War Flutters

Sorting the real stories from the alarmism


Looks like Peter Arnett is this week's poster boy for those who believe the press' behavior during the war is unnecessarily pessimistic, pointlessly defeatist, and in some cases agenda driven. Not without reason. During an interview on Ba'thist Iraqi TV over the weekend, Arnett, who has been covering Baghdad for NBC and National Geographic, went from reporter to actor when he announced that the Pentagon's "first war plan has failed" because military planners had "misjudged the determination of the Iraqi forces."

He also said that "our reports about civilian casualties here, about the resistance of the Iraqi forces . . . help those who oppose the war. . . ." That sort of thing makes it sound as if helping protestors was a welcome result of his reports, and it potentially undermines the credibility of other reporters. If Hussein's regime can get American network correspondents to talk that way on TV, it rather makes up for the destruction of Iraq's information/propaganda apparatus.

Arnett's now been canned by both of his employers, but the continuing din over the wartime role of the press didn't have much to do with him anyway. The military effort to overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein was only a couple of days old when some reporters, columnists, and analysts began exhibiting the first symptoms of a chronic case of war flutters. That is, they quickly started suggesting that the invasion of Iraq was oversold, going badly, and perhaps entirely futile.

Similar war-flutter stories had also appeared in the early days of the war in Afghanistan, during the extended bombing of Serbia, and in the opening weeks of the first Persian Gulf War. Many of these stories were ultimately misleading, to put it mildly, and it may be tempting to dismiss the current round of critical and negative coverage as both politically ill intentioned and militarily ill informed.

Some negative analyses of the Iraq war may turn out to fit those descriptions, but there are critical stories (about battlefield surprises, for example) that have been supported by front-line commanders, and others (that the war was based on "faulty assumptions)" that are coming from within the administration itself. Cautionary reports like these are, obviously, entirely legitimate, and defenders of the war would be making a mistake by dismissing or reacting defensively to all press skepticism about Pentagon war claims.

The press' war skepticism may sometimes seem like an alarmist reflex (and in some cases that's what it is), but it's also an essential institutional duty. Far from impeding military success, the press' challenges and skepticism force the political and military establishments to justify the risks that they are asking Americans to undertake. It is true that a probing press can make political and military officials intensely unhappy, but that's been true since the first American war reporters wandered unwelcome into Ulysses S. Grant's command tent. (On hearing that some of the members of the press' so-called "Bohemian Brigade" had been killed, William Tecumseh Sherman famously replied that "we shall have news from hell before breakfast.")

The debates that emerge from negative press stories are not a distraction, they are a necessity. If you want to see a medium that is, by contrast, largely failing to do its journalistic work, then you should find a way to catch Al-Jazeera's coverage. Anyone in the Arab world depending on Al-Jazeera for an understanding of the conflict is not being well served. Its picture of the war involves a confident and courageous Iraqi leadership, an Iraqi military that has yet to suffer casualties or surrenders, an Iraqi populace enthusiastically supportive of the Ba'thist regime, an international conspiracy against Arabs that involves the U.N., a coalition force that is low on morale and faltering badly, a bloodthirsty enemy making no distinction between military and civilian targets, etc.

This is delusional coverage of the sort that has, in the past, seriously damaged the credibility of Arabic-language media among their own consumers.

However, Michael Young, Reason's Beirut-based contributing editor, argues on his Beirut Calling blog that "while Al-Jazeera does indeed often act like a propaganda outlet, it has been a liberating experience for the Arab publics, providing them with higher expectations from their own media."

"Already, Al-Jazeera has to look over its shoulder at Al-Arabiyya, a Dubai-based station, and at Al-Hayat-LBCI, a venture between Lebanese LBCI and the Saudi daily Al-Hayat.. In time," he writes, "Arab stations will understand that accuracy is a better magnet [for viewers], and the standards by which Al-Jazeera (and others) are judged inside the Middle East will be raised."

Young's prediction is surely right. When that happens, Arab audiences too can watch and read war-flutter pieces, and argue about the nature of war coverage.