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The Media and the War By: Thomas Sowell
Townhall.com | Monday, April 14, 2003


The recent deaths of journalists in Baghdad are more than just personal tragedies. Both the chances that these journalists have taken and the indignant reactions by the surviving journalists are a sad sign of a growing lack of realism in our times, especially among the intelligentsia in the media and in academia.

More than a century after General Sherman said, "War is hell," it still seems to come as a great shock to some people when journalists get killed in the middle of a battle zone. The fact that they were warned beforehand by American authorities that no special provision could be made for their safety seems to have been like water off a duck's back.

When a soldier is being shot at and he looks around and finds someone pointing something at him, he shoots back immediately. He had better, if he wants to come home alive after this is all over.

If second-guessers later argue that it was really just someone pointing a big TV camera at him, while someone else, somewhere else, was doing the shooting, that may be very interesting after the fact but life and death depend on split-second decisions at the time. When you point something at a soldier who is under fire, you do so at your own risk.

There is another aspect to this. The Iraqi Minister of Information known as "Baghdad Bob," who broadcasts big lies to the outside world, has been located in the same hotel as the journalists. Because of American reluctance to blast that hotel, since journalists are known to be there, the reporters are in effect his human shields, permitting his propaganda to continue.

It is easy enough to laugh at Baghdad Bob's denials that American troops are anywhere near Baghdad, even while those troops and their tanks are rolling down the city's highways, but it is no laughing matter. More men are going to die on both sides because of his words.

Iraqi defenders who have no idea what the real situation is can fight on when it looks like Saddam Hussein's regime is still viable -- and able to inflict terrible retribution on them and their families if they stop fighting. Volunteers from surrounding Arab countries can continue to flow in, when it looks like they are joining a battle that can be won, rather than dooming themselves in a hopeless cause, whose days are numbered -- perhaps in single digits.

One bomb blowing up Baghdad Bob while he is talking on TV could refute his propaganda in a way that would be understood by everyone, everywhere, and save many lives. But it would probably also take out some journalists from around the world, leading to an orgy of media denunciation on all continents. But more American troops could come home alive.

In this "me" generation, it may be too much to expect reporters to take into account how what they are saying and doing can cost other people's lives. We have already seen some of these reporters sent home because they refuse to respect the ban on giving out troop locations and other potentially fatal information.

The phrase "the public's right to know" has been used to cover a multitude of media sins. The public also has a right not to know, when they don't want information at the expense of young American soldiers' lives.

By and large, the reporters "embedded" with troops in combat have behaved responsibly and provided us with reliable news faster than a huge organization like the Defense Department can. Embedded reporters stand out in sharp contrast with the carping cleverness of media people sitting in the safety of the Pentagon press room or the editorial offices of the New York Times.

In war, as in peace, the New York Times has continued its practice of putting editorials on the front page and calling them news. For example, a headline on a story coming out of Iraq, dated April 4th, read: "For Weary U.S. Troops, End is Still Elusive."

Fortunately, it turned out that they were not too weary to storm into Baghdad. If our troops really become "weary" after less than three weeks of fighting, how could we ever have fought for nearly four years in World War II? Maybe the N.Y. Times is trying to compete with Peter Arnett in countercultural cleverness.

The time is long overdue to stop taking the media, as well as the U.N., so seriously.


Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.


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