Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Strange embedfellows

In early 2003 I got a couple of phone calls from Arian Campo-Flores, a Newsweek reporter (pictured) who worked on stories about the US peace movement and its effort to slow, stop and reverse the mad charge toward the invasion of Iraq. He's a brilliant student both academically--summa cum laude from UC-Berkeley in Development Studies, 1993--and of humanity. He is at least trilingual, was a teacher in Buenos Aires (he's a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists), and was quite personable and insightful. Near the end of our final interview, I asked him what next, now that it appeared that our movement had failed.

"Boot camp," he replied. "I'm going to be embedded." From that point on, the interview protocol flipped. I had many questions, though he only had time and discretion for a few. Unlike him, I am a more blunt interviewer and went right to it.

"Do you feel you can be true to your journalistic ideal of objectivity if you are living with troops at war?" I asked.

He didn't miss a beat. "Oh, sure, I can handle that." He seemed quite confident, almost as though it was not a matter of great concern. I told him I trusted him, but that I didn't share his rosy optimism about those chances.

"You may find that when you get to the line of scrimmage, you will have a much harder time writing with real journalistic honesty about the soldiers who are shooting at the people who seem to be shooting at you," I noted. And I wished him safety.

Campo-Flores did go on to embed with the Third Infantry Division(shown making new friends in Iraq) and then with U.S. Special Forces. He is back to being the Newsweek Miami Bureau chief. He does outstanding work covering immigration issues and his recent work on racism in the Tea Party is quite sound.

The response to the US media's utter failure to get it right on time sounds shrill from those of us who expected much more from a huge network of very smart and seemingly ethically solid journalists. Some, in retrospect, are more measured:

"Many American civic organizations did raise cautions about what was clearly the determination by the president and his close associates to launch a preemptive war. However, in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, emotions of fear and anger, the desire for retribution, and the wish to take strong actions were readily aroused. The news media could have done better, at least by noting the lack of evidence of imminent danger or of Iraqi culpability in the 9/11 attacks, by reporting the reasons for widespread opposition to going to war, and by reporting on alternatives to war that were being suggested."
--Louis Kriesberg, Constructive conflicts: From escalation to resolution (2007, 3rd ed., p. 181)

Indeed, the news media could have done better. They could have refused to play the role of vector for lies. With all the investigative talent in the US media, where was the fact-checking before the war? Hans Blix and Mohammed El-Baredi were shouting from the rooftops that Iraq had no WMD that was findable, and they were the ones who knew. (This is them trying to tell the world in early February, 2003, from the UN website archives). The US media ignored them. Bin Laden had a death fatwa on Saddam Hussein as an infidel who persecuted al-Qa'ida, hardly a secret from the US media.

While there are many reasons to critique mainstream media, I think the structure of it fits comfortably into the war system. It will take a massive effort of many sincere people to change that. Apologies after the launch of a war are essentially irrelevant, as the dynamic is clearly "Well, we probably shouldn't have invaded, but now that we're there, we have a responsibility." This is corrupt logic, but so widespread that it even takes in erstwhile friends of the peace movement. The point about the media is that when mortal choices are being made about US policy, the media cannot miss. They must get it right. They are the true check and balance from civil society on the abuses so patently inflicted by the government, they are protected in the US by more robust law than are the media anywhere else on Earth, and yet they were handmaidens serving and embedded, asking softball questions and failing at every turn.

Who, then, will be the check and balance on them?

Kriesberg, Louis. (2007). Constructive conflicts: From escalation to resolution. (3rd ed.) Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

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