What 9/11 hath wrought: A polarized country, a toxic media environment and a crisis of democracy

Department of Defense photo (cc) 2009 by Tech. Sgt. Jerry Morrison, U.S. Air Force

Previously published at GBH News.

Like all of us who are old enough, I have vivid memories of Sept. 11, 2001, just as our older brothers and sisters do about the assassination of John F. Kennedy and as our parents and grandparents did about the attack on Pearl Harbor. As others have said over and over again, it was a cool, clear morning, a preview of fall. I was working at The Boston Phoenix, where I covered media and politics. I stepped outside to get coffee and ran into an old acquaintance.

“Isn’t it terrible what happened at the World Trade Center?” she asked.

I didn’t know what she was talking about. I hurried inside. American Airlines Flight 11, which originated at Logan Airport in Boston, had crashed into the North Tower. There was talk of terrorism.

The Phoenix did not have what you would call a well-equipped newsroom. We had a TV that got a handful of channels but no cable. It was obvious what I would be writing about, so I raced to my car and hurried home to the North Shore. I turned on the radio and listened to coverage of the second tower’s collapse just as I was rounding the bend to Route 1. And then I sat down in front of the television set, watching for hour after hour and wondering how I would make sense of it all. Finally, sometime well after midnight, I started to write.

The piece I came up with was headlined “The End of Decadence.” In it, I expressed my hope that the media would finally return to a sense of purpose and seriousness after a decade of wallowing in celebrity culture, the O.J. Simpson trial and the theater-of-the-absurd impeachment of a president over his tawdry sex life.

In fact, the media did change after 9/11, but not for the better. The downward slide didn’t happen immediately. At first, the press diligently covered the aftermath of the attacks. The New York Times ran a wonderful series on the victims called “Portraits of Grief.” Journalists sought to make sense of how security measures aimed at preventing such attacks had so thoroughly broken down. The hunt for Osama bin Laden was covered with great enterprise and courage.

But it wasn’t long before President George W. Bush, a unifying figure in the days immediately after the attacks, began leading the nation in a divisive direction. His uplifting rhetoric about Muslims was offset by the government’s treatment of Muslims as a security risk. He went to war not just in Afghanistan but in Iraq, claiming — falsely, as it turned out — that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed weapons of mass destruction.

And the media went along for the ride. Few questioned the Bush administration’s claims about Iraq, and few questioned why our incursion into Afghanistan had turned into a full-fledged war to transform a place we didn’t understand into a Western-style democracy. The Times in particular disgraced itself with its credulous, gung-ho coverage, but so did most other news outlets — especially cable news. My late friend Danny Schechter, the “News Dissector,” called it “militainment,” a construction he borrowed from James Poniewozik, then with Time magazine, now with the Times.

Over the next few years, the wars and the Bush White House both lost support, and the media began to fracture into what we see today — a reflection of the polarization that has made it nearly impossible for Democrats and Republicans even to speak to each other. On one side we have the mainstream media, hardly perfect but dedicated to reporting the truth, trusted by about 60% of the country. On the other side we have right-wing propaganda that has convinced 40% of the country that Donald Trump won the 2020 election, vaccines are dangerous and critical race theory is the most serious threat facing us.

Last month, the 20-year misadventure set off by 9/11 was finally brought to an end as the United States pulled its last remaining troops out of Afghanistan. It was a chaotic, ugly finish, and President Joe Biden has received quite a bit of criticism for it. But it does bring a close to the story that began on that clear September day in 2001.

The conclusion of the war in Afghanistan ends an era in journalism as well. Think back to where we were. Fox News was barely a blip on the radar. CNN consisted of straight news rather than opinionated talk shows. There was no Facebook, no Twitter, no broadband. The internet-driven collapse of newspapers was still in the future. In other words, it was a time of consensus in the media and in the culture, at least compared with what was to come.

Over the weekend, Bush was praised for his forthright denunciation of the Trump-inspired domestic terrorists of 2021. “There is little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home,” he said. “But in their disdain for pluralism, in their disregard for human life, in their determination to defile national symbols, they are children of the same foul spirit. And it is our continuing duty to confront them.”

That’s all well and good. But it was Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld who started us down the road to Jan. 6 with their catastrophic wars, their trampling of civil liberties in this country and their use of torture abroad. And it was a combination of cowardice and gullibility on the part of too many in the media that helped bring us to the crisis of democracy we are dealing with today.

What the media are getting wrong about Biden and Afghanistan

Photo (cc) 2011 by the U.S. Army

Previously published at GBH News.

The United States’ 20-year war in Afghanistan has finally come to its painful conclusion. “America’s Longest War Ends as Last Troops Leave Afghanistan” proclaimed The New York Times home page Monday evening.

There is, however, one dimension to the conflict that is still being fought — the role of the media in reporting on President Joe Biden’s management, or mismanagement, of the final chaotic and deadly weeks. Surely, many journalists said, Biden could have ensured a more dignified exit than a mad crush at Hamid Karzai International Airport, with desperate Afghans plunging to their deaths from transport planes, culminating in last week’s terrorist attack.

Increasingly, though, others have been making the case that, once Biden decided to end American involvement in Afghanistan once and for all, there was no alternative to the monumental ugliness that played out on our TV screens.

“Biden does not deserve the cheap shots that critics have taken at him when they postulate that his administration screwed up what would otherwise have been an orderly withdrawal,” writes Daniel McCarthy, a vociferous Biden critic and a conservative, in The Spectator World. “Even if the withdrawal had been much better executed, as indeed it should have been, it would still have been a disgusting spectacle, a ripe occasion for media posturing and partisan sniping.”

The end — or a least a temporary pause — of the liberal-leaning mainstream media’s honeymoon with Biden can be traced to systemic flaws in the way that the press covers Washington. Three of those flaws have been on vivid display in recent weeks.

• First, there is the media’s primordial need for balance — for treating Democrats and Republicans as if they are both legitimate actors even though the Democrats, for all their flaws, continue to act as a normal political party while the Republicans have descended into authoritarianism and lies. The media cling to both-sides-ism despite four years of a raging sociopath in the White House, an attempted insurrection by his supporters, and dangerous denialism about COVID-19.

Thus, after five years of harshly negative coverage of Donald Trump (negative coverage that he richly deserved), you can almost hear the press breathe a collective sigh of relief that it can finally go after Biden and even up the score.

Here’s a data point that shows how ingrained this is. Last Friday, Amna Nawaz, filling in as anchor of the “PBS NewsHour,” noted in a conversation with political analysts Jonathan Capehart and David Brooks that a number of Republicans have criticized Biden over his handling of the war.

“It really does run the spectrum of Republicans,” she said. “You have everyone from Sen. Ben Sasse, to Sen. Ted Cruz, Congresswoman Liz Cheney, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and, of course, President Trump.”

Marjorie Taylor Greene? The QAnon-adjacent conspiracy theorist from Georgia who continues to defend the insurrectionists? Well, she’s a duly elected member of Congress, and according to the both-sides formula, she needs to be normalized. It’s crazy, but that’s the way the game is played. Too bad it’s not a game.

• Second, maybe it really is a game. Because, in too many cases, the Washington press corps glides past the substance of an issue and wallows in the political implications. Partly it’s because politics is what they know and are most comfortable with. Partly it’s a way to avoid taking sides by focusing instead on who’s winning and who’s losing.

The caricature version of this type of pundit is political analyst Chris Cillizza of CNN. Last week, several days before the terrorist attack, Cillizza wrote a piece that dwelled entirely on the political ramifications of Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan, reveling in polling numbers and in what New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen derides as the “savvy” style of political journalism.

“Biden’s bet,” Cillizza writes, “is that while Afghanistan is top-of-mind for most voters right now, it will fade as a priority — as foreign policy often does — when it is no longer the lead story in the news every day. That if Americans get out safely, that the public will lose interest in what’s happening in a faraway country and return to domestic issues like the state of the economy and our ongoing battle against COVID-19.”

Hey, it’s all politics, right?

• Third, too many establishment journalists, supposedly paid to cover the news rather than express their opinions, were in favor of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and opposed to Biden’s decision to end it once and for all.

“Much of the problems with the press coverage lie in the coziness between foreign policy elites and reporters who rely on them for information,” writes Alex Shephard in a perceptive New Republic piece. “The biases of interventionists and hawks flow frictionlessly into news coverage, treating the exit from Afghanistan as a capitulation and outrage, rather than as one — and perhaps the best — of a number of bad options.”

A telling example is Peter Baker’s widely criticized “news analysis” for The New York Times in which he quotes George W. Bush alum Meghan O’Sullivan and Gen. David Petraeus to argue that Biden could have achieved a different outcome. Describing Biden’s own framing of the options he had before him as “either complete withdrawal or endless escalation,” Baker writes, “Critics consider that either disingenuous or at the very least unimaginative, arguing that there were viable alternatives, even if not especially satisfying ones, that may not have ever led to outright victory but could have avoided the disaster now unfolding in Kabul and the provinces.”

Another example plays out on television, where a variety of former officials from the George W. Bush administration and former generals have been given air time to criticize Biden, notwithstanding their direct role in sucking us into what was, until recently, an endless war.

There is one other factor that needs to be considered when analyzing media coverage, and that’s the asymmetric role played by the mainstream media and the right-wing propaganda machine headed by Fox News.

As Jonathan Chait points out in New York magazine, Democrats and liberals can’t always count on sympathy from the mainstream because journalists want to be seen as skeptical and even-handed. Fox, on the other hand, is going to espouse a mindless pro-Republican, pro-Trump line no matter what the issue, even if it is exactly the opposite of the line it took a week earlier. At moments like this, the entire weight of the media is coming down on Biden, whereas Republicans can count on Fox being in their corner even in the worst of times.

“Even the most dishonest, incompetent, and scandal-ridden Republican presidency imaginable — which more or less describes the one we just had — will still have a media environment divided almost equally between scorching criticism and obsequious fawning,” Chait writes, adding: “In recent days, CNN and MSNBC looked a lot like Fox News, all hyping chaos in Afghanistan 24/7. That is the kind of comprehensive media hostility Trump never had to worry about.”

Now, none of this means that critical coverage of Biden was entirely misplaced. Few presidents have ever come into office with his depth of foreign-policy experience and, seven months in, he’s no longer a new president. We’ve all seen reports that U.S. intelligence officials believed the Afghan government could hang on for a year or two before its inevitable collapse. Surely a more orderly withdrawal could have been planned if they had been right. Why was Biden so seemingly unaware that his own advisers didn’t know what they were talking about? What is he doing about it?

Last Friday, on “Washington Week,” host Yamiche Alcindor replayed Biden’s embarrassing answer to her question earlier this summer that there would be no repeat of the rooftop evacuation that marked the end of the Vietnam War. Biden was right — what happened in Kabul was considerably worse.

But one of Alcindor’s panelists, Ayesha Rascoe of NPR, made an important point that has too often been overlooked by the media in its eagerness to pillory the president: “I do think this is an American tragedy, though. This is 20 years. This is four administrations. This is not just on the Biden administration.”

Indeed. The war in Afghanistan was a generation-long tragedy. Bush could have launched a targeted attack aimed at capturing or killing Osama bin Laden rather than a full-scale war to remake Afghan society. Barack Obama could have declared victory and pulled out after bin Laden was killed.

Instead, it was left to Trump to question our ongoing commitment and Biden to bring it to an end. That doesn’t mean Biden got everything right and shouldn’t be subjected to tough scrutiny. It does mean that our flawed media system was inadequate to the moment — and that we need to think about how we can do better.

Vietnam and Afghanistan: Two essays, one nonsensical, one filled with wisdom

U.S. soldier in Vietnam. Photo (cc) 1971 by Bruno Barbey.

Two essays, one in The New York Times and one in The Boston Globe, compare the disastrous, tragic war in Vietnam to the disastrous, tragic war in Afghanistan. One is based on nonsensical analogies. The other puts both conflicts in their proper perspective.

I’ll begin with the bad. Georgetown historian Michael Kazin, writing in the Times, tries to make the case that the grotesque lies Lyndon Johnson told in order to escalate our involvement in Vietnam are somehow comparable to President Biden’s handling of the chaotic exit from Afghanistan. The headline — “To Save His Presidency, Biden Must Tell the Truth About Afghanistan” — is worse than the essay, but the essay is bad enough.

Kazin’s piece is based on the premise that “the last time a war blew up in the face of a Democratic president, it derailed his domestic agenda and stalled the most ambitious social reforms of a generation.” Yet Johnson pulled us deeper and deeper into the Vietnam War, to the point where it overwhelmed his presidency. Biden has ended our involvement in Afghanistan. It’s been awful to watch, and no doubt it could have been handled better. But he’s done what three presidents before him wouldn’t do, and there are no signs that the public wanted us to stay.

And yes, Johnson and his administration lied repeatedly about the incident in the Gulf of Tonkin, used as an excuse to go all-in, and lied repeatedly about our progress. As Kazin himself concedes, there is nothing comparable going on with Biden. He writes:

Mr. Biden made a decent start at such truth-telling during his speech this week. But he should give a fuller explanation of why his administration failed to prepare for a Taliban victory that, according to years of intelligence reports, was quite likely.

The fall of Afghanistan just happened. Of course we’re going to learn more in the weeks and months to come. It’s obvious to everyone that one interview with George Stephanopoulos isn’t going to be the end of it.

By contrast, the Globe piece, H.D.S. Greenway, makes the considerably more solid argument that our failed wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan had certain similarities — a misguided mission to build pro-Western democracies in places that called for a different solution, an obstinate refusal to learn about the cultures in which we had immersed ourselves, and rampant corruption on the part of our allies. Greenway, a former Globe editorial page editor and longtime foreign correspondent, concludes:

The tragedy is that America really had no interest in either Vietnam or Afghanistan for themselves. We went into Vietnam to fight communism and into Afghanistan to fight terrorists. Over the years, mission creep took over, and we thought we could bring forth democracy in our image out of the barrel of a gun.

The proper analogy to LBJ is not Biden; it’s George W. Bush, who could have saved us from two decades of anguish after 9/11 if he’d launched a limited mission to kill or capture Osama bin Laden and had stayed out of Iraq. Barack Obama should have pulled out after bin Laden was killed. I’ll give Donald Trump a tiny bit of credit for at least talking about ending the war.

But it’s Biden who did it. Like Gerald Ford in 1975, Biden watched the U.S.-backed regime collapse and had the maturity and good judgment not to try to stop it. It was over. It seems clear that there were intelligence failures that prevented us from getting as many people out as we could have, and there’s no doubt that Biden’s going to be asked some tough questions.

Regardless of what Kazin thinks, though, the fate of Biden’s presidency does not depend on Afghanistan.

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Victim or villain? Times and Post analyze Bowe Bergdahl

Afghanistan Prisoner Swap
Bowe Bergdahl

Update: June 3. The Times and the Post change places today, with the Times running a story on Bergdahl’s dubious record in Afghanistan and the Post publishing an article on the problems Bergdahl may have re-integrating into his life in Idaho.

Is Bowe Bergdahl a victim or a villain? In their sidebars to the main story this morning, The New York Times and The Washington Post tell dramatically different tales about the Army sergeant, who was released by the Taliban in Afghanistan on Saturday after five years as a prisoner of war.

The Times’ story, headlined “Mentally, G.I. Has Long Path Back to Idaho,” by Mark Landler, is sympathetic to Bergdahl. Noting that the soldier was subjected to tremendous stress during his captivity, and possibly torture, Landler writes that Bergdahl will require a great deal of physical and psychological treatment in order for him to be able to reclaim his life. Landler:

It is not yet clear whether Sergeant Bergdahl was tortured by his captors, as were many prisoners of war in North Vietnam. But given the ruthless reputation of those who held him, experts said it was likely, at a minimum, that he faced unremitting fear.

Bergdahl may even have lost some of his ability to communicate in English after years of exposure to terrorists who spoke nothing but Pashto, former Times correspondent (and former captive) David Rohde is quoted as saying.

By contrast, the Post’s article, by Dan Lamothe and Kevin Sieff, focuses on the circumstances of Bergdahl’s disappearance in 2009, questioning whether Bergdahl deserted his unit (touched on only briefly by the Times) and if the subsequent search may have placed U.S. forces in danger (mentioned not at all by the Times).

In print, the Post’s headline is relatively mild: “Among some peers, resentment lingers.” The online version is a scorcher: “Mixed reaction to Bergdahl’s recovery by service members who consider him a deserter.”

Particularly rough is a quote from Javier Ortiz, a former Army medic who served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. Ortiz tells the Post:

I had a responsibility while I was there to the guys I was with, and that’s why this hits the hardest. Regardless of what you learned while being there, we still have a responsibility to the men to our left and right. It’s terrible, what he did.

The Post also quotes from a long, pseudonymous comment posted below a profile of Bergdahl by the late Michael Hastings that was published in Rolling Stone in 2012.  The comment reads in part:

The Taliban knew that we were looking for him in high numbers and our movements were predictable. Because of Bergdahl, more men were out in danger, and more attacks on friendly camps and positions were conducted while we were out looking for him. His actions impacted the region more than anyone wants to admit.

The use of unverified comments on the Post’s part is extraordinary, as is its quoting from a series of tweets by @CodyFNfootball that went on in a similar vein following Bergdahl’s release. The Post justified it by saying:

The Washington Post contacted the individual running the Twitter account but received no reply. Like the Rolling Stone comment, however, the tweets included enough specifics about Bergdahl’s unit and location to be regarded as potentially credible by many discussing the case.

The comments, of course, were already widely available online, and they match up with other reporting by the Post. (They also match up with Hastings’ largely sympathetic profile of Bergdahl.) So I have no problem with the Post’s using them as long as everyone understands that they may not be what they seem to be.

As for which story we’ll be talking about more in the days to come, the edge has to go to the Post. The Obama administration was already facing criticism, as Jonathan Topaz reports in Politico, for cutting a deal with the Taliban to send five Guantánamo prisoners to Qatar in exchange for Bergdahl.

At the very least, the Post’s reporting (and not just the Post’s — see this, by CNN’s Jake Tapper, for example) raises serious questions that demand answers.

Masters of narrative journalism share their insights

Image (1) B_Kirtz.jpg for post 10773By Bill Kirtz

“Revel in hardship,” NPR’s Beirut-based correspondent Kelly McEvers told last weekend’s annual narrative journalism conference at Boston University. “Don’t despair if you have a scarcity of resources.”

Sneaking into danger zones where sources were too terrified to speak, the award-winning reporter has spent the past two years covering the Arab Spring uprisings, producing vivid stories with ambient sound, protective descriptions and a remote network of dissidents.

International photographer Alan Chin echoed her comments. He’s an editor at Newsmotion.org, a Kickstarter-funded collation of amateur and professional voices and video that focuses on undercovered human-rights stories. As traditional journalism faces financial crises, “we have to take chances…. We can’t just sit around” complaining about our problems, Chin said. “We have to absolutely be willing to fail.”

Newsmotion founder Julian Rubinstein, a prize-winning magazine and book author, hopes the site offers insight that deadline-driven traditional outlets often neglect.

And narrative journalism’s goal is insight, using fiction’s tools to create compelling scenes — with one huge distinction. Every detail must be as accurate and well documented as in the best investigative reporting. Mitch Zuckoff and Dick Lehr answer the perennial “How did the author know this?” question with 30 to 40 pages of endnotes verifying every detail.

The two, who won several reporting prizes at the Boston Globe and who now teach at Boston University with conference organizer and narrative journalism exemplar Mark Kramer, stressed that point with examples from their latest books.

For Zuckoff, the challenge is to tell an important story in the “richest possible way” — not “lecturing to people,” but drawing them into a complex history. In “Frozen in Time,” he weaves a World War II search-and-survival story into recent attempts to locate a long-missing rescue plane.

Lehr followed the traditional reporter’s dogged tactic of never abandoning the fight to get documents about mobster James “Whitey” Bulger. After years of trying, he found a “treasure trove” of prison files to use in his co-authored “Black Mass,” which chronicles the FBI’s corrupt ties to the fugitive killer.

Narrative journalism doesn’t take years’-long immersion in a story, noted Amy Ellis Nutt. Although she won a Pulitzer Prize ago for a 20-page Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger feature series, she said she’s now a big fan of “miniatures.”

Why? “We don’t live life in long narrative span, [so] short is natural,” she said. “You [can] just jump in the middle.”

To make her point, Nutt cited Ernest Hemingway’s ability to tell a dramatic tale in six words: “For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn.” One of her recent narratives, which starts by saying it was “too cold even for the seagulls,” delivers precise description in relatively few words.

Neil Shea, a BU lecturer and award-winning war reporter, has also turned to short-form narrative. He said that conventional coverage of such familiar topics as Afghanistan can become “background noise” for news consumers. So he’s doing regular 300- to 1,100-word vignettes of colorful dialogue and scenes without overwhelming readers with context.

Shea was one of several speakers who underscored the need to prune excess material ruthlessly.

“We have to be merciless self-editors,” he said. When considering using the first person, he said, ask yourself, “Do I really need to be in this story?”

Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Rosalind Bentley advises cutting anything, no matter how compelling, if it doesn’t support the story’s main thesis. She pored through the 500-page trial transcript after the poet Natasha Trethewey’s stepfather killed her mother to winnow out just this detail: “She died on the pavement.”

Any quote she uses “has to sparkle like the Hope diamond.” If it doesn’t, she’ll paraphrase.

“You can’t just wing it and start writing,” she said. “All your choices have to be deliberate.” So she wields multi-colored highlighters over pages of scrawled notes to boil down the essence of a story in one sentence, and then just one word.

In her definitive profile of Trethewey, the word was “self-definition.”

Why do narrative journalists keep plugging along in an age of economic uncertainty and audience fragmentation?

Author, magazine founder and University of California Berkeley journalism professor Adam Hochschild put it this way: “When you tell a story, it takes on a life of its own and sometimes it affects people.”

He said “Bury the Chains,” his 2005 account of how a few men started a movement to free the slaves in the British Empire, got good reviews, many awards and decent initial sales — then languished on remainder shelves for years.

But recently, Hochschild started getting speaking invitations from global-warming groups, who saw his 18th-century abolitionists as a model of how a few people could change how the world thinks about an issue.

His point: “A story can come bouncing back to you.”

Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University in Boston.

How should journalists handle graphic citizen media?

Syrian protesters in front of the Syrian embassy in Cairo.

Bob Garfield of NPR’s “On the Media” has a fascinating conversation this week with NPR’s Andy Carvin and Sky News’ Neal Mann about whether they felt comfortable tweeting a horrifically graphic video of a Syrian boy whose lower face was blown off in the city of Homs, which is under attack by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

Mann’s answer: No. Carvin’s: Yes, with appropriate warnings.

I want to play the segment for my Reinventing the News students tomorrow. I thought it was a great example of the dilemmas faced by professional journalists whose duties now include curating citizen media. And I considered whether to show them the video. It’s not hard to find, though I won’t link to it. I’ve bookmarked it, and I’ll think about it a bit more. But right now I can’t imagine subjecting a captive audience of 15 students to such a disturbing video.

Frankly, even though Carvin says he gave his Twitter followers plenty of warning, I think I’m with Mann. Because what, really, is the larger meaning of the video? Carvin tells Garfield:

I shared the video because I actually thought it would snap people out of their complacency, because we’ve seen so many videos of people protesting, so many videos of people just laying there in hospitals. But there was something about this image, about being able to look this boy in the eye and see the numbness; his soul was already beginning to disappear at that point. It seemed to me emblematic of what was happening in Homs, and I wanted to give people that opportunity to watch it, if they chose.

Yet, driving home this evening, I heard a report about an investigation into the deaths of eight children killed in Afghanistan by a NATO air strike gone awry. Carvin wants us to know about the brutality of the Syrian government. Well, OK, but what about ours? Might a citizen journalist in Kapisa province have shot footage of a boy fatally injured by American-backed forces just as horrific as the one Carvin tweeted?

Not to stack the deck. I have enormous respect for Carvin, and his action definitely accomplished some good. As he tells it, because of his tweet, an emergency medical team mobilized in Lebanon, ready to help the injured boy. Unfortunately, he died before he could be spirited out of the country.

What the Assad regime is doing in Syria is absolutely savage. But the video doesn’t tell us much more than the universal reality that war is hell.

Photo (cc) by Maggie Osama and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

WikiLeaks’ uneasy alliance with the traditional media

Why did WikiLeaks work with traditional news organizations rather than go it alone in releasing the Afghanistan war logs?

In my latest for the Guardian, I argue that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange learned from the way he handled the Apache helicopter video earlier this year that sometimes it’s better to be Daniel Ellsberg than Ben Bradlee. And that Stephen Colbert was right.

Making sense of the WikiLeaks documents

Like just about everyone else in the media world, I’m trying to make sense today of the WikiLeaks documents, the Pentagon Papers of our time.

The documents — reported by the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel — show that the war in Afghanistan has been undermined by untrustworthy “friends” in the Pakistani intelligence service, chaos and duplicity in Afghanistan, and mistakes by American and allied forces leading to civilian casualties.

In a sense, it’s nothing we didn’t know, and the White House argues that the situation has been improving since President Obama charted his own course. (The most recent documents in the cache are from December 2009.) Still, like the Pentagon Papers, the documents offer official confirmation that things are (or at least were) as bad as we feared, if not worse.

I think WikiLeaks’ strategy of giving the three Western news organizations a month to go over the documents before making them public was brilliant. Earlier this year, WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, got a lot of attention over a video it had obtained of an American helicopter firing on civilians in Iraq, including two Reuters freelancers. Ultimately, though, it proved to be the wrong kind of attention — the heavy-handed editing made it appear more like an anti-American propaganda film than documentary evidence. (WikiLeaks also released a longer, unedited version.)

By contrast, in providing the latest documents to news organizations, Assange was able to get out of the way and let credible journalists tell the story. Jay Rosen, in a characteristically thoughtful post about WikiLeaks (“the world’s first stateless news organization”), thinks Assange did it because he knew the story wouldn’t get the attention it deserved unless the traditional media could break it.

I don’t disagree, but I think a more important reason is that the public will take it more seriously.

Also: At the Nation, Greg Mitchell has been rounding up links about the WikiLeaks story here and here.

Liberals and Afghanistan

Not quite sure what to make of this. But at our extremely liberal suburban Unitarian Universalist church this morning, I heard more support (albeit reluctant) for President Obama’s build-up in Afghanistan than I hear from congressional Democrats. Or, for that matter, from the four Democrats running for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat.

One possible meaning: Mainstream liberals are not as reflexively antiwar as the interest groups that lobby Democrats on our supposed behalf think we are. Indeed, according to a CNN poll taken after Obama’s speech last week, the build-up of troops is supported by a margin of 62 percent to 36 percent.

Left, right and center

In my latest for the Guardian, I round up day-after commentary on President Obama’s speech about the war in Afghanistan. And I find that no one — not his liberal base, not those farther out on the left and certainly not conservatives — is entirely happy with his decision.