A Distinctly Inquisitional Air

Saturday, January 30th, 2010

Left to themselves, Robert Kaplan says, most leaders in the post-Cold War West would avoid all non-strategic interventions with the risks that they carry — if not for the media and intellectual communities:

Because the elite media is dominated by cosmopolitans who inhabit the wider world beyond the nation-state, it has a tendency to emphasize universal moral principles over national self-interest. “Most newsmen”, says Walter Cronkite, “feel very little allegiance to the established order. I think they are inclined to side with humanity rather than with authority and institutions.” In the hands of the media, the language of human rights — the highest level of altruism — can become a powerful weapon that can lead us into wars that perhaps we should not fight.

When the media finds a cause it can rally around, it can both shape and replace public opinion, as it did in Bosnia and Kosovo, when the media was overwhelmingly interventionist while the public, as the polls showed, remained unenthusiastic. The media and intellectual communities are professional castes no less distinguishable than those of military officers, doctors, insurance agents and so on — and no more representative of the American population. As with other professional groups, they are often more influenced by each other than by those outside their social network. Faced with an indifferent public, this quasi-aristocracy may shape the views of Western leaders much as the ancient nobles did of their emperors. And the media’s arguments will be difficult to resist. Human rights arguments advanced by the media at their most extreme have a distinctly inquisitional air about them.

Television correspondents at the scene of catastrophes, like the Israeli bombing of Beirut in 1982 and starvation in Somalia a decade later, manifest an impassioned tunnel vision in which sheer emotion replaces analysis: Nothing matters to them except the horrendous spectacle before their eyes — about which something must be done! The media embodies classical liberal values, which concern themselves with individuals and their well-being, whereas foreign policy is often concerned with the relationships between states and other large groups. Thus, the media is more likely to be militaristic when individual rights and suffering are concerned, rather than when a state’s vital interests are threatened.

Another problem will be the unwitting collusion between the global media and our enemies, Kaplan says:

Many defense analysts envision massive, “vertically integrated” media conglomerates with their own surveillance satellites. One firm, Aerobureau (of McLean, Virginia) can already deploy a flying newsroom: an aircraft equipped with multiple satellite video, audio and data links, gyro-stabilized cameras, and the ability to operate camera-equipped vehicles on earth by remote control. Colonel Dunlap asks, “What need will there be for our future enemies to spend money building extensive intelligence capabilities? The media will become the ‘poor man’s intelligence service.’”

The media is no longer simply the fourth estate, without which the other three branches of government could not operate honestly and effectively. Because of technology and the consolidation of news organizations-similar to the consolidation of airline and automobile alliances — the media is becoming a world power in its own right. The power of the media is wilful and dangerous because it dramatically affects Western policy while bearing no responsibility for the outcome. Indeed, the media’s moral perfectionism is possible only because it is politically unaccountable.

When America became an independent nation, the press was meant to keep government honest. Alerting the public to humanitarian problems overseas is germane to that role; directing policy is not, particularly if officials are forced to operate at a lower level of altruism than the media. A statesman’s primary responsibility is to his country, while the media thinks in universal terms. Emotional coverage of Somalia by a world media foreshadowed an American intervention that, because it was ill defined, led to the worst disaster for U.S. troops since Vietnam — a disaster that then helped influence policymakers against intervention in Rwanda. In a world of constant crises, policymakers must be selective about where and when they believe it worthwhile to get engulfed in the Clausewitzian “uncertainty” of conflict — something that the power of the media makes ever more difficult.

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