Monday, April 21, 2008

General Embarrassment: The Media

The Pentagon has been running "Psyops" - psychological operations - on the American public to sell a war and then keep it going when it became unpopular. This is what the New York Times revealed on the front of Sundays paper. The investigation, lasting 2-years, was finally able to wrench the incriminating documents - 8,000 pages - from the Pentagon through the Freedom of Information Act, revealing the psyops operation in all its sordid detail. The program to misinform Americans went like this: The Bush administration knew that in order to run a war with as little public meddling as possible they would need to use the media as a PR arm. So communications experts devised a plan to enlist the support of retired officers, who, in retirement, often ran or sat on the boards of big military contractors, as well as dropped by news channels such as CNN, FOX, ABC etc. to give their vaunted opinions on war. The Pentagon had it all worked out: The retired generals were too connected with the military, for profit or personal reasons, to be overly critical. Also, the Pentagon realized that by being fickle with access to top commanders - access that the news networks thought, for some strange reason, brought better information - they could exert control over the retired generals. In short, the Pentagon piled on conflicting interests until the pathetic generals were buried.
The Pentagon understood that anyone with the title of "retired general" was seen as credible by many credulous Americans. Once they had their "message force multipliers" regimented, they organized private sojourns to Iraq, where they were whisked to all the good spots to show how much progress was being made. Meanwhile things were going downhill in the 99.9% Iraq not visited by the message force multipliers. Many of the retired generals said to the Times that they realized that the Pentagon was pulling the fleece over their eyes, but they went along with it anyway because the web of rewards had entrapped them - kind of shameful, isn't it.
So as things got worse and worse, the generals dined on china with Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, gave him tips on how he could fight the naysayers in the public and the media, along with a host of other, more prestigious generals in open revolt. In return for all their help, Rumsfeld's office put together gift baskets, if you will, of talking points, that the ret. generals could use to dispel any doubts about the progress in Iraq, or the Defense Secretary running the show.
Now all of this is really no surprise. It was totally obvious to anyone who critically listened to the retired generals that they were full of it. That isn't to say that the The New York Times investigation was a waste; to the contrary. As they say, journalists write the first draft of history, and this little piece is going straight into the historical file as one more deceitful thing done by this administration. But it should have taken a lot less investigating in order to understand what the danger was of having a bunch of ex-army guys on television expected to give a fair and balanced opinion on the war.
Like most stories, this piece points to a more fundamental problem than a conflict of interest, an ethical lapse, or government malfeasance. The root problem is a rot at the heart of corporate media; this rot of principle and purpose is what allowed jokers such as the retired generals on television, masquerading as journalists. This episode also points to a problem with the citizenry of this country. To grudgingly steal terms from the advertising industry, Americans are, by and large, uninformed consumers of news. We don't know what we want from news, and we don't know what good journalism is, and what to look for to spot it. If we really did understand what journalism was all about, and what we hope to gain from reading a newspaper or watching the news, we may become informed consumers of media, and turn off CNN, FOX, ABC, NBC, MSNBC and the rest of them, and switch on news with more integrity, or better yet, read news with more integrity.
Truth be told, many watch their news strictly for entertainment, and such infotainment fans cannot be saved. They will continue to follow the antics of the various news personalities with bated breath until the next war is sold by the airwaves.
The lesson that I think we, as well as the smart guys at the networks, ought to take away from this big embarrassment, is that access to top officials does not matter. ACCESS DOES NOT MATTER. Access is actually worse than useless: it is corrupting, as this NYT investigation has shown. The incomparable Middle East correspondent for The Independent, Robert Fisk, put it best when he wrote in "The Great War For Civilization" that

Reporters often justify their own unique form of self-censorship - their uncritical repetition of the statements of generals and major generals - on the grounds that their "access" to senior military officials must be kept open, that this access gives them information that might otherwise be denied their readers. In Northern Ireland and in the Middle East - both among Arab or Iranian military officers and American and British forces - I have found the opposite to be the case. The more journalists challenge authority, the more the military whistleblowers want to talk to them.
Journalism on such a caliber can be applied not only on the battle field, but also on the local, regional, state, federal, and international levels. The best journalism comes from this sort of work, not the verbatim repetition of the press secretaries remarks, or the famous appeal to sources - i.e. sources say... - that are so frequently used by the arbiters of American journalistic integrity.
The networks should have known better, but they will never learn from their mistakes. They were built to play a little bit of news - cheaper the better - sell some advertising - pharmaceuticals for their aging audience - and do it again day after day after day, until a war comes, and more people tune in - more ad revenue. Sure, many of the networks will get rid or thin out their line-up of retired generals, but they still have all those journalists instructed to not rock the boat. Nothings learned by watching these drab boats on placid lakes. My suggestion is to read foreign papers, watch Democracy Now!, and keep checking up on The Main Issue.

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