Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Information, the new media, and the long war

Donald Rumsfeld spoke to the Council on Foreign Relations yesterday. In New York. Oddly enough, I can’t find a story in the Times.

The headline in most places is that the Secretary doesn’t think we’re competing effectively in the information war with al Qaeda. No one, however, quoted this example:

In this environment the old adage that: “A lie can be half way around the world before the truth has its boots on” becomes doubly true with today’s technologies.

We saw this with the false allegations of the desecration of a Koran last year. Once it was published in a weekly news magazine, it was posted on websites, sent in e-mails, and repeated on satellite television and radio stations for days, before the facts could be discovered.

And, in those first days, the false story incited anti-American riots in Pakistan and elsewhere, and human beings were killed in the ensuing riots.

Once aware of the story, the U.S. Military, appropriately, and of necessity, took the time needed to ensure that it had the facts before responding -- having to conduct interviews and pore though countless documents, investigations and log books. It was finally determined that the charge was false.

But in the meantime the lives had been lost and great damage had been done.

What complicates the ability to respond quickly is that, unlike our enemies, which propagate lies with impunity -- with no penalty whatsoever -- our government does not have the luxury of relying on other sources for information -- anonymous or otherwise. Our government has to be the source. And we tell the truth.

Rumsfeld mentioned other failures of the press, as well as the 24/7 rapid-fire news cycle that lays the foundation for them. But he rightly doesn’t connect the dots, so I will. Rushing to screen or print with inflammatory, inaccurate, and insufficiently vetted information, playing the adversarial role to the hilt, offers an opening to our adversaries that they’re only too willing to exploit. No one’s asking the press to do the government’s job for it, and no one expects the press to roll over and play dead, but we can ask news organizations to be more careful in their reporting, to check and double-check their stories, and to be aware of how our enemies are going to use them. If, as you often claim to be, you’re an essential part of our system of checks and balances, you should remember that the system is meant to enhance the functioning of all its elements, not to mention that all the elements that check and balance are themselves susceptible to being checked and balanced.

Update: Not surprisingly, while almost all the MSM reports I’ve seen mention Rumsfeld’s discussion of U.S. shortcomings, none remark on his plans for the future:

[G]overnment public affairs and public diplomacy efforts must reorient staffing, schedules and culture to engage the full range of media that are having such an impact today.

Our U.S. Central Command, for example, has launched an online communications effort that includes electronic news updates and a links campaign, that has resulted in several hundred blogs receiving and publishing CENTCOM content.

The U.S. government will have to develop the institutional capability to anticipate and act within the same news cycle. That will require instituting 24-hour press operation centers, elevating Internet operations and other channels of communications to the equal status of traditional 20th Century press relations. It will result in much less reliance on the traditional print press, just as the publics of the U.S. and the world are relying less on newspapers as their principal source of information.

And it will require attracting more experts in these areas from the private sector to government service.

This also will likely mean embracing new institutions to engage people across the world. During the Cold War, institutions such as the U.S. Information Agency and Radio Free Europe proved to be valuable instruments for the United States of America.

We need to consider the possibility of new organizations and programs that can serve a similarly valuable role in the War on Terror in this new century.

What, for example, should a U.S. Information Agency, or a Radio Free Europe for the 21st Century look like? These are tough questions.

Rumsfeld gets it. If the MSM doesn’t report your story, there are plenty of other ways of getting the word out, at least to a domestic audience and increasingly to foreign audiences:

Throughout the world, advances in technology are forcing a massive information flow that dictatorships and extremists ultimately will not be able to control. Blogs are rapidly appearing even in countries where the press is still government-controlled.

Pro-democracy forces are communicating and organizing by e-mail, pagers and blackberries.

Today, in Iraq, an energetic media has emerged from the rubble of Saddam’s police state, with nearly 300 newspapers, over 90 radio stations and more than 40 television stations. Iraqis are now accessing the Web in their homes, as well as in Internet cafes that have sprung up in towns and cities across their country.

We are fighting a battle where the survival of our free way of life is at stake. And the center of gravity of that struggle is not just on the battlefield. It is a test of wills and it will be won or lost with our public and the publics of free nations across the globe. We will need to do all we can to attract supporters to our efforts, to correct the lies being told which so damage our country, and shatter the appeal of the enemy.

Here, again, is the text of Rumsfeld’s speech. Read the whole thing.

Discussions - 3 Comments

Joe, your "functionalist" analysis of the situation may be valid, but I’m afraid the press corp is animated by a conflict model. They see themselves in an antagonistic relationship with the current Administration and the military...indeed, with all of "Amerikan" society. They are necessary for an informed citizenry, but I’m afraid they are not "team players." What to do about it?

Well, there’s no standards in journaism anymore - i mean look at this site - hey, where are any stories about the millions of dollars Dick Cheney is reaping in from Heroin sold from Afghanistan via the CIA - purged of all liberals like V. Plame, hey what- your honesty - huh, lack of it - is an inspiration to commies everywhere - keep it up - if you can get it up....

I enjoy posters like e j loser above...they remind me just how insipid and juvenile the Left has become. Good news for those of us who want to win elections!

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