Friday, May 19, 2006

The Mirror Self: A Foolish Journalistic Projection

Two stories today lay clear the perils of journalistic hubris in telling only one side of the story, both of them centered around Iraq.

In the first, Ken Silverstein writes a post called: “Fairy Tales” The (lack of) intelligence underpinning Bush's Iraq policy.

Its (extremely unoriginal) premise is that the Bush team ignored all the intelligence pointing to a negative situation on the ground in Iraq before the invasion, and has continued to do so. Not only that, but it is destroyed the career of everyone in a senior position who reported such intelligence, relegating them to the hinterlands of the intelligence world, thus making their careers come to a full stop. And it has only listened to that intelligence which supports the "narrative" they want to hear, about a good situation on the ground in Iraq, that progress is being made, etc.

Okay, unoriginality is no measure of truth. So just because it is a narrative we have heard before, does not make it necessarily any less true.

Except, except...

How ironic, that in an article which is almost entirely anonymously sourced, or reported by the anonymous friends of named officials (who don't make themselves available to talk to Silverstein), every story that Silverstein reports on is in agreement. He only speaks to these anonymous officials who tell the same story, the same narrative. There is no dissent allowed in his account either. In his case, it works as a rhetorical trick to "persuade" the reader of the extent of the perfidy of the Bush Admin and its devastating effect on foreign policy.

But are we to believe that everyone in the CIA actually agrees with Silverstein? Or does he merely speak to people who support his account? And thereby present a thoroughly unnuanced view, a narrative rhetorically strengthened by the fact that it is all in black and white with the Bush Administration, of course, playing the bad guys. Or, as in this case, the "very bad" guys.

It starts with an official quote, from a named Senator and then goes on with its own fairytale from there:
"This administration," Bob Graham, the former Senator and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told me, "does not seek the truth as a basis for its judgments, but tries to use intelligence to validate judgments it has already made."

In other words, all this account is doing is exchanging the black and white approach of how intelligence works in the Bush Administration with another account, equally built on pre-existing narrative.

But along the way, it also presents some amusing howlers.
"I spent 30 years at the CIA," said one former official, "and no one was ever interested in knowing whether I was a Republican or a Democrat. That changed with this administration. Now you have loyalty tests."

First notice the unnamed source for this. Then the implication, which is that the Bush Administration is the first Administration ever to "play politics" at the CIA.

Uh huh. Yeah, that's a nice fairytale. I believe that.

Notice how Silverstein never even discusses the fact that it is well known and has been written about openly and extensively that parts of the CIA have conducted a war against the Bush Administration. Of course, that might nuance the story, adding thereby some gray to its simple tale, and thereby complicatings its debunking of the fairytale mentality of the Bush Administration. We can't have that, then, can we?

I wonder also about the chronology of those so-called "loyalty tests". If we take the word of the unnamed official for it, when exactly did that start? Before or after the massive amount of leaking from the CIA began?

Notice also the martyrology narrative within the account. Everyone who "speaks truth to power" is destroyed. It's a story in which the innocent CIA agents and analysts are always all good, and the Bush Admin is all evil, refusing to listen to the truth in their haste to go forward with their evil plans.

What is most ironic is that Silverstein builds his account in precisely the same way that he excoriates the Bush Administration for taking. He also allows no deviation from the orthodoxy of his narrative.


In the second account, eloquently argued by Iraq Pundit, Washington Post reporter Ellen Knickmeyer reports on the increasing problem of militants dressed as policeman in Iraq acting as death squads. Her particular angle is to point at the Facilities Protection Service, known as the FPS, a unit established by Paul Bremer during the throes of the first insurgency. And to back up her claim, she quotes Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Jabr accusing the FPS, of carrying out some of the killings widely attributed to death squads operating inside his ministry's police forces. A senior U.S. military official, speaking on condition that he not be identified further, said Saturday he believed that members of the FPS, along with private militias, were the chief culprits behind Iraq's death squads.

The only problem with this, as Iraq Pundit points out, is that Bayan Jabr has headed the Interior Ministry during the Jaafari regime. And he is considered responsible for allowing the police to become an arm of the militias in the first place.
Jabr, who allowed the police to become an apparent arm of the Shiite militias, has personal connections with the largest of those militias: He was a leader of the Badr Brigades, the Iranian-trained force of SCIRI, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Obviously, Jabr was an awful choice for the role of interior minister, and was a significant factor in the Jaafari regime's loss of trust and credibility. Restoring trust in the interior ministry must be a major objective of the new Maliki government.

So that is Knickmeyer's source. Yet, in citing him in two articles, she does not reveal to her audience the conflict of interest inherent in his position, not its self serving aspect. Iraq Pundit points out:
This is an almost perfect confluence of interests. Jabr gets to use a major U.S. newspaper to minimize his record of ineptitude and/or malice, while the Post gets to tell its preferred Iraqi narrative: that the proximate cause of every Iraqi ill is the United States.

On May 14, Knickmeyer had a front-page story in the Post following up on Jabr's accusations that FPS members have been behind some of the murders. The point of the story was that the FPS was a significant force, that no one had much control over it, and that it was a legacy of bad U.S. governance.

I don't know how culpable the FPS is in the murder campaign, and neither it seems does Knickmeyer. My interest is in Knickmeyer's use of Jabr in her stories. For example, Knickmeyer never acknowledges Jabr's militia connections. I'm also struck by the manner in which Knickmeyer appears to allow Jabr to cast blame for Iraq's security problems.

Surely Knickmeyer is aware of the fact that Jabr is known to have militia connections.

Doesn't she believe her readers should be as well?

Ah, journalists and their bag of rhetorical tricks.


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