Kaplan's Phantom Menace


I've always admired the dour, big-sweeping, heavily book-literate international correspondetry from The Atlantic's Robert "don't forget my middle initial" Kaplan, author of such influential bummers as Balkan Ghosts. Lately, he's been turning his unhappy attentions to the media, writing at least one interesting column that pointed out the great class divide separating American journalists and soldiers.

But this Policy Review media-bash, linked favorably by Andrew Sullivan and others, is a festival of absolutist hyperbole, historical overstretch, and flat-wrong analysis. For example, he confuses the Culture Boom's explosion in niche and regional media with the power-hoarding centralization of mass media, and imagines, absurdly, that this new Phantom Menace has power equivalent to Washington D.C.'s:

As this is an age in which we are bombarded by messages that tell us what to buy and what to think, when one dissects the real elements of power—who has it and, more important during a time of rapid change, who increasingly has it—one is left to conclude bleakly: Ours is not an age of democracy, or an age of terrorism, but an age of mass media, without which the current strain of terrorism would be toothless in any case. […]

[T]he ongoing centralization of major media outlets, the magnification of the media's influence through various electronic means and satellite printing, and the increasing intensity of the viewing experience in an age of big, flat television screens has created a new realm of authority akin to the emergence of a superpower with similarly profound geopolitical consequences. […]

Go to any airport, where you are rarely out of sound range of a 24-hour news channel, and when you are, you are assaulted by the subtitles. You realize that oppression constitutes being forced to pay attention; or, for that matter, being forced to get attention. If civilization is built on a plea for privacy and some silence, then the media are an unabated noise. Between that noise and you is nothing but desolation mixed with claustrophobia as the world around you is reduced to one bleating disembodied voice, which assumes the dimensions of a prison.

Those last italics were mine, to show the strain of Chicken Littling-by-metaphor. I imagine that it would suck spending half your life in noisy airports (Not the flat-screen! Noooooo!!!!), but if that be "oppression," then God help us when we need a word to describe the real deal. To see how widely Kaplan's assessment of media-government-citizen power relations misses the mark, consider this:

When the staff of a show like 60 Minutes decides which stories to pursue and which to leave half-finished on the cutting room floor, the destiny of any number of people is quietly being determined.

What's funny is that he means "the destiny" of our poor beleagured politicians. Wasn't there some scrum involving 60 Minutes, a presidential candidate, and the oppressed citizenry this year? How'd that one turn out again?

Other absolutist Kaplan assertions worth mocking (italics mine):

* Because of media coverage in Fallujah, "American officials had no choice but to undermine their own increasingly favorable battlefield position by consenting to a cease-fire." (The Bush administration actually has been known to act militarily in ways the domestic media generally doesn't support.)
* "It may take longer for the realization to seep in that [Gerald] Ford has been our greatest contemporary ex-president." (Must be all that golfing.)
* "If what used to be known as the Communist International has any rough contemporary equivalent, it is the global media." (I don't know what he's talking about, either.)
* "It is the investigative journalist who has inherited the mantle of the old left." (Tell it to Bill Gertz.)
* Among cosmopolitan journalists, "Kofi Annan can never be wrong."

It's this last bit that somehow sticks most in my craw. To wit, Robert Kaplan is the living embodiment of the cosmopolitan journalist, plopping from one second-world hellhole to the next. And he certainly thinks Kofi Annan can be wrong. So does just about every globe-trotting war correspondent I have ever met in my life, many of whom have worked right alongside Robert D. Kaplan. It's a weird tic to blanketly desribe an entire category of humans with a condemnatory sweep contradicted by your very own personal experience. But as always, Kaplan is worth reading, and brings up valuable points while reminding you his library his bigger than yours.