Why Are We Listening To These People?

The media spotlight is again turning to Iraq. Luckily, the media elite has grown a little wiser — or at least more skeptical of the neocon agenda — since 2003.

By Jeffrey Cavanaugh

Ambassador within United States Foreign Service, Ryan Crocker, left, and Gen. David Petraeus, center, take part in an interview with Brit Hume on FOX News in this Monday, Sept. 10, 2007 photo in Washington. (AP/Kevin Wolf)

A stopped clock is right twice a day, but in the Orwellian world that is U.S. mainstream media it seems that stopped clocks are always right — as long as one doesn’t look too much into the background, that is, to see the rusted, smashed-up innards of the clocks themselves. For a perfect example of this inexplicable ability of the media to never hold people accountable, just look at how American media has responded to the advance of extremist Sunni guerrillas across northern Iraq.

It’s like going back in time to 2003, when all things Iraq were still fresh and horrifyingly new. Eleven years ago, pundits, government officials and “experts” trotted out by right-wing think tanks assured us that war against Iraq was both necessary and extremely expedient. Why, some said, the war would pay for itself! We would be greeted with chocolates and flowers, said others. Yes, of course, the “liberated” people of Iraq would naturally get along and form a Madisonian democracy even though they had no history or cultural experience of it! The media, compliant as ever, lapped it up.

When more knowledgeable individuals from more reputable and centrist institutions and areas of expertise — like universities with professors paid to conduct actual research — cast some doubt on this crusade to bring democracy to Iraq’s great, unwashed masses, they were immediately condemned as hating America. Critics, said the war promoters on the right, wanted America to fail, were otherwise weak and limp-wristed, or wanted to see “the terrorists” win. When even military experts testified that hundreds of thousands of troops would be needed to occupy the country in order to provide peace and security, they were unceremoniously removed from the public eye by a right wing determined to take America into the perfect little war of choice.

When none of these optimistic predictions panned out and Iraq descended into a nightmare world of insurgency and civil war even as we were occupying it, they still would not admit that the Iraq war was a bad idea. Instead, they said we needed to send in more troops and spend more money to shore up a corrupt, post-war regime more aligned with Iran than the United States. That plan is what became known as “the surge,” a desperate attempt to paper over the sucking chest wounds in the Iraqi body politic with a thin Band-Aid of about 30,000 U.S. troops.

Remarkably, the violence that had been killing hundreds each day declined to “acceptable” levels, and the hawks — now once again on TV — felt vindicated. After all, was not the dip in violence due to their wise policy of sending more forces to Iraq and allowing our generals to use them more wisely? Correlation, unfortunately, is not causation, and what appeared as a victory of sorts for American power, in fact, turned out to be one won mostly by Shiite death squads who rode out at night into Sunni sectors of bloody Baghdad to wreak terrible vengeance on their sectarian enemies.

Combined with the overreach of the al-Qaida-inspired militants who did a worse job of winning hearts and minds than we did — Americans, after all, don’t generally behead people for dancing or listening to music — Iraq calmed down enough for a new president — Barack Obama — to draw down U.S. forces and exit the country as quickly as possible after failing to sign a status of forces agreement with the Iraqi government, which refused to sign, that would have allowed some troops to stay. What was the cost for toppling Saddam Hussein and installing a weak, Iranian-dominated Shiite client state that actually controls relatively little of the country outside its heartland in southern Iraq? Why, only trillions of dollars, nearly 5,000 dead and tens of thousands of our men and women maimed and wounded. This tally, of course, doesn’t even include the dead and maimed Iraqis — a figure we didn’t even bother to count.

So, now that it all this “success” has come undone in the space of a few days due to the rapid collapse of the authority of the Baghdad government across most of northern Iraq, it is especially galling to see the same people who served as cheerleaders for this disastrous episode appearing on our TV screens and op-ed pages and acting as if they should be accorded respect and listened to. It is as if a handyman who was hired to fix a leak, but ultimately got fired for knocking holes in the foundation, knocked on the door and demanded entry and employment because the leak had returned.

In a normal world we would send such a miscreant packing, but we live in an apparent alternative reality where white is black, black is white, and Dick Cheney gets to write op-ed pieces in the Wall Street Journal instead of being exiled on a rock somewhere. This begs the question: Why is much of the media so dead-set on seeing the engineers of the last disaster in Iraq have a seat at the table while the current one unfolds? For this, one has to understand how the media operates, who it serves, and what it understands its mission to be.

In terms of the how the media operates, it is best to see the neocons’ return to the media spotlight as part of the institution’s larger problem of attempting to remain objective by providing a “he said/she said” debate platform for the major issues of the day. Insofar as this goes, it is not a bad thing, as it allows many points of view to air that may not have otherwise been heard. The problem, however, presents itself when demonstrably true facts — such as the fact that Cheney, et al., got absolutely nothing right about Iraq — fall clearly on one side.

This instinct to play fair means that instead of playing umpire by calling balls and strikes when one side is clearly stating something that is factually untrue, the institution as a whole generally allows the transgression to take place. If media outlets were to actually point out lies, untruths and terrible past records among the members of the elite, then whichever side was being so called out would cease to show up or view the outlet as a legitimate source of objective news. If that were to happen, then no one would watch, Sunday talk shows wouldn’t be booked, and everyone involved would be out of a job.

Which, in turn, leads us next to the question: Who do these media outlets serve? As should be obvious by now, it is not us, the members of the actual public. Rather, media outlets serve the financial interests of their owners. This makes it risky for a newspaper or a broadcaster to buck popular national sentiment — no matter how wrong or ill-conceived it happens to be — as doing so runs the risk of public backlash that advertisers may not take kindly to. After all, publishers and broadcasters are in the business of selling the audience’s attention to advertisers, not serving as the conscience of the nation.

What’s more, as members of the elite themselves, the owners, executives and top journalists who staff outlets like The New York Times or NBC News do not want to be seen as alienating fellow members of the elite outside the media. That could lead to awkward dinner parties or otherwise uncomfortable encounters at places where the elite meet and hobnob. It could also turn into a financial liability if one’s opinions are so outside the elite mainstream that others take umbrage and so block his advancement or that of his friends and family. It may seem unlikely to us outsiders, but it is a real possibility in the close-knit world in which folks at the top circulate.

The final question remains: What does the media — as an institution — sees as its mission? To make money, obviously, and to inform, tangentially, but at the level of the Washington Post, New York Times, CNN, CBS, FOX, NBC and so on, the media serve mostly as a venue for the elite to speak to and for one another.

When what the elite believe or discuss is fairly wide ranging and rife with disagreement, then those disagreements will be aired by the press. The press will never judge or render final verdict as to which side is correct, of course, but at least when there is wide disagreement among the people who matter, then different views will be aired. When there isn’t — as often happens, for example, on economic issues pertaining to globalization — discussion will be truncated and opposition to prevailing elite wisdom will be dismissed.

So, this time around, all the ingredients are there to ensure that the neocons have their time in the spotlight once again. The difference between now and 2003, however, is that while the neocons will get airtime and column inches, the elite as a whole have grown much more skeptical of any new military adventurism. This has allowed many in the media to push back much harder than they were allowed to do in 2003, and as a result, the neocons are being taken a lot less seriously than they were in 2003 when America was still reeling from the 9/11 terror attacks and had no experience with long, costly wars in the Middle East.

So, cheer up! The neocons may be back, but few are willing to swallow their swill with no questions asked. As the old saying goes, fool me once — shame on you; fool me twice — shame on me. Too bad it only took 11 years and so much blood, sweat and tears for Americans, or at least our elite, to wise up.

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