When the Fourth Estate Fails
Reading the article by Eric Schmitt that ran in last Sunday’s New York Times under the headline, “Lull in Strikes by U.S. Drones Aids Militants in Pakistan,” one gets a sense of just how much unipolar imperialism has become embedded in mainstream American culture.
If nothing else, the just over 1,200 word piece demonstrates why the American Press is not a Fourth Estate, but rather a Fourth Branch of government. To the degree that it is independent, the press is free in body but not in mind, with the “Washington Consensus” on security and foreign policy dominating not only the Pentagon and State Department, but the Mainstream Media as well.
How else to explain this typical front page story about unofficial United States drone activity in Pakistan? Its first paragraph reads like the opening of an opinion column, declaring that,
“A nearly two-month lull in American drone strikes in Pakistan has helped embolden Al Qaeda and several Pakistani militant factions to regroup, increase attacks against Pakistani security forces and threaten intensified strikes against allied forces in Afghanistan,”
And the article would be exactly that, an opinion piece, if not for the token reminder at the end of the above statement, “American and Pakistani officials say.” That ever pernicious union between claim and fact that colors modern journalism where reporting on what people say is mixed in with reporting on how things actually are. Notice how the paragraph doesn’t end with, “American and Pakistani officials assert,” even though that is precisely what these officials are doing, since the article reports assertion after assertion, even as it fails time and again to report on the evidence “officials” have for making them.
America’s “interests” in the region, and how we may go about achieving them, is never in question. Neither is the accuracy of any of the article’s sources, which readers are expected to take on faith.
Like this lovely bit from one unnamed “American official”,
“’It makes sense that a lull in U.S. operations, coupled with ineffective Pakistani efforts, might lead the terrorists to become complacent and try to regroup,’ one American official said. ‘We know that Al Qaeda’s leaders were constantly taking the U.S. counterterrorism operations into account, spending considerable time planning their movements and protecting their communications to try to stay alive.’”
What qualifies one to be an “American official,” and what being an “American official” qualifies one to talk about, remains a mystery to me. The expertise provided by this person, the “it makes sense” reasoning with which any lay person could arrive at a similar hypothesis, seems trivial enough. But if the thesis the article is pushing still wasn’t clear enough, the quasi-news piece goes on to put it more candidly,
“C. Christine Fair, an assistant professor of political science at Georgetown University who just returned from a month in Pakistan, put it more bluntly: ‘They’re taking advantage of the respite. It allows them to operate more freely.’”
Apparently, it’s enough anymore to report that someone in a credentialed though loosely relevant position claims X, without ever getting at the FACTS for why that person has come to that conclusion.
This trend continues through the article, with “Several administration officials” saying things, and spokespeople saying things, and analysts saying things, and Taliban commanders “reportedly” asking things, and Pakistani militants saying more things again, and then more analysts saying even more things, and then finally Pakistani analysts saying something similar.
The article quotes, listed here in order by their first appearence, a Haqqani logistics operative, an unnamed American official, assistant professor C. Christine Fair, Defense Department spokesman George Little, Adm. Mike Mullen, a report by the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, an anonymous Pakistani official, and former ambassador to the United States, Maleeha Lodhi.
Not once does the article ask the opinion, as it did of all the above individuals, of anyone in Pakistan who had been the victim of drone bombings. As far as the news story about freezing drone bombings in Pakistan goes, how local residents feel would seem to be a quintessential part. How locals feel about drone bombings, however, is not a part of the story which the New York Times ran. That story is not news, but is instead a short research essay seeking to answer the question of how the “lull” in “strikes” will affect local “insurgents.” The answer it arrives at, through cobbling together the quotes and apparent hearsay of unnamed officials and analysts peppered with the claims of a few named sources, is almost certainly an oversimplified one, and is all the worse for at no point mentioning the existence of other possible explanations or motivations.
U.S. officials assert that a temporary freeze in drone bombing will give the terrorists/insurgents/Taliban (neither the Times nor its sources seem keen on making a distinction between those three) in Pakistan a chance to become stronger. The Times article then takes this assertion, never questions it, and goes on to line up other sources who will corroborate it, not with evidence, but with more assertions of their own. We, the audience, are left not to judge the credentials or information of the sources presented to us because no challenge to them is ever presented within the article, and the article never has anyone in the article, at all, who makes an assertion, explain how they arrived at it, and in turn what sources or information they themselves are relying on.
This is the difference between source X says Y and source X says Y and when asked why they say that noted Z. If not for that last part, the Z, what is print journalism but a lot of people saying a lot of things with no apparent mechanism for distilling the truth? Reporting on economic policy is extremely poor for this very reason. Economist A says yes, economist B says no, with you the reader being left to decide who is correct. At least in that instance though, the public is presented with two competing visions. Neither may be correct, but at least neither is left unchallenged. Schmitt’s article doesn’t even acknowledge the possibility that one, terrorists/insurgents/Taliban are not regrouping in any meaningful way, or two, that this regrouping does not result entirely, or even mostly, from putting drone bombings in Pakistan on hold.
This is the kind of specious journalism that helped take us to war with Iraq, the kind that is keeping us at war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and which could very well take us to war with Iran.