Severed from the People

The press-politics system that produces this kind of news is so inward-looking that it threatens to sever the government from the people.

— Lance Bennett, Regina Lawrence, and Steven Livingston, When the Press Fails

In this week’s Sift:

  • Why WikiLeaks Isn’t Ending the War. A theory from a three-year-old book explains why the WikiLeaks story is more like the Downing Street Memo than the Pentagon Papers.
  • The End of (Military) History? Andrew Bacevich claims: “The Western way of war has run its course.” How close is he to being right?
  • The Oil Spill. The worst didn’t happen: The well is capped and the surface slick has mostly dissipated. Now the media pendulum may swing too far in the other direction and tell us the spill was never a big deal.
  • Race, Class, and Jim Webb. Senator Webb’s article “Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege” is not nearly as bad as its headline.
  • Corporations 3, Humans 0. The impact of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision isn’t just theoretical any more. Corporate power may be reaching a tipping point.
  • Short Notes The NH primary would be a granite stumbling block for a Palin candidacy. Reagan’s budget director won’t drink the tax-cut kool-aid. Glenn Beck’s golden fleece.

Why WikiLeaks Isn’t Ending the War

This week’s mystery was something that didn’t happen: Why didn’t WikiLeaks’ release of 91,000 U.S. military documents about the war in Afghanistan (75,000 available to the public so far) start a firestorm that forces a major change in the conduct of that war, or maybe even a withdrawal?

The leak hit public awareness a week ago Sunday, with simultaneous articles in the New York Times, the London newspaper The Guardian, and Germany’s Der Spiegel, the three outlets WikiLeaks had given an advance look.

Wednesday, the House passed another Afghan war appropriation as if nothing had happened. By yesterday, Frank Rich was reassuring us that the Pentagon Papers hadn’t ended the Vietnam War singlehandedly either. He offered this weak consolation:

What Ellsberg’s leak did do was ratify the downward trend-line of the war’s narrative. The WikiLeaks legacy may echo that.

By this morning, the WikiLeaks story had all but vanished. The front page of the Times’ web site still had a link to a Sunday news story about Defense Secretary Gates’ claim that the leak damaged national security, but nothing about undermining support for the war. Even the liberal blog TPM wasn’t talking about it.

So what’s up with that?

By fortuitous coincidence, my Journalism Reading Project had uncovered a book that explained it: When the Press Fails by Bennet, Lawrence, and Livingston. It came out in 2007 and examined coverage of the Bush administration, from the Iraq build-up to Abu Ghraib to Hurricane Katrina. The mystery the authors were trying to solve is why

a press system dedicated to telling “both sides of the story” so often reported only one.

In the pre-war debate about Iraq we often heard only the administration’s side, even when its message was false. Abu Ghraib started out to be a this-changes-everything story, but before long the administration got control of it — changing the media’s terminology from torture to abuse and focusing on “a few bad apples” of low rank rather than the guilt at the top.

How did that happen, given that journalists themselves are likely to be liberals? The authors did a lot of quantitative analysis about the trajectory of major stories, and came up with this theory [italics theirs]:

what carries a story is not necessarily its truth or importance, but whether it is driven by dominant officials within institutional decision-making arenas such as executive policy circles, or legislative or judicial processes.

In other words, the press isn’t covering the issue, it’s covering the government’s decision-making process about the issue. If something important is revealed, the mainstream press will cover it — once, for the sake of the public record. But to keep a story on the front pages, some important player in the government — somebody powerful enough to change things — has to pick up the ball and run with it. So if Congress holds hearings, or if the courts get involved, or if there is a rift between factions in the administration, the press will cover it.

But if no official does anything, the story dies. No matter how important it is.

Right now, no powerful force is bucking the administration’s Afghanistan policy. Republicans are generally pro-war and Democrats are mostly pro-Obama. There’s an anti-war faction among Congressional Democrats (102 House Dems voted against the most recent appropriation), but they don’t control anything big enough to make news. So far, there doesn’t seem to be anything in the leaks that someone could take to court and hope to win.

So there it stands: The information is in the public record for those who really want to know, but it won’t be news again until somebody with power uses it to take action. If they ever do.

The best parallel here isn’t the Pentagon Papers, it’s the Downing Street Memo. Leaked in 2005, it proved that the Bush administration was set from Day One on an Iraq invasion and manipulated the public to support one.

It was dynamite, and it got covered — sort of. But Republicans held firm and the Democrats in Congress weren’t ready to make a big push to end the war. So the memo became part of the public record, but never part of a why-the-war-must-end narrative that competed seriously with the administration’s narrative.

When the Press Fails uses the terminology of frames, and puts it this way:

a productive frame contest exists in the news only when information independent of an administration is put on a par with information obtained from that administration, and when the media present a coherent counterperspective, not just bits and pieces of alternative perspectives.

That’s exactly what the mainstream media doesn’t believe it should be doing: starting a “frame contest” with the administration. They’ll throw the facts out there, but not pull them together into an alternative point of view and push it. That would be a role for a propagandist, not an “objective” journalist.

Unfortunately, When the Press Fails lacks perspective on a Democratic administration. The main thing to observe about coverage of Obama is that the conservative flagships — Fox News and the Washington Times — don’t play by the mainstream media rules. They have no scruple about keeping a story going on their own (see the New Black Panther Party story) or presenting a counterframe that isn’t supported by any powerful institution.

The End of (Military) History?

Andrew Bacevich (bio) posted a challenging article this week, The End of (Military) History? announcing that “the Western way of war has run its course.”

Like the book he takes his title from (Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History), Bacevich is overstating things, but he does have a case: Recent wars demonstrate the huge gap between what most Americans think war is supposed to accomplish and what it can actually do for us.

For most of human history, war was good business if you were good at it. You could sack other capitals and bring their treasures back home. You could ransom prisoners, sell conquered subjects into slavery, impose taxes on foreign cities, and so on. The Caesars built Rome on the profits of war.

That model started sputtering in the American Civil War and failed completely in World War I, which bankrupted even the winners. Why? Industrialization and modern communications made it possible to turn an entire population into a war machine. That was so expensive and so mutually destructive that the economics no longer made sense: If you won, you could claim a larger piece of the pie, but the pie had shrunk so much and cost so much to win that it wasn’t worth it.

Plus, modern wealth isn’t sackable. You can carry gold and slaves back home with you, but not an electrical grid or an educated work force. By some measures, South Korea has the world’s best internet system. But if Kim Jong-il conquered the South, all he could do is destroy that system. He couldn’t sack it and bring it home.

But even if they didn’t profit, winners still got to impose their will. America no longer has slavery because the North won the Civil War. Germany is democratic and France is not fascist (rather than the reverse) because the Allies won World War II.

But even that justification has been failing in most wars since Vietnam. We (and the Israelis, who are Bacevich’s second example) keep winning on the battlefield, but failing to impose our will. (Afghanistan is Exhibit A.) Military history is almost certainly not over, but we need to take a hard look at what’s going on, and lower our unreasonable expectations.

Here’s what I think war can do today:

  • Prevent somebody else from gaining an advantage by force. That’s the lesson of the First Gulf War: Saddam conquered Kuwait, we threw him out, and Kuwait more-or-less went back to normal.
  • Destroy things that need destroying. Israel’s air raid on Saddam’s nuclear reactor, for example. If Saddam had really had WMDs in 2003, and if our goal in invading Iraq had been to destroy them and leave, it could have worked.
  • Free prisoners or capture (or kill) people you want to bring to justice. We haven’t been able to pull off a capture of Bin Laden, for example, but at least that is within the realm of military possibility.
  • Finally, If you’re willing to go that far, genocide and ethnic cleansing still work. You can kill everybody, or drive out an indigenous population and repopulate the land with your own people. (That’s how ethnically European people like me came to be Americans in the first place.)

I think that’s a complete list. If what you want to do isn’t on it, or if you can’t get what you want by threatening one of those things, then you can’t do it with military force.

Where we’ve gotten in trouble, I believe, is that certain ways of imposing your will depend on the ultimate threat of genocide, which we are not willing to do. It’s like in the movies, where everyone has to do what you say because you’ve got the gun. In practice, it doesn’t work that way unless people believe you’re willing to kill them — and not even then, if they’re willing to die.

I think a lot of Americans still have that movie-gun expectation: We’ve got tanks in the streets and bombers in the air, so everyone has to do what we say. When they don’t, we have no next step.

Assuming (as I do) that genocide and ethnic cleansing are going to stay off our list of options, war is not that useful to us any more, except to deter other nations from going to war. There are a few additional situations where a raid might accomplish something worthwhile, but that’s about it.

That capability cost us $782 billion in fiscal 2009.

The Oil Spill

This week’s other surprise was that the BP oil spill is dissipating faster than most people expected. (Some sources are saying faster than anybody expected, but back in May this guy was predicting exactly what’s happening now. I wasn’t convinced, but I linked you to him in June because he looked honest and plausible.)

Naturally, the media pendulum is swinging back too far in the other direction: The oil spill is no big deal, Nature takes care of these things on its own, environmentalists tried to scare everybody about nothing, and so on.

Let’s get our bearings. One of the worst possibilities isn’t happening: A big oil slick won’t cover the surface for years to come, cutting off oxygen and turning some large chunk of the Gulf of Mexico into a dead zone before spilling out into the Atlantic. Religious people should thank God and everyone else should be feeling some unfocused gratitude. It could have been a lot worse.

But that doesn’t mean everything is fine now. The slick has broken up into smaller particles, many of which have sunk to lower levels. But the oil is not gone, and neither is the chemical dispersant BP used in unprecedented quantities. Grist’s Brad Johnson explains.

Stephen Colbert knows what has happened to the oil. Noting that since the BP well has been capped, spills have appeared in Michigan and Louisiana, Colbert concludes: “The oil has achieved whack-a-mole technology.”

Race, Class, and Jim Webb

Democratic Senator Jim Webb of Virginia walked into a mine field by writing a column in the Wall Street Journal about race. It came at either a good or a bad time, depending on your point of view. For months, Fox News and the rest of the right-wing media had been banging the drum about racism against whites, trumping up a series of baseless stories that culminated in the Shirley Sherrod fiasco.

Finally the Right had gone too far, and voices from the Left weren’t going to let them get away with it this time. Last week I pointed you to Rachel Maddow’s connect-the-dots reporting about Fox News attempt to stir fear that “black people are coming for you.” This week Joan Walsh picked up that message, naming it “the 50-state Southern Strategy” after Richard Nixon’s successful effort to turn white resentment into votes in the South.

So it was disheartening when, three days after the Sherrod resignation, Webb’s column appeared in the WSJ under the headline “Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege”. I like Webb, so I offer this excuse for him: The term white privilege doesn’t appear in his article, and I know from experience that editors (not writers) compose headlines. So Webb’s headline may have surprised him as much as anybody.

The left side of the blogosphere struck back hard. David Sirota (who has been a Webb fan in the past) wrote a column inducting him (and NYT columnist Ross Douhat, who made a similar point)  into “The Cult of White Victimhood“. Author Tim Wise pulled Webb’s article apart line-by-line in an article that drew 435 comments — with few Webb defenders — at Daily Kos.

Webb, though, is arguing something a little more nuanced than “black people are coming for you”. A major theme of Webb’s political career is class. In his book A Time to Fight he says:

Contrary to the bellicosity of the right-wing talk-show mavens, it is not class warfare or envy to point out that economic inequalities persist in our society. In fact, the reverse is true: It is class warfare from the top down to pretend that such inequalities don’t matter.

In the context of his career and its message, I don’t think Webb is saying that white privilege is a myth. I think he’s pointing out that White America has class divisions. And whenever there is a price to pay for racial justice, upper-class whites make sure that lower-class whites pay it. (This is one theme of Anthony Lukas’ Pulizer-winning book Common Ground about the desegregation of Boston public schools. Upper-class whites sent their children to private schools or moved to upscale suburbs unaffected by desegregation, leaving lower-class whites and blacks to hash out the problems.)

When Yale decides to admit fewer whites, the George W. Bushes don’t lose their place. Douhat references a study of admissions at elite colleges:

For minority applicants, the lower a family’s socioeconomic position, the more likely the student was to be admitted. For whites, though, it was the reverse. An upper-middle-class white applicant was three times more likely to be admitted than a lower-class white with similar qualifications.

This is a double-win for the white upper class: Not only do they avoid losing any of their own privileges, they turn lower-class whites and blacks against each other.

Webb wants to focus affirmative action programs more narrowly on the descendants of the victims of slavery and Jim Crow, rather than on everyone who isn’t white. And he hints that upper-class blacks don’t need help either. Presumably this would lessen the impact of affirmative action on lower-class whites.

I haven’t thought enough about that proposal to comment on it. (I’d rather see a direct assault on upper-class white privilege, with less lower-class collateral damage, but that may be politically impossible.) But I do think that Webb and Douhat are expressing part of the racial conversation we need to be having. While rejecting the outright propaganda Fox has been giving us, I think race is an issue where we need a little less purity-of-message and more listening to all honest opinions.

Corporations 3, Humans 0

In January, when the Supreme Court granted new first amendment rights to corporations, pro-human activists comforted themselves with two thoughts. The first said that corporations wouldn’t do much with their new rights, and the second said that it wouldn’t matter as long as we had good disclosure laws, so that people knew whose propaganda they were listening to.

Bad news on both counts: First, coal companies are going to use their newly granted rights to campaign for Kentucky Republicans in this year’s House and Senate races. Mine safety advocate Tony Oppegard says:

Between them, ICG and Massey have had 41 miners killed in just two disasters. It’s disturbing to see companies that don’t have strong safety records try to defeat politicians, like Ben Chandler, who have fought for stronger mine safety.

Second, a Republican filibuster in the Senate has blocked the DISCLOSE act, a bill to force corporations to identify themselves in political ads they buy.

Summing up: Through their Republican Party subsidiary, corporations already wield enough political power to insure that they can anonymously spend vast sums to acquire more political power. As Kent Brockman once famously announced, “I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords.”

Short Notes

It’s always satisfying when the hard data backs up your intuition: If Sarah Palin runs for president, she’ll have a problem here in the New Hampshire primary. A new poll of NH Republicans says Palin runs fifth with 9% of the vote.

David Stockman was Ronald Reagan’s budget director and ought to know a thing or two about conservative economics. In yesterday’s NYT, he wrote a stunning indictment of current Republican economic proposals — particularly extending Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy beyond their original expiration date:

Republicans used to believe that prosperity depended upon the regular balancing of accounts — in government, in international trade, on the ledgers of central banks and in the financial affairs of private households and businesses, too. But the new catechism, as practiced by Republican policymakers for decades now, has amounted to little more than money printing and deficit finance — vulgar Keynesianism robed in the ideological vestments of the prosperous classes.

A graphic explanation of how Glenn Beck is helping a sponsor fleece his listeners. Short version: Get them worried that the currency is going to collapse, invent a conspiracy theory about how the government is going to confiscate gold bullion, and then personally vouch for a company that will sell them gold coins at a huge mark-up.

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  • DavidW in SF  On August 2, 2010 at 2:34 pm

    Doug, I would have liked to have seen a mention of the chemical dispersants in your lede. The failure to mention them early gives your readers the impression that the oil breakup occurred naturally and everything up until your last sentence will be read with that impression.

    While the question of extent of relative environmental damage of the chemical dispersants versus the slick itself is open to debate, the impact of the dispersants on the slick is not. This false impression of a “natural dispersion” unnecessarily and erroneously strengthens the argument that the slick was “no big deal”.

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