May 17, 2005
War, And Rumors of War
Well what do you know?
More than two years ago, the Pentagon issued detailed rules for handling the Koran at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, requiring U.S. personnel to ensure that the holy book is not placed in "offensive areas such as the floor, near the toilet or sink, near the feet, or dirty/wet areas."
The three-page memorandum, dated Jan. 19, 2003, says that only Muslim chaplains and Muslim interpreters can handle the holy book, and only after putting on clean gloves in full view of detainees.
The detailed rules require U.S. Muslim personnel to use both hands when touching the Koran to signal "respect and reverence," and specify that the right hand be the primary one used to manipulate any part of the book "due to cultural associations with the left hand." The Koran should be treated like a "fragile piece of delicate art," it says.
So much of what we think - what we feel - about this war depends on what we are allowed to know about it. And what we are allowed to know about it comes to us through a filter. A filter of bias.
It is entirely acceptable that information will be imperfect. That we will not see the entire picture due to the confusion that obscures current events. We know from history that it takes time for things to settle into their proper perspective. What is not acceptible is for the public to be fed a skewed view of history. For us to be urged to pre-existing conclusions based on a carefully-chosen and inaccurate sampling of current events.
Journalists are fond of saying their duty is not to their country, but to the Truth: some abstract notion of a higher calling. But when the stakes were high, we have clearly seen this is not the case. RatherGate, al QaQaa, the mysterious reluctance of the press to submit the allegations of SwiftVets to critical scrutiny cause us to wonder where this marvelous objectivity is to be found?
In a time when this nation is at war, is objectivity truly possible? Is it even desireable? Is it, in fact, in evidence at all? Conor Friedersdorf looks at a now-famous exchange between Peter Jennings and Mike Wallace. Asked whether they would participate in or film the gunning down of US troops by an enemy force, Jennings said he would not. Wallace was outraged:
"I think some other reporters would have a different reaction," he said, obviously referring to himself. "They would regard it simply as another story they were there to cover." A moment later Wallace said, "I am astonished, really." He turned toward Jennings and began to lecture him: "You're a reporter. Granted you're an American" (at least for purposes of the fictional example; Jennings has actually retained Canadian citizenship). "I'm a little bit at a loss to understand why, because you're an American, you would not have covered that story."
Ogletree pushed Wallace. Didn't Jennings have some higher duty to do something other than just roll film as soldiers from his own country were being shot?
"No," Wallace said flatly and immediately. "You don't have a higher duty. No. No. You're a reporter!"
Jennings backtracked fast. Wallace was right, he said: "I chickened out." Jennings said that he had "played the hypothetical very hard." He had lost sight of his journalistic duty to remain detached.
The problem is, as John Tierney notes, that the media's well-known propensity for covering the sensational is hardly a recipe for evenhanded or objective reporting. In fact, the practical result is that they end up presenting a distorted picture which only serves the purposes of the other side. You know, the enemy?
I realize that we have a duty to report suicide bombings in the Middle East, especially when there's a spate as bad as in recent weeks. And I know the old rule of television news: if it bleeds, it leads. But I'm still puzzled by our zeal in frantically competing to get gruesome pictures and details for broadcasts and front pages.
As I intruded on grieving relatives at the scene and wounded survivors in hospitals, I didn't see what good I was doing for anyone except the planners of the attack. It was a horrifying story, but it was same story as every other suicide bombing, from the descriptions of the carnage and the mayhem to the quotes from eyewitnesses and the authorities.
There was no larger lesson except that some insurgents were willing and able to kill civilians, which was not news. We were dutifully presenting as accurate an image as we could of one atrocity, but we knew we were contributing to a distorted picture of life for Iraqis.
The standard advice to newly arrived journalists at that time was: "Relax. It's not nearly as bad here as it looks on TV."
Correspondents complained that they'd essentially become cop reporters, and that the suicide bombings took so much of their time that they couldn't report on the rest of the country. They were more interested in other stories, but as long as the rest of the press corps kept covering the bombing du jour, that was where their editors and producers expected them to be, too.
So much for serving the Truth. What happened to critical thinking? And when was the last time you heard that kind of introspection from a reporter? But as Cori Dauber observes, too many reporters check their nationality at the door in an attempt to be "fair". But they are only substituting one set of biases for another:
Even if we assume that objectivity were possible as a goal, what that really means is that reporters should try and be generally fair, balanced, critical. No one really believes that absolute objectivity is possible. Why do we assume that they can't do a good job as reporters unless, in wartime, they attempt to impose a mantle of neutrality upon themselves? Do we really believe it's possible for them to convince themselves that it doesn't matter which side will win? or that it should be? Why can't a reporter be just as critical of the US military -- more critical -- if they want them to win, want to ensure that American lives aren't lost in vain?
Cori links to an article from an American photojournalist detained by Iraqi security in Abu Ghuraib for one week. The interesting thing about her piece is that she begins by stating she felt it vital to put aside her "prejudices" before interviewing and reporting on the Iraqis. She felt it necessary to try to understand viewpoints she disagreed with. Yet she feels no similar duty, when reporting on American viewpoints she disagrees with, to try and understand them. It was perfectly acceptable (to her) to admit she finds the war "inexcusable"; a perjorative she would never apply to the Iraqi resistance. This is "setting aside her nationality": being judgemental in the service of impartiality. Not trying to understand her own culture in the service of global understanding.
Later, she equates her nebulous fears of US military harassment with actual threats from Iraqi insurgents:
As terrifying as that was to manage and work through, there was another fear that was just as bad. What if the American military or intelligence found out what we were working on? Would they tail us and round up the people we met? Would they kick down our door late one night, rifle through all our stuff and arrest us for "collaborating with the enemy?" Bear in mind that there are no real laws in Iraq. At the time that we were working, the American military was the law, and it seemed to me that they were pretty much making it up as they went along. I was pretty sure that if they wanted to "disappear" us, rough us up or even send us for an all expenses paid vacation in Guantánamo for suspected al-Qaida connections, they could do so with very little, or even no recourse on our part.
I could go into a long litany of the ways in which the American military has treated journalists in Iraq. Recent actions indicate that the U.S. military will detain and/or kill any journalist who happens to be caught covering the Iraqi side of the militant resistance, and indeed a number of journalists have been killed by U.S. troops while working in Iraq. This behavior at the moment seems to be limited to journalists who also happen to be Arabs, or Arab-looking, but that is only a tangential story to what I'm telling you about here.
She relates an incident of alleged "intimidation":
Dexter Filkins, who writes for The New York Times, related a conversation he had in Iraq with an American military commander just before we left. Dexter and the commander had gotten quite friendly, meeting up sporadically for a beer and a chat. Towards the end of one of their conversations, Dexter declined an invitation for the next day by explaining that he'd lined up a meeting with a "resistance guy." The commander's face went stony cold and he said, "We have a position on that." For Dexter the message was clear. He cancelled the appointment.
Oooooh. "We have a policy on that". Obviously a death threat - personally I don't see why embedded reporters shouldn't be able to meet with the enemy all they want. And if they get kidnapped, and their heads sawn off? I guess she'll understand if US troops don't try and rescue them and our government opts not to pay ransom. Assumption of the risk, you know. Do these people ever stop and think about the position they place our government in by their actions?
American journalists seem to want the best of both worlds. They demand complete freedom of action and shelter under the protection of both the US military and the US Constitution: freedoms possible only because American men and women are willing to give their lives to defend the security and the ideals those freedoms necessarily depend upon. And then they imperil those freedoms by insisting they owe no allegiance to the country that made them possible.
The insist they have a "higher duty": one that is so abstract and lofty it sees no difference between the life of a terrorist who saws the heads off helpless women and a Christian father of four from Louisville, Kentucky who watches his life slowly bleed away in a dusty ditch trying to bring freedom to Muslims from another land.
Ordinary Americans see that difference. There must be something wrong with us. We cannot so easily divorce ourselves from reality. From right and wrong. From the sometimes agonizing choices that war brings. From - awful thought here - being judgemental when the situation requires it.
But then the media are judgemental too. They simply reserve their moral condemnation for their own side: this shows the press are not patsies of the government. By loading war news with negative reports, by keeping stories of war heroism out of major newspapers, by headlines that trumpet the number of war dead but never mention that we won the battle, by harping on Abu Ghuraib but burying Saddam's torture chambers and mass graves, by hyping the military's recruitment woes the press intentionally skew public perception of how the war is going.
There is good news out there: lots of it. As the saying goes, just keep scrolling. But we are not to hear about it because good news is propaganda. Only bad news demonstrates journalistic independence. The institutional bias that gives bad news the benefit of the doubt and greets good news with suspicion mediates against positive stories making it onto page one.
Does the media have an agenda? No one really knows for sure. Whether it is liberal bias, the push to sell papers, or simply that they pander to the depraved and sensationalistic appetities of a public that would rather hear about suicide bombings than a baby Iraqi girl from Abu Ghuraib whose deformed face and life have been transformed by the caring of Americans she would never have seen, were it not for the horrors of war, does not matter. The fact of the matter is the results are clear.
Those of us in the military know the whole story is not being presented. A few days ago on Blackfive I wrote something that made a few journalists very angry. A military wife responded with a comment that expressed, better than I ever could, how we feel. I hope she won't be angry with me for excerpting part of her comment here:
I KNOW what the task force has accomplished in the last year. I KNOW what advances have been made. I've heard it from those who are there, from those who have lived it every day. I have the pictures. I've seen the notes from the locals... the ones who THANK US for what we have done for them and their country. I've seen the tears shed by the locals at a memorial service for a soldier who lost his life helping them. Is that all of it? NO, but it sure makes a difference.
My husband left the FOB where he has been for the last year a week ago. There are locals who work there, they don't speak English, and my husband knows few words in Dari..yet they've learned to communicate with one another anyway. My husband went to say goodbye on the day he left that FOB..the locals cried, they cried!
Why is it that we are the only ones who hear these things? Why do *I* have to get this kind of info from the source? Why don't I see it in the paper, why don't I hear it on the news? Why are items like this shoved to some back section or buried on a military website?
Most of what I hear out of our media is how we're hated, how we are so horrible, how we abuse the locals. Cuz you know, the good that happens isn't news, it's only propaganda.
So you tell me who is "using" us.
Are there bad things that happen? Yes. They aren't angels, they're Soldiers. They aren't perfect, they are human beings with all the same feelings and emotions and shortcomings that are part of being human. They do a job that 98% of this country couldn't, wouldn't, shouldn't do. Some live in horrible conditions and face things that most people don't even see in their worst nitemares. Their lives and who they are have changed forever because of it. They are grunts..it's their job. They deal with an enemy most of us can't even imagine. They do it so WE don't have to.
I am sick to death of rumors and innuendo, I am sick to death of the entire story not being told..of nothing being put into perspective. I am sick to death of distortion, but most of all, I'm sick of having someone I love being in placed at increased risk because someone wants a sensational story. This isn't politics people, this is our life.
This isn't a game. And we're not impartial. Lives are won, and lost, every day. By and large, the military is more fair and more sensitive to cultural differences that our opponents and the press give us credit for. We are more diverse than most of America - we live, work, eat, and sleep with people of other races and creeds every single day. We are truly more integrated than just about any other segment of American society, and it works. We get along.
We're not perfect, but despite the sometimes negative stereotypes of the military, paradoxically it is our respect for the rules that allows us to live and work together peacefully despite our cultural and religious differences. And we'd like to see some of that discipline translated to the media.
Rules matter. Ethics matter. Objectivity doesn't mean you abandon your loyalty or your principles or your capacity for critical thinking. It simply means you determine to be evenhanded and fair in all situations, despite your personal feelings. If you are consistently ignoring or slighting your own side in a conflict, you are, by definition, not being evenhanded or fair.
And that is a lesson perhaps Newsweek should take to heart in the light of this week's events. Because Americans and Muslims have died due to their carelessless.
Posted by Cassandra at May 17, 2005 07:13 AM
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Tracked on May 17, 2005 10:09 PM
» Potpourri from Argghhh! The Home Of Two Of Jonah's Military Guys..
Cassandra is going to take a short blog break. I wondered if this wasn't on the horizon - given the quantity (high) and quality (higher) of her output of late. It's obvious that her brain has been in overdrive... and... [Read More]
Tracked on June 3, 2005 03:41 PM
"Carelessness?" Hell. That was criminal negligence. If you drove a car into a crowd and killed 16 people because you forgot to wear your glasses, you'd be in jail. Newsweek left its glasses in the drawer on this one.
But I am glad, at last, to see the outrage. Check out the front cover of today's New York Post. Kinda sez it all.
Posted by: spd rdr at May 17, 2005 10:07 AM
*Hand waving air to chest*
Cass, I finally figgered something out about your posts. The ones with the least comments might be the ones that you have poured yourself into, but your points were so well articulated and supported that all we can do is agree.
I wonder how many hits your -5 comments or less gets, versus the ones with lots of comments.
This Cass woman/blog Princess MUST be syndicated and PRONTO! DANG, woman!
I bet Dan Rather and company would love to impeach your unimpeachable bootie from the blogosphere. If they weren't (self appointed as such) above reproach, you'd make them feel bad about themselves! tsk tsk tsk.
This well meaning *guys'* intent to flush is commendable. hehehe
I think you, MathMom, and Cricket should start a group blog and I'll come comment and lob snark at the three of you and send you blog fodder :) And Menace too - he needs his own blog - I'd even talk baseball on it. I've been learning a lot on my own this spring. I'll get my picture taken with the Keyote at the next game...be still my beating heart!
Cricket, you are a sweetheart and a very wise lady. How do you, Cat, and MathMom always seem to know what to say when I am feeling blue?
Posted by: Cassandra at May 17, 2005 02:44 PM
So much of what you say is the voice of one crying in the WWWilderness: "Don't take the brown acid!"--that people are being spoonfeed daily by the no account, LYING, biased LSM!
I wonder if it wouldn't be more criticial to *invade* Planet LSM, moreso than Iran or NorK. Again, sometimes I'm curious: how many body bags shipped back in the WOT have the fingerprints of the media on them?!?!?
Switching gears: How do you, Cat, and MathMom always seem to know what to say when I am feeling blue?
I came up with my own answer to this, late Sun. night/early Mon. morning, as I was winding down for the night, off the computer and just doing the regular routine of brushing, flossing, skin care regimen, and thinking of Monday, that it occured to me that I thought the 16th was your b-day. So I got back on the puter and did some googling, eventually finding where joat at Jet noise did a "HAPPY B-DAY", CASS post on May 16th last year!!
So, long story longer...my personal conclusion was: God just really likes you. (~;)
If MathMom, Cricket and I did participate in a group blog, it would be very lonely for me, since I'd be the only one who would be allowed (required) to ride on the short bus to blogschool every day.
I agree with the CKCat. God does love you.
But I also know that in spite of your desire for relative quiet, blogging is in and of itself, a public forum. Something needs to be said, a wrong needs righting and we don't get to scratch our heads where they itch with the MSM.
I do believe you need to be syndicated and I KNOW KJ and spd are attorneys, and maybe they can find you a good lawyer to rep you. How about it guys?
Please, for the sake of the Blog Princess?
"I agree with the CKCat. God does love you.
Just like a parent LOVES [but may not always "like"] a child, that's a given. I say God LIKES Cass, too. (~;)
Great piece, Cass. I have to say...it's kind of uh...Cao-length. :) But I enjoyed it immensely.
Posted by: Cao at May 17, 2005 07:55 PM
Ack, what the helk would I do with a blog. I barely have time to leave comments. :-)
Thank you all the same.
"I hope she won't be angry with me for excerpting part of her comment here:"
Not angry...a bit stunned to see it, but not angry at all.
I used to read you over at Jet Noise, but I obviously missed a few links when I changed systems. When I saw you at B5, I came over here to bookmark the new site and BAM..yep, I was stunned.
Anyway, all I really wanted to say was thank you for being our voice. Your words have mirrored my thoughts more times than you can know.
What really ought to be flushed down the toilet are bits and pieces of News'Weak (and if there were justice in the world, the Islamofascists themselves, one vivisected organ at a time).
Posted by: Ciggy at May 18, 2005 01:00 AM
These people can be equated, exactly, with Tokyo Rose and Lord Haw Haw. They are treasonous.
Someone wants to be a "journalist" first and an American second? Fine, turn in your citizenship and get deported. See, we know how to treat foreign nationals: we stamp the intel NOFORN and they never see it.
" it is our respect for the rules that allows us to live and work together peacefully despite our cultural and religious differences."
That's not just true in the military, Cass. Right now, if that woman commenter or her husband was to be put on trial for punching some journalist in the nose, I really couldn't convict them, because the press in this country has earned a punch in the nose.
Kipling's poem Cleared sums up my feelings perfectly:
"Cleared", honourable gentlemen! Be thankful it's no more: --
The widow's curse is on your house, the dead are at your door.
On you the shame of open shame; on you from North to South
The hand of every honest man flat-heeled across your mouth.
Ciggy, you ghoul :)
SDN, I think that's what offends me so much about the press: they shelter behind the law yet demand to be exempt from it. Law exerts duties as well as bestowing privileges - a fact they seem to forget.
Tink, your comment really stayed with me. I almost never put anyone's comments in my posts, but I really thought yours was something people should see. Thanks for not being mad :)
Posted by: Cassandra at May 18, 2005 10:08 AM