Monday, May 23, 2005

Doing More Damage Than Good

Doing More Damage Than Good

Conservative commenter John Cole (not liberal commenter Juan Cole!) has written a controversial article called "Doing More Damage than Good" in which he argues that conservatives are doing everyone a great disservice by viciously attacking any news organization that reports anything negative or controversial about the military. Here's an excerpt:
Everyone repeat after me:

Reporting on abuses that have been committed by our troops, in our name, is not anti-military. While I am not arrogant enough to attempt to divine the motives of every journalist who reports on such abuses, Hugh [Hewitt] appears to be up to the challenge. I find his attack on the reporting of the outrageous abuses detailed at length in the NY Times to be both disturbing and disingenuous.

Apparently in the myopic worldview of Mr. Hewitt, reading and reporting the just-released documents the Army itself created is both 'anti-military' and 're-hashing' an old story. Let's not focus on the fact that few, if any, have been punished for these transgressions. Let's not focus on credible reports that these incidents continue to occur. Instead, if Hewitt is to have his way, we should all focus on the 'anti-military' stance of the media.
Please read Cole's article - it is enlightening.

We have a problem in our society and it stems from the fact that there are those who would enthusiastically crush any criticism of the military.

The military - one of the largest organizations in the world, probably the most powerful organization in the world, the recipient of an incomprehensible amount of our tax revenue and for many, the primary "face" on our foreign policy - is beyond reproach. This is enforced socially by a very active and very vocal, very powerful large group of conservatives who spring into action anytime something unsavory is said about the US military. They are, essentially, Thought Police who by protecting the military for scrutiny and criticism create an environment in which the military is unaccountable to the American taxpayer and is less able to identify and solve its problems.

I'm not here to lay a trip on the military. Even as a pacifist, I have a great deal of respect for the US military and particularly for the men and women who have made the military their career. I know that the vast majority of people in the service are honorable and good and act professionally and selflessly in ways that most of those of us on the outside can never truly appreciate.

That being said, no organization is infallible. Every organization has their share of bad people as well. The military differs from a bank in this respect, however, in that servicemen and women represent the people of the United States and by virtue of the realities of war, at times wield a great deal of (oftentimes deadly) power over others.

Without dwelling on details, I, along with hundreds of millions of other people around the world from all political persuasions have been deeply disturbed by various US military scandals that have been reported over the past year - detainee abuse being just one of them.

Yet Hugh Hewitt and thousands like him would prefer to see those stories go unreported. The rightwing blogosphere engages in intense career-ending campaigns against those who would dare suggest that the military may have problems (see Eason Jordan). Kevin Sites received death threats after having happened to film the battlefield execution of a wounded prisoner in a mosque in Fallujah (an act, by the way, I didn't have a problem with, given the circumstances).

The US military is accountable to the American people. If and when there are problems in the military, they should be identified, explored and corrected.

The actions and rhetoric of Hugh Hewitt and many very vocal conservatives, in the blogosphere in particular, appear to be either asserting that soldiers are incapable of acting unprofessionally or that the military should be exempt from scrutiny and criticism.

What is your reaction to the Cole article? What level of accountability to do you think that the military should have to the American people?

Rightwing commentators often use the phrase "aid and comfort to the enemy" with respect to the press coverage of our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since this is part of the Constitutional definition of "treason", is this acceptable rhetoric

Dadmanly Responds:

John Cole uses the example of what he considers critical excess to make a valid point -- media should provide oversight and report abuses by our military -- but that doesn't in any way diminish the equal validity of the position he so strongly opposes on the part of his erstwhile conservative colleagues.

You cannot convince me that, by and large, the press doesn't harbor a deep cynicism about the military, and the rightful exercise of American military power. I believe this to be an aging holdover from Vietnam and the Watergate era. (The cynicism, not the people who hold these views.) If you don't see that or recognize that, there's nothing I can say or point to that will change your mind. What I would point to as cynicism or hypercriticism, you might call healthy skepticism.

It's kind of like how African Americans can be subjected to very subtle forms of prejudice or mistrust to which most of us are totally oblivious. Those of us in the military know it all too well.

When Abu Ghraib happened, it was like the O.J. Simpson case. Story after story, day after day, news about news about news about news, any excuse at all to run the photos, always the photos, over and over again the photos. Editors chose to make those decisions, one because of sales, but more importantly, it might "finally turn" the American people against this war and against their military. You will hardly find a Soldier serving today who doesn't know this in their core. And no amount of self serving, excuse making, "we're just looking for the truth" justifications will change that.

Contrast this treatment of these horrific pictures that would surely turn Muslim anger to a heated fervor against us, versus films and photos of the utter carnage of 9/11, that disappeared totally from public view within weeks (if not days) of 9/11, because editors felt that these stories might "inflame Americans," or cause them to rise in a heated fervor against Muslims. (This is especially odd in that Americans rarely and not at all recently have any tendency towards public violence, while such responses are a staple of Middle Eastern societies.)

Note the hypocrisy of these two contrasting editorial decisions. Note that every major American media outlet made the same set of decisions in both cases.

Coincidentally, both sets of editorial decisions happened in the run up to a Presidential Campaign, and oddly enough, both decisions were viewed to benefit the challenger against the incumbent. And yet, this doesn't strike anyone on the left as somewhat self-serving or duplicitous?

Abu Ghraib hurt the U.S. Military and our mission terribly. And to this day, many on the left still believe deeply in their heart of hearts that these abuses were, if not directed, knowingly tolerated by the President, the Secretary of Defense, and every General Officer in between these gentlemen and the depraved scum who carried out these abuses.

Yet you won't find a Soldier who isn't very glad there are Soldiers involved going to jail for hard labor with long sentences, and that there are superior officers having their careers terminated. So report and prosecute away.

Anyone who could seriously make the argument that the "good news" of our military and diplomatic efforts are receiving an over-abundance of reporting is deluded, or blind, or more precisely, hallucinating. (You see these things, but they're not really there.) To then point to Blogs as the source for all that good news just underscores that the good news is on the Blogs because it sure as heck doesn't make the Times. (Or CBS.)

Career ending attacks? Eason Jordan didn't just report that "the military had problems." He accused the U.S. Military of targeting (intentionally killing) innocent civilians. As the head of a major news division, he took the opportunity before a foreign audience in slandering the U.S. Military with these untruths, and then lying about what he said. (No tape or transcript has ever been made available to refute what has been reported that he said, that he denies.) I would think stockholders and owners of reputable media outlets wouldn't be too enthused by heads of those organizations making outrageous claims not backed up by fact.

Perhaps you allude to Dan Rather too? The gentleman who made a ruinous situation worse for CBS by attacking his critics and assuring the American people that the source of his reporting was unimpeachable? Who's producer, no doubt with his full support, bit fully into a fraudulent story, perhaps planted by political operatives, but surely abetted by a known anti-Bush crank?

The military should be and surely is fully accountable to the American people. The U.S. Military is probably one of the MOST responsive organizations in the world in terms of accountability. We even have our own legal system that exists outside of and in addition to criminal courts, and we can be punished by both.

I've mentioned before that, when deficiencies or problems are noted at all levels of command, almost immediately we see corrective actions, training, preventative measures.

The American people should and can be very proud of their military, notwithstanding and in spite of the infrequent abuse of power or transgression. And proud, too, that moreso than any other institution, public or private, tries to right whatever wrong takes place within our organization.

If the press handled its own transgressions with as much humility and earnestness, we wouldn't be having this discussion.


At 3:32 PM, Blogger Synova said...

I tried to read it but it was hard to pay attention because it was boring. I thought he was wrong, often enough, but not so wrong to get excited about, and right occasionally, but in knocking down strawmen kind of way.

Firstly, I don't know of any intelligent, pro-military person who claims that the military should not be held accountable. The most common response I hear to news of abuse or criminal act or whatever, is that the investigators will discover the facts involved and it's wisest to wait judgement.

Those of us who have served in the military know that it's as imperfect as any human institution. The military police don't just guard the gates but function as any police force in a community. The military, as well as police, has internal investigative organs that organize stings on drug and prostitution rings and thefts and murders. Our base paper at Clark featured the "blotter" on the back page where we got a run down of stupid Airman tricks, child abuse charges, and burglery.

We've got the JAG, of course, and a set way for even the lowliest person to file complaints outside of their chain-of-command, be it harassment in the workplace or the suspicion that your CO is a spy. There's the always popular "write to your Senator" that tends to accelerate the shit into the fan most dramatically.

Do you know, that you can't even get a pap or any sort of pelvic exam in an Air Force hospital without a female "observer" to be sure the doctor doesn't commit sexual acts? You can't ask for her to leave, either. That's how the military deals with an isolated complaint.

So, to people who've experienced this almost oppresive system of accountability, the charge that the military figures that it ought to have some sort of carte blanc to operate without scrutiny is a bit hard to get excited about.

So on to the media.

The media, rightly, talks about the need to win hearts and minds. Then it does it's level best to point out every single last possible negative tidbit of information. Where does holding the military and government accountable end, and malicious glee in highlighting each failure begin?

We can start, you know, with journalists entirely bizarre notion that they have a god given right to wander through fire zones without getting injured. We can go on to the equally bizarre notion that any reporting of heroism or popular support on the ground or rebuilding that isn't "balanced" with a good dose of death, destruction, and despair, is providing government propaganda.

Add to that the clear as day assumption that the actions and reporting of journalists are, defacto, without moral content or consequence and who gives a flying rats behind if it makes soldiers jobs harder or more dangerous, and people in the line of fire, as well as those who support them, are going to get the idea that journalists and the media are out to get them.

Soldiers on the ground look around them and consider events in the context of what they know, from history and experience, about war and think, "We're doing pretty good here." They look at the paper, at what the journalists have written and find out that they're wrong. We're in a horrible quagmire. Civil war is about to errupt. Nothing good can be expected.

People in the US look at the stories and are dismayed by the quagmire, obviously caused by the prevalent and pervasive abuses by our soldiers, and it diminishes our will as a nation to define and attain victory.

Our enemies read the reports, turn to their buddy, and say BOOYAH, strap on a vest of explosives and go blow up a polling place because they've been encouraged, comforted and aided, by the sure knowledge that WE are facing a lost cause.

So... what would *you* call it?

At 3:36 PM, Blogger Synova said...

And if you say, "But we *are* facing a lost cause," please consider where you've gotten that information *from*.

At 4:53 PM, Blogger Ryan said...


In you opinion, what are the journalists getting out of what you perceive as anti-military coverage? What do you think the motive is?

I don't think the media are generally anti-military. Look at the run up to the War in Iraq. There were very few dissenting voices when it came to the WMD argument. And it turns out that many journalists who were using similar sources as the U.S. intelligence services have avoided blaming the government and the military for their mistaken reporting.

I just can't buy that journalists and the press are on-the-whole anti-military.

At 9:02 PM, Blogger StargazerA5 said...


As you say, no organization (or in this case group of people) is infallible. There are undoubtedly some extermists who believe the military should be beyond reproach. I don't believe they represent the majority of those who are sprining to the defense of the military in these cases. Most, however, believe that when the military screws up and tries to cover up, they should get what they deserve.

The problem many of us have with the media is that the evidence in front of our own eyes says that this is not what is happening.

While Abu Gharib has been over talked about, that is the cearest case I can think of to refute what your talking about. Had the media reported that there had been allegations of problems, that an investigation was under way/near completion, and that court marshals were likely, nobody would have had a problem with that. The media would have done it's duty in reporting that, yes, the system had broken down, but other parts of the system were working to correct the problem.

Had the media caught the military trying to whitewash the situation and then blasted them for it, I still don't think many would have been upset with the media.

However, that wasn't what happened. The media learned that the system had broken down, ignored the fact that the corrective measures were working, and blasted the military about it. The media didn't even give the military a chance to court marshal the offenders to find out if there was going to be a white wash or not. They just blasted them in a "gotcha" story that was handed to them by a military trying to show that they were fixing probolems, not white washing them. I know too many people who are totally convinced that the only reason anybody was court marshaled was because of the media, and no amount of evidence or documentation will convince them otherwise. The media made themselves look good at the expense of the military.

Was AG a disgusting display of the system breaking down and a disastrous public relations FUBAR by the military? Yes. Was it news worthy? Yes, but not to the extent it was made out to be. Should the media have toned down the story (note, I didn't say not report on) until there was evidence of the military not fixing the problem? Absolutely.

If the system appears to be working, why break it? Save it for when it doesn't.


At 10:54 AM, Blogger Adam Gurri said...

A good response to this that I've read:

At 10:55 AM, Blogger Adam Gurri said...

I respect him for saying it, as he knows that his readers are mostly conservative, and I respect you, Liberal Avenger, for having found it, because obviously that means you read blogs that you don't always agree with (which I suppose is indicated by the fact that Debate Space exists in the first place :D). I disagree with him on some points, but on the whole, think it's a good entry that says a lot of things that needed to be said and are often overlooked on the Right.

At 4:37 PM, Blogger Ella's Dad said...

There's a lot that can be said about this, but I'm not going to recreate my latest blog post here. Nor am I going to use this comment space to promote it. I will, however, direct ya'll to the site of a writer/photographer who is reporting the news of Mosul as he personally experiences it: Michael Yon. Visit his site, read his posts, and view his pictures, and see if they paint a completely different picture of the efforts in Iraq.

Here's a simple analogy to illustrate why people (not just soldiers) feel so frustrated with the complete lack of perspective in the Media's reporting on all things Iraq/military. (If you're not a football fan, sorry - it's my analogy.)

It's like a sportswriter covering Super Bowl 38 (New England vs Carolina) and writing a lengthy column focused solely on Tom Brady's interception, and then concluding that he's not a winner and can't be trusted to lead a team to victory. While it is true that Brady threw a pick in the Super Bowl, and picks in Super Bowls are bad things for their team, such microscopic, exclusionary focus leaves out the startling array of truly great things about Brady and the game that are not only also true, but more true:
1) His 1 interception was greatly offset by 3 touchdowns and 354 yds passing;
2) His team actually won the game
3) He was the MVP
4) It was his second Super Bowl MVP in 3 yrs.

Demanding that these 4 things also get reported isn't akin to soliciting propoganda or diminishing the badness of that interception (which came at a crucial time and nearly cost the Patriots the game, if I remember correctly). Rather, such demands are really demands for one thing: perspective.

When it comes to Iraq and the U.S. Military, the Media has lost all sense of perspective. They have obsessed ad nauseum on the few instances when the U.S. dropped the ball, but ignore the plethora of great plays, great calls, and lopsided score of the game as a whole.

At 9:54 AM, Blogger armynurseboy said...

I have been to Iraq. I have friends on the ground in Iraq. The war that I remember experiencing and the war that I am hearing about from the folks who are actually there is TOTALLY different from the war you read in the paper and see on the news.

Why is this? It is the way the information is presented. I will not go so far as to say the MSM lies, but they are not giving you the whole truth either. If all you hear is there is crime after crime in a city, you would think it was a place out of control. But the reality is, that is only one facet of the the bigger picture. This is where many folks who I serve with have the biggest hearburn. We are not for hiding the truth. But at least tell the WHOLE truth.

So what is the reason for this? Part of it, IMHO, is to sell papers and air time. The MSM after all is a business that has to turn a profit to stay solvent. This is where the 'make it big' attitude comes from. A reporter who garners a big story gets the recognition, and more often than not, a big paycheck. But there is more. Many mentioned the Vietnam syndrome. I think this is still lingering. Back then, the media was helping shape world events rather than just reporting them. I think many want to recapture that influence that the media had, regardless of the cost or consequences....

At 10:55 AM, Blogger chaoticsynapticactivity said...

Amrynurseboy and others:

I grew up in 3rd and 4th grade (62-64) on Okinawa, the son of a civil servant for the Army Corps of Engineers. It was home of the 5th Special Forces, the apple of JFK's eye. My neighbor was then Maj David Watts. His two soons and I grew up playing in that military envirnment. David Watts made at least LT GEN, last I saw.

I later lived on Guam (67-71). I was middle school and hgh school aged by then. My swim team and basketball coaches, and Boy Scout leaders were military (Navy, Marine, Coast Guard). We had not only the Stars and Stripes, but the "stateside" media available.

To this day, I know of three Vietnam wars from these sources:

1) "Stateside" (MSM) media
2) Stars and Stripes
3) Personal stories.

They don't match up. Two of the three had "agendas" and the thrid were just real people telling real things they had done/seen.

This trend continues today, but we don't see the Stars and Stripes style papers in CONUS. The closest you could connect with that genre is releases from the White House, but that's a very loose analogy.

I have spent a life time devouring just about anything written on Vietnam to help me resolve which was the real war. So far my conclusion is the personal stories are to be trusted the most.

Reading that helped me understand more of some of the realities of Vietnam were:

"A Bright Shining Lie" Neil Sheehan

but better by far was:

"Our Own Worst Enemy" by William Lederer (co-author of "The Ugly American") - this is a good read about how we fail to study the culture and history of those places we go.

I don't trust the MSM. I read plenty of blogs, and the stories across a large sample size, and almost all of them are not associated with one another, and it's looking like a big win is coming, for the next sevral decades, unless someone just pulls us out in an instant, in which case, hang onto your 2nd Amendment, for it will become the biggest help to HomeLand Security we could have.

I think the MSM has grown up with some feeling of entitlement, and belief they "work for the American People" (I actually heard Fred Francis say this on the stage at Naval War College in the fall of 1987 and he followed up with words to the effect: "So if I ask you a question, you are obligated to answer me." This was to about 800 military officers.)

They saw they had an impact on the outcome of the decisions of the Vietnam War and those young reporters quit being "journalists" and became functional editorialists, saying journalism is a profession where you can "make a difference" or "change the world." Neither of those is correct. They need to get off their power trip and tell us what is going on, not sticking to their form of censorship ("Hey, we only have 20 minutes each evening, what do you want us to report?") by careful selection of those things that make their point (Hello, Dan Rather!).

The younger and mid-career reporters have been mentoerd in this thought process, so, the bias continues.

Can the military be wrong, yep, been there, seen it, from a pointy end of the spear guy to being involved in major program development. Is everyone involved in being "wrong" a criminal? Nope, and most of the "wrong" is inefficient decision making, not find a way to siphon off millions of $$$ for personal gain.

Ok, too long a post already...

At 8:48 AM, Blogger Brian H said...

It comes down to balance and context. The MSM has abandoned and abrogated its responsibilities to provide either, and it's pretty damn hard not to believe that has happened with malice aforethought, with an agenda of sabotaging both the military and the foreign policy that directs it.

Here's a link to a comment on an ongoing discussion over at PressThink which is directly on point here.


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