Saturday, April 10, 2004

Truth or Consequence

Iraqi blogger Zayed is following events in Baghdad and elsewhere through Al Jazeera because there is no other coverage. He wouldn't be much better off with the majors. Some stringers, interpreters, cameramen and support personnel of the international news agencies are probably Jihadi sympathizers. This is the result of a several structural factors. The first is the reluctance of the US government, until recently, to provide a news service of its own, to avoid the charge of "propaganda" -- a claim from which Al Jazeera is curiously exempt. The second is the need, illustrated by the admissions of Saddam-era CNN chiefs, of news organizations to reach a modus vivendi with thugs on the ground, by spinning news a certain way or hiring preferred individuals, or lose their ability to move around or access to terrorist figures. Together these twin circumstances allow radical Islamic groups to dominate the news and political warfare to their benefit. It is a crucial theater of operations where the enemy shapes the battlefield and is dominant at nearly all points.

The enemy capacity to mould the news takes on particular significance because Hizbullah operations in particular, as well as terrorist actions in general, are aimed at conveying political statements through violent acts. With his power over news coverage, the enemy is  not only in a position to choose the nature of the terrorist act, but is increasingly free in choosing how to portray it. Many of the recent events in Iraq, such as the murder of the Blackwater contractors, the abduction of American truck drivers, the demonstrations, the hostage takings and so on are literally made for television. If left unchecked, it will create a major collapse in the civilian intelligence system -- the system you and I employ to determine the state of reality -- that is, the news. No one without access to classified information has any alternative except to read the papers or switch on the TV to check on the progress of world events. Even analysts at the CIA rely to a large extent on "open" sources, which means the news. What happens when the "open" sources become polluted?

The deliberate penetration of the press by Jihadists, a process long perfected in Lebanon and the West Bank, inevitably means counter-penetration by antiterrorist forces. Intelligence and counterintelligence go together like Heckel and Jeckel, and one is inconceivable without the other. The Press, which holds that it is loftily above the fray, may soon become a murky sewer of intrigue. This could reduce the quality of "open" sources still further, for bias, in any form reduces our capacity to deduce truths from reality.

What is to be done? One increasingly useful method is to use the Internet to find collateral sources of information in much the same way as amateur radio in an earlier era supplemented official sources in reporting maritime disasters. The Internet does not have the flexibility to cover breaking news, although the introduction of camera phones may make it possible to a certain extent. Traditional news crews are still needed, warts and all, for that. However, it is already invaluable as a way of checking facts. A telephone call, an email response or a live blogger at the scene of reported action can be an invaluable resource in verifing the facts. 'Can you hear any firing?', 'What is the local rep of Moqtada al-Sadr?', are all questions that can be reasonably put by an enterprising analyst.

Ultimately, the Islamist strategy of spinning news is a self-defeating one. It portrays a false reality upon which they will ultimately founder. How many young Arab men in Fallujah are dead because they believed Al Jazeera? The real problem with lies is that ultimately, one lies to oneself. As a consumer of news like anyone else, the Belmont Club must flail away at the layers of disinformation, bad reporting or plain egregiousness that encrust the reportage. This is the fog of war.