Monday, May 04, 2015

In an Age of Information Insurgency, Notes on My History in the Mainstream Media

More excerpts from draft speech by Christopher Dickey, "Call of Duty / Call of Da'esh," at Bahcesehir University, Istanbul, 28 April 2015

We'll come back to the question of whether and how we in the press should address the communication challenge of ISIS—this information insurgency, but first perhaps we need to look at the evolution of what we in the United States call "the mainstream media." 

That is my world and my frame of reference, and I'd like to start our quick tour of history about 150 years ago, around the time of the American Civil War. (At The Daily Beast, when I write about this period in book reviews, I sometimes have to assure my young colleagues that I did not actually cover that war myself.)

This was the second great age of mass communications. The first had come with moveable type in Europe, the Gutenberg revolution. The innovation of the 19th century, during the industrial revolution, was the industrialization of information. Paper got cheap, presses grew much more efficient, advertising became ubiquitous, helping to finance the publications, and suddenly it seemed just about anyone could put out a broadsheet. In major cities in the United States there were dozens of papers. And because copyrights were weak, nonexistent of unenforced, they picked up articles wherever they found them and reprinted them.

This may sound familiar. A little like the aggregation and blogging that goes on today. And there are indeed some important similarities. In that fiercely competitive market what we saw was fracturing of the news, sensationalizing it and making it more partisan in order to lock in one corner of the market or another. And those who were most successful with these strategies came to wield enormous power, which they used for political and profit-making purposes. By the end of the 19th century this yellow journalism was at its height — and it was dangerous.

Perhaps you have seen the great Orson Welles movie "Citizen Kane." It is based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, the king of yellow journalism, who for various reasons wanted the United States to go to war against Spain and seize its colonies, most notably Cuba and the Philippines.

[[One sequence begins with a headline saying Spanish warships are off the coast of New Jersey. Kane’s guardian protests: There is no proof of that! Kane asks if the guardian can prove there are not! Then a telegram comes in from the paper's correspondent in Havana saying he can write prose poems about the palm trees, but there is no war there. Kane dictates a response: “You give me the tone poems, I'll give you the war.”]]

The idea that began to take a strong hold after World War I — that a newspaper should be a "newspaper of record," carefully balancing all the facts in its articles and keeping the stated political positions of the owners in a separate editorial-page isolation ward — had been around for a long time. People grew tired of the excesses of yellow journalism. 

But the idea of "responsibility" really started to dominate discussions of the media when the marketplace began to change with the appearance of new forms of communication and, therefore, of competition. In this case: radio, which brought a level of accessibility to the illiterate —still a very large part of the American and European population in the 1930s—and a kind of immediacy that newspapers found it hard to match.

Under the combined pressure of the Great Depression and the home radio, newspapers collapsed one after another and fewer, bigger companies emerged, so that by the 1950s, with television now added to the media mix as well, we saw the development in the United States of a small and immensely powerful oligarchy that not only dominated the news business, but the news judgment of the nation. Really, we're talking about half a dozen newspapers, three TV and radio networks, plus a couple of weekly news magazines. Many of the most influential organs, moreover, were controlled by rich and powerful families: the Sulzbergers at the New York Times, the Grahams at The Washington Post, the Chandlers at the Los Angeles Times, and so on. 

They watched each other, they competed with each other, and they kept score not just with scoops and revenues, but by vying to see who could be judged more responsible in the exercise of their great mission to inform the public. The crowning glory was a Pulitzer Prize "for public service."

At the height of their power in the late 1960s and early 1970s they exposed the hypocrisy and lies surrounding the Vietnam war with the so-called "Pentagon Papers" and brought down the president of the United States with "Watergate." 

That moment—the summer when Richard Nixon resigned—was the moment I started my journalistic career at The Washington Post. (And you might say that ever since the American press has been in decline....) 

Of course the driver of change was not really internal, it was external to the newspaper business: the advent first of cable news and satellite television in the 1980s and then the Internet in the 1990s, which not only diversified the sources of news, but, by the mid-2000s, had destroyed the advertising base that funded the reporting. 

So, perhaps a bit of personal history, to give a sense of just how much things have changed for a reporter in the field.

In 1980, after six years with The Washington Post in Washington, I became a foreign correspondent covering a series of wars and revolutions in Central America.

These were the first wars the United States had edged into after the fall of Saigon in 1975, memories were fresh, and bitter, and so was the partisanship among the public and, yes, among some reporters.

For my part, I learned very quickly to hate war, to see almost nothing about it that was noble or, perhaps more to the point, that was necessary. It was based on illusions and delusions manipulated by a few ambitious and powerful men (and sometimes women).

On the ground, I saw again and again that my own government lied, that the governments it was fighting lied, that the guerrillas we wanted defeated lied and the guerrillas whose wars we supported lied, and all the while the people — those people who just wanted to get on with their lives — died.

The job of a correspondent then, as now, was to try to extract some verifiable facts and perhaps some larger, necessary, useful truths from all this suffering.

The combination of casual obliviousness and willful ignorance is, of course, extraordinarily dangerous in a country that can have the kind of huge impact on global affairs that the United States has.

In those days of the communication oligarchy in America the good news for a correspondent was that he’d have the money to go where he needed to go to get the story, and every side in the conflict knew to some extent that it needed the correspondent if it wanted to get its story out to the wider world. Many reporters were killed and injured in combat, but the because we were needed by all parties at some point there was some degree of protection.

The bad news was that it was damn hard to communicate that story from the field back to the home office. You basically had two options: telex or dictation.

The worse news was that even when your story was published, showing the lies of one side or the other, a great many people preferred to believe those lies. Indeed, they cherished them.

I came away from my early years with two firm convictions about the reading public.

First—and this is especially but not uniquely true of American—what people want from the rest of the world is to forget about it. They do not want to have to care, and given the chance, they will turn the page, change the channel, click on a different site.

Secondly—that people believe what they want to believe, and refuse to believe what they do not want to believe.

The combination of casual obliviousness and willful ignorance is, of course, extraordinarily dangerous in a country that can have the kind of huge impact on global affairs that the United States has. But we journalists, who are fighting against obliviousness and ignorance, see them triumph despite everything we do and try to do.

We saw it in the 1990s when hundreds of thousands of people died in Somalia – and then in Bosnia – and then in Rwanda.

We may communicate now on computers, tablets and smartphones, but that doesn’t mean people will listen to what we say or be convinced by facts when they read them or take action to change those facts even when they are convinced.

Very often reporters have warned about ethnic cleansing, horrific war crimes and genocide to come, and then they take place right before our eyes and—nothing or almost nothing is done to stop them. “Never again,” people say — again and again and again.

So, let us turn, now, to this part of the world, which has become well known for the means of communication known as terrorism.

Yes, you heard correctly.

What is terror but a means of conveying a message?

Brutal, savage, unforgivable perhaps (although often it is forgiven), terror can be used as a tool used to warn off enemies and build support among allies.

When I first started covering the Middle East 30 years ago, governments, through various proxy groups, used terrorism to send messages to each other. In the mid 1980s, when Jordan’s King Hussein was trying to cut a peace deal with Israel, Palestinian terrorists backed by Syria murdered some of the people involved and blew up Jordanian airline offices around the Middle East, among other targets. King Hussein, in the meantime, supported Muslim Brothers blowing up targets in Syria.

When the Syrians murdered the French ambassador to Lebanon, the French responded by helping the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and Saddam Hussein’s intelligence services blow up a military headquarters in Damascus, killing scores of senior officers.

Also see: Call of Duty / Call of Da'esh

These were acts of terrorism by all sides—but they were also intended as communications, much stronger than diplomatic notes, but not so great a commitment as open war.

After the first intifada began in 1987, the Israelis carried out a systematic program of assassinations, murdering Palestinian leaders in Cyprus, Tunis, Athens and elsewhere.

In the late 1980s there seemed to be some sort of terrorist incident just about every week. Airliners were hijacked or, in some cases, bombed. A cruise boat was hijacked and one of the passengers murdered. Westerners, including several reporters, were kidnapped in Lebanon.

The answer of the United States to the threat of terrorism and other challenges to its interests was a series of wars and military actions around the globe. From the 1982 landing in Lebanon and the invasion of tiny Grenada and the Contra guerrilla operations in Nicaragua in 1983 to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the United States carried out acts of war, either overt or covert, on average about once a year.

Did these American acts of war make the world a safer place? Did they even make it a safer place for Americans? In many cases, absolutely and certifiably not. And yet they were claimed as victories, and such actions were repeated, again and again.

And here is what is most striking about those military operations if you are in America: almost nobody remembers them. I covered many of them and even I can’t name all of them off the top of my head. But the Libyans did not forget that we bombed their country in 1986. The Iranians did not forget that we backed Saddam Hussein on the waters of the Persian Gulf and blew up an Iranian airliner full of Iranian men, women and children on its way to Dubai in 1988.

A couple of years later, when Saddam suddenly made himself the enemy by invading Kuwait, we had Desert Storm. People read about that in history books. But less often do they hear about the aftermath, which included repeated bombings of Baghdad throughout the 1990s, including the campaign called Desert Fox in 1998, which was entirely counterproductive. After the withdrawal of all UN weapons inspectors that accompanied that action, the United States had no idea what was going on with Saddam’s programs to try to build weapons of mass destruction. So that in 2003, the US invaded, not because of what it knew but because of what it did not know: it couldn’t be sure there was no threat until it occupied the whole country.

Obliviousness and ignorance.

If there is anything that makes the United States perceived as a great enemy by many people around the world, that is it. In 1997, in a work of fiction, a novel, I wrote about an Al Qaeda terrorist recruiting an American soldier to his cause: "In America you don't feel what you do,” he said, repeating a line I heard often fro jihadists. “You are in the eye of a hurricane that you create. Pain and suffering and injustice all over the world, and all you see is blue skies."

That was not the least of the reasons that, four years later, Osama bin Laden filled the blue skies over Manhattan with the smoke of crashing planes and collapsing towers. It was an atrocity, yes. It was also an act of communication that changed the world.

And all that was before … Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and smartphones. ... 

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