Propaganda Apologia, and Women's-Shoe Libertarianism


Glenn Reynolds linked to a bunch of propaganda-apologia yesterday in response to that L.A. Times article alleging the U.S. military secretly owns two Iraqi news organizations and pays others to run unlabeled Pentagon-generated stories. I'll excerpt the arguments as follows, but please follow the links:

1) "[T]he news isn't 'fake.' Biased? Yes, but it's supposed to be—it's part of the propaganda campaign."

2) "[T]he stories being placed by the US military are hardly different in kind from the stories one reads daily from Reuters or the New York Times."

3) "Propaganda is a weapon in war. When any weapon is in the hands of our military, it is an asset. Weapons are bad only when they are in the hands of the enemy."

4) "The Los Angeles Times story on President Bush's very fine speech today to graduates midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy, outlining the administration's strategy in Iraq, is filled with omissions and spin…. Why did the LAT again avoid presenting the other side? Perhaps because they don't want to present the other side—it undermines their contention that the war is going badly." (If you're wondering why this is relevant, go back to the Glenn Reynolds teaser: "Bill Hobbs thinks the Los Angeles Times understands propaganda pretty darn well.")

5) "Lousy reporting by the LA Times. Old news and very poorly reported."

Taking that last point first,

Chuck Simmins argues that this is "old news," and that the program is hardly "covert," because the Washington Post ran an article about the Lincoln Group (the propaganda-dispensing contractor) back in June, and because the Defense Department announced the contract back then on its own website. Neither link, however, mentions a damned thing about secretly buying a newspaper and radio station, or handing bags of cash to Iraqi newspapers to print Pentagon-crafted articles presented as emanating from Iraqis. Hence, the "news" value, and the "covert" nature of the project.

As to whether the propaganda is or isn't "fake," and whether it resembles your average MSM article, consider today's New York Times follow-up to the story:

"The Sands Are Blowing Toward a Democratic Iraq," an article written this week for publication in the Iraqi press was scornful of outsiders' pessimism about the country's future.

"Western press and frequently those self-styled 'objective' observers of Iraq are often critics of how we, the people of Iraq, are proceeding down the path in determining what is best for our nation," the article began. Quoting the Prophet Muhammad, it pleaded for unity and nonviolence.

But far from being the heartfelt opinion of an Iraqi writer, as its language implied, the article was prepared by the United States military

I didn't realize the L.A. Times made a habit out of falsely presenting its articles as springing from "the people of Iraq," while quoting the Prophet Muhammad…. Or how about this:

One article about Iraq's oil industry opened with three paragraphs taken verbatim, and without attribution, from a recent report in Al Hayat, a London-based Arabic newspaper. But the military version took out a quotation from an oil ministry spokesman that was critical of American reconstruction efforts. It substituted a more positive message, also attributed to the spokesman, though not as a direct quotation.

Or this one, reported by the Washington Post:

[S]oldiers assigned to "psychological operations" have been more aggressive in manipulating information for military gain. One example concerned the death of Iraqi Gen. Abed Hamed Mowhoush, who was killed during interrogations near the Syrian border.

After his death, a news release said Mowhoush had cooperated and died of natural causes, and local communities were notified that he had identified key insurgents in the area, when he had not.

So, intentional plagiarism, falsified quotes, and made-up shit to cover up American military actions are the norm in the American press?

The substantive root of the pro-propaganda argument, it seems to me, lies in Number 3 above. I'll now quote a larger excerpt from Dr. Rusty Shackleford:

Propaganda is a weapon in war. When any weapon is in the hands of our military, it is an asset. Weapons are bad only when they are in the hands of the enemy.

Which makes one wonder why Leftists, so-called 'moderates', or even some on the Right, would consider a weapon in the hands of the U.S. military a bad thing? Unless, of course, they considered the real enemy to be…….

Not that I would ever question anyone's patriotism….

You'll note that the link for "the Right" goes to our own questionably patriotic Rightist Kerry Howley….

Shackleford's folly, aside from the feeble unpatriotic slap, is that that formulation assumes all weapons are equally neutral in moral value and practical effectiveness, which they are not. There's a reason, aside from international treaty, we no longer use nerve gas on enemy lines, or napalm on villages, or atomic bombs on cities—world reaction would cause more negative consequences than whatever "positive" gains could be had on the ground. And if we used horses to do a tank's job, or muskets instead of M-16s, these weapons wouldn't be an "asset," they'd be a hindrance.

Is unlabeled propaganda a useful weapon? In the long run I don't think it is. First, people will eventually find out, either from military officials alarmed at the practice, or Iraqi journalists with whatever motive. As most dictators have eventually learned, truth has a way breaking through even the tightest of seals.

Second, this war and occupation has been cast as a hot battle in a longer Mideast twilight struggle for universal human values, of which a key and oft-stated one (by every member of the National Security Council) is freedom of speech and press. U.S. actions that contravene these values—whether they be torture or intentionally falsified news articles—undermine the moral authority we've so carefully tried to build up.

Third, in my admittedly unscientific experience, the most useful government-owned propaganda news outlet was the one most independent from the government—Radio Free Europe, which was run mostly by exiles from the communist bloc. Voice of America was much more laughable and obvious; and the Marti stations have been absurdly politicized. You could argue that the BBC has been a marvelous propaganda organ for the British government overseas, precisely because it's been so free and willing to criticize it.

I am all in favor of the White House aggressively countering lies told about its actions. But if it really had faith in the persuasive power of truth, the Pentagon would be open about buying a newspaper; make it the best and most truthful damned newspaper in all Iraq, and watch citizens go "Huh; maybe these Americans are on to something!" By laundering its message through influence-buying bag men and lies, Rumsfeld's men are demonstrating contempt for those Iraqi citizens interested in transparency, and showing a disturbing lack of faith in the ennobling power of American values.

And really, should we trust with a fat propaganda budget a government that spends $240,000 on Armstrong effing Williams, so that he could hi-five No Child Left Behind?

And by showing a bizarre abundance of faith in government power-grabs in the name of fighting terrorism, self-described libertarians like Shackleford and his warblogging fans treat limited government like a particularly attractive women's shoe—fun to wear on a sunny day, but useless in a storm. Check out this Shackleford passage, and note that Stephen Green endorsed it as "[taking] on the Libertarians so I wouldn't have to."

When the secondary value of free speech conflicts with the primary value of protecting life, the secondary must be discarded. We ought not discard such things lightly, but sometimes they must be sacrificed. We do not let the body die to save the limb. […]

Pearl Harbor woke our population up, but a concerted effort at keeping our citizens ever aware of the war kept us awake. The event gave us the emotional will to begin the war, but it was propaganda that gave us the stomach to see it through to the end. The free-press gave way to the more immediate need of protecting lives. […]

I am a civil libertarian, and if my state would allow it I would be a registered Libertarian. The main objection to regulating the press is the notion that somehow we will devolve into a state of fascism. In truth, it is the kind of 9/10 rhetoric I would have also used. But it is just rhetoric and nothing else. […]

To think that content censorship would continue after we have defeated the threat of Islamofascism is to overlook WWI and WWII. In both cases we had direct censorship. In both cases the censorship eventually ended.

In sum, I call on Congress to recognize that the War on Terror must be handled as TOTAL WAR. All of the Nation's resources and will must be turned to that aim.

I know the Sept. 11 massacre Changed Everything, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would be defending the moral and practical value of free speech against a bunch of people who proclaim their libertarianism more loudly than I do.

UPDATE: Glenn Reynolds says I've "lost perspective" (always a decent bet), suggests that I'd like war to be conducted by "Poynter Institute seminar standards" (is it because I agree with those people so often?) and clucks that "the howls of outrage seem rather forced." Apparently, saying Is unlabeled propaganda a useful weapon? In the long run I don't think it is is the new "howls of outrage." Good to know.