The Discerning Texan

All that is necessary for evil to triumph, is for good men to do nothing.
-- Edmund Burke
Friday, November 24, 2006

Today's Must Read: The Media at War

From James Q. Wilson of the City Journal, one of the most compelling articles I have read about the critical role of the media: both when America has won wars and when it has lost them; a pattern which unfortunatly is playing out at present as we struggle in Iraq and Afthanistan. The article, entitled The Media at War, is quite long but you should not hesitate to read it all now; Wilson demonstrates that his but I have highlighted some relevant portions for brevity's sake:

We are told by careful pollsters that half of the American people believe that American troops should be brought home from Iraq immediately. This news discourages supporters of our efforts there. Not me, though: I am relieved. Given press coverage of our efforts in Iraq, I am surprised that 90 percent of the public do not want us out right now.

Between January 1 and September 30, 2005, nearly 1,400 stories appeared on the ABC, CBS, and NBC evening news. More than half focused on the costs and problems of the war, four times as many as those that discussed the successes. About 40 percent of the stories reported terrorist attacks; scarcely any reported the triumphs of American soldiers and marines. The few positive stories about progress in Iraq were just a small fraction of all the broadcasts.

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.

Naturally, some of the hostile commentary reflects the nature of reporting. When every news outlet struggles to grab and hold an audience, no one should be surprised that this competition leads journalists to emphasize bloody events. To some degree, the press covers Iraq in much the same way that it covers America: it highlights conflict, shootings, bombings, hurricanes, tornadoes, and corruption.

But the war coverage does not reflect merely an interest in conflict. People who oppose the entire War on Terror run much of the national press, and they go to great lengths to make waging it difficult. Thus the New York Times ran a front-page story about President Bush’s allowing, without court warrants, electronic monitoring of phone calls between overseas terrorists and people inside the U.S. On the heels of this, the Times reported that the FBI had been conducting a top-secret program to monitor radiation levels around U.S. Muslim sites, including mosques. And then both the New York and Los Angeles Times ran stories about America’s effort to monitor foreign banking transactions in order to frustrate terrorist plans. The revelation of this secret effort followed five years after the New York Times urged, in an editorial, that precisely such a program be started.

Virtually every government official consulted on these matters urged that the press not run the stories because they endangered secret and important tasks. They ran them anyway. The media suggested that the National Security Agency surveillance might be illegal, but since we do not know exactly what kind of surveillance is undertaken, we cannot be clear about its legal basis. No one should assume that the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act requires the president to obtain warrants from the special FISA court before he can monitor foreign intelligence contacts. Though the Supreme Court has never decided this issue, the lower federal courts, almost without exception, have held that “the Executive Branch need not always obtain a warrant for foreign intelligence surveillance.”

Nor is it obvious that FISA defines all of the president’s authority. Two assistant attorneys general have argued that when the president believes that a statute unconstitutionally limits his powers, he has the right not to obey it unless the Supreme Court directs him otherwise. This action would be proper even if the president had signed into law the bill limiting his authority. I know: you are thinking, “That is just what the current Justice Department would say.” In fact, these opinions were written in the Clinton administration by assistant attorneys general Walter Dellinger and Randolph Moss.

The president may have such power either because it inheres in his position as commander in chief or because Congress passed a law authorizing him to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against nations or people that directed or aided the attack of 9/11. Surveillance without warrants may be just such an “appropriate force.” In any event, presidents before Bush have issued executive orders authorizing searches without warrants, and Jamie Gorelick, once Clinton’s deputy attorney general and later a member of the 9/11 Commission, said that physical searches may be done without a court order in foreign intelligence cases. Such searches may well have prevented new terrorist attacks; if they are blocked in the future, no doubt we will see a demand for a new commission charged with criticizing the president for failing to prevent an attack.

In August 2006, when the British arrested the conspirators in the plot to blow up commercial aircraft in flight, evidence suggested that two leads to them were money transactions that began in Pakistan and American intercepts of their electronic chatter. Unfortunately, the New York Times and the ACLU were not able to prevent the British from learning these things. But they would have tried to prevent them if they had been based in London.

There is MUCH, MUCH more to this excellent article which is important in order to gain much-needed context on this topic. But the conclusion is also worth noting here:

Reporters and editors today are overwhelmingly liberal politically, as studies of the attitudes of key members of the press have repeatedly shown. Should you doubt these findings, recall the statement of Daniel Okrent, then the public editor at the New York Times. Under the headline, is the new york times a liberal newspaper? Okrent’s first sentence was, “Of course it is.”

What has been at issue is whether media politics affects media writing. Certainly, that began to happen noticeably in the Vietnam years. And thereafter, the press could still support an American war waged by a Democratic president. In 1992, for example, newspapers denounced President George H. W. Bush for having ignored the creation of concentration camps in Bosnia, and they supported President Clinton when he ordered bombing raids there and in Kosovo. When one strike killed some innocent refugees, the New York Times said that it would be a “tragedy” to “slacken the bombardment.” These air attacks violated what passes for international law (under the UN Charter, people can only go to war for immediate self-defense or under UN authorization). But these supposedly “illegal” air raids did not prevent Times support. Today, by contrast, the Times criticizes our Guantánamo Bay prison camp for being in violation of “international law.”

But in the Vietnam era, an important restraint on sectarian partisanship still operated: the mass media catered to a mass audience and hence had an economic interest in appealing to as broad a public as possible. Today, however, we are in the midst of a fierce competition among media outlets, with newspapers trying, not very successfully, to survive against 24/7 TV and radio news coverage and the Internet. As a consequence of this struggle, radio, magazines, and newspapers are engaged in niche marketing, seeking to mobilize not a broad market but a specialized one, either liberal or conservative.

Economics reinforces this partisan orientation. Professor James Hamilton has shown that television networks take older viewers for granted but struggle hard to attract high-spending younger ones. Regular viewers tend to be older, male, and conservative, while marginal ones are likely to be younger, female, and liberal. Thus the financial interest that radio and television stations have in attracting these marginal younger listeners and viewers reinforces their ideological interest in catering to a more liberal audience.

Focusing ever more sharply on the mostly bicoastal, mostly liberal elites, and with their more conservative audience lost to Fox News or Rush Limbaugh, mainstream outlets like the New York Times have become more nakedly partisan. And in the Iraq War, they have kept up a drumbeat of negativity that has had a big effect on elite and public opinion alike. Thanks to the power of these media organs, reduced but still enormous, many Americans are coming to see the Iraq War as Vietnam redux.

Most of what I have said here is common knowledge. But it is common knowledge about a new period in American journalistic history. Once, powerful press owners dictated what their papers would print, sometimes irresponsibly. But that era of partisan and circulation-building distortions was not replaced by a commitment to objective journalism; it was replaced by a deep suspicion of the American government. That suspicion, fueled in part by the Vietnam and Watergate controversies, means that the government, especially if it is a conservative one, is surrounded by journalists who doubt almost all it says. One obvious result is that since World War II there have been few reports of military heroes; indeed, there have been scarcely any reports of military victories.

This change in the media is not a transitory one that will give way to a return to the support of our military when it fights. Journalism, like so much scholarship, now dwells in a postmodern age in which truth is hard to find and statements merely serve someone’s interests.

The mainstream media’s adversarial stance, both here and abroad, means that whenever a foreign enemy challenges us, he will know that his objective will be to win the battle not on some faraway bit of land but among the people who determine what we read and watch. We won the Second World War in Europe and Japan, but we lost in Vietnam and are in danger of losing in Iraq and Lebanon in the newspapers, magazines, and television programs we enjoy.

DiscerningTexan, 11/24/2006 08:42:00 PM |