HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

July 2, 2007
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Rules of Journalism

Among a majority of news organizations, there's a conviction that you shouldn't expect the media to be investigative or to work towards reporting the full truth of a situation. That would be too dangerous for them. Rather, the media should simply report what various political figures say. This is what's called not getting ahead of a story. As long as there's consensus among politicians about what's happening, newsmen are required to report that consensus as the truth -- even if it's false as hell. If, however, politicians begin to squabble then it's okay for the media to report the quarrels among them so long as no stand is taken on who's right or who's wrong. Newsmen who refuse to follow this doctrine get shuffled off to minor publications which are invariably dismissed as being radical or extreme.

We have seen this scenario played out almost perfectly since March of 2003, when the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq. In the beginning, the major media served as cheerleaders for the conquest because scarcely any politicians were brave enough to denounce what many of them knew was a campaign carried out through deception and lies. And if the Iraqis had been easily subdued, the media would never have felt required to unveil the falsehood.

Things, however, didn't go well. More and more dollars were spent. More and more people were killed. And nothing seemed to get better. A few politicians began, cautiously, to raise questions. And, then, the media began to rise up in their heroic quest for the full story. That story has not yet been told, and it probably never will be by the major media. But enough of it has leaked out that a lethargic public has swung against the war. The problem is this process takes a long time. And during all the months it requires to work itself out people are dying. It would be grand if we could count on the media to seek truth from the beginning. But I suppose to hope for that is impossibly idealistic.


Falsehood Revealed

On HBO, I watched The Sentinel, a movie starring Michael Douglas and Kieffer Sutherland. It was slovenly and at times disgusting. As I went to bed I was asking myself whether it would be too extreme to say I hated it.

A particularly revolting feature was that the whole plot turned on a polygraph test which which was taken to prove that a longtime Secret Service agent who had performed heroically throughout his career, was involved in a plot to assassinate the president, a plot that he, himself, had brought to the attention of the agency. I've always assumed -- that is, since I began to think about such things -- that anyone who believes in lie detectors is an idiot. And there I was watching a film in which a host of presumably brilliant crime fighters accepted one as pretty close to the voice of God.

The miasma the film left with me was still in my brain today when the New Yorker arrived, with an article by Margaret Talbot about new methods of lie detection based on measuring brain activity. These, supposedly, promise much higher accuracy than the old lie detector, which is said by its advocates to be 90% accurate.  As Ms. Talbot's article makes clear, the new instruments don't do any such thing and, right now, are little more than entrepreneurial attempts to appeal to the American obsession with machines that can read minds. (Polygraphs have never been used much in Europe).

The discouraging element of the article was that Ms. Tabot found many people who think it would be a good thing if the government had a device that could tell their agents exactly what you are thinking. That I inhabit a country with people who think that discourages me even more than The Sentinel did and, with respect to the idea, as contrasted with the film, there's no doubt that I hate it.


Amnesia

Imagine, if you can, what' going on in the head of a writer who describes a killing machine as possessing "grace and panache." Those were the adjectives applied to Black Hawk helicopters over Baghdad by Dexter Filkins of the New York Times in an article that ran on November 17, 2003.

In American journalism, of course, 2003 is ancient history.

Still, it's useful to return to those heady days of yesteryear and remind ourselves how the media was portraying the American adventure in Iraq a few months after the invasion. Things were more glorious then and the marvels of U.S, technology -- like Black Hawk helicopters -- occasions for celebration.

Filkins's piece was about the dangers posed to helicopter pilots by people who had the effrontery to shoot at them from the ground. Not a word was said about what happened to the people on the ground when they were shot at by the helicopters. They were -- as Iraqi casualties continued to be for at least a couple years in American news outlets -- invisible. They simply didn't count as compared to the panache and grace and sheer beauty of the U.S. war machine.

The big problem, I guess, was that the Iraqis who saw their neighbors blown up by missiles from the sky were deficient in aesthetic appreciation. Besides, they probably didn't even read the New York Times.


Recognition

I see that Chris Matthews has raked in the BuzzFlash award as the Media Putz of the Week. He won primarily, I suppose, for his endeavor to spread the views of Ann Coulter to a wider audience than she normally reaches. And, evidently, he succeeded.

I've been a bit surprised at the furor created by Ms. Coulter's appearance on Hardball. If we can credit what people say they have been infuriated by her remarks. But why?

Ms. Coulter is a comic who pitches her humor to the American fascist community. Whether she actually subscribes to the virtually insane things she says is impossible to know. And, it doesn't matter. Her routines work to make her a very good living, which, clearly, is more important to her than promoting any kind of political cause.

We all know there are fascists in America. And we all know they enjoy laughing at epithets most people find vile. We saw several of the younger members of the movement standing around Matthews and Coulter during the show, applauding and swooning over everything thing she said. What is there to get excited about when they do what they do?

Most of us can wish, of course, that there were fewer fascists in America than there are (at the moment, they make up 25.3% of the population). But the way to reduce their number is not to howl and scream about Ms. Coulter. She should be simply recognized for what she is and then not awarded any more of our attention.


Sparks

The Al Sharpton/Christopher Hitchens confrontation on Hardball turned out to be pretty much of a bust, as we had every right to expect. Neither man is one to let his opponent speak, so it was hard to hear what either of them had to say. But, there were moments. Hitchens best jab came when he pointed out that the men who flew the planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were, on that day, the most faith-based guys in the country. And Sharpton's much repeated point that the misuse of God has nothing to do with God himself and everything to do with people is a cogent argument for anyone who wishes to assert the existence of the deity.

Poor Chris Matthews was a little out of his league and showed a certain desperation in realizing it near the end of the program. His ego is not up for sobering lessons. Both his guests are brighter than he is, and Hitchens is far better read. Consequently, the aura around the host got dimmer and dimmer as the hour progressed. And watching it go down was, probably, the only benefit conferred on the audience. If we had more events which demonstrated the actual intellectual competence of our infotainment newsmen we might begin, over time, to get some people on TV news who know something and can think beyond a high school level.

Of course, that might not be good for their ratings.


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