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The Media's Incurable Myopia

The coverage of the Iraqi election by the press has been extensive and generally positive, but as sure as the sun continues to rise in the east, by next week we will be back to a steady diet of chaos and carnage in the newspapers and on TV.

The problem isn't necessarily that the press covers car bombs and kidnappings, or that it is composed of bad people who want to see the U.S. fail in Iraq - though it's undeniable there are plenty of members of the mainstream media who dislike this president and don't approve of the war. The more general problem, however, which is part institutional and part individual, is that the press is either unwilling or unable to put events in Iraq in any sort of historical context.

Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld chastised the media for this is his speech last week, and yesterday the estimable Thomas P.M. Barnett piled on:

The press always wants a quick and easy answer to the question: Who wins and when does it happen? Either the U.S. is winning or the enemy is winning, and it has to be done by Tuesday. If Bush speaks to the long fight and says we'll always pursue victory even as it takes years and decades to unfold, then he must be speaking illogically. The Second World War should have been over by 1943. The Cold War should have ended in 1953. If the GWOT isn't done by 2005, then we've lost and we must retreat from the world.

We lost over 20k* in Iwo Jima and we won. If we lose 2k-plus in almost three years in Iraq, then we must be losing.

Where are the wise men? Hell, where are the journalists with any sense of history?

Karl Zinsmeister drives the point home even further by questioning how historical events might be viewed in today's environment:

I’ve been looking back at World War II recently and remembering, for instance, the Battle of the Bulge. In the Battle of the Bulge, American soldiers were sent to fight in waist-deep snow with no winter clothing, and I’m thinking to myself, “today, that would be reason to hang somebody. What commission is going to attack them for that?”

Look at Iwo Jima. I believe 7,000 men were killed at Iwo Jima. It's a four-mile by two-mile island in the middle of nowhere with no resources. I wonder, would we, in our contemporary worldview be able to look at that and say, "that’s a glorious triumph for the US Marine Corps," or would we say, "somebody’s got to be court-martialed over that screw-up?"

There is just an insane amount of handwringing today, all driven by the deluge of round-the-clock media coverage. News organizations can't get the cameras to the flames in Iraq fast enough and day after day the public reacts emotionally to the images put before them through the lens of a soda straw. How many times have we heard people come back from Iraq and talk about how different reality is from what they've seen on TV and read in the papers?

And how many times have we heard members of the press talk about their duty to inform and educate the citizenry about issues? In the matter of Iraq, that means news organizations have an obligation to their readers and viewers to put events in perspective and provide historical context. They have failed the public miserably in that obligation.

The public bears its share of the burden, too. As Thomas Sowell wrote earlier this week: "Utter ignorance of history enables any war with any casualties to be depicted in the media as an unmitigated disaster."

Iraq is tough, to be sure, but it's far from a disaster. The only thing missing from the picture today is knowledge of history and context.

*Barnett seems to have confused the number of U.S. casualties suffered at Iwo Jima (26,000) with the number of combat deaths (6,800).