The Flickering Light of the News

Two unrelated news items in the past week hint at a developing challenge to rational policymaking: First, there were the confusing accounts of what happened in Basra, Iraq. And second, there was The New York Times story that CBS is considering buying CNN’s newsgathering so it won’t need to gather some news itself.

The almost complete guesswork of what happened in Basra, and why, was the result of a lack of reasonably reliable reporting. As The Weekly Standard impeccably described the problem in an article by Frederick W. Kagan and Kimberly Kagan: "There has been much speculation about what happened in Basra itself: about possible deals between Maliki and Sadr, about the benefits Sadr or Maliki might have received from the encounter, and about Maliki’s motivations. Because British forces … have abandoned the city, there were few coalition forces present and very few Westerners at all. Most of the details of the operation publicized in the American press come from Iraqi stringers, the usual anonymous Iraqi officials, and, it seems, some Sadrist media outlets. … Such information is of limited value. We simply do not yet know how well the ISF acquitted itself in the actual fighting, what if any areas were cleared, who was resisting, and so on."

Yet despite the absence of any objective knowledge about what had happened, pro- and anti-war news organizations, talk radio shows, columnists, pundits and blogists leapt into the void — invincibly ignorant of what had happened — and immediately began making powerful arguments in support of their pre-existing positions. In the middle of a vital presidential election season, millions of American voters got misinformed on perhaps the central issue of the election that is critical to our national safety (whether misinformed for or against the war, we don’t know yet).

Hair-trigger-released propaganda untempered by even the existence of any objective facts that might be weighed in the balance is the epistemological culture in which presidential candidates, the media and voters are making their vital decisions.

This method of policy concluding is right out of "Alice in Wonderland":

"’Let the jury consider their verdict,’ the King said, for about the twentieth time that day.

"’No, no!’ said the Queen. ‘Sentence first — verdict afterwards.’

"’Stuff and nonsense!’ said Alice loudly. ‘The idea of having the sentence first!’

"’Hold your tongue!’ said the Queen, turning purple.

"’I won’t!’ said Alice.

"’Off with her head!’ the Queen shouted at the top of her voice."

Decide whether the battle is won or lost, whether the war should be abandoned or not before we even know what happened. Admittedly, this is an extreme case of news ignorance driving political debate and its derivative policy decisions. But it is a harbinger of things to come.

Consider that second news story I mentioned, The New York Times story that reported: "CBS, the home of the most storied news division in broadcasting, has been in discussions with Time Warner about a deal to outsource some of its news-gathering operations to CNN. … Broadly speaking, (there were) conversations about reducing CBS’s news-gathering capacity while keeping its frontline personalities, like Katie Couric, the CBS Evening News anchor, and paying a fee to CNN to buy the cable network’s news feed."

This is only an extreme example of a seemingly inexorable trend. Collecting news is too expensive, so almost all news organizations are cutting back on newsgathering. Every year, every month, every day, more and more commentary and analysis are based on less and less actual newsgathering. Often only one or two wire reports are the only real news. Everything else, as they say, is mere commentary.

We can see in the Basra event an extreme example of the kind of danger that — at a more incremental and less obvious way — increasingly is happening to our news. The ever-more constricting economic forces tightening around the feasibility of effective newsgathering may lead to a crisis of current event epistemology: In the future, we may not know enough about events to make rational decisions.

This is not a liberal problem or a conservative problem. This is a threat to having an informed electorate. Public knowledge is the first barricade against tyranny. (Gun ownership is a necessary, and very close, second.) We all have seen the shocking bias of certain Reuters and AP reporters. As newsgathering further shrinks to such minimal levels, the light of knowledge will go out. Even now, it flickers from time to time. Basra was an early warning.