Sunday, July 13, 2008

"War Pundits"

mcjoan on Kos(top of page one, now):
Nation author and netroots activist Ari Melber will moderate a panel at Netroots Nation next Saturday morning at 10:30, entitled "War Pundits,":
Many people helped lead the U.S. into war in Iraq, but few were as wrong, uninformed and unaccountable as the television pundits. How do war pundits influence and distort our foreign policy debates? Why are they the most influential voice in the public discourse of foreign policy? This panel will convene journalists and actual foreign policy experts to dissect the broken punditocracy, Pentagon propaganda and the marginalization of voices critical of war or the government. From Iraq to Iran, panelists will discuss what activists can do to improve the accuracy and accountability of America's foreign policy punditry.

The panel will include Mark Danner, professor of journalism at UC Berkeley and a longtime staff writer for The New Yorker, Greg Mitchell, editor of Editor & Publisher, award-winning columnist at the E&P web site, author of So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits--and the President--Failed on Iraq and Kossack, and me, less impressively credentialed than the remainder of the panel, but nonetheless holder of two degrees in international studies and one of the vast legion of bloggers who got it right on Iraq before we even invaded—though at the time I was still limited to yelling at the television set, not yet broadcasting my opposition on the Internet.

In approaching this discussion, Ari e-mailed these thoughts.

I hope we can use the war pundits panel for two aims: pinpoint media failures in refereeing foreign policy debates; and brainstorm organizing campaigns to improve democratic discourse. That should be easy, in theory. For Iraq coverage, the netroots' critique actually overlaps with the traditional media's stated goals of accuracy and balance. By relying too heavily on government sources from one party, most pre-war coverage misstated the threat and drastically underplayed opposition to the war among experts, political elites and the general public. According to a recent academic study, network TV stories in the eight months before the war quoted Bush administration officials for 29 percent of sources, while quoting Democratic officials for three percent of sources. The war pundits were shockingly unrepresentative of political reality. And grassroots antiwar groups, the study noted, "comprised just 1% of all quotes, making such dissent a drop in the bucket." So even when activists build large movements—some of the Iraq war protest broke world records—media malpractice can limit their impact. And the virtual media blackout of Democratic opposition to the war, even as most Democratic congresspersons voted against it, exacerbated tensions between the progressive base and incumbents with a misleading narrative. How can activists make the media live up to its own mission and report reality in foreign policy debates? How can the public influence who is anointed to shape our nation's war punditry? And will the general public's antipathy towards the media ever translate into greater media accountability?

While it’s a given now in blog discourse that the media failed miserably in the run-up to and the continuation of the Iraq War, it’s worth reflecting a bit on what Danner has called "the vaguely depressing spectacle of a great many very intelligent people struggling very hard to make themselves stupid." (And that quote is from three years ago, when we had been subjected to just a few years of the stupid.) I have my own theories as to what led to the mass inability to exercise critical thought demonstrated by the war pundits, a group which extends in my estimation to The Villagers—the reliable repeaters of conventional wisdom straight out of the White House briefing room.

First and foremost, I think the attacks of September 11, 2001 in the twin epicenters of their universe—New York and Washington—heightened their sense of their responsibility to the nation, including fully supporting their government in rising to its defense. The shared sense of tragedy, of responsibility, was probably a factor in the degree to which they just went along with, and eventually amplified, the Bush administration’s response.

That’s the charitable part of my assessment. Less admirable among The Villagers and the war pundits who so faithfully pushed the administration’s line is the factor that we’ve been discussing at length for the past several years in the blogosphere—the all important cocktail party circuit of insiders. For The Villagers, the Bush administration brought the return of "their people," the long-known faces who had dominated the establishment—and particularly foreign policy—since the Nixon administration, including Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.

There was a familiarity to this team, and with the familiarity of the team, the familiarity of ways of thinking about and reporting about foreign policy and about war. As the cold warriors morphed into the neocons, they brought with them the bipolar, good and evil, east vs. west paradigms that had shaped (often disastrously) five decades of American foreign policy thinking. As "islamofascism" slipped into the place that "communism" had occupied in the thinking of these policy-shapers, it provided an easy narrative for the war pundits and Villagers to adapt without having to take too much into consideration the vast complexities of our newly and highly globalized world.

These were people they trusted, if for no other reason than they had known them for so long, and they were presenting a narrative that could be trusted, or at least easily understood. The other edge to that long relationship was the importance of staying on the inside of it—not endangering the all important access to the halls of power by asking too many questions or challenging too many assumptions. Staying on the inside seems to have gained even more importance for the crowd in this notoriously secretive and vindictive administration.

So when the few dissident voices that were heard on a national stage rose up, they were easily dismissed. After all, who in the punditocracy could believe that the Bush administration, their old friends, would lie to them about something as important as a war? And when it became increasingly clear that they, along with our Congress and the rest of the nation who lived inside the Beltway or voted Republican, was duped into going into war, it became increasingly important to not admit that.

Which, I believe, is one of the reasons that the bombshell New York Times expose on the military/media propaganda machine was greeted by the rest of the media (and The Villagers) with nothing more than a resounding yawn. What should have been a game-changing revelation:

To the public, these men are members of a familiar fraternity, presented tens of thousands of times on television and radio as "military analysts" whose long service has equipped them to give authoritative and unfettered judgments about the most pressing issues of the post-Sept. 11 world.

Hidden behind that appearance of objectivity, though, is a Pentagon information apparatus that has used those analysts in a campaign to generate favorable news coverage of the administration’s wartime performance, an examination by The New York Times has found.

The effort, which began with the buildup to the Iraq war and continues to this day, has sought to exploit ideological and military allegiances, and also a powerful financial dynamic: Most of the analysts have ties to military contractors vested in the very war policies they are asked to assess on air.

Those business relationships are hardly ever disclosed to the viewers, and sometimes not even to the networks themselves. But collectively, the men on the plane and several dozen other military analysts represent more than 150 military contractors either as lobbyists, senior executives, board members or consultants. The companies include defense heavyweights, but also scores of smaller companies, all part of a vast assemblage of contractors scrambling for hundreds of billions in military business generated by the administration’s war on terror. It is a furious competition, one in which inside information and easy access to senior officials are highly prized.

was little more than another blip of inconvenient information confirming the degree to which the media has been utterly played by this administration. It’s also inconvenient proof of the complicity of the media in perpetuating the administration’s lies, and in the continuation of this war, one Friedman Unit at a time.

The problems of the war punditry and the media are easy to lay out; the solutions, the other part of Ari’s challenge to us, much more difficult. We saw a bit of positive movement in the 2006 elections, when Ned Lamont and the netroots changed the narrative politically on Democrats and the war. Unfortunately, the Democratic majority in the 110th Congress has lost much of the edge it gained in that election by failing to substantially change anything on Iraq.

We have shown an ability to influence the narrative, but what can grassroots and netroots activists do to, in Ari’s words, "make the media live up to its own mission and report reality in foreign policy debates? How can the public influence who is anointed to shape our nation's war punditry? And will the general public's antipathy towards the media ever translate into greater media accountability?"

In this regard, the growth of organizations like VoteVets, which provides important and credible push back on the war, is key. But what else can we do to crash this gate?

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