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Thursday, March 27, 2003

Practicing the news.

My first guest columnist! Bjorn, a friend from divinity school who is currently in Turkey with a group of study-abroad students on a year-long trip around the world, sends the following comments about thinking critically about the news:

I like Donald Rumsfeld. Whether you agree with his hawkish policies, his handling of the military, or not, you should respect him, if for no other reason than the following: He does not take any shit from the press. Rather than being bullied by shouting, rather than being lead into making statements that originated from questions, rather than being out-nuanced by the clever questions of reporters, he stands firmly in charge of all press conferences. Wielding his humor, nuance and sharp wit, Rumsfeld elegantly elicits a respect from the press and from viewers alike. Unfortunately, with all the commentary and one-line scroll bar headlines, the press often has the last word in the media war. Let us take a news conference on 25 March 2003 as an example.

The topic is War, of course. Particularly, the press is searching for quotable quotes summing up the 6th day of conflict in Iraq. Cutting to a particular few minutes to make my case, I do not forgive, or forget, the other hours of mis-coverage by the media. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is standing in uniform, shifting his weight back and forth, obviously uncomfortable in front of camera, answering to journalists. Next to him is Donald Rumsfeld, in a sharp, stylish pin stripe suit that matches his relaxed yet commanding demeanor in front of the microphone.

'Two more questions,' he says. Immediately, simultaneously, the dozens of press reporters shout their questions, hoping to get some verbal dominance over the rest to get their voice, and question heard. The Chairman looks around uncomfortably, trying to decide upon which reporter to call. Rumsfeld, cool as a cucumber takes control of the situation.

'Settle down now,' he scolds, no need for all this shouting. 'How about you?' He points to a man in the center of the room. A dominant voice rises from the general area of his wagging finger. 'No, not you,' he cuts off the rude reporter, 'the gentleman next to you who has been sitting quietly and waiting patiently to ask his question.' The question is a good one.

'There have been reports that there has been an uprising of the local population in Basra against the Iraqi military. How important are such uprisings against the establishment in winning the war in Iraq.' I ponder how important I thought such uprisings are. Of course, if the Iraqi people want to be 'free' they should rise up against the oppressive regime. Not only is it important for the Iraqis, but it is also important for the public opinion supporting the war. This shows clearly how even the most skeptical media viewers are heavily influenced by the media. With great nuance and succinctness, Donald Rumsfeld corrected my misperception.

'I'm old enough to remember,' he reminisces, 'those times in the 50's when people rose up in Eastern Europe and were immediately slaughtered.' While applauding their courage, he explained, without proper support, such uprisings are simply an unnecessary waste of life. It is only under certain specific conditions, in which the coalition military can support such a popular uprising by the Iraqi people that Rumsfeld would encourage the action. 'Let there be no doubt, these are an oppressed people. The Iraqi people should rise up' — when the conditions are right. Recall, after the first Gulf War, thousands of Iraqis rose up against the Hussein Regime, only to be ruthlessly put down by undeterred Iraqi security forces.

After feeling a bit more educated, and learning more of the necessary complexity of war from the US professor of war himself, I was immediately disappointed by the one line summary that CNN posted below the cleverly worded response by Rumsfeld: 'Rumsfeld encourages Iraqi people to rise up.' I wanted to scream. Had I not seen the interview myself, the CNN one-liner would have reinforced my incorrect understanding of the situation. Unknowingly, I was encouraging the glorious and pointless martyrdom of Iraqi people.

Although he obviously controls press briefings as he controls the multibillion dollar US military, Rumsfeld has little control over how the press interprets, and simplifies his skillful explanations. Fortunately, we, the viewers do. Instead of letting the news-entertainment regimes of BBC, CNN, and Allah forbid, Fox News, info-tain us with their interpretation of the news, it is our responsibility to watch critically. Not only must we come to our own conclusions of what the news is saying, instead of being visually seduced by B-Roll footage while an ethereal, yet trustworthy voice interprets the images, we must also be critical of how the news itself is presented, and how it shapes the public opinion of the millions who naively trust 'experts' who know more about ratings than about news. The example I have taken and analyzed occurred within a five-minute span during a 24hour a day coverage. Just think of all the work we have to do to watch the news. Watching the news, critically and constructively, is a practice. The more we do it right, the better we get. While we are bombarded with 24 hour coverage, the time to practice is now.

My first reaction was: Whoa, Bjorn! Fond of "Darth Rumsfeld"? But the defense secretary's distinction between futile and promising rebellions is important. And I like Bjorn's idea of imposing a discipline on the way one takes in the news. He's proposing a Buddhist model of self-scrutiny, paying attention not only to signs of government or media distortion, but especially to ways our own preconceptions may filter out important truths. One can only hope that military planners and officers knew about and anticipated major surprises like, say, where did all these fedayeen come from?

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 27 March 2003 at 11:16 AM

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