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June 26, 2006

Reinforcing Defeat

Much has been written about the recent "outing" of two classified anti-terrorism programs. For those who support the spread of democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, the irony is almost palpable. The Left literally sputtered with outrage when a single CIA operative was allegedly "outed" by unnamed (and after two years of independent counsel investigation, apparently unindictable) White House officials. "What about our national security?" they screamed. "The law has been broken!".

But that was then.

This is now. Neither the sanctity of law nor national security appear to matter in the slightest to defenders of the New York Times, which has now "outed", not a single minor CIA functionary, but two entire classified anti-terror programs. So much for fine sounding principles.

We are given to understand the Times' actions are different. In this case, you see, the public interest outweighed both the rule of law and national security. To hear the press tell it, the public's right to know trumps all other considerations.

What the public doesn't have a right to know, apparently, is that Joe Wilson's version of events was a tissue of lies. The New York Times certainly isn't reporting the good news. Neither is the Washington Post, which inxplicably allowed one of the reporters Wilson lied to to continue writing about L'Affaire Plame.

The important thing to remember is that in the eyes of the press, the end always justifies the means. Law, national security, transparency, even literal truth are all negotiable commodities:

The one great similarity between Vietnam and Iraq is that our enemies, despairing of victory on the battlefield, sought to win with a propaganda campaign.

In Vietnam, this strategy succeeded. If it fails in Iraq, it will be chiefly because of the emergence of the new media.

The turning point in Vietnam was the Tet Offensive of February, 1968. It was a crushing defeat for the Viet Cong.

"Our losses were staggering and a complete surprise," said North Vietnamese Army Col. Bui Tin in a 1995 interview. "Our forces in the South were nearly wiped out. It took until 1971 to re-establish our presence."

"The Tet Offensive proved catastrophic to our plans," said Truong Nhu Tang, minister of justice in the Viet Cong's provisional government, in a 1982 interview. "Our losses were so immense we were unable to replace them with new recruits."

The news media reported this overwhelming American victory as a catastrophic defeat.

"Donning helmet, Mr. Cronkite declared the war lost," recounted UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave. "It was this now famous television news piece that persuaded President Lyndon Johnson...not to run for re-election."

Shaken by Tet, he planned to seek terms for a conditional surrender, the North Vietnamese commander, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, wrote in his memoirs. But our news media's complete misrepresentation of what had actually happened "convinced him America's resolve was weakening and complete victory was within Hanoi's grasp," Mr. de Borchgrave said.

Success is self-reinforcing. Today's coverage of the Iraq war in many ways resembles that long-ago coverage:

Earlier this month, the Army sponsored a conference for retired general officers at Fort Carson, Colorado. They were addressed by recent returnees from Iraq, including Col. H.R. McMaster, commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment.

"All returnees agreed we are clearly winning the fight against the insurgents but are losing the public relations battle," said a retired admiral in an email to friends.

A disturbing anecdote from Col. McMaster illustrates why. His 3rd ACR broke the insurgents' hold of the city of Tal Afar last September in an operation which generated these effusive words of praise from the town's mayor:

"To the lion hearts who liberated our city from the grasp of terrorists who were beheading men, women and children in the streets...(you are) not only courageous men and women, but avenging angels sent by The God Himself to fight the evil of terrorism."
Time magazine had a reporter and a photographer embedded with the 3rd ACR. When the battle was over, they filed a lengthy story and nearly 100 photographs.

"When the issue came out, the guts had been edited out of the reporter's story and none of the photographs he submitted were used," said the admiral, quoting Col. McMaster. "When the reporter questioned why his story was eviscerated, his editors...responded that the story and pictures were 'too heroic.'"

Too heroic? The media keep telling us they can't find any good news to report in Iraq and AFghanistan. What's closer to the truth is that the good news is systematically edited out of wartime coverage.

The power of positive reinforcement to change human behavior is well established. There have been studies showing that more coverage of terrorism leads to more terrorist acts, but we hardly need scientists to tell us that the goal of terrorism is to cause terror. If these acts were performed in secret, they would have no power to frighten or discourage. Terrorists want publicity, the media gives it to them for free, and because the tactic works it is employed over and over again. But there is a fascinating flip side to the positive reinforcement angle and it is this: what do you suppose would happen if the press started reporting good news?

What if the press hyped acts of kindness, bravery, and compassion the way they hyped the photos from Abu Ghuraib? What if they gave the words of the Mayor of Tal Afar the same prominence as Jack Murtha's defeatist rhetoric? What if the public, in addition to the bad news, were told stories of how we're making a difference in the lives of ordinary Iraqis? What if we heard more about strategies that work and less about dying donkeys? Grim tells a story that confirms what we already suspect intuitively: just as a constant diet of bad news breeds hopelessness and despair and criminal acts encourage more crime, decent acts inspire others to perform more decent acts. Success inspires others to try harder. Stories like Tal Afar give us hope.

The media will tell you that they relentlessly hype even unproven allegations of abuse so that they will "never happen again". Any psychologist could tell them that though negative reinforcement has its uses, positive feedback is a far more powerful force in shaping human behavior. Oddly enough, however, the media still see no reason to report good news about the war. Perhaps that is not surprising, for they do not wish to see us succeed in Iraq. Their positive feedback is reserved for terrorists rather than their own side.

And what is increasingly evident is that the media do not wish to inspire decency, bravery, and hope but despair and a sense of impending defeat. Judging from history as well as recent poll results, they may well get their wish. America may again abandon a contest they were winning on the battlefield but had long ago lost in the eyes of the American public.

Posted by Cassandra at June 26, 2006 05:03 PM


I think President Bush should add the NY Times to his Axis of Evil as they are obviously as much an enemy of this country as are countries such as Iran and North Korea.

Posted by: ChatterBox at June 26, 2006 06:37 PM

I have nothing to add except you left the 'e' out of 'inexplicably.'

What I have noticed is a decrease in the volume of the Left as the weapons of mass destruction were found (piecemeal at times, 'tis true, but a WMD found is a WMD found) to swing over to something that will prove by golly once and for all that Bushaitan is Hitler.

Posted by: Cricket at June 27, 2006 03:00 PM

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