Jewish World Review Sept. 19, 2003/ 22 Elul, 5763
A monk, a hurricane and a news cycle
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | The schadenfreude that defines today's hysteria-driven media was vividly manifest Thursday as our world fixated on Isabel - the little hurricane that couldn't quite - and largely ignored weightier if quieter stories of the day.
Two in particular leapt off the pages where they were buried. One on page A16 of the New York Times startled the imagination. The Dalai Lama - spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, premier advocate of nonviolence, Nobel Peace Prize winner - said that violence may be necessary in the fight against terrorism and that it's "too early to say" whether the war against Iraq was wrong.
"Terrorism is the worst kind of violence, so we have to check it, we have to take countermeasures," he said during a visit to New York City. As to Iraq, he said, "I feel only history will tell."
While you're absorbing those words, we'll skip back a few pages to A10, where we learn that the BBC reporter who started Britain's whole "sexed up" intelligence-dossier controversy, which led to one man's suicide and nearly ruined Prime Minister Tony Blair, contained some errors.
The reporter, Andrew Gilligan, says he stands by the thrust of his report that last-minute changes were made to the dossier to suggest that Iraq could deploy unconventional weapons within 45 minutes, even though the single source of that information was of dubious merit. But he admitted that he was mistaken in reporting that his source, Dr. David Kelly, told him Downing Street knew the report was "wrong."
He also apologized for trying to influence the parliamentary committee that interrogated Kelly, who took his life three days after being questioned. Gilligan admitted e-mailing three committee members to suggest ways they might question and entrap Kelly.
Doubtless Gilligan's words come as welcome consolation to Kelly's family. As for Blair, the prime minister said the charges against him so challenged his integrity that, if true, he would have had to resign.
But they were not quite true after all. And yet the world will be slow catching up with what is true. The impression of Blair's "sexed-up" intelligence has been tattooed on the global brain, and tattoos, as an American generation is about to learn, are near impossible to remove.
Meanwhile, the stunning words of the Dalai Lama provide much-needed equilibrium to the political debate about the war in Iraq. Perhaps it took a monk to suggest the notion of patience in the 24/7 world of instapunditry (no disrespect to the estimable blogger Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit.com).
It is indeed too soon to pass judgment on Iraq, but bad news is what compels and sells. Journalism's once-heroic goal of seeking truth has been subjugated, it seems, to the more commercially expedient mandate of "sexing up" the news.
With notable exceptions, the media increasingly are perceived as the world's pimp, selling cheap stories for slicker suits and flashier careers. In the absence of salable truths about lying politicians - the Woodward 'n' Bernstein template that introduced careerism to newsrooms - reporters are increasingly willing to fictionalize.
Not all, of course. And honest mistakes admitted and corrected are something else. But too many of today's mistakes are of a different order. Too many reporters maliciously alter truth - from fabricating stories and sources (Jayson Blair) to selectively using partial quotes to purposely distort meaning.
Just this week, the Washington Post ran a correction on a story that took one of Vice President Dick Cheney's quotes so out of context that the impression presented was exactly the opposite of what Cheney obviously meant.
We so want bad news, apparently, that we'll avert our eyes from the good. But do we so want bad news that we'd rather fail in Iraq? That we're willing to compromise American lives? Not consciously, perhaps. Not the way France wants us to fail, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman described in the same Thursday paper. You'll want to catch that, too.
But our obsession with the downside, ignoring the progress that is being made in Iraq (too extensive to list here) in favor of items that suggest failure and quagmire borders on the pathological. Has our self-loathing come to this?
As the week's news cycle wound down, it was hard not to notice the media's palpable disappointment that Isabel didn't quite measure up to our bad-news standard. It was almost embarrassing to watch TV reporters sacrificing perfectly good hairdos as they struggled along the Eastern seaboard trying to make riveting that which we know about hurricanes.
One gets the feeling, too, that everyone would have been a little bit happier if hundreds had died, if the Dalai Lama had proclaimed the Iraq war a tragic mistake, and if Tony Blair had "sexed up" intelligence after all.