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Posts Tagged ‘too much West Wing’

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Apologies for the hiatus, a twitter obsession and a couple of weeks back in the UK got in the way. Mea Culpa.

Twitter: Beating that horse till it shines.

Twitter: Beating that horse like it’s going out of style.

I was thinking today about the informal lunches at the reuters Institute for Journalism which I went to in my last Uni year. I was invariably the youngest there by ten years and never understood why no other undergrads went and spent forty minutes eating free sandwiches and thinking up one half-intelligent question like I did.

During one discussion an American wire journalist, after being eagerly pressed on the subject, admitted that she knew of a story about one of the ’08 Democratic candidates that was being sat on by agencies, and that would probably come out after the nomination. At another one the speaker, a regrettably unedited Mail on Sunday columnist, mentioned with the air of a soused conjuror that he knew a big story involving one of the Royals, which would come out in the next four to six months.

It seems likely (so far) that the American story was Edwards’ affair, which barely lasted two tittilated news cycles after being masterfully massaged in between two bigger stories. The Royal one, it’s obvious in hindsight, was Prince Harry’s service in Afghanistan which I’ve written about repeatedly and with which I began my bloody thesis (which I am going to take out and bury when I get back to the UK).

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The first time I realised what the stories had been it felt weird, that I’d been sat so close to someone who had such a secret, like I’d walked by someone with a curse or a gleam upon them. It wasn’t just the secret, but the fact that they had taken the soldierly decision to respect their bosses’ decisions to hold the story, and trusted in their fellow professionals worldwide to make the same decision and not to seek to profit individually. Until Drudge kicked that in the paint; then all bets were off.

I’ve been interested in this notion of political secret-keeping since: it has arguments either way in terms of profitability and especially in terms of where journalists’ Duty lies.

But a while ago I said, with a confidence I don’t think is totally unreasonable, that those arguments are moot. Nothing the size of the Harry story could ever be sat on again, and governments would know it. Put simply, journalists simply wouldn’t trust each other, or at least not their lusty, Self-Promotion Generation citizen journo colleagues, one of whom, sooner or later, is going to get invited into the Clubroom.

In a sense, secrets being so difficult to keep nowadays might make things simpler all round, and a story today may reflect that: I twittered this Beast article on US General Anthony Zinni’s remarks on “The end of war as we know it”.

The General focused on preparing the armed forces for a future of largely non-military activities as part of long-term occupations of failed states. Intervention in failed states has been the norm of NATO warfare since the early nineties, but the American armed forces are probably least optimized for it:

“When we touch something, we own it,” Zinni said, taking Colin Powell’s quote, ‘When we break something, we own it,’ one step further. “And when we own it, we can’t help rebuilding it in our own image. That’s the American way. But we’re not good at it and we can’t afford it.” –via Phillip Knightley

What has this to do with Prince Harry, media, or eating townspeople for that matter? Nothing much. But the subtext of Zinni’s comments was to begin the process of preparing Americans for wars with no victory scenario, for Forever Wars, an effort I find strangely heartening.

I’ve been reading William Safire’s superb book on the Nixon Administration, Before the Fall, and Safire’s disappointed, relentlessly even-handed admiration will carry you along with it, especially in his description of Nixon’s attempts to extricate the country from Vietnam “with Honor” and without the expected victory.

The Kissinger negotiations to end the war with the VC leadership were conducted under neurotic secrecy, an atmosphere which Safire sees as an early stage of the Watergate mentality. That need for secrecy involves a paradox: when negotiating with totalitarian regimes it’s best to assume they are reading the major newspapers your citizens publish. But you believe the regime to be ideologically too torpid to see the free policy discussion in your press as anything but a sign of weakness in the executive.

Therefore you have to stonewall or kill stories about the negotiations to make it look like you can run a tight ship, in order to deal with people who wouldn’t respect the captain of a pleasure cruise. Meanwhile of course you feel they, the enemy, reading your morning papers over your shoulder, in which thousands of column inches decry you as a warmonger who is making no effort to arrest the war and is pursuing an illusory victory.

Safire fairly points out that even if the negotiations with the VC had been made public it probably wouldn’t have stopped counterculture’s growth and self-determination as a besieging force around the White House.

But it may have stalled the cycle whereby the Nixon administration believed it needed to conceal the fact of negotiations from its own people in order to retain bargaining credibility with practiced propagandists, when at the same time it regularly publicly characterised its own outspoken press not by their obvious, easily-understood animosity to the President but with the far more serious, inaccurate and patently impotent charge of unpatriotism.

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So what business do I have talking about all this? The North Vietnamese leadership in the early ’70s probably had plenty of reasons to wish the negotiations kept secret on their end, which the American delegation had an obligation to respect.  But it’s where the Administration routinely mistook the need for confidentiality for disloyalty and pro-Communism among the press that their logic failed them, coloured by an outrage at being Shown Up in front of the Enemy. Branding their outspoken opponents as ‘unpatriotic’ undermined the ideal the government were supposed to be fighting for, and undermined their own propaganda in Vietnam by forgetting to respect America’s own freedom. The Nixon administration looked like a bitter, impotent Totalitarian regime instead of a capable, negotiated Democratic regime.

vietnam iraq propaganda poster

And that, tortuously, gets us back to Gen. Zinni and UK media, my actual, albeit self-appointed, expertise. As a preamble to his discussion of future war Zinni confidently asserted

“that there had already been backroom talks between the U.S. and the Taliban—“like Kissinger’s with the North Vietnamese”—and predicted that these would lead to formal negotiations by the end of the year.”

I had mixed reactions on first reading: if they are ‘backroom talks’, then surely mentioning them is bad, right? With his easy confidence of a settlement “with Honour”, is the General going off the reservation to reassure Americans while jeopardising American attempts to build a bargaining position with the Taliban?

I thought about fugitive terrorists in caves in North West Pakistan unfolding their New York Times and gaining- in Nixon’s acrid phrase- “aid and comfort” from the speculation of a General and the press responding to an obvious public need for any hope of a settlement.

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But then I remembered that terrorist cells are hardly likely to get their news from print. They will get it online, where it would be difficult to miss the hopes of thousands for unilateral withdrawal, the hopes of different thousands for more destruction. The hopes of millions for peace. Online, where it would be difficult for any government or military to suppress months of press rumours about backroom negotiations with the Taliban.

Maybe, just maybe, what Gen. Zinni’s comments show, if not a moment of dementia, is the beginnings of an easing of message control at all levels of American government. An institutional understanding that the modern newsreader is better equipped than she has ever been to doubt what she reads, to research elsewhere, to follow up with in depth reading, and theoretically, to make her own decision and communicate it to others.

Of course, when we’re talking about terrorists’ reading habits, it would be foolish to ignore the opposite argument: that some, if not all readers, presented with the wealth of varying testimony and speculation online, will self-polarise by only consuming news which confirms their opinions. cf. the growth of the Huffington Post.

Ah yes, the Sunstein Argument once again (who I will also one day bury).

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And after all, maybe the story about the Democratic candidate hasn’t even come out yet, and it’s huge and is going to destroy the government when it does. Maybe I entirely mistake the capacity of the government and press institutions to keep secrets.

But at least now we know, and governments should also know, that having one of your citizens call your Chief Executive a monkey or a nigger or a fascist on the internet is nothing to be ashamed of. That the enemies you’re trying to impress will every day read the two “sides” of your press call each other butchers and traitors, and present the same story in exactly opposite ways, and still nobody gets strung up for any of it. And the government still doesn’t fall. And sooner or later, that will come to see your country’s greatest asset as a strength, not a weakness.

And finally, those enemies will be finding it harder and harder to keep secrets from their people and to suppress even simple discussion online. Not only will they sympathise with your inability to keep secrets from your own people, they will hopefully come to admire it.

The internet makes a lot of things moot, and in doing so it can make things a lot simpler. By sheer weight of greed and numbers the keeping of ‘public secrets’ is moot. And the issue of whether you appear to be in command of discourse in your country is moot, in the sense that it only matters to totalitarians and the obsolete.

Here’s hoping.

the added advantage of being true

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