Little outbursts of journalism -- what causes them?

Various media outlets exercise the basic function of journalism by pointing out the deceit behind the President's new Iraq rhetoric.

By Glenn Greenwald

Published July 13, 2007 10:47AM (EDT)

The New York Times this morning features a rather disorienting article by Michael Gordon and Jim Rutenberg, headlined: "Bush Distorts Qaeda Links, Critics Assert." The headline accurately describes the point of the article, which begins by noting how frequently President Bush has been invoking "Al Qaeda" to justify the occupation of Iraq, and then proceeds to explain:

But his references to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, and his assertions that it is the same group that attacked the United States in 2001, have greatly oversimplified the nature of the insurgency in Iraq and its relationship with the Qaeda leadership.

There is no question that the group is one of the most dangerous in Iraq. But Mr. Bush's critics argue that he has overstated the Qaeda connection in an attempt to exploit the same kinds of post-Sept. 11 emotions that helped him win support for the invasion in the first place.

Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia did not exist before the Sept. 11 attacks. The Sunni group thrived as a magnet for recruiting and a force for violence largely because of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, which brought an American occupying force of more than 100,000 troops to the heart of the Middle East, and led to a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.

But while American intelligence agencies have pointed to links between leaders of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and the top leadership of the broader Qaeda group, the militant group is in many respects an Iraqi phenomenon. They believe the membership of the group is overwhelmingly Iraqi. Its financing is derived largely indigenously from kidnappings and other criminal activities. And many of its most ardent foes are close at home, namely the Shiite militias and the Iranians who are deemed to support them.

The article is "disorienting" because, among other things, it is Gordon who has been conflating "the 9/11 Al Qaeda" with "Al Qaeda in Iraq" as aggressively as, and probably more destructively than, even the President himself. The article is equally disorienting because the eager complicity of the Times itself in helping the President to promote this deceit was the subject of a scathing column by its own Public Editor just this weekend, which targeted several articles written or co-written by Gordon -- an issue which was not referenced in this morning's article. Instead, Gordon poses today as the myth-buster, exposing the fraud behind a rhetorical practice which, up until today, found its most robust expression in his own reporting.

Interestingly, Gordon's article comes one day after a similar article in The Washington Post, which yesterday noted that Gen. Kevin Bergner, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, has emphasized Al Qaeda in Iraq as the "principal threat" in that country, but the article went on to note how dubious that assertion is:

Analysts and intelligence officials say that al-Qaeda in Iraq is just one of many Sunni and Shiite organizations fighting for power and against the U.S. occupation, and that al-Qaeda in Iraq is smaller than many other insurgent groups. The analysts say that bin Laden's organization provides more inspiration than direction to Sunni fighters in Iraq.

And even Joe Klein's most recent Iraq article in Time exhibits the core function of political journalism -- namely, convey what the government asserts and then, rather than merely leave it at that, subject those claims to critical scrutiny:

Recently, in [Bush's] desperation, starting with his speech at the Naval War College on June 28, he has been telling an outright lie, and he repeated it now, awkwardly, in Cleveland: "The same people that attacked us on September the 11th is the crowd that is now bombing people, killing innocent men, women and children, many of whom are Muslims, trying to stop the advance of a system based upon liberty."

That is not true. The group doing the most spectacular bombings in Iraq was named al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia by its founder, Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, now deceased, in an attempt to aggrandize his reputation in jihadi-world. It is a sliver group, representing no more than 5% of the Sunni insurgency. It shares a philosophy, but not much else, with the real al-Qaeda, which operates out of Pakistan. In fact, al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia has been criticized in the past by the operational director of the real al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, for its wanton carnage directed at Muslims.

Bush's lie, which assumes a lack of knowledge on the part of the American people, was compounded by an outrageous bit of spin: "We just started [the surge]," the President said. General David Petraeus "got all the troops there a couple of weeks ago." In fact, Operation Fardh al-Qanoon, the military effort to secure Baghdad, has been going on since February.

We have had more than four years of a President who seems to have such a low opinion of the public that he can't bear to tell it the truth about a war gone sour.

One can nitpick -- or do more -- with each of these articles, but for the moment, I want to focus on a different point. Blogger Susie Madrak wrote a post yesterday expressing a specific frustration which -- even though in this case she directed it to a post I wrote -- is a frustration with which I empathize and often share:

I'm starting to have the same response to what almost everyone writes, no matter how well.

Because it's the same story, over and over again. I mean, it's no longer news. Those of you who are "logical" and "reality-based" and legal-minded are constructing a case for the record, but why? The reality is as plain as the nose on yours and everyone else's [] face. . . .

Let me state the obvious: The media is controlled by corporate interests. Those interests are in sync with those of a greedy, corporatist culture that is epitomized by the worst of our political culture. . . So of course the media supports the war. After all, their companies are making money off it.

I don't agree with all of the particulars of Susie's theory about the media -- I think she over-simplifies the complex and varied influences on journalism -- but I do understand the sentiment underlying her point. Given how systemic and deeply rooted all of these political and media failures are, what is the point of writing about them day after day, and complaining on a case-by-case basis about them? The corruption and dysfunction is, by now, obvious to those who are able and willing to see it. Why beat the same drum every day?

As frustrating as it can be, this sort of day-to-day pressure on individual journalists and political figures is the most effective weapon possessed by blogs, websites and other organizations devoted to forcing into our public discourse various perspectives and narratives which are otherwise excluded. Given how energized, engaged and active blog readers are, virtually all journalists, editors, pundits and political figures now hear the criticisms launched at them, and usually hear them quite loudly.

Through this process, many became aware of objections to what they do that they otherwise would not have realized. At the very least, they are conscious, when they go to write the next article or give the next interview, that they can trigger very vocal and negative reactions by repeating their errors.

Even for those who are not driven by rationality and who are not operating in good faith, this process can still affect how they behave. Everyone is potentially affected, to some degree, even if subconsciously, by substantial amounts of anger directed at them. Journalists in general have thin skins for criticism and when they are subjected to it, they remember it.

The point here is that changing our public discourse is a slow, grinding, difficult process. Any changes that occur, any progress that is made, will be made only incrementally, one day after the next. Each individual change is usually so slight as to be imperceptible, but aggregated, those changes can be substantial. The real success of blogs comes not from single, easily identifiable spectacular achievements ("we defeated this bill/candidate" or "we uncovered this fact"), but rather, by the gradual re-shaping of the dominant political narratives, by changing how political and cultural issues are discussed, by influencing (either through pressure or competition) how the media conducts itself in covering our political process.

One can only speculate about what caused this specific recent burst of journalism concerning the President's manipulative use of "Al Qaeda" to justify our ongoing occupation of Iraq. One could make arguments either way as to whether the work of bloggers over the past couple months in highlighting this deceitful presidential rhetorical shift (and the media's complicity in it) was a cause in the publication of these articles (though I think there is ample basis for believing that the Public Editor's criticism this weekend, which undoubtedly reverberated around newsrooms, was rooted in the work of bloggers and the complaints of blog readers).

But, in general, the way that blogs and similar instruments can be effective is precisely through this day-to-day warfare with the opinion-making guardians -- journalists, pundits and politicians alike. When I first began blogging back in October 2005, it was not always clear to me that the target of bloggers even heard the criticisms being voiced, let alone listened to them. Now, there is no doubt that they hear them.

And while some may try arrogantly to ignore the criticism and others may try to demean it and insist that it does not matter, the criticism --- when it is persuasively defended and grounded in fact -- eventually builds and grows and strengthens and has an effect. I would again point to the relatively small but still revealing point made by the NYT's Sheryl Gay Stolberg in her article this week regarding the White House ceremony to celebrate the new Press Briefing room:

Mrs. Bush will help cut the ribbon. Yet with the White House press corps under attack from liberal bloggers as being too cozy with the Bush administration, some reporters say they feel a little bit queasy about attending. Mr. Snow said the president would not take questions, which poses a quandary for journalists uneasy about being seen with him at a purely ceremonial affair.

Defeatism can lead one to believe that there is no progress at all and that progress is impossible. Impatience can lead one to conclude that the progress is too slow and incremental to matter. But slow and incremental progress of this sort is the only kind that is viable, and ultimately, the only kind that really matters.

Glenn Greenwald

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