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October 26, 2003 Opinion

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The Epistemology of the News.  ( If epistemology is the study or a theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge especially with reference to its limits and validity, then we have an issue. How do we know what's true? )

Earlier this month, on the 13th, President Bush, annoyed by what he considers the "filter" of news reporting, said he would seek to go around the press - through television outlets that do not routinely cover the White House.  This would be a series of interviews to make the case that the situation in Iraq is getting better, part of an administration initiative against critics of the war and its aftermath.  
And it wasn't only President Bush - there were also speeches Vice President Dick Cheney and even first lady Laura Bush.

This came came as polls continued to show Americans increasingly worried by Iraq policy.

John Roberts at CBS put it this way:
It was the public relations equivalent of a declaration of war aimed at the national media: President Bush claiming the American people aren't getting the truth about Iraq.
"I'm mindful of the filter through which some news travels," Mr. Bush said, "and sometimes you just have to go over the heads of the filter and speak directly to the people. And that's what we'll continue to do."
In interviews with regional television outlets Monday - which the White House feels will go easier on the president - Mr. Bush all but ignored the daily attacks on U.S. troops and personnel and said the news about Iraq is good.
"The Iraqi people are beginning to prosper. Electricity is up and running and millions, or thousands of children have been immunized. Hospitals are open, schools are functioning," Mr. Bush said.
"There's a sense that people in America are not getting the truth," he told Hearst-Argyle television.

Three days later President Bush gave an hour-long exclusive interview to Fox News TV anchor Brit Hume, who tossed him a series of rather basic questions.  Among them, Hume asked Bush how he gets his news.   Bush's answer?   He relies on briefings by chief of staff Andrew Card and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

He walks into the Oval Office in the morning, Bush said, and asks Card: ''What's in the newspapers worth worrying about? I glance at the headlines just to kind of (get) a flavor of what's moving,'' Bush said. ''I rarely read the stories,'' he said.

Instead, the president continued, he gets ''briefed by people who have probably read the news themselves.''  Rice, on the other hand, is getting the news ''directly from the participants on the world stage.'' 
Bush said this had long been his practice.  ''I have great respect for the media,'' he said. ''I mean, our society is a good, solid democracy because of a good, solid media. But I also understand that a lot of times there's opinions mixed in with news.''

Then Hume told Bush: ''I won't disagree with that, sir.''

Bush: ''I appreciate people's opinions, but I'm more interested in news. And the best way to get the news is from objective sources. And the most objective sources I have are people on my staff who tell me what's happening in the world.''


The Washington Post reported Wednesday (October 23) that the Bush administration has ordered the Pentagon to prevent any news coverage of the bodies of US troops being sent home from Iraq.  The blackout on casualties might be seen as part of the attempt by the White House to recast the nightmare in Iraq as a "good news" story.

"Since the end of the Vietnam War, presidents have worried that their military actions would lose support once the public glimpsed the remains of US soldiers arriving at air bases in flag-draped coffins," wrote the Post's White House reporter Dana Milbank.  "To this problem, the Bush administration has found a simple solution: It has ended the public dissemination of such images by banning news coverage and photography of dead soldiers' homecomings on all military bases."

President Jimmy Carter attended memorial ceremonies held at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, the site of the military's largest mortuary, when bodies were brought back from the failed hostage rescue attempt in Iran.  Reagan pinned medals on the coffins of US Marines killed in El Salvador and attended memorials for the 241 Marines who died in the Beirut barracks bombing.  George Bush the elder did the same for soldiers killed in Panama and Lebanon and so forth.  Army General Henry Shelton, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, commented in 1999 that any US foreign military intervention would have to pass the "Dover test," meaning the publics reaction to photographs and news footage of caskets coming off of military transport planes.

With the Iraq death toll for US troops approaching 350, Bush has yet to attend a single funeral or memorial service.

These three items are, to me, troubling. 

Polls show the public is raising more and more questions about the cost of the war and its rationale, and thus raising the underlying issue of what we're really doing, or trying to do in the world.  Things seem to be going badly, and to no purpose, with no explanation of why we have done what we have done, that stays the same week to week.
The response from the White House is to say things are going well, and to say the news organizations are twisting the news.  Well, that address one of the issues, but doesn't answer the deeper questions.  And is it even true that things are going well?

Well, if we are to trust the President and not the news organizations that report events as they observe them, then the question is where does the president get his news.  Well, his subordinates tell him what he needs to know, and no more.  He claims this is more fair and unbiased information that he could obtain from any news service.
There seems little point in explaining how insular and narrow this could make his understanding of what is happening in the world.  Is he regularly told about things that are quite complex and might make him uncomfortable?  Anyone who has worked in a large organization can answer that.  You don't make the boss uncomfortable and you make things as simple as possible.  You don't bring up problems.  You suggest solutions.  You urge actions.  No boss wants to hear that half of the people think he's a jerk, that all nations of the world but the UK and Australia thought an immediate war with Iraq wasn't necessary - not yet, anyway.  You tell him Paraguay is on board, and Bulgaria.  And you don't tell the boss the economy is stalled with nearly three million unemployed and such an excess of capacity that no one is going to hire anyone soon.  You tell him the economy improving slowly but surely.   And so on and so forth. 

So we are told we're not getting the truth, the facts of what is happening in the world, because we are being manipulated by the press.  The president says he gets what information he needs from two people who report to him - and we should thus trust him to let us know whats "really" happening.

Does this seem a little crazy?

Finally, the news services can no longer show the coffins of the dead, or the stretchers and beds of the wounded.  Interesting.  Such sights might give us the wrong impression - that things aren't going well?

Well, a friend sent me a link to a website - www.freedom.gov - a government site that has press release after press release about how well things are going in Iraq.  Tom DeLay, the most powerful Republican in congress, spoke about this on the floor of the house.

So I scanned this.  It seems to me pretty lame. 

Just as the left is always talking about the "quagmire" and pissing and moaning that the sky is falling, here the administration listing all the good things that are happening, and only the good things, is just as silly. 

We are doing good things, really, and at the same time our guys are busting down doors in the middle of the night and humiliating the locals, regularly.  Much of Iraq now has power and services and happy locals, and some key areas are still a big mess - places where some of our guys get killed most every day, and where many others lose their legs, or their eyes. 

We are loved and being good guys.  And we are appropriately despised and targets for killers filled with shame and resentment.  Both are true.

There is no "one truth" about how this is going.  I do not trust Tom DeLay (there's an odd pun in that name) one whit.  Nor do I trust Gore Vidal and his ilk, saying we are historically evil and exploitative, and presently so more than ever before.  Vidal's prose style is pretty dammed cool - the man can turn a phrase.  But he doesn't see the good in a lot of hearts.  And that is real.  On the other hand, DeLay cannot see some really lame-brained policies and actions, and really sad on-the-ground tactics in use every day.  Screw 'em both. 

And why the hell are we there, in Iraq, now?  Just what are we accomplishing?  Saddam is gone.  Fine.  Old news.  But what's the point now?
Addition comments (key excerpts):

Reality makes way for the Bush script
Frank Rich in the New York Times, Sunday, October 26, 2003
In his now legendary interview last month with Brit Hume of Fox News, George W. Bush explained that he doesn't get his news from the news media - not even Fox. "The best way to get the news is from objective sources," the president said, laying down his utopian curriculum for Journalism 101. "And the most objective sources I have are people on my staff who tell me what's happening in the world."
Those sources? Condoleezza Rice and Andrew Card. Hume did not ask the obvious follow-up question: What about us poor benighted souls who don't have these crack newscasters at our beck and call? But the answer came soon enough anyway. The White House made Condoleezza Rice's Newshour available to all Americans by dispatching her to Oprah.
"No camera crews have ever been granted this much access to this national security adviser," Oprah told her audience as she greeted her guest. A major scoop was not far behind. Is there anything you can tell us about the president that would surprise us? Oprah asked. Yes, Rice said, Bush is a very fast eater. "If you're not careful," she continued, "he'll be on dessert and you're still eating the salad." And that's the way it was, Oct. 17, 2003.
This is objective journalism as this administration likes it, all right - news you can't use. ...
Six months later, the audience is getting restless. The mission is not accomplished. The casualty list cannot be censored. The White House has been caught telling too many whoppers, the elucidation of which has become a cottage industry laying siege to the best-seller list. But print, even glossy print, is one thing, TV another. Like it or not, news doesn't register in American culture unless it happens on television.
Rich goes on with a detailed analysis of television news.  He doesn't think much of the Bush ignoring the networks for the local markets, to bypass the filter.  News has a way of getting out.
Even as Bush was using a regional anchor to tell "the people" that congressional delegations were visiting Iraq and would come back with happy progress reports, Fox News and Newsweek were telling viewers that these delegations were spending their nights in the safety of Kuwait, not Iraq.
Even as identical, upbeat form letters from American soldiers turned up in newspapers across the United States, Stars and Stripes, the Pentagon-financed armed forces newspaper, was reporting that half the troops it polled had low morale.
This week, Dana Milbank, The Washington Post's White House reporter, wrote that the administration is shutting off TV images of dead American soldiers, too, by enforcing a ban on "news coverage and photography" of their flag-draped coffins returning to American military bases. ...
It's only a matter of time before more dissenting troops talk to a reporter with a camera. At the tender age of six months, the war in Iraq is not remotely a Vietnam. But from the way the administration tries to manage the news against all reality, even that irrevocable reality encased in flag-draped coffins, you can only wonder if it might yet persuade the audience at home that we're mired in another Tet after all.
From E. J. Dionne Jr. in The Washington Post on Saturday, October 25, 2003; Page A23, who shows that even the Fox News folks, very pro-Bush and pro administration, can keep out all the events in the news.
So is the Fox News Channel, television's most pro-Bush network, offering an especially negative view of what's happening in Iraq?
You might think so from a fascinating poll released this week by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. The pollsters took on a controversy the Bush administration started by asking respondents whether "news reports are making the situation in Iraq seem worse than it really is, better than it really is - or are reports showing the situation about the way it really is?"

Overall, 38 percent of Americans thought the news was making the Iraqi situation seem worse than reality, 14 percent thought news portrayals were making things seem better, and 36 percent thought the reports were about right.
But check this out: 55 percent of those who said the Fox News Channel was their main source of news said the newsies were making things seem worse, compared with only 32 percent of CNN viewers.
Quite odd.  And Dionne goes on to point out:
You can always argue that a very bad situation is better than it looks. It always is. Human beings, even in the worst of times, try to go about their business and are quite heroic in their efforts to make life as normal as possible. ...

So I am sure that some good things are happening in Iraq and that there are Americans there doing difficult jobs well. But right now, the news is not of what's normal. When U.S. soldiers get killed and wounded, when explosions rip through buildings, when Iraqi leaders and civilians are dying, that, alas, is the news.

This news may contradict the optimistic predictions made by the administration, so I don't blame Bush or his supporters for not liking what they are seeing or reading. But changing the news won't change the situation. Improving the situation will change the news.
And finally, from a long essay by Liu Baifang who emigrated from China in 1977, and now lives here, in the Los Angeles Times of October 26, 2003 -
When I hear our president, in this time of soaring deficits, continue to insist that tax cuts are the key to national prosperity, even though countless economists have warned against them, I cannot help but remember how Mao used to say that China didn't really need "experts," only people who were Red. Mao's inner circle attacked anyone who questioned whether "class struggle" would ultimately solve all China's problems.
I also worry about what I see happening to our media and freedom of the press. The Bush administration has repeatedly made clear that it does not welcome skeptical, penetrating questions. White House spokesmen have made it clear that they view the Washington press corps as a corrupting "filter" on the news. Reporters and publications seen as unsympathetic to the administration's goals find it harder to get access to officials. Recently, Bush made an end run around the entire White House press corps by going directly to regional television outlets in the hopes of being better able to spin the news at the local level.
Indeed, Bush press conferences, which I enjoy watching, seem to me to have become more and more like those held by the Chinese Communist Party: Nothing but the official line is given, and probing questions from reporters, which are crucial to advancing the public's understanding of the government's actions, are often evaded or ignored. ...
Open inquiry, freedom of expression and debate are essential parts of a well-functioning democracy. When leaders disdain debate, ignore expert advice, deride the news media as unpatriotic and try to suppress opposing opinions, they are likely to lead their country into dangerous waters.

Thus, it makes me all the more discouraged to find the U.S. moving backward. When honest government officials and outspoken citizens are ignored or, worse, marked for intimidation, it begins to seem that the Bush administration is acting more in keeping with Lenin's notion of democratic centralism than with the founding fathers' notion of the necessity for a sometimes inquisitive citizenry and a free press.
I am grateful to have become an American and to now belong to a country that has had an inspiring and enduring and true commitment to letting "a hundred flowers bloom," as Mao, hypocritically, once said. What has made the U.S. such a beacon to people like me is that it has always been principled, confident and strong enough to let its people debate and criticize government policies without suggesting that the critics are somehow less than patriotic.
When our government loses its tolerance for a full range of views on national and world affairs, it is veering toward the authoritarian world that speaks in one voice, the very political model it has so often stood against even fought against. I hope I will never again have to live in such a world.
Somehow I don't think White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice will tell Bush what Liu Baifang says here.  It was in the newspaper, and such things appear on the news wires and on television news and discussion shows all the time. 
And somehow the president does not want to read such things or hear of them, and doesn't want any of us to see or hear such things.  More information about events and more discussion, and seeing the coffins of our friends and relatives coming back to Dover Air Force Base - this is bad for us? 
It is useful to have a positive attitude toward life, to imagine you can do well and make things better and all the rest.  But is it useful to ignore events, to disregard facts to disconnect from reality?  I'd rather not disconnect, even if I'm told that would be patriotic.  It isn't.

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October 26, 2003 

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