May 18, 2007

Good and Bad Mainstream Journalism

by Michael J. Totten

I'm a bit slow with the blogging right now because I'm writing two long magazine articles that are taking up most of my time. Once these are out of the way, or at least when I have some breathing space before my deadlines, I'll have some more original material for you.

In the meantime, two articles I read today stand out.

The first is a critique by Jonathan Foreman of mainsteam media reporting out of Afghanistan, which he says at times recklessly damages Western armies fighting the Taliban there.
The accusation that 21st-century German soldiers were desecrating Muslim graves was a possibility transmuted into fact by a media that all too often — consciously or unconsciously — assumes the worst of Coalition forces and their mission in Afghanistan.

First of all, it was far from clear from the photos and initial reports whether the bones in question had been dug up by the soldiers or merely found on the ground. It is not hard to find skulls littering the rocky earth in the Konduz area where the Germans have their main base. The wrecked vehicles scattered about Konduz bear witness to the many battles fought in this part of Afghanistan over the years. Indeed, though the Northern Alliance battled the Taliban on a number of occasions here, it is most likely that any skulls the Germans found were actually those of Soviet troops — the mujahedeen did not usually trouble themselves to bury the bodies of their slain enemies. In other words, the remains that the Germans posed with were probably neither Muslim nor obtained by grave robbing, but had been bleaching under the sun for up to two decades before they inspired a juvenile digital photo-op.

The damage, however, was done. Though the “atrocity” might one day be refuted — most likely in some little-publicized investigation that takes months to unfold — the news had flashed around the world that German Coalition troops were treating Muslim corpses with contempt. The Western journalists who reported the story with such concerned relish may not have realized that by treating the photographs as prima facie evidence of a genuine scandal they were undermining the Coalition in Afghanistan, supporting the myth of “Islamophobia,” and fomenting anti-Western hatred. They probably thought they were just doing their jobs in the normal, “neutral” fashion.
Beating up on the mainstream media isn't a hobbyhorse of mine, though. Some journalists do a very good job. Here is a report on the tinderbox of Kirkuk, Iraq -- a subject I know something about -- that is excellent. Excerpt:
Sunni-based insurgent groups want to exploit the tension and ignite a broader war, Browder says. The groups operate from nearby Arab villages and often target police patrols or offices of the two main Kurdish parties, he says.

Browder's biggest concern is a large-scale bomb attack on a civilian Kurdish area, such as a market, he says.

That likely would trigger Kurdish leaders to send battalions of the well-armed Kurdish militia, the peshmerga ("those who do not fear death"), into Arab areas of Kirkuk. A sectarian battle similar to the Shiite vs. Sunni violence in Baghdad then could erupt, further complicating efforts to stabilize the country.

Sunni insurgents have been hesitant to cross that line, Browder says. The reason is a mystery, but he says they might be scared of peshmerga reprisals.

"The terrorist organizations know what buttons to push," he says. "They understand what the no-penetration line is."


Some Kurdish leaders have threatened to withdraw from the federal government in Baghdad if the referendum is not conducted on time. Al-Maliki's coalition depends on Kurdish support to keep its majority in parliament and could collapse if the Kurds leave.

Mahmoud Othman, a leading Kurdish member of parliament, says any delay is unacceptable. "We're not flexible. It has been four years," Othman says.
The whole thing is worth reading. Kirkuk gets little media attention, but it could potentially turn into the most violent -- and significant -- city in the entire country. Several foreign powers in the region have a stake in that city. They don't call it Iraq's "Jerusalem" for nothing. If it truly blows -- watch out. Especially if the US is no longer around.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at May 18, 2007 03:47 PM


Mr. Totten,

Does it matter that the US is there or not? Events seem to be going in the direction of blowing up anyways. What good is the United States doing there, and well, frankly in the entire country, what good has it really done with this invasion and occupation? A British think tank just published a report warning that Iraq is on the verge of collapse.

Just what good is the United States doing?

Posted by: Dan at May 18, 2007 06:35 PM


Do you think Iraq is less likely to collapse of the US withdraws? Read the whole article about Kirkuk that I linked to if you want to know what good the US is doing in that particular place.

After you read the whole thing, imagine what Kirkuk (for example) would look like if US soldiers were replaced with Turks and Iranians, and/or if the strongest local forces became the Peshmerga, the Baath, the Mahdi Army, and Al Qaeda.

Right now the strongest local forces are the police and the Americans. Things could get a whole lot worse than they are.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at May 18, 2007 06:43 PM

German soldiers reviving the old SS totenkopf symbolism seems like a legit story.

Posted by: alphie at May 18, 2007 06:55 PM

alphie: seems like a legit story

Foreman: The accusation that 21st-century German soldiers were desecrating Muslim graves was a possibility transmuted into fact by a media that all too often — consciously or unconsciously — assumes the worst of Coalition forces and their mission in Afghanistan.

Wikipedia on totenkopf: its association with the worst aspects of Nazi Germany has lead to its decline.

Looks like you consciously assume the worst about Westerners, Alphie. What, did you just discover Noam Chomsky or something? Many of us have been there, and have moved on.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at May 18, 2007 08:00 PM

It's the left's business to disparage the west.
I have serious problems with it myself, although they are of a much different sort than alphie's.

What is really astounding is how obsessed they are with the bad actions of the west, most of which are unintended and due to the nature of war and incompetence while COMPLETELY and TOTALLY blinding themselves to horrendous atrocities of others all over the world. Here is a good explanation of it:

Having said that, with all due respect to the kurds, which deserve praise and can probably defend themselves:

I am not as negative about withdrawal from Iraq, which was a blunder of huge ignorance and incompetence. The best weapon the west has against islamists is to exploit the various fissures -- ethnic, religious and economic:

Instead, we are doing the opposite, to their gain and our detriment.

When you're in a hole, stop digging.

Posted by: fp at May 18, 2007 08:18 PM


The only thing I consciously assumed was that it was
a bad idea for German soldiers to associate themselves with skulls.

Posted by: alphie at May 18, 2007 08:48 PM

Fine, Alphie, but what you said is that you believe they are reviving SS imagery, as if they are doing it deliberately.

Many criticisms can be leveled at Germany and Germans today, but Nazism or nostalgia for the SS ain't one of 'em.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at May 18, 2007 09:00 PM

Actually anti-semitism and neo-nazism on the rise in germany, and even the red nazis have a comeback. That's how it starts, small.

Posted by: fp at May 18, 2007 09:12 PM

That's how it starts, small.

Don't assume trends like that are going to continue in a straight line to the Fifth Reich.

If Neo-Nazism is "on the rise" from 1 percent to 2 percent of the German population it hardly means anything. For the same reason that if you have one penny to your name and I give you another penny, I have just doubled your money but you're still broke.

If we're talking about double-digit percentages here, that's different.

Got any numbers? I don't.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at May 18, 2007 10:10 PM

i did not claim a straight line to any reich. I just qualified one of your statements.
but it is a fact that the nazis started very small and the social circumstances made them sufficiently big to gain power.

there isn't much love of the jews in europe these days, to understate the case, so the atmosphere make them come out of the woodwork.

Posted by: fp at May 18, 2007 10:22 PM

alhpie, what country are you from?

Posted by: mikek at May 18, 2007 11:17 PM

I think Jonathan Foreman absolutely nails the negligence and irresponsibility of (too) many Western MSM journalists. Their quest is for the big headline, the graphic image and the sensational story. Whether it's true or not is neither here nor there. The story is all. The truth? Well, that's someone else's department.

Posted by: Rob at May 18, 2007 11:31 PM

well kirkuk as Mam Jalal always says is the brain of Iraq, and it is under surgery, one mistake and the country is dead.

Posted by: Shvan at May 19, 2007 04:48 AM

Basra seems to be dead already.

Posted by: novakant at May 19, 2007 09:07 AM

One advantage of the "law of the Jungle" is that the biggest & baddest fighters, making the 'law', come out on top pretty quickly.

I think it would be bad, but no longer terrible, for the US to immediately withdraw. The Shia majority, especially those trained in the army, would likely make quick and VERY bloody work of the minority Arab Sunnis. Those Sunnis, whose non-innocent tolerance of Sunni terrorists, were always in a tough bind -- but there are plenty of nearby Sunni Arab countries to run to.

The successful Czech ethnic cleansing of Sudetenland Germans after WW II (who wanted to be part of Germany after WW I, but weren't allowed to) is one model.

Will the Peshmerga come in and declare an election is to be held on the last weekend of 2007, w/o Baghdad approval?
What would the US do -- support the Iraq Constitution or the current strong (??) man?

The end of the article noted that if Kirkuk was in Kurdistan, there would be peace and prosperity, (rather than being ruled by violent Baghdad.)

I wish the US was more pro-Kurd and pro-democracy.

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad at May 19, 2007 01:57 PM

The Kurds are surrounded on all sides, Tom. Taking Kirkuk by force would do them no good. They need a deal so they can get supplies in and the oil out.

As for ethnic cleansing as a thanks.

I think the real problem is that the war has dragged on so long that America now has basically one shot to get it right. Once we leave, we're never going back to Iraq.

Same as Vietnam.

Something for the pro-war crowd to consider next time.

Leave early, you get a few mulligans.

Stay too long...

Posted by: alphie at May 19, 2007 02:59 PM


see the the article i linked to in the other thread about what the guy thinks about us in iraq.
it's not the length of the war, it's the ignorance, incompetence and political correctness.

as i stated before, an exit may have positive consequences for the west, if it focuses the islamic world on its own fissures and the sides keep each other in check.

i wouldnt have invaded iraq, but if the us did, it should have handed it to the iraqis and get out immediately. what they did was counterproductive and the damage extremely serious.

Posted by: fp at May 19, 2007 06:47 PM

here's an excellent example of how arabs look at the reality and are either unwilling or unable to provide a sensible interpretation, let alone solution:

Posted by: fp at May 19, 2007 08:23 PM


I'm not sure today's Americans or Europeans could cobble together a democracy if they had to start from scratch again.

And I can't believe all Arab countires have the exact same problems that prevent them from becoming democracies themselves.

Let's hope Iraq teaches us to rely more on carrots than sticks in our future aid to Arab countries.

Posted by: alphie at May 19, 2007 10:13 PM

the notion in the west is that the natural universal trend is toward democracy. i find that uunsupported by history, unless the perspective is reduced to very specific short periods.

Facts: greece started as democracy and ended in sparta; rome started as a democracy and ended in totalitarian monarchy, etc; non-tsarist russia started as a democracy, became USSR, then a relative democracy for a short time and it is now descending into authoritarianism again; so is EU, and many of the EU members, which has utterly undemocratic aspects. even the US has such aspects, which are still expanding. And most of the former eastern europe is oligarchic and ruled by former opportunistic communists.

Moreover, once you accept that democracy is not just elections, there is hardly any true democracy in the world.

I would bet that the future is less democratic, not more.

Posted by: fp at May 19, 2007 10:54 PM

Kinda cynical, don't you think, fp?

Team Democracy has been playing without its star player for the last 6 years. You could even make the case we've been playing for the other side.

Chalk it up to lessons learned. With the idea that we can bomb a country into democracy finally (almost) laid to rest, I think great things are on the way.

Posted by: alphie at May 20, 2007 12:29 AM

Democracy is not the be-all and end-all of political systems, because it was created and developed by strongly individualist cultures, with the focus on the individual rather than the collective. A collectivist culture, the sort most middle eastern countries and states have, will tend not to work with this system because of the different way they've grown to think - co-dependence rather than independence.

The U.S. attempt to impose democracy on the middle east is an example of imposed etic, to a fairly high degree.

Posted by: James at May 20, 2007 06:23 AM

well, what you call cynicism i call realism.

ignorance and stupidity cannot be eliminated. there were attempts to impose democracies in the world in the past which failed and it was thought that it won't be repeated. wrong.

i must always go back to the collapse of education. without it people will in time be doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

i'm afraid the the time of the west is over. too many blunders and too little spine.

Posted by: fp at May 20, 2007 10:11 AM

it's not just the collectivistic nature, there are more critical factors.

democracy has its roots in individual rights, and human laws; islam is about individual submission to allah and his laws. they are incompatible, no matter how much wishful thinkers and apologists claim otherwise.

reforming islam is impossible without making it into something else entirely. throughout major failures in the islamic world the reaction has been "we must return to "pure"islam and literally emulate muhammad, rather the opposite to addressing the root of the problems. because returning to the roots means reinstituting the very factors that caused the failures in the first place. so there is no solution.

what happens to europe now is ironic, though scary. the immigrants came to the west to take advantage of the western progress, but they want to impose sharia, thus killing progress in their new place too. this kind of ignorance and stupidity will expand the ME disaster everywhere.

Posted by: fp at May 20, 2007 10:21 AM
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