Russell's Blog

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Buying the War

Posted by Russell on April 28, 2007 at 8:25 a.m.
I watched Bill Moyers's "Buying the War" a few days ago, and I finally think I have something to say about it. A lot of people will probably be inclined to skip this report rather than face frustration of seeing, one more time, just how badly we screwed up. It is indeed saddening and frustrating to contemplate the sequence of events that led up to the invasion of Iraq.

However, for some reason, I didn't feel that way at all after watching this report. It's odd, in a way. The report is utterly damning -- damning of the media, of the administration, of Congress, and implicitly damning of the public for allowing itself to be bamboozled. Yet, somehow, I came away feeling relieved.

This is the first time I've seen the whole sequence of events, chapter by chapter, explored in specific detail. After something terrible has happened, it is always worthwhile to go back and give it a really hard look. It's not just to learn from the mistakes; it's also to try to draw a line around the episode. This mental encapsulation is an important coping mechanism. It is what keeps the taint of disaster from seeping into everything. It is what allows us to distinguish between the disaster and unimpacted or unrelated events. It places finite bounds on the scope of the disaster, huge though it may be. This is why the 9/11 Commission Report is important.

Most people who would criticize the Administration, Congress or the Media would construct their indictments on the strength of hindsight. They said one thing, one would argue, but we now know that it was wrong. This is the natural way to proceed. If you want to construct a strong argument, it is best to use the strongest evidence. The strongest evidence is always available after the fact. Ergo, an argument from hindsight is usually the strongest.

For example: The President said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. We've now searched every inch of Iraq, and there weren't weapons of mass destruction. Therefor, the President was wrong. Yet the President had seen convincing evidence that there were no weapons of mass destruction when he made those statements. We must thus conclude that the President was either lying or demonstrated extremely poor judgment.

Bill Moyers avoids that line of reasoning completely. Instead, he focuses on the people who got things right without the benefit of hindsight, and builds his incitements on the contrasts between their actions and the actions of those who got it wrong. For example, Walcott, Landay and Strobel from Knight Ridder did just what reporters are supposed to do. They thought the Administration's case was a little fishy. So they investigated, and piece by piece, they found that the Administration's case was total malarkey. They reported the details to the public.

Before the tanks crossed the border, every major point in the Administration's case for the war had been publicly disproved, discredited, or refuted. Yet somehow, the public was not aware. How did that happen? This is the question addressed in "Buying the War."

The prevailing news narrative was that Saddam Hussein was a dangerous, evil man, that he had weapons of mass destruction, and that he wasn't going to back down. The investigations that ultimately discredited the prevailing narrative did not appear all at once, or organized into an easily digested rhetorical package. The media outlets regarded these stories as distracting clutter, and kept them off the front pages.

The formation of a prevailing narrative isn't a unique phenomenon. This is how the media operates. Usually, the prevailing narrative is mostly right. This time, though, it was utterly and spectacularly wrong.

Once again, I find that it's easier to face a problem when I understand some of its details. Even as the Media as an industry was galloping down the wrong trail, there were many reporters doing honest, good work. Before I had heard of Walcott, Landay and Strobel, I assumed that there must have been a few reporters who refused to be railroaded. I found it very comforting to see, in detail, that these reporters were not merely hypothetical. I also found it comforting to see how much of the truth they were able to uncover.

Some people will watch "Buying the War" and walk away with anger and frustration. I walked away with relief. It tells me that the flaws in our national media are bad, but at least they are finitely bad. It tells me that good reporting is possible, even in the worst of political climates. If the prevailing narrative had been more permeable to new information, maybe we wouldn't be in this mess. The problem that crippled America's media industry rests in the boardrooms of a few television networks and newspaper publishers. I find that very comforting. It no longer seems like a vague yet crippling general malaise.

A clear statement of a problem usually points directly to its own solution. People have blamed the crummy reporting leading up to the war on the management of the New York Times, CNN and the broadcast networks. Nothing much has changed as a result. This is because no one has had a clear idea of what to blame them for. The managers could always throw up their hands and say, "What could we do? How could we have known?"

Now we know: Stop trying to package the news as if it had a coherent narrative. This is real life, not the movies.

Watch the show. If you can spare a few dollars, maybe think about contributing to public television.

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