Why Shoot The Messenger

Recently, David Asman of Fox News’ program “Forbes on Fox” asked the following question:

“Bashing our military: seems like it’s a new sport for our media! But could all the negative headlines and lack of reporting about anything positive our brave men and women are doing there hurt America and our markets?”

Naturally, Asman turns stage right to some decrepit old businessman who professes his anger that “all we read about are atrocities” and how the nobility of our soldiers who might occasionally “go berserk” are, in actuality, just victimized heroes who “save Iraqi lives every day.” But thankfully, most of his guests see right through this ruse, for example, Forbes’ Silicon Valley bureau chief Quentin Hardy, who zings back:

I can’t agree with a single thing you’re talking about. There have been positive stories, from Jessica Lynch to ‘Mission Accomplished’ to Tal Afar a few months ago. In this case you’re just blaming the messenger.

Steve Forbes actually cracked a smile on the split-screen at that one. But just as quickly, he shakes his grey head and bleats:

The back of this insurgency has been broken, what you see in Baghdad now, this chaos, the Iraqi government has to establish order, but we broke the back of this thing and no one knows this.

Steve’s right–nobody knows this, even the insurgents. It’s so top secret only Fox News viewers have heard about it.

Anyway, why did I just transcribe all of this? It wasn’t because I love right-wing television news. It’s because this exchange illustrates perfectly the moral twists and turns of the new information age as typified by the post-modern Bush administration and its cronies and supporters in the media.

Let’s return, for a moment, to Asman’s original question. When he talks about ‘our media,’ strangely, he cannot be referring to his own Fox News, which painstakingly highlights the positive news from Iraq whenever possible. No, he refers to ‘the mainstream media’ elsewhere in the program, as if Fox News is some kind of little known upstart in cable news. Fox, of course, prides itself on being ‘fair and balanced,’ but in this case the ‘balance’ is what’s important here.

The underlying assumption of Asman’s question, and indeed, the whole program, is that there’s more good being done by our soldiers than harm, which none of his guests bothered to refute. Steve Forbes’ psychic connection to the Iraqi people notwithstanding, almost every quality-of-life metric shows that daily life in Iraq is even worse today than the years of the massively corrupt Food For Oil program.

Not that you would hear about these problems over at Fox News. If you want to get a sense of the ‘balance’ Fox touts, do a search for “Quality of life Iraq” and you’ll see that the results for Fox News itself contains headlines like “In Iraq, Civilian ‘Troops’ Are UnKnown (sic) Heroes,” (which is actually a story about the death of a PX salesman) and “Army Teaches Troops How to Pick a Spouse.” Interestingly, their search page also links to Yahoo and Google, whose results are much less equivocal, with results like “Quality Of Life In Iraq Still Poor,” a story from the government-sponsored Voice of America, and the Brookings Institute’s Iraq Index, which gives a comprehensive (if estimated) picture of what life in Iraq is actually like and how much our troops are actually helping.

Remember all those surveys which showed that Fox News viewers were more likely to believe that Saddam was responsible for 9/11 or that the 2004 election wasn’t stolen? The problem with studies like this, as all social scientists know, is that the correlation between those two facts doesn’t tell us whether Fox convinced these people or simply told them what they wanted to hear. And here we come to the underlying current here: the commoditization of information, and the use of disinformation as weapon.

People watch Fox News because they have an expectation of hearing what they probably want to hear, in a way that’s different from the expectations of, say, a CNN viewer (not that I’m such a huge fan of CNN, either). They fill a market need, and without casting a moral judgement on the accuracy of their news service, they certainly service their customers admirably. This is but one aspect of the commodization of information.

When Adam Smith wrote about perfect information being a prerequisite for perfect competition, he scarcely conceived that information itself would become a marketable item. But today’s capitalists are acutely aware of the advantages of paying both for the dissemination and reception of information.

One person who probably gets this more than anyone else is John Rendon of the Rendon Group. You may have read the Rolling Stone profile entitled “The Man Who Sold the War”. An excerpt:

A recent congressional report suggests that the Pentagon may be relying on “covert psychological operations affecting audiences within friendly nations.” In a “secret amendment” to Pentagon policy, the report warns, “psyops funds might be used to publish stories favorable to American policies, or hire outside contractors without obvious ties to the Pentagon to organize rallies in support of administration policies.” The report also concludes that military planners are shifting away from the Cold War view that power comes from superior weapons systems. Instead, the Pentagon now believes that “combat power can be enhanced by communications networks and technologies that control access to, and directly manipulate, information. As a result, information itself is now both a tool and a target of warfare.” It is a belief John Rendon encapsulated in a speech to cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1996. “I am not a national-security strategist or a military tactician,” he declared. “I am a politician, a person who uses communication to meet public-policy or corporate-policy objectives. In fact, I am an information warrior and a perception manager.”

The Rendon group is a PR firm who have been hired by almost every administration to clandestinely advance their agenda in wars and various foreign entaglements, from Nicaragua to Iraq. This is more than just spin or rumor mongering, but media manipulation on a grand scale. But the work of the Rendon group is scarcely the only disinformation on which our government spends money. The General Accounting Office has repeatedly chastised the Bush administration for illegal propagandizing, from the Armstrong Williams payola scandal to their fake news pieces promoting their Medicare plans or their ONDCP anti-drug videos. And then (just when you thougth I had lost sight of my original point), there’s the multi-million dollar propaganda campaign where the Bush administration employed the Lincoln group to buy positive news coverage in Iraqi newspapers. The GAO found that the Bush administration has spends about a billion dollars a year for propaganda (and that’s just official funding).

So, David Asman and ilk, if you’re wondering why there isn’t more positive coverage of our progress in Iraq in the ‘mainstream media,’ the answer is simple economics: the government hasn’t been paying our information vendors enough to run it. Because clearly there isn’t sufficient market demand for this propaganda; it’s the kind of thing the government needs to subsidize, and even our CEO-in-Chief knows it.

Now, Asman didn’t invent the idea of killing the messenger; that was the ancient Greeks. But unlike the ancient Greek rulers who actually killed the bearers of bad news, today’s messenger-blamers are employing the tactic in order to shift the blame for our failures away from those ultimately responsible. and as we know, it’s not just the conservative media outlets who are doing this, it’s the administration itself which has been taking up the ‘it’s the media’s fault’ line. And no wonder, they’ve repeated it often enough they seem to believe it themselves.

It’s curious that all of this media attention being paid to the atrocities our troops have committed is coming so late in the game. And the reson for this has everything to do with the market for information and our government’s interference, if you will, in that market. Let’s get back to Rendon and Rolling Stone for a moment:

Rendon is already thinking ahead. Last year, he attended a conference on information operations in London, where he offered an assessment on the Pentagon’s efforts to manipulate the media. According to those present, Rendon applauded the practice of embedding journalists with American forces. “He said the embedded idea was great,” says an Air Force colonel who attended the talk. “It worked as they had found in the test. It was the war version of reality television, and for the most part they did not lose control of the story.” But Rendon also cautioned that individual news organizations were often able to “take control of the story,” shaping the news before the Pentagon asserted its spin on the day’s events. “We lost control of the context,” Rendon warned. “That has to be fixed for the next war.”

In the period where the most civilians were killed by our troops, when the most atrocities actually occurred, there was almost no reporting about it in the mainstream American media. And no wonder–they were embedded with the killers, not the killed. Reporters were actually being shot at and the military was still largely given a pass. Of course, you’ll notice that reporting of bad news has increased with the general dissatisfaction with the war, in the same corrollary fashion as the Fox News audience and their reporting I mentioned above.

The truth of the matter was that the administration had done a bang-up job of information control from the march to war up until, I’d say, Abu Ghraib. They spent just enough money and effort convincing a large part of the public. But unfortunately for them, information wants to be free. The truth can really only be contained for so long, particulraly with the short-term information management strategies we were employing.

My Enron cartoon from 2002

Call it the Enron model of government. It’s cheaper to create the appearance of doing a good job than to actually do one, as long as the public never finds out about it. But, like Enron, the ax has to fall eventually.

If you look at it from an “perception management” perspective, the emblematic failure of the Bush administration is Hurricane Katrina. And the reason for it is simple: they couldn’t control the media in New Orleans. Even Fox News’ coverage, when unembedded, has to show the devastation and utter failures of the government. the footage was raw in every sense of the word. As with Enron’s book-cooking, there is always an unavoidable accountability moment. You can only misdirect people for a certain amount of time. The really successful practicioners can keep a ruse going for years, but the show has to end at some point.

The central tenet of information war is, “if a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, it never really fell.” Media is powerful, but it isn’t monolithic. But people on the ground are seldom fooled. For every Haditha, Ishaqi, Hasbaniya, there were thousands of civilian killings whcih went unreported. Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki responded to the news about the Haditha investigation by pointing out that American soldiers are killing Iraqi civilians daily. I’m all for interspersing the real, complete coverage of these killings with clips of other soldiers building infrastructure and handing out food. But even Fox News will admit that one set of footage is far more powerful than the other. These actions aren’t exchangible for one another; how many MREs do we have to hand out after shooting a pregnant woman and her mother? Numbers fail to do anyone involved justice.

Most of the guests on Asman’s show said that the coverage of the Haditha investigation was good for our markets because it showed that we were being serious about addressing our shortcomings and regaining our ‘moral authority,’ in the same way I’m sure they would say that the Enron verdicts were good for American capitalism because they showed we were serious about combatting corporate fraud. However, all indications seem to show we’re not willing to go nearly far enough.


Anything not encased in blockquotes is © 2018 D. J. Waletzky. This site runs Casual Insides 6, now based on Wordpress.