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Bad News Is The Only News

By Tom Bevan

Over the last week there's been a heated discussion about whether the media coverage in Iraq has been unfairly negative or whether it's an accurate reflection of the situation on the ground. The debate has tended to be largely an ideological one, which is to say a person's opinion most likely depends on whether they are for or against the invasion of Iraq. But the debate also presents an opportunity to face up to some larger and far more unpleasant realities about the media environment we live in.

The first thing to point out, which may be counterintuitive, is that while the stature of the mainstream media (MSM) continues to shrink thanks to a proliferation of blogs and other new media outlets, when it comes to shaping perceptions about war the MSM may hold more influence than ever. This is especially true in the case of those with television cameras. Though Americans continue to diversify their media diets, a majority still gets their news from network and cable TV, and images of carnage and violence remain the most potent, the most easily consumed and the most rapidly transmitted pieces of information throughout today's media environment.

Video footage of the flaming wreckage of a car bomb in Baghdad beamed into living rooms across the nation at night -after being played in a loop throughout the day on cable - has a far greater influence on the national psyche than a hundred stories detailing the positive side of things in Iraq.

Let me reiterate this has little to do with ideology (you'll see footage of the flaming car bomb wreckage on every network and cable news channel - though the emphasis of the coverage may vary) but is instead driven by the media's inherent bias toward chaos and bad news. The saying "if it bleeds, it leads" is just as true in Baghdad as it is in your hometown, and the result is that terrorists have now gained a tremendous advantage.

Terrorists have benefited greatly from a variety of aspects of the advancing technology era: cell phones and Internet chat rooms to help coordinate plans and logistics; wire transfers to move money at a moment's notice; web sites to spread the hate and the techniques of violent jihad. One could argue, however, that the greatest asset terrorists have acquired in the past half-decade is the skill to manipulate a global mass media that broadcasts in real-time with high-definition clarity.

Whether it's to send a message on the eve of an election in Spain or America, or to continue to try and instill the perception that they are winning in Iraq with bombs and beheadings, terrorists can now capture the world's attention and create headlines around the globe more or less at will.

The negative effects of the new media environment are magnified by the virulent anti-Americanism pumped out by foreign media outlets around the globe (particularly in the Arab world) and by a post-Vietnam media culture in the U.S. that refuses to tread anywhere near the type of positive reporting or depiction of U.S. military personnel that characterized the World War II era for fear of being seen as propagandists for the administration.

Last month in a speech before the Council on Foreign Relations, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stressed the crucial but near impossible task the U.S. faces in trying to navigate a new global media environment being skillfully manipulated by terrorists. "In this war," Rumsfeld said, "some of the most critical battles may not be fought in the mountains of Afghanistan or the streets of Iraq, but in the newsrooms in places like New York and London and Cairo and elsewhere." Rumsfeld went on to state quite candidly that the United States is losing the global media battle, saying that "for the most part, the U.S. Government still functions as a 'five and dime' store in an E-Bay world."

Rumsfeld's frustration is understandable. Despite all the vast resources and manpower of the United States Government, despite the thousands of briefings and speeches and press releases and op-eds and hours of Congressional testimony, the administration has been unable to break through the bad news barrier. That's unlikely to change, because so long as we are at war there will continue to be terrorists and insurgents around to create bad news. And in today's global media environment, more often than not, bad news ends up being the only news.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics. Email: tom@realclearpolitics.com

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