November 22, 2005
I overheard a discussion on NPR the other day that exemplified something that I have been thinking about. The discussion was a panel debate on last weeks news. The conversation inevitably centered around the war in Iraq and the current public opinion about the war.
A caller to the radio show (actually I think it was an email submission) made an articulate remark about the failure of the media to accurately report the successes the U.S. has had in Iraq. When the panel responded; they admitted that many military personal in Iraq make the exact same comment to them. Each of the panel members was a reporter of some type (the question of why expert panels are always filled with reporters and professors is left for another day) and as such each of them had heard this complaint a number of times in the past.
Then one panelist responded with the counter-point that “The problem is that I often hear the exact opposite remark; that if we (as reporters) had been more critical of the president when he made the case for war, we might not have ever gotten into Iraq.”
The problem with that statement is that its not the exact opposite remark (the opposite stance would be that the media doesn’t report enough about the current violence in Iraq.) In fact the two positions can actually be explained in relation to one another. Let me explain. I believe, in some cases, people tend to “compensate” for their mistakes by making up for the short coming. Something of an enforced karma. It’s similar to when a baseball umpire makes a really bad call, realizes it as such, and then “compensates” for it by giving his next call to the infringed upon player/team; regardless of what the correct call should have been.
In some ways I think the media is trying to compensate for their own perceived failure to critically report on the argument for the war. The way they are “balancing” things out is by being overly critical of the success of the rebuilding effort. I don’t necessarily believe this umpire effect is intentional; but the evidence for it is pretty strong. While there is no doubt that the insurgency in Iraq is getting stronger, by almost any other measure things are getting much better there. Public projects are at an all time high, as is the number of completed project. Political involvement has steadily increased, oil revenue is up, the majority of law enforcement work is being done by Iraqis now, and GDP is steadily on the rise. What is more, the vast majority of Iraqis don’t want the U.S. to leave yet and think they are better off now then they were under Saddam (even if the really don’t like us.)
Because of the pathological nationalism that was rampant post 9/11 the media felt reluctant to criticize the President. Now that the President is unpopular it is much easier to be critical of him and the war he started. I guess that is really the point of this observation. More than I would like to believe the media is not simply a distributor of information but a reflection of our own prejudices. The umpire effect exists in the media (I have noticed it in a least a couple of other non-national news stories) because it exists among us. It is a way to make life (and baseball) a little more fair; as least from our point of view.