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May 28, 2004

Why the Watchdogs Need Watching

Here's a fine essay by Bruce Thornton on Victor Hanson's site. An excerpt:

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. . . .

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.

Posted by Old Benjamin at 10:29 AM | Permalink


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