Liars and Windbags

The 24/7 coverage of the war in Iraq has exposed one of the most fatal flaws in the news business today — the reliance of journalists on liars and windbags. While it may seem obvious that putting lies in the press is a worse sin, the prevalence of former officials spouting opinions based on misinformation and bias can often cause equally serious damage to the public’s ability to understand Middle East affairs.

Let’s start with the problem of outright liars. About this time last year, the Palestinian Authority’s spokesperson, Saeb Erekat, claimed that Israel had massacred 500 people. It was a lie, but the media repeated until it was widely accepted as truth. By the time the facts came out disproving this calumny, the image had already stuck that Israel had committed an atrocity.

The media’s behavior was problematic on a number of levels. First, the press felt the need to give “the other side” of the story of Israel’s military operation. We are seeing the same thing in Iraq where reporters believe they must broadcast whatever the Iraqi regime says in the interest of balance. But why is this true? Who says that it is necessary to give another side if there is little doubt that it is purely propaganda? Well, some might argue that presenting the Pentagon’s views are no less problematic because that is also propaganda. But is that really true? Is the press incapable of distinguishing between fact and fiction? If it cannot, then how do we know that reports are not filled with inaccuracies? By broadcasting “both sides,” isn’t the media making a judgment that they are equal when, in fact, they may not be?

In the case of Iraq, sometimes what is broadcast out of Baghdad may be blatantly absurd, such as their claims of routing the U.S. forces, but the regime’s claims about civilian casualties may also be fabricated and yet they are given credence. Pictures of victims can be shown and casualty figures distributed that may be no more accurate than those disseminated by the Palestinians when they said hundreds were murdered and manufactured pictures of corpses that had not been killed in the fighting with the Israelis.

In its need to fill space and air time, the media also is willing to release information without verifying it. Reports will simply say that it came from some source, but the journalists will not check to see if the information is accurate before giving it to the public. For example, reports will say that x number of civilians were killed by U.S. forces, according to the Iraqis. Well, before broadcasting that information, shouldn’t the reporter check to see if the number is correct and there is evidence to support the claim that the U.S. forces were responsible? In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we are always hearing about what the Palestinians say happened and rarely are told whether the information has been verified independently.

The media also seems to have no interest in the credibility of its sources. Even after someone is shown to be a liar, such as Erekat or the Iraqi Information Minister, their views will continue to be solicited and accepted. Why? Because of that desperate need to show the other side regardless of its accuracy. The result is the public is, at a minimum confused, and, more likely, misinformed and misled.

The misinformation of the public is also fostered by the media’s reliance on former government officials to analyze events. These windbags usually also have one or more agendas, including wanting to make themselves look good, wanting to gain partisan advantage, or wanting to ingratiate themselves with current or potential employers.

It’s not surprising that former deputy undersecretaries and ambassadors would want to demonstrate that all would be better if everyone just listened to them, but usually their records in office suggest that they are the last people you want advice from. Speaking specifically about Middle East policy, for example, just which former officials can claim to have developed policies that were successful enough to justify their giving advice now that they’re on the outside? Carter’s policies were so misguided that Sadat went to Jerusalem to short-circuit them. Reagan’s peace plan was stillborn, Bush Sr. bequeathed us the current war, and Clinton was bamboozled by Arafat.

A lot of the former officials are now consultants for oil companies, foreign governments, and other organizations that have their own interests. Others may hope to work for such institutions and will couch their analyses with an eye to avoid offending them. Many are intensely partisan and support or oppose current policies based on their desire to promote their party. Sometimes these biases are obvious, but often they are not, and the media does not always provide the public with information that would allow them to judge the credibility of the expert.

It would be nice if the media was more interested in facts, better able to discern them from fiction, and less concerned with presenting another side regardless of its veracity. It would also be nice if spokespersons whose credibility is dubious were ignored rather than given a platform. And, finally, it would be a public service to look for analysts with fewer axes to grind. Given that none of this is likely to happen, it is important to understand that the reliance on liars and windbags will continue to distort the coverage of the Middle East.