Thursday, April 24, 2003

# Posted 10:00 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

ADVICE FOR GARNER: Columnist David Broder is blasting Jay Garner for his imperial naivete. Admittedly, even I'm a bit uncomfortable with Garner's statement that
To get [the Iraqis] comfortable with self-government I don't think will take long...Once they're comfortable with it and they realize where they are and what they have, I think they'll take off. I have high hopes for this."
If Garner knew what was best -- both for himself and for the United States -- he would keep his opinions to himself. Especially after its embarrassing failure to predict how the invasion would turn out, the media is looking for an administration official whose naivete and hubris will render him or her vulnerable to humiliation.

Even for those journalists who are not interested taking the administration down a notch, the constant imperative to expose politicians' incompetence will ensure that every sign of things going wrong in Iraq will become a big story. If the occupation authorities insist that things are going well, every thing that goes wrong will become an even bigger story.

A considerable amount of academic literature suggests that journalists measure the significance of world events according to the expectations generated by the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department. This point has really been driven home to me during my research on the Reagan administration's policy on Central America . At this point, having read through five years of headlines, it is has become self-evident that the more a politicians denies that a problem exists, the more likely that any evidence of that problem's existence will become a front-page story.

Consider this example: In 1982, there were approximately 50 US soldiers working as instructors for the armed forces in El Salvador. According to their rules of engagement, these soldiers were permitted to carry sidearms, but not rifles. Such restrictions reflected the Reagan's administration's desire to demonstrate that the presence of 'advisors' was not going to result in an incremental commitment of the kind that (allegedly) led to the American involvement in Vietnam.

After CNN produced footage of US instructors carrying rifles, Reagan ordered an investigation of the incident, which of course made the front page. The next day, when the US Ambassador in El Salvador sent one of the officers home for disregarding his orders, it made the front page again.

The point here is that the newsworthiness of a given event often reflects journalists' expectations much more than it does the events significance. In light of the widespread fear that El Salvador would become another Vietnam, there was no chance that the presence of 50 advisers would grow into the presence of half a million soliders. But because of such fears, the rifle incident became an important one.

So, on the off chance that Gen. Garner or any other occupation officials are reading this post, I'm going to list a few guidelines that may help you avoid bad coverage:

1) Always talk about the complexity of the situation in you are facing. Journalists love nothing more than someone they can portray as having a black-and-white worldview.

2) Always talk about the importance of respecting and learning from foreign cultures. Journalists love nothing more than someone they can portray as an Ugly American.

3) Always talk about the local population's interest in dignity and autonomy. Journalists love nothing more than someone they can portary as an imperial proconsul.

4) Always talk about the United States' less-than-perfect record of promoting reform abroad. Journalists love nothing more than someone they can portray as an ignorant patriot.

5) Never remind journalists of their own mistakes. Journalists hates nothing more than someone who tells them how to do their job.

Just in case it wasn't self-evident, points one through five summarize the worldview that journalists developed in Vietnam and have carried with them ever since. While the original generation of war correspondents has mostly retired, its worldview has become that of the mainstream media establishment. You can't work against it, only around it. The only protection from it is success.

Gen. Garner, I wish you the best.
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