(Originally posted June 9, 2004. Last updated Nov 8, 2006)
Writing in Reason Online, Chris Bray pens an excellent article full of telling bon mots. From the journalist who is awed by the fact that Army Rangers carry machine guns and grenade launchers, to the Wall St. Journal colleague who asked if the Marines fought in WW2, Bray's article is worthy for its anecdotes alone. But he also has a serious point, and it's one worth paying close attention to:
"Schneider's piece is symptomatic of news media that often don't have the foggiest idea how the military works, and don't really appear to care.... "To many young reporters these days," said longtime journalist James Perry in a 1997 lecture at Washington College, "wars and soldiers and serving your country are vague concepts....
Reporters who cover the military without understanding it don't just muff a few basic facts about what kind of soldier carries what kind of gun, or which service does what. They also fail to apply the right skepticism in the right places, or even the right credulity in the right places, and so end up swinging in a wild arc between breathless adulation and naive condemnation. They surrender many of the necessary tools for questioning the authority of the armed forces, and render nearly useless the check and the balance of the Fourth Estate on a major power of government. They create confidence where there should be wariness, and fear where there should be strength.
They get it wrong, and it counts."
They do, often - and it does. Dale Franks of QandO has the links. It seems like a simple problem that could be cured by some basic diligence, research, and professional standards that demand real subject expertise to the same level as, say, sports journalism. But that doesn't seem to be happening, which leads one to wonder why not.
So it's doubly interesting to note that this problem may extend beyond the media. Former Clinton NSC staffer (and current blogger at Democracy Arsenal) Heather Hurlburt leveled an eerily similar criticism at the Democratic Party back in November of 2001:
"Since then, there's been plenty of hand-wringing among the leadership and rank-and-file Democrats about how politically inept the party appeared in the face of Bush's saber rattling. But that's the problem. Democrats are in this position precisely because we respond to matters of war politically, tactically. We worry about how to position ourselves so as not to look weak, rather than thinking through realistic, sensible Democratic principles on how and when to employ military force, and arguing particular cases, such as Iraq, from those principles. There are a lot of reasons for this failure, including the long-time split within the party between hawks and doves. But we will never resolve that split, nor regain credibility with voters on national security, until we learn to think straight about war. And we will never learn to think straight about war until this generation of professional Democrats overcomes its ignorance of and indifference to military affairs."
(Heather Hurlburt, "War Torn," Nov. 2001 Washington Monthly)
Or Joe Biden's anecdote (Hat Tip: WSJ Best of the Web, March 15/05):
"[Biden] told me about a recent visit to Los Angeles, where he met with a group of wealthy liberals and laid out the following scenario: "Assume you're the President, and I'm your Secretary of Defense or State or C.I.A. director, and I come to you and tell you we know where bin Laden is, he and four hundred of his people, and they're in this portion of Pakistan the Pakistanis won't go into, and they told us not to go in. This is going to cost us five hundred to five thousand lives, of our soldiers, but we can get him. What do you do?" Biden said they had no answer. "The truth is, they put their heads down," he said."
(Jeffrey Goldberg, "Unbranding: Can the Democrats Make Themselves Look Tough?," March 21, 2005 New Yorker)
These insider's accounts point to chasms of understanding whose common signatures should be a matter of grave concern. Gary Farber's recent "Donkeys in the Desert" article was both a hopeful sign, and a quiet reminder of just how deep the chasms have become. Again, one asks why. What is really going on? How did we get here?
There is no shortage of answers on offer.
Are these consistent and similar failures of understanding simply the local manifestations of a global battlefield, where editorial rooms are also a front line of a many-sided conflict, the news process is simply ill-equipped to cope, and too many reporters simply lack the necessary expertise?
Or are they, perhaps, the natural result of skewed Pew surveys and other indications of a biased liberal media that make one ask if discussing the Democrats, academia, and the media is largely an examination of the same niche population? Even centrist commentator Morton Kondracke is wondering about coverage patterns he's seeing in Iraq, and Pejman is more eloquent still in his plea for reporting all of the news. Is the blindness to military and national security matters more than simple ignorance? But then, how to explain Bray's Wall St. Journal story?
Or is the divide really about class, and an American white-collar elite steeped in what Victor Davis Hanson calls luxus; a class that increasingly sees the military as something other people's children do, and also sees journalism as the proper preserve of that educated elite?
There's certainly strong anecdotal support for this idea in some of the links like "My Ivy League Solider" and "My Heart on the Line," both referenced in our April 2003 article "Where They Get Young Men Like This." robert Kaplan took up that very theme in his Nov. 2004 Atlantic Monthly article, "The Media and the Military." Maj. Donald Sensing (ret.) also believes that class plays a role in several of the media's prominent disconnects, and he's not alone; American Digest even suggests some interesting avenues for studies along those lines.
I hope someone takes up the challenge.
Actually, I hope many people take up this challenge, in many ways and from many different directions. For the custodians of the American Republic in a world beset by war and real threats, the manifestations of similar blind spots and flaws in one half of its political class and far too many of those who tell its stories is a matter for more than casual concern.
If there is a connection here, it behooves Americans to understand it and fix it as best they can. Human nature has not changed, and the world remains a dangerous place. America need broad, sustained, and informed participation if she wish to direct her own destiny with the skill that survival demands.
History is not kind to those who believe they can forget this.
- Some fine comments, as usual. See esp. Jeff Hendrickson's Yale Law School experience. Bart Hall also has an interesting thesis.
- For another facet of this phenomenon, from a national journalist and Army reservist who does know what he's talking about, see this July 2005 post, Media Blindness in the Military. In October 2006, Maj. Donald Sensing (ret.) builds on it and laments the broken media system in the Pentagon, which is definitely contributing to the problem: "Few embeds in Iraq not all media's fault." Michael Yon offers a very credible indictment of his own, based on recent experience - and names names.
- You want more "no way they said that!" stories? Brian Dunn of the Dignified Rant has a recent one for you. Unfortunately, it fits with a pattern of press decisions and behaviours. Personally, I believe there's more at work here than simple political bias, as these 2 links show... but that doesn't mean bias isn't an issue.