I have never had a relative who said to me, “Son, if somebody keeps hitting you in the head with a board, you’re standing in the wrong place.” We just aren’t that kind of people. Still, head-banging boards come in many guises. For example, the coverage of the situation in Iraq in the European press–often parroting media coverage in America–has convinced me that there comes a time when you have to realize that somebody is standing in the wrong place, that it’s time to go, that bad news, no matter how unwelcome, just can’t be ignored. And the news from Iraq is very bad indeed:
After eight days in which Iraqi fighters have scored a series of major blows to the coalition and its Iraqi allies, intelligence and military officials in Iraq and on both sides of the Atlantic are at odds over whether they are fighting a Saddam-led movement or a series of disparate partisan groups. They are just as divided on finding a way to halt the escalating violence.
The latest violence comes amid increasingly bleak assessments from Washington, where the latest attacks have been compared in the media to Vietnam’s 1968 Tet Offensive against US forces and described by Sandy Berger, a former National Security Adviser to President Bill Clinton, as a ‘classic guerrilla war’.
”Anti-coalition fighters have ratcheted up the scale of attacks on schools, police and politicians,” the Observer’s report continued, “while assaults on the US-led forces have become more confident and sophisticated.” The headline? “Rebel war spirals out of control as US intelligence loses the plot.”
Meanwhile, the appearance of Rumsfeld’s “long, hard slog” memo in USA Today caused l’Humanite to report that the intensity of the guerrilla activity against Coalition forces was forcing senators, congressmen and members of the administration to see in Iraq a “parallel with Vietnam.” In another piece, the paper pointed out that “Washington is in turmoil” because the lie used by the US to go to war against Iraq has been revealed. Every day, said the paper, the murderous attacks lead America deeper into an “inextricable conflict,” one that is “catastrophic and dangerous” and a “very long way today from the initial objective: ‘freedom for Iraq’.”
Le Parisien showed George W. Bush confronting more “disastrous news” coming from Iraq, while the Nouvel Observateur reported “new attacks” and signs of political collapse. Le Figaro agreed. saying it’s just one attack after another in Iraq.
Meanwhile, Le Point reported that more and more Americans wonder whether or not Iraq is becoming another Vietnam. It’s a reasonable assertion, of course: First of all, every French journalist already knows it is. And second, so do most American reporters: The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen wrote that a survey of Nexis showed “more than 800 links” in a single week “where the words ‘Iraq’ and ‘Vietnam’ appeared together.” Cohen’s view was that Iraq shouldn’t be confused with Vietnam. But Le Point’s story was based on a different item in the Washington Post–a piece suggesting that the escalation of violence in Iraq might create the same shift away from public support of the war that took place in the U.S. after media coverage of the Tet offensive in 1968 convinced Americans that the effort in Vietnam was a lost cause. An ABC/Post poll was also the inspiration for one of Le Monde’s pieces on the Iraq-Vietnam analogy. My favorite blog, Merde in France, has captured a Liberation cartoon reflecting the Iraq=Vietnam equation. Even in The Spectator, where Max Hastings is professionally outraged, it’s all-quagmire, all the time.
It may be that the level of violence in Iraq is microscopic compared to what was happening in Vietnam, and maybe the geopolitical details don’t quite line up with all those southeast Asian dominos. But so what? To build a case, you have to start someplace, yes? After all, in the European and American press, Vietnam is the only way to understand and report Iraq. Certainly the Iraqi terrorists know this, with their almost-every-Sunday atrocity driving the week’s news. Because of a combination of media-inspired public animosity and lousy, poll-driven policy decisions, we lost in Vietnam. Therefore, unless we do something radically different, we will lose in Iraq. It’s, like, fate. Iraq is like Vietnam in one important respect, and maybe it’s time we finally learned our lesson.
I think it’s time we brought all the journalists home. If it’s necessary, we can always devise a smarter set of policies for Iraq. But no matter what, we’re never going to be able to build a smarter press corps.
And if Iraq truly is another Vietnam, what history can teach us is that cheesy reporting leads to lost wars and Cambodia-sized body counts. Walter Cronkite still stands, Durantylike, behind his Tet offensive broadcast in 1968, a piece of work that gave credence to all the crisis-jive reported before him by other, even worse journos, and set a precedent that hasn’t served CBS or the media well since. Thanks to more reasonable journalists, such as Robert Bartley, who visited the topic of Tet last week in the Wall Street Journal (“The truth about the Tet offensive is that we won”) and the late Peter Braestrup, whose classic Big Story is the definitive study of media malpractice during and after Tet, we now know how lousy the journalism coming from Vietnam really was. Is it reasonable to expect anything better from Iraq, especially now that the war against terrorism has been so highly politicized in the press?
Is this censorship? But of course! Fortunately, Cronkite’s on my side in this one. “I’m for censorship,” the Guardian reported him telling the Newsworld International conference in Dublin. He points out that during World War II, all dispatches were vetted by the military. Despite that, democracy survived. Or maybe it was because of that.
After 35 years, it’s about time Walter was right about something. Bring the boys and girls of the press back home. License them, maybe. Make them take a written exam or something. If they pass, send them back to Qatar to attend briefings. All’s fair in love and war. If Madonna and Guy Ritchie could keep the media out of their wedding, then surely the U.S. should be able to keep the press out of Iraq.
Lazy days. The French government, in an effort to find a little scratch to pay for the health and welfare of the elderly poor and sick, is trying to convince the workers of France to maybe pony up a little extra in taxes and give up one of their many, many paid holidays. Liberation reports that Raffarin is considering making the Monday following Pentecost a regular work day. The workers, of course, are furious, adds Liberation, perhaps because of the deeply held conviction by most socialists that spending an extra 24 hours prayerfully contemplating the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples of Christ is a sacred right. Or possibly they’re lazy.
French know-how. Meanwhile, the official investigation into why the French all took a month off from real life last August and left 15,000 (stop! say that number slowly) old people to die of heat and neglect continues. Liberation reports that Anne Bilot-Gittler, a high-level, quick-thinking bureaucrat in the health ministry, has figured out what went wrong and what to do next time: Instead of sending all those who have been abandoned by their families to understaffed, overheated hospitals, the government will take them to air-conditioned cinemas. I’m not making this up, folks.
Saving Gerhard Schröder. John Vinocur routinely saves the IHT from its own Times-like pomposity (q.v., “Defining the Mission of the 21st Century,” an inked-smudged stretch of nothingness by Bill Clinton). Last week, Vinocur explained how America is once again coming to the rescue of Europe–and especially that part occupied by duplicitous French-kissing, German politicians. “Ironically,” writes Vinocur, “considering what his opponents charge is his manipulation of anti-American sentiment as a factor in keeping his leftwing on board for passage of the reform package, Schröder seems to be counting on a surge in the U.S. economy as a key potential ally in staying in office.” Glad we could help.
We report, you pay. No, not the motto of the fee-sucking BBC, yet, but if this report in the Guardian is any indication, marketing will be jumping on that slogan any minute. In one of those glorious exercises in which the bottom-feeders of journalism–those who teach in J-schools–try to insinuate their way up the food-chain by releasing a “study” of media bias, a “research team” from the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies has looked long and hard at the press coverage of the war in Iraq and determined that it just wasn’t quite biased enough. “While the BBC’s ‘anti-war bias’ has become an article of faith for many, we found no evidence of this.” It’s an article of faith that Cardiff is “in Wales”, although I found no evidence of this.
The Daily Telegraph, meanwhile, has announced that it’s discontinuing it’s “Beebwatch” feature. No reason is given, but I suppose there’s only so much Beeb anyone can watch. Damian Thompson, who had the beat, claims some hopeful results: “I did not expect the many messages of support — heavily off-the-record, delivered by circuitous routes — from senior BBC journalists, some of them household names.” Damian! What kind of “messages of support” are those? “Most of them said the same thing: we might not agree with all of Beebwatch’s observations, but the BBC has a serious problem with objectivity that needs to be sorted out.” Will it happen?
A report in the Guardian isn’t very encouraging: “Today, a senior BBC news executive will make a controversial case for desanitising the presentation of war on British television. In a speech to a conference of broadcasters in Budapest, Mark Damazer, deputy director of BBC News, will say the current position is a ‘disservice to democracy’.” The problem? Not enough dead people–and, of course, not enough bias. Dear Deputy Director: How about desanitizing the presentation of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism? Or “a certain type of late-term abortion”? Or the effects of hypertaxation on the entrepreneurial spirit? Or how about sanitizing the way the BBC is funded and managed?
Gone, gone, gone. The Telegraph has a very good obit of Bobby Hatfield, half of the Righteous Brothers, the Orange County duo who performed ballads that made teenage boys like me happy to slow-dance all night long. We’ve lost something.
Survey Says…! A great deal of attention was paid last week to the EU-commissioned poll showing that a fairly decisive majority of Europeans think Israel is a greater threat to peace than North Korea, Iran, even the Great Satan, which would be us. This piece from Le Monde is typical, I guess. Most of the Euro-press is in a state of deep embarrassment and devoting a lot of space to analysis of the poll’s methodology. They think it might be the questions. Participants were asked to select the greatest threat to peace from a list of perps. But a more accurate reading might have been obtained by simply asking Europeans, “You really hate Jews, don’t you?” It was the multiple-choice thing that threw them off. Of course, to get a realistic assessment of the poll’s significance, you had to go to the Congopage, where the headline, roughly translated, is “Europeans are cockroaches.” But don’t quote me on that.