Superior to the Truth
From The New Criterion.
May 15, 2003.
How wonderfully appropriate that the public discovery of the most serious media scandal to come out of the war in Iraq should have been made by one of its authors — and in a statement which he himself obviously supposed was an occasion for self-congratulation rather than shame. Eason Jordan, the chief news executive of CNN, at least lost no time. Two days after the fall of Baghdad, he published an op ed in the New York Times disclosing that the network had concealed what it knew of the crimes of Saddam Hussein, some of which had been committed against its own employees. Naturally it also failed to disclose to viewers that such news as it was bringing them from Iraq had been purchased at the cost of its willingness to keep quiet about this much more newsworthy news.
Jordan wrote that these "awful things" could not be reported "because doing so would have jeopardized the lives of Iraqis, particularly those on our Baghdad staff." But of course it was only journalistic self-importance which made the existence of CNN’s "Baghdad staff" into a datum of any moral significance. There was always the honorable option of closing the Baghdad bureau and reporting the truth from somewhere else. But as Jordan told Franklin Foer of The New Republic last autumn, the network’s pride in its comprehensiveness was at stake and its Baghdad presence of overriding importance, "First, because it’s newsworthy; second, because there’s an expectation that if anybody is in Iraq, it will be CNN."
True, Mr Jordan’s concealment of acts of torture and murder was not effected without a pang. "I felt awful having these stories bottled up inside me," he revealed in his Times op ed, thereby meeting the one and universally-recognized requirement for televisual absolution. In Oprah’s world, feeling bad about something excuses almost everything. But apart from his sympathy for his own bad feelings, he showed no evidence of being in the least repentant over his concealment of information so material to his audience’s understanding of what he had broadcast from Baghdad. He would thus presumably do the same thing again if called upon to do so by another dictator to whose prison-state CNN required "access," however limited. Indeed, it must be supposed that he and the network are already doing the same thing in such capitals as Damascus, Havana and Pyongyang.
As in so many other ways, the media’s worst fault is their inability to recognize where there is a fault. Peter Arnett, who notoriously reported from Baghdad for CNN during the first Gulf War candidly told Foer months ago that "There's a quid pro quo for being there. You go in and they control what you do. . .So you have no option other than to report the opinion of the government of Iraq." Not surprisingly, a man like Arnett who is used to paying such a price for his seconds and minutes on our television screens is going to take it in his stride when asked to say a few words on behalf of the Iraqi information ministry: "Within the United States there is growing challenge to President Bush about the conduct of the war and also opposition to the war. So our reports about civilian casualties here...help those who oppose the war," he told his Iraqi interviewer on March 30.
"Now," he went on, "America is re-appraising the battlefield, delaying the war, maybe a week, and re-writing the war plan. The first war plan has failed because of Iraqi resistance. Now they are trying to write another war plan." NBC fired him for this but without pointing out that his comments were not only spectacularly ill-judged and inappropriate, but also spectacularly false and probably the consequence of wishful thinking. The result was that, although he was at first moved to apologize for having said something so obviously gratifying to enemy propaganda in the enemy capital, he recanted his recantation after being hired by the anti-war London tabloid, the Daily Mirror, announcing that he would continue to report "the truth" about the war come what may. "I’m an agent of the cause of truth and information," he insisted.
That it was to prove within a week to be the exact opposite of the truth seems to have bothered him not at all. This is clearly a man accustomed to dealing in only those truths that are convenient for the moment, or for some partisan purpose. For neither did he see any inconsistency in proclaiming his attachment to "truth" in the pages of an avowedly anti-war newspaper. It’s true that this was in the context of a media culture which makes much less of a shibboleth of "objectivity" than its American counterpart does. But even in Britain it is still not common for journalists to suppose that truth is a function of ideology, or that obvious falsehoods can go uncorrected because of the righteousness of the cause in which they are uttered.
Arnett’s sense of proprietorship with respect to "truth" is more likely to be owing to his long association with American television networks whose Olympian pretensions occasionally peek out at us from remarks like Mr. Jordan’s. Yet there’s nothing like a war to expose the great central pretense of the journalistic "profession" that reporters are somehow super-men (and, of course, -women), capable like the gods themselves of standing above our petty human squabbles on a higher plane from the rest of us. Unto those cool and cloistered precincts — so we are given to suppose — the shrill cries of "partisanship"seldom reach. And when they do, those (almost exclusively conservative) who are deemed to be tainted with the stigma of partisanship are bid by their fellows to move farther off, and lower down.
It is all, of course, as complete a myth as Olympus itself. Conservatives are forever pointing out, rightly, the unfairness of the "partisan" label which places them on a different plane from those superior beings who broadcast the news. The consensus of the journalistic culture lies moderately left of center but by common consent is deemed to be "objective" and non-partisan itself so long as there is anybody to the right or left of it who can be labeled partisans solely for that reason. But why suppose a "centrist" position, as defined by any particular political context, is not quite as partisan as any "extremist" of the left or the right? Merely taking up a position in the middle — any middle will do — and being condemned by those on either side of one is, in the prevailing mythology of the media culture, a kind of guarantee of objectivity and "balance."
Thus Andrew Marr in the Daily Telegraph answered criticism of the BBC’s pretty obvious anti-war and anti-American bias by writing: "For every minister grumbling about the Baghdad Broadcasting Corporation, there are plenty of anti-war people calling us the Blair-Bush Broadcasting Corporation." So that’s all right then. "If both sides hate us, we must be doing something right," as American broadcasters customarily put it. But this doesn’t follow at all. Both sides could be right, or neither. Or one could be right and one wrong. The fact that people complain is neither here nor there. People can complain about anything. Eric Alterman has lately been complaining that the American media are biased to the right. The point lies in the details of the complaint and whether it is justified in the particular instance.
Also of some importance is the question of who is complaining. It is not possible for coverage not to be partial and therefore not to offend somebody. In fact it is not possible for it not to offend somebody on the left, no matter how left-wing or somebody on the right no matter how right-wing. But if I were at the BBC I would be at least a little bit worried that the sailors of the Royal Navy on board the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal asked that their BBC direct satellite feed be turned off on the grounds that their national, TV license-payer-funded network "places more faith in Iraqi reports than information coming from British or Allied sources."
Not that anyone at the BBC seems to be fretting. Marr’s view is echoed by Richard Sambrook, director of BBC News, who told Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post that complaints against his network arise out of its "not having a particular country’s agenda or values at the forefront of what we’re doing. We try to take an international approach to the news, to a greater extent than any of the U.S. nets. We try to build in a perspective from other Arab countries." Kurtz himself plays the same trick by quoting, for balance, the views of a left-wing Labour MP as retailed by the London Morning Star — a tiny-circulation Communist-subsidized newspaper — that the BBC is too pro-American and setting it against the opinion of William Rees-Mogg, former editor of The Times, that it is "defeatist." See? They’re being attacked from both sides. They must be doing something right.
Or, as Kurtz puts it, cheerfully buying into the BBC’s self-justification, the network has adopted a "cover all sides" approach. It is of course nothing of the kind. Like everyone else, the BBC’s correspondents choose the side they favor — in this case the official Iraqi version, mainly because it is anti-American. When Kurtz put to Sambrook the leaked internal memo of the network’s own defense correspondent, criticizing his editors in London for reporting the opposite of the truth in order to emphasize allied setbacks, Sambrook replied with a sigh on the same, unvarying theme: "We’re pleasing no one. . . I get some criticism that we’re too antiwar, and from the other side that we're a government mouthpiece and a spokesman for the coalition. That's inevitable, I think."
Inevitable or not, it is no excuse for actually being a mouthpiece and a spokesman for the Iraqis.Kurtz himself noticed that the BBC reported the increasingly hallucinatory claims of the Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, as if they were to be weighed equally with official British or American sources, as when there was said to be an uprising against Saddam Hussein in Basra: "Iraq has denied that there’s been any uprising at all," reported Mishal Husain of "BBC World," and proceed to air a clip of Sahhaf saying: "I officially deny the hallucinations from the Americans, through CNN and others" and insisting that the people’s response had instead been one of "resistance" and that "the invaders" had, like so many others on his telling, "found death."
Sahhaf went on giving his daily briefings announcing setback after bloody setback for the American and British forces, and denying that any of the enemy were in Baghdad, until the correspondents at the briefing could look out of the window and see them across the street. Yet even Sahhaf can be explained by the nature of the Arab honor culture, which required him only to talk of great Iraqi victories, not actually to produce them. It is less easy to understand why so many in the Western media should have clung to their own delusions with a tenacity worthy of Mr. Sahhaf. Through the Bush administration’s successes and failures, and even through its spectacular victory in Iraq, Maureen Dowd wavers not a jot from her firm conviction that her country’s leaders are bumbling incompetents and moral pygmies with a frat-boy mentality.
For someone who has made her reputation on the basis of wit and independent thought to cling so fiercely to her own prejudices about the Bush administration no matter what they do, she must run the risk of appearing as much the party hack as her New York Times op-ed page colleagues Paul Krugman, Frank Rich, Tom Friedman, and Bob Herbert. Perhaps some such transformation from lively mind to provider of the DNC’s daily talking points is an occupational hazard of appearing on that page. In particular, Miss Dowd’s hatred of those she calls the "Bushies" has always seemed to me like Rush Limbaugh’s hatred of the Clintonites: an emotion so powerful that it all but wipes out the sense of humor.
In her column of April 9th, for example, she began by hinting (much of her most negative commentary is made by innuendo) that the Bush administration rather enjoyed killing Iraqis, and then she dismisses their achievement at the moment that their victory became clear. "We were always going to win the war with Iraq," she writes, although only ten days before she had been lamenting "the incoherence of the battle plan" and hinting of comparisons to Vietnam. "The big question about the war," she went on, was this: "How much blood could Americans bear?" This was because "Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney were determined to lead America out of its post-Vietnam, post-Mogadishu queasiness with force and casualties, to change the culture to accept war as a more natural part of a superpower’s role in the world. Their strategy might be described as Black Hawk Up."
Really? How does she know this? What is the evidence for this "strategy"? The nearest she comes to telling us is her contention that "Mr. Cheney's war guru [sic], Victor Davis Hanson, writes in his book An Autumn of War that war can be good, and that sometimes nations are better off using devastation than suasion. Mr. Hanson cites Sherman's march through Georgia, the 19th century’s great instance of shock and awe, as a positive role model." Never mind that this is unlikely to be a characterization of his views with which Mr. Hanson would agree, let alone an idea that Messrs Cheney or Rumsfeld would endorse. As so often with Miss Dowd of late, the shocking — indeed, scandalous — nature of this charge, that key members of the Bush administration had led the country into war not for the reasons stated but in order to toughen up the American people for future wars, was scarcely noticed, so routine has it become for her to make such charges.
The week before she had portrayed the war as an Oedipal struggle between the President and his father and predecessor. But no one expected her to produce any clinical evidence of such a contention. Most likely, even people who agree with her broad views on the administration know that she doesn’t mean it. She has become a mere humorist. Similarly,
Wolfowitz of Arabia and the other administration hawks are thrilled with U.S. hawkishness. When Mr. Wolfowitz was on "Meet the Press" on Sunday his aides sat in the green room watching the monitor and high-fiving their boss's performance.
As American forces made their first armored thrusts into Baghdad, visions of a JDAM strike on Damascus danced in the hawks' heads.
Really? And how does she know that? Oh, right. She doesn’t know that. She’s merely fantasizing on the basis of her ideological predispositions again, just like poor Mr. Sahhaf. Sometimes the old habit of reading her as if she were a serious person reasserts itself, but then we bump up against her scolding the moral cretins of the administration for supposing, as she pretends they do, that Americans’ tolerance for these casualties should not be mistaken for a willingness to absorb endless American sacrifice on endless battlefields. Victory in Iraq will be a truly historic event, but it will be exceedingly weird and dangerous if this administration turns America into Sparta."
Sparta? Is it possible that her loathing for Bush is so powerful that she has persuaded herself he wishes to turn America into some version of the ancient Greek garrison state, let alone that there is even the remotest possibility that he could do so if he did wish it? I don’t think so. I think she is just writing in the "outrageous" style she has made her own since assuming that perch on the op ed page. It is her job, as she sees it, to conjure up out of speculation and verbal ingenuity a whole range of discreditable and, indeed, scandalous motivations for the behavior of those in power. And, like Mr Sahhaf, she can appeal to a widespread opinion that she is just doing her job.
By the time that Baghdad fell and those diverting news conferences were finally taken off the air, Sahhaf had become a laughing stock, but that also made him a sort of post-modern hero. I thought it not necessarily with tongue in cheek that Dale Leibach of Prism Public Affairs in Washington ("a man with an antic sense of humor") was quoted in the Washington Post as saying that Sahhaf "has taken our profession, such as it is, to a level that is as inexplicable as it is humbling. I would hire him in a nanosecond." As Boris Johnson wrote in the Daily Telegraph, Sahhaf "has become a cult figure over the past few days; and if he isn’t snapped up to host a game show, he has certainly shown that he understands the basic rules of modern political news management. These are, alas, that you must never concede defeat, whether it may be intellectual or military. Keep pumping out your message. Stay confident. Because such is the power of television that someone out there will believe you. Watching all over the Arab world — and, indeed in the non-Arab world — there must have been people who thought that al-Sahaf might perhaps be exaggerating, but there must be something in what he said."
Even those who did not believe him must have had a sneaking admiration for the boldness with which he asserted what the BBC or CNN could only hint at, namely that reality itself was a creature of his will. An amusing website at welovetheiraqiinformationminister.com was devoted entirely to his increasingly bizarre denials of the most obvious facts. On behalf of his site, one Jean-Pierre McGarrigle wrote that "In an age of spin, al-Sahhaf offers feeling and authenticity. His message is consistent — unshakeable, in fact, no matter the evidence — but he commands daily attention by his on-the-spot, invective-rich variations on the theme. His lunatic counterfactual art is more appealing than the banal awfulness of the Reliable Sources. He is a Method actor in a production that will close in a couple of days. He stands superior to truth."
Peter Arnett to the contrary notwithstanding, it is this standing superior to truth rather than truth itself which is the journalist’s — and especially the TV journalist’s — dream. And their right so to stand was really the basis of the position taken up by Sambrook and other apologists for the BBC. "What is truth?" they ask, like Pilate, as their excuse for crediting falsehood. It was also what lay behind Mr Jordan’s assumption that the purity of his newsman’s conscience was the only justification required for concealing what he knew of Saddam Hussein’s atrocities. Anyone outside the journalistic culture could have told him that, whatever else CNN might have reported from Baghdad before April 9th, it was not reporting the truth.