Demolishing Potemkin

Down with the mainstream media. Up with journalism.

A doctor of mine has two miraculous dispositions, the first to briefly discuss politics with me during visits; and the second, as far as the war is concerned, to share my broad outlook. The appointment before last was just after President Bush's second inaugural address, and my doctor had been reading a book publicly attributed to Bush's inflorescent vision for universal liberty — The Case for Democracy by former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky. Though he wasn't a partisan, my doctor said, he found the convictions of both author and president inspiring — their work's fruition appealing.

When my doctor walked into the examination room during my latest appointment this month, he began with "It's been a tough week, hasn't it?" Vice President Cheney's Chief of Staff, Lewis Libby, had been indicted that day by Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald for testimonial indiscretions. I answered that Yes, this isn't the best for the White House but the man is politically inert and the charges are unrelated to the alleged crime. My doctor pressed on as he sat down, warning me in advance that his confidence in assertive democratization went "up and down."

That day it was down. He wondered aloud if Iraq was better under a strongman after all since, as he saw it, the country's ethnic groups "hate each other." My doctor wished Iraqi liberals to succeed but judged the country "a mess," at a loss as to how well Sharansky's idealism actually worked in practice.

If someone is to dismiss Sharansky, it cannot be as a pampered notionist. Natan ( Anatole) Sharansky came to embrace and champion democratically afforded human dignity without once having experienced it himself, promoted his adopted cause with contumacy in a state where political deviance led to elimination or incarceration, chose the dark occasion of his years in the Gulag — particularly the many days of solitary confinement, an approximate perdition — to redouble his faith in something that for a lesser man could not possibly exist outside of the mind. Sharansky was freed from Soviet dominion in 1986, settled in Israel, and has since then braced and refined his argument for liberty. Only now is his native Ukraine emerging from a communist stupor, following most of the former USSR. Surely, after the man and his ideas endured such torture, wouldn't poor Natan have been the one to abjure? He never has, no matter how many readers of his books might.

Two exchanges struck me. On the indictment of Libby, I volunteered that Joseph Wilson — husband of inexplicably uncovered CIA agent Valerie Plame, reason for the Fitzgerald investigation — is a man apart in deception. My doctor seemed surprised that Wilson's public claims are lies start to finish: why Wilson went to Niger (God knows why), who sent him (his wife — not the vice president), what he learned (nothing extraordinary), who read his report (the CIA — not the vice president) and what it meant to the CIA's estimation (no change — Saddam wanted uranium). On Iraqi sectarianism, I offered Christopher Hitchens' recent confutation: neither Saddam's racialism nor terrorists' repeated attempts at inciting strife could alter or debase Iraq's astonishing consanguinity. Again, my doctor looked as if I were the first person from whom he had ever heard this.

My doctor is an intelligent and considerate man, however, and his last words on the subject — he wisely cut the talk short — were "We'll see." But something had gotten to him since we had last spoken, and more deeply than Sharansky. Judging by his factual paucity, it could only have been the left and the mainstream media. Look at polls, then look at congressmen chasing them: a false Iraq is now the country's prevailing definition.

Majority American sensibilities are then, for the moment, directly contrary to the high opinions of those in theater on our side, foreign or native. The son of my city's current safety director, an Army captain with Task Force Olympia in Mosul, came home safely. The father made the announcement at our local Republican party's November meeting. Morale is high, the son reported, and soldiers are undeterred but for "the press." Nearly everyone in the room understood: the aggregate of elite media, East and West, in oppugning the war, has resorted to broadcasting not events as they happen but a selective and specious narrative that ends in American defeat. I described the nature of this propagandizing — part anti-American, part illiberal and part pro-fascist — in "They Saw Potemkin."

Not a year ago I realized that information in press releases from Central Command were foundations for the more substantive (and less aggravating) reports from media agencies — the military would report for the reporters what happened, and reporters would ensconce those five sentences in eleven paragraphs of politically charged speculation. I began avoiding mainstream articles — the "independent media" — altogether. While I quickly noticed that political and military progress in Iraq continued even without a lugubrious running commentary, it should be somewhat alarming when one finds himself dependent on the government for information. But those lettered, syndicate journalists are no longer the only manifestation of a freedom of the press. What good is profession when you haven't done the work?

There are alternatives. Last week Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum stood with three men and one woman, amateur and freelance war correspondents, whose medium — blogging — was virtually unknown just four or five years ago. The lot of them was recognized by Santorum as having "communicate[d] the messages from our service men and women who are reporting very positive stories out of Iraq." Up until a decade ago these four might have been confined to the quaint station of the "Armchair General," Norman Rockwell's April 1944 cover art for the Saturday Evening Post. Yet they are not dabblers. Twice Santorum said that the four "communicate" news, as if the formal use of "report," fittingly enough, nowadays means "make up." Communicate, fine; they report as so the term was meant.

Michael Yon is a freelancer, embedded with Mosul-based Marines before the unit returned to the States. He is intent upon returning. He may be joined by Bill Roggio, a stateside observer who is gathering donations for his own embed tour and who, like Andi Carol and Steve Schippert, disputes the patrimony of gentry media by combing mainstream reports for useable information, comparing it with military reports and local observations and fitting it within the context of major maneuvers — and even the whole of the Iraqi campaign. That all of Santorum's guests of honor support the American military effort means their work is unflinching but morally sound and, too, accurate. They know the equivocation that bylined journalists call "neutrality" only addles.

Iraqis are themselves painfully aware of the obscurantism that would be their doom, and those with means have begun directly appealing to Americans. Take Kurdistan, in the northern reaches of Iraq that — having benefited from a decade safe from Saddamite influence, protected by Allied no-fly zones — is so peaceful, democratic, pro-American and rapidly modernizing that no mainstream journalist dares enter or report from it. Michael Yon did, and likened it to Italy. The other night a television commercial played during the evening news: on-screen, a procession of Iraqis thanking, through thick accents, Americans for their generosity and sacrifice. "Thank you for democracy," struggled one mustachioed, beaming man. If that weren't forward enough, the ad ended with the banner "Kurdistan: the Other Iraq," a website address in subtitles. The other Iraq — the one ignored by those who claim to bring you news.

A question asked with rising frequency, principally on the right, is whether Western journalism will survive the war. Already we can see that to watch and to tell is an act that anyone can do — that the conscientious can do best. Then one shall hope for the answer: No, not in its present form, and good riddance.

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