On War #264: The Yellow Press

By William S. Lind
June 23, 2008

A person my age has watched many things decline in America, and few get better. As one of my neighbors says, everything good is gone or going. In that category we must now include good reporting. When I started work in Washington in 1973, it was axiomatic that a newspaper reporter talked to many sources for any story. The story, in turn, reflected a number of viewpoints and perspectives. No reporter worth his bourbon would have dreamed of just printing some press release put out by the government.

But that is now what they all seem to do, especially in covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Forgetting that the phrase “to lie like a bulletin” is military in origin the reference is to bulletins issued by Napoleon’s grande armeé — they print verbatim the happy talk the U.S. military is obliged by the Bush administration to spew. To the degree the war in Iraq is still covered, the American public is assured over and over that “violence is down.” For the moment, that is true, but the implication that we are on a roll is not true. Fourth Generation wars do not move in linear fashion. Violence is down because the constantly shifting network of deals and alliances among Iraq’s warlords has created a stable interlude. Those alliances will continue to shift, and as they do so violence will rise again. How many reporters are asking the talking dog majors who brief the press the central strategic question, namely whether there is any evidence a state is re-emerging in Iraq? As best I can tell, none. The same number appears to be trying to answer that question from other, more reliable sources.

The reporting on Afghanistan is if anything worse. On Sunday, June 22, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a paper I like, printed an AP article under the headline, “Marines drive Taliban from volatile province,” namely Helmand. The article itself more modestly claims victory in one Helmand town, Garmser. If the 24th MEU has driven the Taliban out of Helmand province, I’ll eat my yurt. One town, maybe, but what does taking a town mean in a guerrilla war? When the Marines leave, which they will, the Taliban will return.

The fact of the matter is, the whole NATO/American effort in Afghanistan is circling the drain. The American papers should be full of in-depth, multi-sourced stories about the war there. A friend just back from Britain reports that the British press is full of just such stories. In one recent ten-day period, the Brits lost nine soldiers killed, including their first woman. Was that reported anywhere in the U.S. press?

What lies behind the decline in the quality of American reporting? Cutbacks in the size of newsrooms are part of the answer. As the electronic image replaces the printed word, newspapers are dying. To those who know that perceiving reality requires more than shadows on the cave wall, that is bad news.

Lazy reporters are another part of the answer. It is easy to print the bulletins. Reporters have always been lazy, but now their editors let them get away with it. Not too many decades ago, any reporter who single-sourced a story would have been sent back on the street to get more sources, with a richness of invective editors seldom lacked.

But the biggest reason, I suspect, is intellectual cowardice. After the defeat in Vietnam, many supporters of the war blamed the press for our failure. By printing the bad news, the press supposedly undermined popular support for the war and thereby caused our defeat. It’s poppycock, of course. The Vietnam War was lost early in the game when MACV, at the demand of General William Depuy, ordered an end to efforts to control the populated coastal lowlands in favor of fighting formal battles against enemy main force units in the highlands. Those units were sent there as bait, which MACV took.

But the American press was scarred by the accusations. Now, it is afraid to be accused of “not supporting the troops” if it does anything but print the bulletins. So the American public gets the mushroom treatment, and two failed wars continue ad infinitum. When the roof falls in both in Iraq and in Afghanistan, the shock will be considerable. America’s yellow press will deserve no small share of the blame.

William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.

To interview Mr. Lind, please contact (no e-mail available):

Mr. William S. Lind
Free Congress Foundation
1423 Powhatan Street, # 2
Alexandria, Virginia 22314
Direct line: 703 837-0483

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Filed in Uncategorized | 5 responses so far

5 Responses to “On War #264: The Yellow Press”

  1. chrison 27 Jun 2008 at 4:43 pm 1

    The press in the UK tend to all be based in London – which generates a huge amount of competition between all the national newspapers – so even those Murdoch owned papers have to compete with both leftist and paleo-conservative competitors. That journos over here tend to be less deferential to those in power accounts for most of it.

    The fact that the US has maybe 1.5 major newspapers in most cities and that the bulk of your media is run by Gannet doesn’t help.

  2. Newjarheaddeanon 28 Jun 2008 at 1:12 pm 2

    AHOY, Deals and alliances, yes sir and don’t forget the one hundred plus miles of walls and IMO the scheduling of patrols with the locals along with the use of MRAP vehicles. Just got on a news paper the other day about all the repeat, filibuster, esoteric language etc. Suggested a standard format for war articles, they should not be treated as if creativity matters. All news papers fallow the same basic layouts anyways. Remember the networks saying they only had 30 minutes to give us the world, now they have 24/7 and do more advertising of what there going to tell us than just telling it to us. G-day, %

  3. TJGon 29 Jun 2008 at 3:14 pm 3

    Indeed, as usual this makes great sense.

    I do suggest, however, that it is not just cowardice on the part of the press because of the Vietnam war, but something a lot more fundamental.

    Why do current reporters only report what they are paid to report? Doesn’t this question answer itself?

    The press has consolidated and is largely owned and controlled by an oligarchy. Reporters who toe the line are well rewarded, those that don’t are fired, and not just on issues of war and peace.

    James Glassman (“Dow 36,000”) has a zero track record when reporting on economic matters. Not only is he almost always wrong, he is also self contradictory. In cases where big corporations want to ship missile guidance technology to China, he claims that we must do this because ‘free trade’ is always good. In cases where big pharma want to restrict imports of legal drugs from Canada to boost their profits, he claims that we must do this because those who believe in ‘free trade’ want something for nothing and we need trade restrictions to support drug research. Any yet despite this dismal and incoherent record of reporting, Mr. Glassman is continually feted with honors. At a recent conference a notable economist made a joke about Glassman always being wrong. He was forced to publicly apologize at threat of his career. Glassman is not a reporter in the traditional sense, he is a propagandist.

    And it’s not just presenting both sides: it’s also checking the facts! Simply presenting both sides can boost the weaker argument. I recently visited the civil rights museum in Birmingham, Alabama, and was stunned at the quality of the writing in the old newspaper clippings on display. Person one said A, Person two said B, the courthouse documents say C. You just don’t see that anymore.

    Look at the dismal state of political reporting. It’s all about tactics and style. By refusing to cover or making fun of candidates that the elites don’t like, modern reporting gives the oligarchy an absolute veto over our elected representatives.

    Another example: if you check the numbers the recent rise in food prices is primarily due to a population that grows by nearly 100 million new people each year. Yet there is a news blackout on this: it is only politically correct to blame biofuels, even though globally they only account for about 2% of grain production. But the elites have a stake in maximizing population growth, so it can never be mentioned, even when its effect is obvious.

    Laziness is too generous. Corruption seems more appropriate.


  4. The Pink Pantheron 02 Jul 2008 at 11:15 pm 4

    My politics are ‘pre-9/11 anti-globalisation’ (note the anti-globalist/anti-capitalist threat died on that day). There is a surprising amount of overlap between ‘pre-9/11 anti-globalisation’ and ‘pre-WW2 conservative’ politics – no to ‘free trade’, no to expeditionary warfare and no to big government. I am quite surprised by how much quality analysis I find on d-n-i including this article on the Yellow Press that is consistent with the anti-capitalist world-view.

    Single source reporting is not widely recognised as a problem in the post 9/11 world, hence the ‘al-qaeda’ myth has been given free reign. Even the conspiracy theorists believe in al-qaeda, even if they attribute the events as ‘inside job’. This is a major problem as we have ended up with a back-to-front 4th generational war against a make-believe enemy, in part caused by an insurrectionary-anarchist clique that are no longer with us. The coalition governments have set themselves up to fail – the war cannot be won, unless there is an October Surprise and the Osama bin Bogeyman gets magically caught, brought to justice and sent down. As Rumsfeld noted after ‘Cyberstorm 1’ (a live exercise to see if an online word-of-mouth campaign can be controlled) the war against terrorism is with us for 75 years.

    As I understand matters the hijackers that kicked the war against terrorism into existence were from the anti-globalisation movement and lazy reporting has allowed things to get out of hand since that fateful day.
    Cowardice and fear have also played a hand in this, and since ‘al-whatever’ don’t really exist the bulletin reporting from mystery officials has been the only way to cover the war. It is not actually physically possible to interview the official enemy – it was in every war up until 9/11, but this one is different. Hence, here we are.

    Another problem related to moral cowardice is that people no longer believe they can speak to power or change things here. Nobody believes that they can grow up to be president, and if someone was to harbour such dreams there is a greater chance that their friends will send them to the asylum rather than support them!

    I see hope for change. With the internet it is not necessary to read pre-packaged articles that have both sides ‘equally’ represented. You can do your own research from original source documents and read opinion pieces on people’s blogs. The older generation, brought up with their impartial BBC or regional equivalent are deeply suspicious of this – anything on the internet is conspiracy rubbish according to them. Interestingly, the average age of the television viewer is now 50 (versus 35 for the www). In time attitudes will change and people will not be entirely reliant on their favourite broadcaster and favourite newspaper (average age 55) for their world view.

    Until the war is over I am going to have interest in the day that started it all. This ‘single source’ story tests the moral courage somewhat:


    ‘Liberal’ and ‘Alternative’ newswires will censor any reference to that story. This is self-censorship, nothing more. Before the Secret Service have to get involved, anything vaguely controversial gets erased, as per a ‘thoughtcrime’ in 1984.

  5. Newjarheaddeanon 04 Jul 2008 at 2:45 pm 5

    AHOY, The Pink Panther, I too have long held AQ is not real. I wonder why Usama (Uncle Sam’s Arab, man, in Afghanistan) was said to have referred to the 19 hijackers as 19 young men and not 19 Mujaheddin, under the command of Atta etc. And if UBL was like a Jason Borne LOL, why would he not tell us about the secret methods and missions he would know about, and cause the CIA some real problems. Instead we get book thumper lessons. IMO the Average age of those who don’t and never well care at all about national or world information is about 25. However thanks to DNI and others I plan on dieing with my eyes open.