Michael Fumento has a long piece on the way the war in Iraq has been covered by the media. He begins by matter-of-factly recapping his experiences as an embed, then examining articles in national magazines and shows that, despite their hair-raising prose they are actually prosaic accounts of arrivals at the airport, the armored bus trip to the hotel and paranoia at the downstairs bar. Nothing actually happens, but the shadows lengthen everywhere. Fumento however, doesn't turn it into a diatribe on the subject of manliness versus caution. He freely admits there are MSM journalists in dangerous locations, the problem being that they are comparatively few in number. The real issue he raises is the question of whether information gathered from the Green Zone is a reliable way to build up a picture of events.
Curiously some editors actually prefer information gathered from the hotel, possibly because it tends to be better written and wider in scope. Fumento notes "Screenwriter-director Nora Ephron says that dispatches from both soldiers and embeds are worthless, because we’re 'too close' to the war. The best 'reporting' apparently is from those most removed." Of course higher command staffs have traditionally been located a distance from the battlefield too for the same reasons of "detachment". But command headquarters is normally saved from departing into flights of fancy by being organically connected to the men in the field. Detached reporters have no such inbuilt feedback loop. When distant sources are fed from equally detached sources there is always the danger of the blind leading the blind.
Many critics of Secretary Rumsfeld have accused him of failing to recognize trends in the field from the distance of the Washington. And to prove it they go and quote a study from the Lancet claiming 655,000 people have died in Iraq, 13% from airstrikes. In recent days I have been privileged to be alerted to any really heavy fighting in Baghdad by IM from Omar. When there actually were airstrikes, as there were recently, he posted up on it. When an ammunition dump exploded in Baghdad I actually knew about it about a half hour before the first wire reports and ran a running commentary on Belmont. I feel fairly confident that if 20,000 people have died from airstrikes in Baghdad as asserted by the Lancet we should have heard about it. So critics assail the detached information of Rumfeld by quoting reports gathered in an absolutely fantastic way. No one seems to have thought of "being there" even in a virtual way. Airstrikes of such weight would have left craters and I wonder why no one hasn't simply randomly sampled aerial photos and looked for the craters. If Rumsfeld can be criticized for "not knowing" the actual facts maybe the criticism should focus on the method and not simply the point of view.
How can we address Mr.Fumento's criticisms? Michael Yon has written recently on the difficulty of getting permission to embed. A curtain of mystery has descended around James Baker's forthcoming report. Why? Maybe because it is the control of information, not the information itself, which has become the most desired quantity. The fact is that the danger and pain in Iraq is so unlikely to be felt stateside, except by those with serving relatives, that its reality is less tangible than its image. In this respect Iraq differs from an existential war in that we really don't need to know, from one day to the next, what the truth is. The fantasy will do just fine.