Editor & Publisher has an article this morning following up on the post I wrote this weekend concerning the Bush administration's (and the media's) palpable shift in referring to Iraqi insurgents as "Al Qaeda." E&P notes that McClatchy's Baghdad correspondent, Mike Drummond, wrote an article from Iraq on Saturday specifically noting the rhetorical shift:
U.S. forces continue to battle Shiite militia in the south as well as Shiite militia and Sunni insurgents in Baghdad. Yet America's most wanted enemy at the moment is Sunni al Qaida in Iraq. The Bush administration's recent shift toward calling the enemy in Iraq "al Qaida" rather than an insurgency may reflect the difficulty in maintaining support for the war at home more than it does the nature of the enemy in Iraq.
As Bill Moyers documented last month, the McClatchy news agency (then-Knight Ridder) was one of the very few trustworthy sources of pre-war news regarding Iraq, one of the exceedingly few venues for real journalism in this country concerning the Bush administration's pronouncements about the war. Plainly, that is still the case, as most of our front pages and news broadcasts dutifully follow along with the script about all of the "Qaeda fighters" we are killing in Iraq and the exciting hunt for "Qaeda leaders" which General David H. Petraeus is leading.
Saturday's post here on the new media practice of describing all Iraqi insurgents as "Al Qaeda" prompted numerous responses. The principal objection from war supporters and media apologists was the claim that the rhetoric has shifted only because the focus of our military strategy has shifted. That claim was expressed most reasonably -- or at least as reasonably as such a claim can be expressed -- by a commenter replying to Saturday's post, here.
All of this seems based upon the premise that for the last four years, we have had a strategy of simply leaving "Al Qaeda" in peace, just letting them be. But now, we have a new Commander, Gen. David G. Petraeus, who has dramatically embraced a bold, innovative, new strategy: "Let's get Al Qaeda." That, in turn, is what accounts for the rhetorical shift.
But that explanation is just ridiculous on its face, particularly in light of how many times we have heard in the past that we have Al Qaeda on the run in Iraq, that we have disrupted its ability to operate, that we have decapitated its leadership, through all of our highly successful offensive Iraqi actions against them. And that is to say nothing of the truly laughable notion that we are able to identify dead bodies as belonging to "Al Qaeda members" ("68 Al Qaeda militants killed!").
More importantly, all of this depends upon an underhanded and deceitful conflation of (a) the Iraqi Sunnis who decided to call themselves "Al Qaeda in Iraq" as they battled against the U.S. occupation of their country, and (b) the "Al Qaeda" led by Osama bin Laden which flew planes into U.S. buildings on 9/11. In every way that matters, those two entities are universes apart. But for obvious reasons, the political consequences of equating them are enormous. To conflate them is, as I said on Saturday, misleading and propagandistic in the extreme. For one article after the next to bolster that conflation is so journalistically irresponsible that it is hard to put into words.
But let us focus on the underlying and most significant point of all of this. This sudden shift in describing the "enemy" in Iraq as "Al Qaeda" is the by-product of a very familiar information-producing system: namely, the administration formulates narratives, the President announces them, his top officials and military commanders recite them endlessly, and then establishment "journalists" not only write them down, but rely exclusively -- and uncritically -- on those narratives to report events. As I noted on Saturday, particularly in the Update citing the work of other bloggers who have been tracking this rhetorical shift for several months, this is exactly how the transformation of the "War in Iraq" into the newly unveiled "U.S. War Against Al Qeada" was manufactured and disseminated.
Whatever else is true, all of these new reports about the glorious victories we are achieving against "Qaeda fighters" in Iraq are the by-product of this exact system. These reports rely exclusively, or overwhelmingly, on the claims of military commanders selected by the Bush administration to communicate "information" to the media.
Statements by Joe Lieberman and Dick Cheney months ago presaged this new rhetorical tactic. Lieberman announced back in January, long before the "surge" even began: the U.S. was "attacked on 9/11 by the same enemy that we're fighting in Iraq today". And it is exactly that theme that has now slinked its way through our information-generating system, and the resulting product are these shiny new reports that have magically transformed the war in Iraq into a War Against Al Qaeda. And the only American news agency which was able (and/or willing) to penetrate through the deceitful pre-war fog from Bush followers in 2002 and 2003 is the only agency pointing this out now.
Whatever else might be true, this information-producing system -- whereby our establishment media organs rely primarily or even exclusively (and always uncritically) on administration and military claims to report on the war -- has proven itself, time and again, to be unreliable, misleading, and corrupt. Is there anyone willing to dispute that? In light of its track record over the last four years with regard to Iraq -- to say nothing of other issues and other time periods -- what rational person would even consider relying upon it, or assuming that the products it generates are accurate and reliable?
Yet that is exactly the premise on which our establishment media operates. They run to military commanders, uncritically write down their claims about what is happening in Iraq, and then file their stories. Most journalists claim that they learned lessons from the profound failures in their profession leading up to the invasion of Iraq. It is exceedingly difficult to discern what lessons they think they learned, given that their behavior has really not changed at all.
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I'll be on The Alan Colmes Show tonight, at 11:00 p.m. Eastern, discussing A Tragic Legacy. Local listings or live audio feed is here.