Friday, March 17, 2006

Stringed along

From ‘Myths of Iraq’ by Ralph Peters:

During a recent visit to Baghdad, I saw an enormous failure. On the part of our media. The reality in the streets, day after day, bore little resemblance to the sensational claims of civil war and disaster in the headlines.

No one with first-hand experience of Iraq would claim the country's in rosycondition, but the situation on the ground is considerably more promising than the American public has been led to believe. Lurid exaggerations and instant myths obscure real, if difficult, progress...

...the real story of the civil-war-that-wasn't is one of the dog that didn't bark. Iraqis resisted the summons to retributive violence. Mundane life prevailed. After a day and a half of squabbling, the political factions returned to the negotiating table. Iraqis increasingly take responsibility for their own security, easing the burden on U.S. forces. And the people of Iraq want peace, not a reign of terror.

But the foreign media have become a destructive factor, extrapolating daily crises from minor incidents. Part of this is ignorance. Some of it is willful. None of it is helpful.

The dangerous nature of journalism in Iraq has created a new phenomenon, the all-powerful local stringer. Unwilling to stray too far from secure facilities and their bodyguards, reporters rely heavily on Iraqi assistance in gathering news. And Iraqi stringers, some of whom have their own political agendas, long ago figured out that Americans prefer bad news to good news. The Iraqi leg-men earn blood money for unbalanced, often-hysterical claims, while the Journalism 101 rule of seeking confirmation from a second source has been discarded in the pathetic race for headlines.

To enhance their own indispensability, Iraqi stringers exaggerate the danger to Western journalists (which is real enough, but need not paralyze a determined reporter).

Dependence on the unverified reports of local hires has become the dirty secret of semi-celebrity journalism in Iraq as Western journalists succumb to a version of Stockholm Syndrome in which they convince themselves that their Iraqi sources and
stringers are exceptions to every failing and foible in the Middle East. The mindset resembles the old colonialist conviction that, while other "boys" might lie and steal, our house-boy's a faithful servant.

The result is that we're being told what Iraqi stringers know they can sell and what distant editors crave, not what's actually happening.

While there are and have been any number of courageous, ethical journalists reporting from Iraq, others know little more of the reality of the streets than you do. They report what they are told by others, not what they have seen themselves. The result is a distorted, unfair and disheartening picture of a country struggling to rise above its miserable history.


Two unvarying laws of mainstream news reporting:

1) All editors prefer bad news to good news.
2) For some reason, people are far more likely to believe bad news unquestioningly, however exaggerated or far-fetched it may be.

11 Comments:

Blogger Oroborous said...

For some reason, people are far more likely to believe bad news unquestioningly, however exaggerated or far-fetched it may be.

I think that it has to do with the fact that humans are hard-wired to expect and repond to crises.

Psychological testing has shown, for example, that we respond with twice the emotional intensity to a loss, as we do to an equivalent gain.
We're twice as sad about losing $ 100 as we are happy about gaining $ 100.

Naturally, that makes us more sensitive to bad news.

It's also why so few people make good investors; we tend to sell gainers too quickly, to lock in a profit and avoid a loss, and we hold on to losers too long, hoping for a comeback. If we don't lock in a loss by selling, it could always rebound, no ?
(No. At least, less than half of the time).

Also, entropy increases, so it intuitively makes sense when things become more disordered; increased order requires a second look.

March 17, 2006 7:45 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

To which I would also add the seemingly unavoidable analytical skew when comparing the outcomes of the path taken against the paths not taken. (Orrin, intentionally or otherwise, is particularly notorious for this.)

It is almost universal for people to compare the realized negative consequences of the choice made against the putative advantages of the choice not made, while completely failing to recognize those advantages are only putative, and equally failing to pose any negative consequences of the unmade choice.

The best example of this is the folks who insist there weren't/aren't enough boots on the ground. Their entering argument is the certainty that more boots would have prevented the (apparent) negative consequences we have today, while completely ignoring the fact that the more-boots decision would have carried its own negative consequences.

March 18, 2006 5:18 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Skipper and Oroborous, two excellent analyses. Damn, this is a smart group!

One of the more maddening mantras of the pacifist Left is that "there is always a better way". Someone who truly believes this will be condemned to a state of perpetual inaction, because for any action contemplated, with its inherent risks and costs, a less risky and costly action can be imagined. However, the costs and risks of inaction, or the status quo, are never factored in. Who among the anti-war crowd has factored in the ongoing cost in lives, freedoms and regional instability of the sanctions regime in Iraq?

March 18, 2006 8:08 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Well, we didn't have enough boots on the ground even for the limited concept that the US administration had in mine, which was too limited to have ever been effective.

Since I don't watch television and seldom read much of the big papers -- I read the scanty AP reports in my provincial daily -- I could not tell you what the reporters are saying, still less whether it accurately reflects what's going on over there.

And here's why I don't think I need to.

The generals and officials can brag all they want about how things are getting better, but as long as the US commander in Iraq cannot get into a Jeep and drive 10 miles to the airport, and live to tell the tale, then we're losing.

People who fight wars from bunkers tend not to win them.

(There are a myriad of other reasons for expecting the US policy to fail, starting with the fact that there is not now and never has been a nation called Iraq, but no need to go there .)

March 18, 2006 1:00 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Harry: Well, we didn't have enough boots on the ground even for the limited concept that the US administration had in mine, which was too limited to have ever been effective.

Maybe, but this is a classic example of what I was talking about. We know full well what problems occurred in concert with (but not necessarily as a result of) our troop levels.

But it is far less apparent what problems would have attended far greater troop levels. Like, say, far greater -- and vulnerable -- logistics tails. The much more likely impression we were in Iraq to stay. The risk of encouraging dependency among Iraqi security forces. And, finally, the tyranny of area: in a country the size of Iraq, even doubling the number of troops still leaves a very low density.

March 19, 2006 5:35 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Spoken like a man who's been through the Air War College.

I'd say, in hindsight, that we needed at least enough to corral the ammo dumps.

I have never seen anything like a competent report on the amount of explosives that apparently were left everywhere, but the incompetent reports make it sound like it was a lot.

Surely at a minimum it would have made sense to secure those?

However, that's hindsight. Not many brutal dictators leave weapons around in the open like that. The Iraqis, at least the Sunnis, obviously loved the guy.

If that's the case, an endless insurgency might have been predicted.

As for foresight, always better if you have it, I'm on record long before the war started saying that if the goal was to get rid of Saddam, all you had to do was arm the Kurds.

That, too, would have had collateral consequences. On the downside, it would have pissed off the Turks, Russians, Iranians, Syrians . . . uh, sorry, that's the upside.

Can't think of what the downside might have been.

March 20, 2006 6:58 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Harry:

Spoken like a man who's been through the Air War College.

True.

I think our major failing in all of this is, if not entirely excusable, at least very understandable.

I doubt anyone came anywhere close to anticipating the degree of Islamist nihilism, truly gob-smacking when you think about it.

At the end of the war, which did very little additional damage to their country, they were offered as fine a gift-horse in reconstruction and thanks-its-been-great-gotta-go-now as one could ever hope for.

And, despite that, the Islamists are attempting to blow the horse to smithereens.

March 21, 2006 8:56 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Harry:

Spoken like a man who's been through the Air War College.

True.

I think our major failing in all of this is, if not entirely excusable, at least very understandable.

I doubt anyone came anywhere close to anticipating the degree of Islamist nihilism, truly gob-smacking when you think about it.

At the end of the war, which did very little additional damage to their country, they were offered as fine a gift-horse in reconstruction and thanks-its-been-great-gotta-go-now as one could ever hope for.

And, despite that, the Islamists are attempting to blow the horse to smithereens.

March 21, 2006 8:56 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I have been reading Bernard Lewis' collected journalism, 'From Babel to Dragomans,' and I learned something I didn't know. Well, I knew it, but I hadn't thought it through before.

In his history of pan-Arabism, Lewis notes that most of the important early theorists of what became Baathism were Christians.

Lewis does not go on to point out what that means, but it's this:

For all its waywardness in detail, Baathism is the closest any Muslim society has ever gotten to trying to walk down the modernist path of constitutionalism, equality before the law, efficient administration, mass participation and human rights.

On several of those points, Baathism failed to walk its talk, but at least it was talking. One could hope that by the same evolutionary process that eventually freed the US slaves and gave women the vote, just talking the talk would someday lead to a form of modernism.

But when it turns out that Baathism is a largely unMoslem (not to also say antiMuslim) political stance, what that means is that the next closest any Muslim society has ever come to modernism is the disguised military despotism of Turkey. And after that, nothing but black medievalism and/or savagery.

I've said all along that I do not believe that Muslims in general and Arab Muslims in particular are capable of popular self-government.

Nothing up to this date suggests I was wrong.

March 21, 2006 10:36 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Let us hope that you are incorrect, since if you're right, the future for Arabs is of the deepest black, and within our lifetimes.

Even if you're wrong, their future is dim, but at least many of them will survive and prosper.

March 21, 2006 2:53 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I just was listening to an Ann Garrels NPR report from Basra. For the most part, I consider Garrels an ignoramus, but this one was interviews with people on the street.

Go listen and tell me if the Arabs have even the ghost of a chance.

March 21, 2006 7:26 PM  

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