Winning the Information War

Reading the latest exchange of heavy artillery between the blogsphere and the MSM I have found it hard to get started on where to comment. It all started with an LA Times post that quoted an unnamed reporter or stringer in Ramadi who sounded pretty much like an al Qaeda agent. I noted it in passing here. Then Patterico did about as much as is possible to make the case against the LA Times without going to Ramadi and conducting his own investigation. Next Flopping Aces, Michelle Malkin, Protein Wisdom, and many others raised all manner of questions about AP stringers and drew considerable blood. The AP’s response is here. However, it was in reading the comments to this post at OPFOR that I finally found someone who asked the right question:

All right, we’ve gotten the bitches and gripes out of our systems… what is the solution to this problem?

The answer is simple: Stop them.

That’s what societies do when one of their institutions becomes corrupt and no longer serves its intended purpose. This kind of institutional breakdown immediately reminds me of the failure of Arthur Anderson and the accounting profession in general, most famously in connection with Enron. The purpose of the accounting profession is to maintain the financial integrity of our corporations. It was self regulating but was allowed to play both the role of watchdog and financial advisor. That was a conflict of interest and a recipe for trouble. The answer turned out to be government regulation because the profession had gotten so far out of line that it was necessary to force the issue and make sure that the people we trust to watch our corporations were trustworthy.

What is emerging about our mainstream press isn’t just political partisanship or simple opposition to the war in Iraq. It has gotten nastier and more dishonest than that. We know from Richard Landes’ work at The Second Draft that the Western media has been buying bogus footage and information from sophisticated Palestinian propagandists for years. It is not surprising that similar material in on offer in Iraq and that we are discovering, sadly, that the media is passing it off as objective reporting. This behavior is a breakdown of the fundamental role of the press. The equivalent of what Arthur Anderson did to the accounting profession. The primary problem is not simply that the media is giving a voice to the enemy, but that they are doing so covertly.

So, how to stop them? Government regulation or the free market? While government can play a positive role in the economy, any attempt by the government to enforce standards in the area of the press runs right into the first amendment. Just like with accountants trying to both advise and act as auditors there is a built in conflict of interest. What we currently see happening in the blogsphere is the action of the free market limiting the freedom of the press to deceive. As one commenter replying to the question of what to do put it: “Keep blogging.”

That is part of the answer, but I think we need more powerful medicine. Something akin to auditing of the media so that when stringers and other sources are used repeatedly there is an organization with enough resources to go to the theater of war and check out the credentials of those supplying the information. If the Iraqi policemen being named by the AP are really Iraqi policemen – confirm it. If the names are pseudonyms then force the media to admit they are using anonymous sources. When controversial claims are made about air strikes or sectarian violence – verify them. There is a limit to how much fact checking that can be done using only a computer.

I have also noticed that when the media answers its accusers from the blogsphere it basically just sticks to the claim that what it reported was true. That was the tactic used above and also the case in the media’s defense of the infamous picture of the Red Cross ambulance claimed to have been hit by an Israeli missile smack dab in the middle of the red cross on its roof. Not that Hezbollah would have allowed examination of the ambulance by an forensics team capable of determining what actually happened, but Hezbollah and the news organizations reporting the incident should have had to pay the price in credibility that such a refusal would entail.

In Australia we have a TV program called Media Watch which does this kind of work. Its basic flaw is that it is done by our national broadcaster, the ABC. Like its sister organization the BBC it is not without its own bias and so its critique of our commercial media is far better than its critique of the ABC. In all fairness it is an impossible ask to ask any media organization to be objective about itself. Nor do I think a truly independent media auditor could be a regular feature of any particular broadcaster for the same reason – sooner or later it would have to criticize its host. So the place for this kind of work is on the Net where the ability to put full length video programming routinely on the net is just around the corner. The key is the resources to fund such an effort. If I were a rich person wanting to get this sort of effort off the ground I know what my first move would be. I’d pick up the phone and call Richard Landes and tell him I was interested in hiring some of his students. The talent is there , the outlet is available. What is needed is the money and the organization to do it.

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