Commentary Magazine


Topic: mass media

RE: A Good Move. Now…

Jennifer, while agreeing with much of what you have to say about the McChrystal-Petraeus transition, I have to disagree with your reader who says, “Generals should only talk to their troops.” Perhaps that was once true; it is certainly no longer true. A general who neglects his public-outreach function is guilty of dereliction of duty. Indeed, that was part of the reason why General George Casey was unsuccessful in Iraq; he was hunkered down in Baghdad and he was not communicating effectively with people either in Iraq or in the United States to explain and defend his strategy.

For that matter, by neglecting the news media, a senior general cannot effectively communicate with his own troops. Like it or not, one of the most effective ways to reach an organization of hundreds of thousands of individuals is through the mass media.

Luckily, General Petraeus is keenly aware of the need to engage in strategic communication, which involves opening up the battlefield to the news media and academic experts and opening up the commander to interviews. This has made him somewhat controversial within the army, which has a traditional disdain for the news media — an attitude that will only be reinforced by the fallout over the Rolling Stone interview. It is significant, however, that Petraeus has never gotten into that kind of trouble, notwithstanding all the interviews he has given over the years. And he hasn’t managed to stay out of trouble by uttering platitudes or ridiculously rosy predictions. He has a rare gift for conveying sincerity without stepping over the line or making inappropriate and indiscreet comments of the kind McChrystal and his staff made. That is a skill that all successful generals must cultivate in the Information Age. “No comment” is simply no longer an option.

Jennifer, while agreeing with much of what you have to say about the McChrystal-Petraeus transition, I have to disagree with your reader who says, “Generals should only talk to their troops.” Perhaps that was once true; it is certainly no longer true. A general who neglects his public-outreach function is guilty of dereliction of duty. Indeed, that was part of the reason why General George Casey was unsuccessful in Iraq; he was hunkered down in Baghdad and he was not communicating effectively with people either in Iraq or in the United States to explain and defend his strategy.

For that matter, by neglecting the news media, a senior general cannot effectively communicate with his own troops. Like it or not, one of the most effective ways to reach an organization of hundreds of thousands of individuals is through the mass media.

Luckily, General Petraeus is keenly aware of the need to engage in strategic communication, which involves opening up the battlefield to the news media and academic experts and opening up the commander to interviews. This has made him somewhat controversial within the army, which has a traditional disdain for the news media — an attitude that will only be reinforced by the fallout over the Rolling Stone interview. It is significant, however, that Petraeus has never gotten into that kind of trouble, notwithstanding all the interviews he has given over the years. And he hasn’t managed to stay out of trouble by uttering platitudes or ridiculously rosy predictions. He has a rare gift for conveying sincerity without stepping over the line or making inappropriate and indiscreet comments of the kind McChrystal and his staff made. That is a skill that all successful generals must cultivate in the Information Age. “No comment” is simply no longer an option.

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Is the U.S. Preparing to Bomb Iran? Check the Source First

Mistrust the press — that is one important lesson from Max Boot’s post about Mark Perry’s sensationalist (and sensationally inaccurate) attribution of the U.S.-Israel fallout to General Petraeus.

Elsewhere in the news, be prepared for more instances of the mass media’s inability to distinguish between fact and fiction. Take the report that the U.S. is seemingly getting ready to bomb Iran. The Herald, the Scottish daily, notes that a shipment has left California with military supplies for Diego Garcia, in the Indian Ocean. This shipment includes huge quantities of bunker busters. Now all this may be true — but their news story is that these supplies are in preparation of a U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The source of this analysis?

Professor Dan Plesch, director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

According to the Herald, Plesch said:

They are gearing up totally for the destruction of Iran … US bombers are ready today to destroy 10,000 targets in Iran in a few hours … The preparations were being made by the US military, but it would be up to President Obama to make the final decision. He may decide that it would be better for the US to act instead of Israel … The US is not publicising the scale of these preparations to deter Iran, tending to make confrontation more likely …

How many times has Professor Plesch claimed this before?

OpenDemocracy, March, 21, 2005, “Iran, the coming war“:

So when might the attack on Iran occur? The Bush administration has, from its perspective, allowed the Europeans and the non-proliferation diplomats enough time to fail. They will certainly use the UN conference on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament from 2-27 May 2005 as an opportunity to grandstand.

For US domestic political purposes a “crisis” in spring 2006 when the EU and the UN can once more be confronted with their alleged failures, and challenged to support US leadership, would be timely for mid-term elections in which the ultra-conservative coalition will wish to consolidate its gains and eliminate any nascent moderate or realistic Republican candidate in good time for the 2008 presidential election.

The Guardian, “Are we going to war with Iran?” October, 21, 2005:

A new war may not be as politically disastrous in Washington as many believe … For an embattled President Bush, combating the mullahs of Tehran may be a useful means of diverting attention from Iraq and reestablishing control of the Republican party prior to next year’s congressional elections. From this perspective, even an escalating conflict would rally the nation behind a war president. As for the succession to President Bush, Bob Woodward has named Mr Cheney as a likely candidate, a step that would be easier in a wartime atmosphere. Mr Cheney would doubtless point out that US military spending, while huge compared to other nations, is at a far lower percentage of gross domestic product than during the Reagan years. With regard to Mr Blair’s position, it would be helpful to know whether he has committed Britain to preventing an Iranian bomb “come what may” as he did with Iraq.

New Statesman, February, 19, 2007, “Iran — ready to attack”:

American military operations for a major conventional war with Iran could be implemented any day. They extend far beyond targeting suspect WMD facilities and will enable President Bush to destroy Iran’s military, political and economic infrastructure overnight using conventional weapons.

Four predictions in five years — and no war so far.

Professor Plesch does not seem to have his fact-checking machine and his sources up to date, tuned in, and reliably informed. It may not matter to some media outlets, which will probably continue to publish on ideological rather than factual grounds.

Still, journalists should remember that a good news story cannot rely just on the sensation of the message but must also ensure the credibility of the messenger. With Professor Plesch, it seems, this is just not the case.

Mistrust the press — that is one important lesson from Max Boot’s post about Mark Perry’s sensationalist (and sensationally inaccurate) attribution of the U.S.-Israel fallout to General Petraeus.

Elsewhere in the news, be prepared for more instances of the mass media’s inability to distinguish between fact and fiction. Take the report that the U.S. is seemingly getting ready to bomb Iran. The Herald, the Scottish daily, notes that a shipment has left California with military supplies for Diego Garcia, in the Indian Ocean. This shipment includes huge quantities of bunker busters. Now all this may be true — but their news story is that these supplies are in preparation of a U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The source of this analysis?

Professor Dan Plesch, director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

According to the Herald, Plesch said:

They are gearing up totally for the destruction of Iran … US bombers are ready today to destroy 10,000 targets in Iran in a few hours … The preparations were being made by the US military, but it would be up to President Obama to make the final decision. He may decide that it would be better for the US to act instead of Israel … The US is not publicising the scale of these preparations to deter Iran, tending to make confrontation more likely …

How many times has Professor Plesch claimed this before?

OpenDemocracy, March, 21, 2005, “Iran, the coming war“:

So when might the attack on Iran occur? The Bush administration has, from its perspective, allowed the Europeans and the non-proliferation diplomats enough time to fail. They will certainly use the UN conference on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament from 2-27 May 2005 as an opportunity to grandstand.

For US domestic political purposes a “crisis” in spring 2006 when the EU and the UN can once more be confronted with their alleged failures, and challenged to support US leadership, would be timely for mid-term elections in which the ultra-conservative coalition will wish to consolidate its gains and eliminate any nascent moderate or realistic Republican candidate in good time for the 2008 presidential election.

The Guardian, “Are we going to war with Iran?” October, 21, 2005:

A new war may not be as politically disastrous in Washington as many believe … For an embattled President Bush, combating the mullahs of Tehran may be a useful means of diverting attention from Iraq and reestablishing control of the Republican party prior to next year’s congressional elections. From this perspective, even an escalating conflict would rally the nation behind a war president. As for the succession to President Bush, Bob Woodward has named Mr Cheney as a likely candidate, a step that would be easier in a wartime atmosphere. Mr Cheney would doubtless point out that US military spending, while huge compared to other nations, is at a far lower percentage of gross domestic product than during the Reagan years. With regard to Mr Blair’s position, it would be helpful to know whether he has committed Britain to preventing an Iranian bomb “come what may” as he did with Iraq.

New Statesman, February, 19, 2007, “Iran — ready to attack”:

American military operations for a major conventional war with Iran could be implemented any day. They extend far beyond targeting suspect WMD facilities and will enable President Bush to destroy Iran’s military, political and economic infrastructure overnight using conventional weapons.

Four predictions in five years — and no war so far.

Professor Plesch does not seem to have his fact-checking machine and his sources up to date, tuned in, and reliably informed. It may not matter to some media outlets, which will probably continue to publish on ideological rather than factual grounds.

Still, journalists should remember that a good news story cannot rely just on the sensation of the message but must also ensure the credibility of the messenger. With Professor Plesch, it seems, this is just not the case.

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Once Again, The Media Declare the Democratic Race Over

As Abe and Jennifer have noted, this has been the worst week of Barack Obama’s candidacy by far. So it is interesting, to say the least, that three major political venues — the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Politico — chose this week to publish  articles on why Hillary Clinton has almost no chance to win the nomination. What the articles say is certainly true enough: The delegate math doesn’t add up for her even if she does brilliantly from now until June. But where is the vaunted media hunger for the hot horse race? Surely, if she wins every state until the end of the primaries, that will suggest Obama has weakened wildly and will change the dynamic of the discussion in Democratic circles going into the summer. It’s a tall order, very tall, to be sure. But one thing is certain: Her path to the nomination actually looks better this week than it did last week, owing to Obama’s troubles. And yet the pieces all appear at once to say she’s through.

Why try to puncture a hole in Hillary’s balloon now? It is very nearly impossible not to think that, at least unconsciously, the pieces are an effort to limit the damage to Barack Obama among the undecided superdelegates and the like by reminding them of the trouble Hillary is in. The simultaneous or near-simultaneous publication here is not a mark of conspiracy, but of the peculiar way the mass media mind works at times.

Just remember this the next time somebody says the media love a good race and thrive on conflict. Whoever says it is almost always explaining away a liberal bias. In this case, it’s an Obama bias.

As Abe and Jennifer have noted, this has been the worst week of Barack Obama’s candidacy by far. So it is interesting, to say the least, that three major political venues — the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Politico — chose this week to publish  articles on why Hillary Clinton has almost no chance to win the nomination. What the articles say is certainly true enough: The delegate math doesn’t add up for her even if she does brilliantly from now until June. But where is the vaunted media hunger for the hot horse race? Surely, if she wins every state until the end of the primaries, that will suggest Obama has weakened wildly and will change the dynamic of the discussion in Democratic circles going into the summer. It’s a tall order, very tall, to be sure. But one thing is certain: Her path to the nomination actually looks better this week than it did last week, owing to Obama’s troubles. And yet the pieces all appear at once to say she’s through.

Why try to puncture a hole in Hillary’s balloon now? It is very nearly impossible not to think that, at least unconsciously, the pieces are an effort to limit the damage to Barack Obama among the undecided superdelegates and the like by reminding them of the trouble Hillary is in. The simultaneous or near-simultaneous publication here is not a mark of conspiracy, but of the peculiar way the mass media mind works at times.

Just remember this the next time somebody says the media love a good race and thrive on conflict. Whoever says it is almost always explaining away a liberal bias. In this case, it’s an Obama bias.

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Twilight of the Radio Gods?

In case you haven’t heard, conservative talk radio has this wee problem with John McCain. Actually, it’s been hard to hear – or read – about anything else in recent weeks, with Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, et al, subjecting McCain to a level of opprobrium that’s had liberal reporters scrambling to record every word while trying their damndest to feign concern over a much hoped-for GOP crackup.

The relentless pounding of McCain, while certainly popular with some conservatives, has elicited a growing backlash among others, with a number of conservative bloggers expressing disdain for the tactics of Limbaugh and company — some of them saying they can no longer bring themselves to listen to the very voices that for so long had constituted a focal point of their day.

I know exactly what they’re going through. My own personal moratorium on Limbaugh and Hannity (I’d listened only sporadically, and never enthusiastically, to the various other hosts who’ve taken to treating McCain as though he were a Trotskyite trying to crash a conservative ball) began in stages. Old habits and loyalties die hard.

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In case you haven’t heard, conservative talk radio has this wee problem with John McCain. Actually, it’s been hard to hear – or read – about anything else in recent weeks, with Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, et al, subjecting McCain to a level of opprobrium that’s had liberal reporters scrambling to record every word while trying their damndest to feign concern over a much hoped-for GOP crackup.

The relentless pounding of McCain, while certainly popular with some conservatives, has elicited a growing backlash among others, with a number of conservative bloggers expressing disdain for the tactics of Limbaugh and company — some of them saying they can no longer bring themselves to listen to the very voices that for so long had constituted a focal point of their day.

I know exactly what they’re going through. My own personal moratorium on Limbaugh and Hannity (I’d listened only sporadically, and never enthusiastically, to the various other hosts who’ve taken to treating McCain as though he were a Trotskyite trying to crash a conservative ball) began in stages. Old habits and loyalties die hard.

I’d start each day thinking that maybe — especially as it grew ever more apparent that McCain would be the Republican nominee — the attacks on the senator would at long last begin to diminish, in number if not intensity. But within minutes of either host opening his show I’d be disabused of that notion; the sliming would pick up right where it had left off the day before, with little or no regard for nuance or perspective. I’d switch to sports talk for an hour or so before returning to Limbaugh or Hannity, only to once again find myself muttering at the radio and reaching for the dial.

Though talk radio has, with rare exceptions, always been the thinnest of intellectual gruel, the rise of conservative talkers – which took place in the years just before the Internet changed everything about the way we consume news – was a galvanizing event for those of us who always saw through the neutral posturing of the Walter Cronkites, the John Chancellors, the Roger Mudds of that era. At last we had a slice of mass media we could call our own and by which we could help sway policy and elections and stay connected to fellow conservatives across the country.

But talk radio is already something of a dinosaur, a rusted hulk lying on the side of the information superhighway. How could it be otherwise, in an age when we can log on and directly link to thousands of conservative websites and blogs — when we can communicate, unfiltered and instantaneously, with like-minded people not just across the country but around the world?

Sean Hannity can insist all he wants that John McCain is a liberal, but simply by Googling McCain’s lifetime voting record we can see for ourselves that if he’s a liberal, words have no meaning. Rush Limbaugh can loudly champion Mitt Romney as the second coming of Barry Goldwater, but a quick Internet search is enough to confirm that Romney is anything but.

And when the anti-McCain talkers imply that the “conservative base” disdains McCain and will have a hard time accepting him as the Republican nominee, a few minutes online is all it takes to understand that the “base” is a far more fractious thing than the talkers would have us believe.
If anyone needs to worry about a base, it would seem to be the McCain-obsessed radio hosts themselves, who, as the writer Noemie Emery recently observed on The Weekly Standard’s Campaign Standard blog, “are fracturing the base of their listening audience.”

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Brzezinski’s Paranoia

Writing in the Sunday, March 25 Outlook section of the Washington Post, Zbigniew Brzezinski claims that “The ‘war on terror’ has created a culture of fear in America.” Moreover, he says, “the vagueness of the phrase was deliberately (or instinctively) calculated by its sponsors [to] stimulate . . . the emergence of a culture of fear. Fear obscures reason, intensifies emotions, and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue.” The “fear-mongering” of President Bush has been reinforced, says Brzezinski, “by security entrepreneurs, the mass media, and the entertainment industry.” As a result, the American people have been subjected to “five years of almost continuous national brainwashing on the subject of terror.”

This, Brzezinski continues, has “stimulate[d] Islamophobia.” In particular, the “Arab facial stereotypes, particularly in [American] newspaper cartoons,” remind Brzezinski of the “Nazi anti-Semitic campaigns.” The people who do such things are “apparently oblivious to the menacing connection between the stimulation of racial and religious hatreds and the unleashing of the unprecedented crimes of the Holocaust.”

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Writing in the Sunday, March 25 Outlook section of the Washington Post, Zbigniew Brzezinski claims that “The ‘war on terror’ has created a culture of fear in America.” Moreover, he says, “the vagueness of the phrase was deliberately (or instinctively) calculated by its sponsors [to] stimulate . . . the emergence of a culture of fear. Fear obscures reason, intensifies emotions, and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue.” The “fear-mongering” of President Bush has been reinforced, says Brzezinski, “by security entrepreneurs, the mass media, and the entertainment industry.” As a result, the American people have been subjected to “five years of almost continuous national brainwashing on the subject of terror.”

This, Brzezinski continues, has “stimulate[d] Islamophobia.” In particular, the “Arab facial stereotypes, particularly in [American] newspaper cartoons,” remind Brzezinski of the “Nazi anti-Semitic campaigns.” The people who do such things are “apparently oblivious to the menacing connection between the stimulation of racial and religious hatreds and the unleashing of the unprecedented crimes of the Holocaust.”

Brzezinski’s goal, he says, is an end to “this hysteria . . . this paranoia.”

How to react to this? Would that one could say simply that it is sad to see a former high official go off the rails, and leave it at that. But the very fact that the Post chose to give the man such prime space shows that he will be taken seriously, although he no longer deserves to be. So here are a few comments.

It is rather rich to decry hysteria and paranoia in the same breath that one likens the slights to Arabs in the American news media to the depiction of Jews by the Nazis, and to imply that these slights may be the prelude to another Holocaust.

It is also rich to hear Brzezinski sneer at “security entrepreneurs.” How, exactly, would Brzezinski describe his own career? The Encyclopedia of World Biography’s entry on him reminds us that “Brzezinski was openly eager to be appointed assistant to the President for nation security affairs and delighted when President-elect Carter offered him the position in December 1976.”

It is amusing to be lectured that “America today is not the self-confident and determined nation that responded to Pearl Harbor” by the national security adviser of the President who delivered the infamous “malaise” speech, telling Americans that our problems arose from “a crisis of the American spirit” and a “los[s of] confidence in the future.” Aside from being rich, Brzezinski’s claim is false. Fear of the enemy is not the opposite of determination and confidence in ultimate victory. There was much fear of the enemy in 1941, including some that was quite hysterical. The main difference in regard to self-confidence between World War II and the war on terror is that after Pearl Harbor, one no longer heard voices like Brzezinski’s claiming that the real enemy was ourselves.

In a further sneer, Brzezinski writes: “President Bush even claims absurdly that he has to continue waging [the war on terror] lest al Qaeda cross the Atlantic to launch a war of terror here in the United States.” Quite a fool, that Bush. Terror here in the United States? Absurd, indeed! How could al Qaeda cross the Atlantic? In airplanes? Ha, ha.

Between sneers, Brzezinski waxes professorial. “Terrorism is not an enemy but a technique,” he explains. Quite so. The enemy might more precisely be described as jihadism, a political ideology that claims that the Christian and Jewish worlds are at war with Islam and that the Islamic world must make war on them. This ideology traces its roots to the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in the 1920′s. But it only took wing after a jihadist government seized power in Iran in 1979, much as Communism only emerged as a major force after a Communist government was established in Russia. And where was Brzezinski when this enemy was taking shape? At the very pinnacle of the American government, flapping about pathetically, pursuing policies that enabled this strategic disaster to happen. His qualification for instructing us about how to deal with jihadism is therefore clear: there are few Americans who did us much as he to create the problem.

* Editor’s Note: You can read Gabriel Schoenfeld’s response to one of Muravchik’s critics here.

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Why Sontag Switched Off

Groucho Marx once observed: “I find television very educational. Whenever somebody turns it on, I go into the other room and read a book.” You may not be surprised to learn that the late Susan Sontag felt the same way, although she lacked Marx’s sense of humor. In “Pay Attention to the World,” an essay extracted from her posthumous 2007 volume At the Same Time and published in Saturday’s Guardian, Sontag writes that television, the Internet, and other mass media threaten to “render obsolete the novelist’s prophetic and critical, even subversive, task.”

Sontag charges mass media not only with having “dramatically cut into the time the educated public once devoted to reading,” but also with offering “a lesson in amorality and detachment that is antithetical to the one embodied by the enterprise of the novel.” She concedes that mass media may give some pleasure and enlightenment. But “the mindset they foster and the appetites they feed,” she argues, “are entirely inimical to the writing (production) and reading (consumption) of serious literature.”

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Groucho Marx once observed: “I find television very educational. Whenever somebody turns it on, I go into the other room and read a book.” You may not be surprised to learn that the late Susan Sontag felt the same way, although she lacked Marx’s sense of humor. In “Pay Attention to the World,” an essay extracted from her posthumous 2007 volume At the Same Time and published in Saturday’s Guardian, Sontag writes that television, the Internet, and other mass media threaten to “render obsolete the novelist’s prophetic and critical, even subversive, task.”

Sontag charges mass media not only with having “dramatically cut into the time the educated public once devoted to reading,” but also with offering “a lesson in amorality and detachment that is antithetical to the one embodied by the enterprise of the novel.” She concedes that mass media may give some pleasure and enlightenment. But “the mindset they foster and the appetites they feed,” she argues, “are entirely inimical to the writing (production) and reading (consumption) of serious literature.”

This is a curiously old-fashioned argument, which didn’t hold water even in 1936 when her hero Walter Benjamin first wrote about the impact of mechanical reproduction on the appreciation of art. All the evidence suggests that television and the Internet, far from rendering serious literature obsolete, have vastly increased its popularity. Indeed, the Internet has brought about a renaissance of some literary genres—the letter (email), the diary (blogs), the little magazine (webzines)—that had seemed to be almost endangered species. The advent of narrowcasting has allowed specialized TV channels to multiply, giving artists unprecedented access to their publics. And the insatiable hunger of all mass media for “content” means that there are now more people earning a living by writing than ever before.

These phenomena signify only the vulgarization of high culture to Sontag. She falls back on a weak argument, a vaguely Marxist form of alienation based on a patently false dichotomy: “Literature tells stories. Television gives information. Literature involves. It is the recreation of human solidarity. Television (with its illusion of immediacy) distances—immures us in our own indifference.”

There is something preposterous about Sontag’s alienation from the media that have, for better or worse, helped to keep her books and her memory alive. She is absurdly fatalistic about modes of communication that are certainly bad masters, but may be excellent servants, of the intellectual life.

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