Why the Watchdogs Need Watching?

by Bruce S. Thornton

Private Papers

For the media the mistreatment of the prisoners in Iraq has been like chum thrown to starving sharks. Their continuing obsession with this story tells us much about the pathologies that afflict the media and raises anew the issue that first hit the national consciousness in Vietnam: how should a modern high-tech media view their obligations to their own country and their fellow citizens?

The problems go beyond the obvious partisan and ideological bias of major media. Of course the media are liberal and favor the Democratic Party, in which some eighty percent of them are registered. Here’s a simple experiment that shows this tilt: keep track of how often the media use the words “right” or “right-wing” compared to “left” and “left-wing.” The former appears much more frequently, while “liberal” usually substitutes for “left.” The subtle result is to camouflage leftist ideas as more mainstream and acceptable (“liberal”) and conservative as more extreme (“right-wing”).

But we all know that. Equally important are the other factors that determine how the media report what they call “news.” The most obvious involves the selection of what to cover and emphasize. How do you decide which fact is worthy of coverage? What is more “newsworthy”: prison guards abusing their charges or soldiers reopening a school? Civilian casualties or the measures taken to prevent them? You know which is more newsworthy to the media, who have devoted immense amounts of coverage to the prison scandal and civilian deaths in Iraq, at the expense of the more positive stories.

But if the media are really, as they claim, merely “objective” recorders of the facts, then surely they would at least cover the negative and positive facts equally. Indeed, one could argue that in the context of war, civilian deaths or abuse of detainees isn’t really “news” but an unfortunate constant of war. What is really “news” in Iraq is that the U.S. military has taken remarkable steps to minimize civilian casualties, and is attempting an unprecedented task: to destroy an enemy and rebuild a society simultaneously. Certainly that wasn’t the tack taken in WWII, when Japan and Germany were literally destroyed before the task of rebuilding began.

The “news” in Iraq, then, isn’t the behavior of the prison guards, for such brutality occurs every day in every prison in America. If there had been a cover-up, then that would be newsworthy, but the only reason the media know about the story is because the military initiated an investigation. What the whole sorry episode shows is not the failure of the military or the administration, but rather the constant reality of evil in human hearts, an evil that war has always provided an excuse to indulge. That out of 150,000 troops in Iraq a dozen would be sadists should not surprise us.

Another problem with the media is their failure to provide an adequate context for the “facts” that usually are presented in isolation. Sometimes this context is historical: for example, what sorts of things typically have happened in wars? Civilian casualties, massacres, rape, death from friendly fire, execution of prisoners, torture, all have occurred in war throughout history. Unleashing the violence of human beings is never neat or precise. We try to have in place laws, training, and regulations that minimize such brutalities, but they will still occur and have to be accepted–though never condoned– as part of the cost of resorting to force. Again, what needs emphasizing is not the constant brutality of war but the novel attempts to create a free, functioning society in a land that has never known one. When we condemn the bad, we need also to remember the worse.

To mention this larger context does not excuse the behavior, of course. To say that getting shot in the head is worse than getting stabbed in the arm is not to approve of wanton arm-stabbing. But the media needs to keep the proper perspective and judge actions by the standard not of perfection but of flawed human nature and the complexity and unforeseen consequences of all action. One way to do this is to be careful with language. In describing the abuse in Abu Ghraib, the New York Times‘ favorite word is “horrific.”  If intimidation and humiliation are “horrific,” what word do we use to describe Auschwitz, or what went on in Abu Ghraib under Hussein? The use of such rhetoric is a sure sign that partisan interpretation rather than objective reporting is driving the news.

The problems of selection and context are increased exponentially with photographs and video. Such pictures seem to present an unvarnished reality, and their immediacy and drama have an impact that affects us emotionally–which means that we are likely to have feelings about the actions rather than rational thoughts. Moreover, a camera has to be pointed by someone who decides where to point it, and then the image is edited or cropped. Remember all that footage from Pakistan showing anti-American street demonstrations? I happened to see some other footage of one of those demonstrations that covered what the news-camera didn’t: the more numerous people on the sidewalks ignoring the demonstration or watching it with obvious disapproval. If all you had seen were the demonstration, you’d think the whole country was ready to explode with anti-American fury.

The impact of a dramatic image is so great that often its meaning can’t be corrected even when the explanatory context is provided. A few years back the whole world was galvanized by footage of a Palestinian father and his small son pinned down by Israeli and Palestinian terrorist fire until  the boy was shot to death. Immediately the image produced its own emotional interpretation: the Israelis are wanton destroyers of innocent Palestinians. A later exhaustive investigation revealed that the boy was most likely killed by Palestinian guerillas. Yet like the so-called “Jenin massacre,” this “truth” once released could not be corrected and continues to create a false impression.

The most notorious example, for us Americans, of the power of misleading media coverage, particularly visual media, is the 1968 Tet offensive during the war in Vietnam. Images of Viet Cong in the heart of Saigon and dead Americans in the U.S. embassy grounds created an interpretation of North Vietnamese prowess and U.S. weakness, when in actual fact Tet was a failure for the North and a display of American military brilliance by any just standard. But the images created their own reality.

We see this same phenomenon today in Iraq, where the images of abused Iraqi prisoners, dead troops, and grieving civilians are creating a distorted picture of American failure and corruption, when in fact a whole reality outside the frame of the pictures suggests that steady progress is being made towards pacifying the insurgents and handing Iraq back to the Iraqi people.

The standard response of the media to such criticism is that they are performing a public service by functioning as “watchdogs” that monitor the government and guard the public weal. Yet as the Roman poet Juvenal asked, “Who guards the guardians?” Especially guardians that are for-profit enterprises subject only to the forces of the market? If you hate George Bush, you can work to defeat him in November. But the New York Times or CBS are never going to be subjected to such accountability. They can’t be voted out of office. You can choose not to use their product, but that doesn’t mean their influence will not still be felt, particularly in the case of the Times, which establishes for other media what should be covered.

Finally, and most importantly, where ultimately do the loyalties of the media lie? To profit, professional standards, or partisan ideology? And what if pursuing these harms the interests of their own country? We are not asking that the media be cheerleaders for the government, but simply be objective and fair in their coverage and not work actively against the aims pursued by a democratically elected administration, particularly when the lives of fellow Americans are at stake.

© 2004 Bruce Thornton

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