Sobran's -- The Real News of the Month

 Telling the Story 

April 3, 2003

This being a “war of choice,” rather than a war forced on us by urgent necessity (as it is for Iraq), can’t we at least ask for candor about the cost? I don’t mean only in American blood and treasure, important as they are, but in Iraqi casualties, both military and civilian.

We deserve something more than propaganda. If our government is going to make us bitter enemies, we have a right to know that. This war is being fought in our name, and we are going to pay for it — in more ways than one.

Many hawks feel that free speech ends at the water’s edge. (Not that they’re crazy about it on our own shores.) They are furious at Sean Penn for saying in Iraq what he had an unquestioned right to say in America, even though the war hadn’t started yet. They are doubly furious at Peter Arnett for saying what he thought in Iraq once the United States had started bombing. American journalists are supposed to be “embedded” in the war effort, observing “message discipline.” That is, they are expected to stop practicing journalism without a government-issued license.

In war, the adage has it, truth is the first casualty. But if your cause is just, why do you need lies and concealment? If your troops are fighting for freedom — including “Iraqi freedom” — why not allow events to be reported freely? If you are sitting at home, cheering the war while watching it on television, shouldn’t you at least be willing to face what you’re supporting? Or does the war have to be edited for family viewing?

The hawks are suspicious of the American news media, which they feel aren’t parroting war propaganda with due zeal. In their eyes, even frank reporting, if it contradicts official optimism, amounts to treason. According to the fanatical New York Post, the New York Times is a “fifth column” of the enemy. Yet any serious reader knows which paper to read for dispassionate information, and which paper reduces journalism to a bad joke.

[Breaker quote: Don't expect a happy ending.]Never mind that without frank reporting the freedom of the press is meaningless. If this is really a war for freedom, ours as well as Iraq’s, why shouldn’t we exercise our own freedoms? I’m afraid the answer is all too obvious.

The American media are the least of the hawks’ problems. They should be worrying about the foreign media, especially the Arab network Al-Jazeera. The American media are showing a serial that might be called “Brave American Soldiers.” The Arab media are showing a different story: “Dead and Maimed Arab Women and Children.” And that’s the one most of the world is watching. The U.S. global media monopoly is over.

The Bush administration doesn’t seem to grasp this. It expects the world to accept its rigid and lame self-justifications, and is utterly unprepared for the propaganda war that may be more decisive in the long run than what happens in battle. Perception may not be reality, but it’s certainly an important reality, especially in the Media Age, and it’s out of the U.S. Government’s control.

Which story is true? In a war that isn’t decisive. It isn’t the righteous side that prevails, but the side with the more powerful weapons, and in the contest for world opinion, the Arab story is far more powerful than the American story. Pictures of dead children can’t be counteracted by pictures of nice Marines carrying live children. Pictures of dead American children killed by Iraqis might help, but there aren’t any.

When, 40 years ago, the young Cassius Clay (now the beloved old Muhammad Ali) challenged the thuggish Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight championship, he was so cocky and abrasive that one sportswriter quipped, “Clay has achieved the unlikely feat of making Liston the sentimental favorite.”

Similarly, George W. Bush has achieved the unlikely feat of making the brutal Saddam Hussein the sentimental favorite in the Arab world and beyond. Like his hero Stalin, Hussein knows how to enlist the passions of nationalism when he needs them. An invasion always helps.

Our own media are barely reporting this media war. But if the United States wins on the ground, yet winds up isolated in a hostile world, what will it have gained?

A happy ending depends on who’s telling the story. And America isn’t the world’s storyteller anymore.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
This column may not be reprinted in print or
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