Saturday, August 20, 2005


Jay Rosen and COL Austin Bay

Jay Rosen at PressThink shares a conversation he initiated with COL Austin Bay (Retired). As most readers of MILBLOGS – and no small number of other members of the Blogosphere – COL Bay is an outstanding commentator on matters military, diplomatic, and political. He runs a fine blog as well, and has been a regular contributer to fine sites such as Tech Central Station and Mudville Gazette.

Rosen runs a fine blog himself. I always find him thoughtful, for the most part moderate. Rosen has always seemed to me more interested in a meaningful dialog on matters critical for an effective fourth estate, if it is to remain at all relevant to society, rather than any partisan position or political advantage. For Rosen and COL Bay to initiate a dialog of matters involving media, the military, and our Global War on Terror represents a milestone in the as yet adolescent history of blogging.

Rosen introduces his idea that the Bush Administration has been engaging in a dedicated press strategy Rosen refers to as “Rollback,” and pressed COL Bay for his opinion on the source and import of the apparent antagonism between the Bush Administration and the press.

COL Bay (who also posts this discussion on his blog) begins the substance of his response by acknowledging points of agreement between himself and Rosen:
Jay and I agree that the Bush Administration and what (for the moment) I’ll call “the national press” are locked in a figurative war. Let’s stipulate that this figurative war occurs in the midst of a real (non-figurative) and ever active global conflict—both hot and cold—that is first and foremost an information war waged by an enemy that is itself a strategic information power. I speak of course of Al Qaeda. The “press conflict” and US domestic political clashes cannot be isolated from this multi-dimensional war and its harsh historical circumstances. Those who think it can deceive themselves.
COL Bay goes on to describe the very real propaganda and information warfare objectives of Al Qaeda. For Al Qaeda, 9/11 was highly effective advertising and recruitment material. And while (relatively) weaker militarily, Al Qaeda retains significant information warfare capability, according to COL Bay, because of how rapidly individuals and organizations transmit information, and the degree of technological compression pervasive in the modern world. (Technological compression is the concept that technology advances have greatly shrunk the world and degrees of separation. We each of us live “just next door” technologically speaking.)

COL Bay makes the important point that, contrasted with public health officials and business leaders, politicians (and journalists who are their symbiotic parasites), have yet to acclimatize, writing in a July 22 Weekly Standard article:
Unfortunately, many politicians and journalists still habitually live by 20th-century templates. Newsweek certainly thought [they’re] there and we’re here” when it ran its notorious “Koran flushing” anecdote, sparking deadly riots in Pakistan. Two other templates were also in play then: the Vietnam and the Watergate templates. Vietnam and Watergate for three decades have provided the New York-Washington-L.A. media axis with convenient—if reductive—headlines. The Vietnam and Watergate rules are simple and cynical. Rule One: Presume the U.S. government is lying—especially when the president is a Republican. Rule Two: Presume the worst about the U.S. military—even when the president is a Democrat. Rule Three: Allegations by “Third World victims” are presumptively true, while U.S. statements are met with arrogant contempt.
That’s COL Bay’s assessment of groupthink on the press side of the conflict. From the Administration’s point of view, again according to COL Bay:
Key members of the Bush Administration believe they have been the victims of lies or victims of a relentless, decades-long selective reporting and commentary by members of the big media axis. Are Republicans ticked at Ambassador Joe Wilson’s truth challenged New York Times essay? One reason they are ticked is because they have seen this same kind of canard before. Recall Gary Sick and his nut-case story that George H W Bush flew to Paris on an SR-71 to negotiate with Iran? (See this, and Daniel Pipes with his Wall St Journal response; this link shows the conspiracy theory Sick pushed was first “reported” by Lyndon Larouche.)

The 1983 “Euro-Missile Crisis” is another bitter memory: the rhetorical hokum that Bush is “more dangerous than bin Laden” is 1983 recast. Oh, the accusations of 1983! Ronald Reagan was stupid. Reagan was a dangerous cowboy, a warmonger seeking the nuclear destruction of the USSR. Reagan was — good heavens — a unilateralist. In 2003 the Mayor of London called Bush “the greatest threat to life on the planet,” but then Ken Livingstone isn’t called “Red” because of his hair color. Hollywood also repeated a refrain. In 1983 ABC TV produced “The Day After,” a lousy piece of video propaganda that basically argued US nuclear forces would inevitably destroy the planet. In 2004 Michael Moore produced “Fahrenheit 911,” an even more explicitly anti-American film asserting Bush conspired to launch the 9/11 attacks.
Along the same lines, PressThink Commenter Tom Grey ( points to another source of friction between the press and the Bush Administration, namely the total lack of a reasonable frame of reference (perspective?) on the part of the media:
Similarly I read a lot of junk about Bush incompetence in Iraq – but never see a standard by which to compare. Kosovo? Rwanda? Or Cambodia & Vietnam? The UN child-rapists in the Congo? It is not “truth” that is missing, but honesty about “incompetence” as a judgment, and a standard of comparison.
These kind of rhetorical flourishes make reasonable policy debates impossible. But beyond that, it poisons any possible common ground before diplomatic efforts are even underway. And COL Bay, interestingly, thinks both sides of the divide need to marshall their forces, their will, and their common interests and meet each other at the negotiating table. According to COL bay, the stakes could not be higher:
America must win the War On Terror, and the poisoned White House—national press relationship harms that effort. History will judge the Bush Administration’s prosecution of the War On Terror. A key strategic issue for the current White House—perhaps a determinative issue for historians—will be its success or failure in getting subsequent administrations to sustain the political and economic development policies that truly winning the War On Terror will entail.

The Bush Administration needs the dying, withering, but still powerful press axis to do this.
COL Bay goes on to make some specific suggestions for the press that would go a long way towards bridging the gulf that now separates the Bush Administration and the news media whose help our country so desperately needs. In doing so, COL Bay identifies many of the most strident (and at times irrational) voices in media, whose criticisms of the current administration certainly justify a certain skepticism that they might be meaningful partners in the war effort:
First off, Fire Paul Krugman and replace him with a real economist like Arnold Kling or Walter Williams. Krugman’s been predicting economic doom for four years. He needs to get a sign and walk the streets, not write a newspaper column. Turn Maureen Dowd into a gossip columnist. Replace Dowd with someone like Froma Harrop (a New Yorker who has moved to Providence). The Times could also fire the op-ed editor who inserted Bush Hate into Phil Carter’s column. (See my post for the details.)
COL Bay’s remaining suggestions include action items relating to Dan Rather, Eason Jordan, Linda Foley, George Stephanopoulos, Tim Russert, Chris Matthews, and Bill Moyers. Need the specific suggestions even need to be mentioned?

Jay Rosen received COL Bay’s posting well, I thought, and as a gracious host responded politely enough. But Rosen did, not unexpectedly, make the most of COL Bay’s proferred points of agreement. In doing so, however, I think he overshoots his target, and in doing so certainly exaggerates COL Bay’s criticisms with the current war policy in Iraq. Nevertheless, his points are important. Note too, the manner in which he chooses toi frame COL Bay’s response to his questions:
The headline for me is that Austin Bay, proud Republican, friend of the Administration’s project in Iraq and a veteran of the war, believes the clever people in the White House are making a mistake in their policy of rolling back the press, which he prefers to call “containment.” He does not deny that the push back happened, and he says it made a certain sense to Republicans tired of the gotcha games and 70s frames.

Still, it’s dumb policy, he says.

Why is it dumb? According to Austin, it’s dumb because if you’re serious about a war on terror you know that it will have to be fought consistently and well across Administrations. This means that several waves of “players,” who are likely to be from both parties, will come in and out of policy-making before the war can in any sense be put to rest, or won. Each new generation has to understand what United States policy is, and continue on the path Bush the Younger set. This is a path Bay himself supports.

How is the strategy going to work if it shifts with each new cast of players? Austin says it can’t. Al Qaeda, a global information power, will be waiting on any wavering American governments show. Thus a key factor in winning the Big One is the Bush Administration’s “success or failure in getting subsequent administrations to sustain the political and economic development policies that truly winning the War On Terror will entail.”

For this, he says, the Bush team “needs the dying, withering, but still powerful press axis.” As far as I know, this has never occurred to anyone in the White House.
I might only pick two nits: nowhere does COL Bay say or suggest that any explicit or implicit administration policy towards the press is “stupid;” and I would argue that U.S. Army doctrine itself calls for making use of and maintaining good relations with the press, so surely this has in fact occurred to someone in the White House. As a matter of fact, the very policy of embedded reporters at the start of the War is reflective of the value and importance the Administration places on press relations. Rather, I would argue that far more often, that particular door is slammed in the face of key figures of the Administration (unless they want to plant a negative “leak”), long before they might contemplate stepping through.

Yet, I praise Rosen for opening up his blog to COL Bay; I give him high credit for initiating the discussion. I applaud both Rosen and Bay for “appearing” together on a common podium, and generating much substantive and important dialog, together. As many of my readers know, I have had some success in engaging in civil discussion with those in political opposition over at Debate Space, the joint blog I share with the Liberal Avenger. Though dormant for the time being due to the non-availability of a co-debater, I still have much faith in the concept.

I look forward to any further cooperation or discussion between these two fine writers.

(Via Instapundit.)

Links: Basil's Blog, Wizbang

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