't hear something positive from your own side, it'll be challenged and subverted by what comes from elsewhere: "hyperlinks subvert hierarchies." This is a structural problem that governments must deal with; they can deal with it, and I pray they will. Because it's not going away any time soon.
posted by holgate at 2:21 PM on November 1, 2001


Holgate, I'm not saying they should make judgement calls on what's news, I'm saying in the absence of news the reportage should cease. What we've got going on here is 24-hour, around the clock coverage letting us know that nothing new is happening. What is currently passing as breaking news has a tendency toward being the television equivalent of a "live" webcam trained on an empty room.

We don't need an update unless there's something real to know. Do you really want constant updates on whether the proverbial jello has set?
posted by me3dia at 3:17 PM on November 1, 2001


We don't need an update unless there's something real to know.

"Something real"? Again, isn't that a judgement call, which presumes that certain things aren't simply unworthy of a slot on the evening news, but not "real" enough? (Or are they perhaps too "surreal"?)

I think we're basically agreed on the general principle here: around the clock "Bombcam" isn't helpful. But that's a matter of news formatting: that you get "Bombcam" coverage is an indictment of what happens when the media descend on a region, and lack the capacity to provide anything other than an outsider's impression. The BBC -- especially the World Service -- has done a pretty decent job of widening the scope, talking to refugees and local politicians, getting to stories that aren't being pre-spun.

I'm not so naive as to think that it isn't adding its own spin, but compared to some American networks, it's much more nuanced and, frankly, human. It helps that the BBC's Pashtun and Dari radio services have the respect of the Afghan people, established over many years of providing an alternative source of news to the state broadcaster. So again, it's about establishing conversations.
posted by holgate at 3:38 PM on November 1, 2001


It's very simple to explain why the quality of journalism has been so low over the past few weeks. This is not a war where the front-line is easy or safe to access. Both sides are engaging in propaganda, demonisation and misinformation. The journalists are largely learning about the conflict, politics and the historical background as they go. Specialists in war reporting and analysis are few and far between. Believe it or not, some of the most credible and insightful reporting can be done by analysing publicly available information and keeping an eagle eye on every media announcement. I studied under the man who wrote Defence and the Media in Time of Limited War. I recommend that people who are interested in these issues give it a read.
posted by skinsuit at 4:05 PM on November 1, 2001


I think there is something to be said for the idea that modern journalists know too little of war. Certainly that's even true of acknowledged experts such as Mark Bowden, the author of Black Hawk Down, which is absolutely a classic work that must be read to have an understanding of what we are and will be doing in Afghanistan. Bowden is a journo working for the Philly Enquirer; before beginning his research for the ten-part series that later became the book, he had never held a gun. Afterward, he was invited to speak at the War College, where Pentagon experts asked him to pontificate on their jobs. And to this day he claims not to be able to identify a Bradley Fighting Vehicle on sight.

I believe many of the journalists asking inane questions would be better if they'd have read that book. Some of them had better bone up on military hardware and talk to a lot more grunts, too. There's a reflexive anti-war attitude that isn't nearly as dramatic as the right portrays it but shows up rhetorically in the kinds of questions asked. The sad thing is that they ask these questions of people like Rumsfeld because they are available; they don't {get to} ask {many} questions of the smiling Taliban PR guys (beardo and patch). So the US message is undercut, but the Taliban message gets through unfiltered (perhaps denoted as such, but nevertheless). It's a problem for journalists, especially TV journalists, who deal in imagery and moments. The idea of television is that it provides you that unfiltered view into something, thus it doesn't lend itself to reflectivity. Probably the clearest example of this is the temptation to show the knot of protestors burning the US flag, rather than panning around the mostly quiet square of curious but non-participating observers. Yes, the flag-burning is a great TV image, but it's a dishonest portrayal of reality.

The assignment process also puts individuals into something like "deep cover" (I mean that as a pun) roles, where they only increase their focus, hoping for the editorial process putting together the 22-minute nightly news show to provide perspective and balance in the deeply-focussed stories it chooses. But it doesn't always work out that way.
posted by dhartung at 4:49 PM on November 1, 2001


Agreed we are, holgate. My basic point is the same as yours: the coverage we're getting is shoddy, due to several factors, and the Bombcam (good term!) is only exacerbating the problem. I agree that the BBC is doing a much better job, as is NPR from what I've heard (although their coverage is starting to sound kind of like MeFi's: lots of dead horse beating).

Hopefully as the war lengthens, we'll see more nuanced coverage from the rest of the (nonprint) media.
posted by me3dia at 5:09 PM on November 1, 2001


that you get "Bombcam" coverage is an indictment of what happens when the media descend on a region, and lack the capacity to provide anything other than an outsider's impression.

It's not as simple as that, though. The majority of the American public only wants the outsider's perspective, and the same goes for the major media outlets. They want to see the U.S. come in and kick ass, and exact the necessary justice for what was done on our own turf. The U.S. government has done everything it could to say, hey, this is going to take a while, and it's not going to be fun -- but we're not actually prepared for that. It's interesting: for once, the U.S. could actually use a state-run media outlet, to better educate its people. The mainstream media, still too accustomed to treating news as entertainment, hasn't caught up yet.

I agree with what's been said here, about what defines good journalism. But the current war coverage is indicative not so much of poor journalism as it is of a misguided purpose and a poor understanding of what to expect in a war of this nature.
posted by mattpfeff at 9:05 PM on November 1, 2001


« Older America's Terrorist Training Camp   |   Love the Iron Chef? Be the Iron Chef! Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments