Thursday, December 01, 2005

Stuck in the middle

It struck me suddenly like stepping into a really cold shower.

I’m listening to the radio – Marketplace on National Public Radio, actually – and there’s analysis on one of the more startling bits of the day’s news: the U.S. military, according to the Los Angeles Times, has been funneling Iraqi newspapers bought-and-paid-for journalism.

Propaganda? You bet. These glowing news reports "supportive of the war effort" were sold for as much as $1,200 without attribution or disclosure of where they came from. Such reports were been printed, apparently, under the veneer of legitimate journalism.


A Marketplace correspondent, Tess, gets L.A. Times reporter Borzou Daragahi on the air for the lowdown. After a few minutes of boiler-plate exchange, Marketplace gets right to that classic radio question, in all its rhetorical glory.

"And the concern," Tess intones, "is that the Iraqi people, knowing that this happening, could say, essentially, ‘Is this what Democracy is all about’?"

Yup, that’s a pretty legit concern, Tess. Now, drum roll for the hyperbole.

"What could be perceived as really bad," Daragahi says, "is that this is kind of thing Saddam Hussein used to do, paying journalists for writing articles that were favorable to him, that praised him and so on. So, to an Iraqi, hearing about this story, it might conjure up some images of some bad old times."

That exact moment is when, as I’ve said, it struck me like stepping into a really cold shower. A life-changing epiphany? Nope. Imaginary talking points nestled all snug instead, while visions of CNN’s now-defunct show Crossfire danced in my head:

Tucker Carlson: Outrageous! Look, there the liberal media goes again, saying in no uncertain terms that the U.S. military – and by extension, President Bush – is using the very same despicable tactics as a brutal dictator. What’s more, the media is suggesting we’re undermining Democracy in Iraq, not fostering it. Have they no shame!

Paul Begala: Loosen your bow-tie, Tucks. Pedaling blatant propaganda as news is nothing less than what we’ve come to expect from the extremist, radical right wing fascists who have seized the reigns of power in this administration. Another lie from Bush and his cronies, another day.

Tucker: Oh, you’re one to be talking, you hate-filled hypocrite!

Paul: Neo-conniver!

And on, and on, and on.

The imaginary talking points went back and forth until the Marketplace report wrapped up without hinting at what these bought-and-paid-for news stories were actually about, except that they were "supportive of the war effort." Guess I’d have to eventually read the Times piece to figure that out.

Anyway, there’s good reason I felt so polarized. It’s probably not a coincidence that in the last week I’d read both Al Franken’s "Lies: And the lying liars who tell them" and Bernard Goldberg’s "100 people who are screwing up America (and Al Franken is #37)".

These fine reads espouse, let’s say, slightly different political ideologies. And both of the books, weirdly, captivated me with some accurate observations: Ann Coulter likes to make stuff up to prove there’s a liberal conspiracy in U.S. media and Dan Rather likes to stubbornly stand behind stupid mistakes to prove there’s a liberal conspiracy in U.S. media.

From time to time, both Franken and Goldberg actually make substantive points. Trying to prove President Clinton "gutted" the military, for example, is kind of like trying to prove Abraham Lincoln didn’t do enough for black civil rights — it’s the context, stupid! And actually, Goldberg didn’t really say anything substantive. But, he’s got a sense of humor.

In the end, I found myself feeling neither liberal nor conservative, Democrat nor Republican, sweet nor sour, after flipping each book’s last page. I did kind of feel like you do after standing for three hours next to the speakers at rock concert. My ears rang, too.

No, what I felt was a deep want to think of myself as a centrist, a moderate, a middle-of-the-aisle fella straddling both sides of raging currents. Problem with that is you get labeled a "flip-flopper" or "waffler" or, in some Southern states, a "pancake with a side of grits."

That’s the downside of smacking a label on your forehead and thinking too narrowly, which brings me back to that Marketplace report. Yeah, this is definitely a sad case of propaganda-written-as-news. But just what were these fabricated stories about? Did they contain a shred of reliable fact, and if so, is there perhaps a larger story to be told here? Doesn’t this also highlight a simmering tension between journalists and administration officials when it comes to fairness in news reporting, especially in Iraq? Wasn’t that a great rhetorical question?

I checked out the Times report.

"Though the articles are basically factual," the L.A. Times says, "they present only one side of events and omit information that might reflect poorly on the U.S. or Iraqi governments, officials said."

I can hear the talking points in the distance, again. Time for me to pick up a good comic book.

- Scott Monroe


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