How Television Seeks to Distract Us From The Wikileaks Story

The gaping disconnect between newspaper and television journalism is on full display in the WikiLeaks Afghanistan war controversy.

Television, and cable news in particular, would have us believe that the the story is about posting 90,000 documents on the Internet and not what the documents themselves say. Television would have us believe that the Pentagon’s outrage at the disclosure is the story.

Transparency vs. national security is the issue for the television jokesters, whereas for the rest of the world the issue is the great toll the war is taking on our people, our economy, and our stature in the world.

Television cannot be relied upon to tell us what we need to know to make decisions in a democratic society.

Is there a security issue? Of course there is. But BP wasn’t happy with the coverage of its oil spill, so how might we expect the Pentagon to be happy with 90,000 field documents strongly suggesting we are not winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.

Television is at pains to tell us over and over what retired Brig. Gen. Mark T. P. Kimmitt thinks of this egregious security leak. The only news here would have been if General Kimmitt had anything good to say about the leaks. But that’s television-bathing us in the predictable. You can always dig up a general or a politician or a pundit to blather about something, but facts are harder to come by and cost more.

We’re supposed to think the WikiLeakers and the newspapers who got the files-The Guardian in the United Kingdom, Der Spiegel in Germany, and The New York Times -are perps. We’re led to think the righteous indignation of the hawks is entirely about our security and not their wrong-headedness.

The now venerable eight-year war in Afghanistan was George W. Bush’s signature boondoggle, but it’s President Obama’s now, and he has embraced it. His embrace is perhaps understandable when seen in the context of his desire to push health care and Wall Street reform through Congress, but the judicious President should remember that war is not political calculus; it is rather the horrific question of how much a single life is worth.

It is beyond television to appreciate this question, because war enhances ratings, while peace is boring and difficult and costly to report in its complexities. War lends itself to simplicitudes. Peace does not. So the issue of a single human life does not move the always-smiley TV anchors, but it ought to move a president because he is the embodiment of the American people. TV can never be that embodiment because it is by its nature out to game us. But a president who games us is an abomination.

When I say a single human life I mean a single Afghan life as well as an American life. It is all very well to speak incessantly as the chicken-hawks do of the horrors of the Taliban-they harbor terrorists, they kill innocents, they oppress women-and nobody is denying their deficits. But the Taliban shares these faults in common with quite a few people around the world, and we must ask ourselves if it is our intent-and if it is in our power-to wage war against them all.

There is little difference between terrorists harbored in Waziristan and terrorists harbored in Yemen, Somalia or the Sahara. Can we send troops to all those places? And at the same time keep troops in South Korea? What are our limits?

Nor are our own hands clean when it comes to our charges against the Taliban. We are far from treating women equally in America. We are far from a just society, far from a corruption-free society. We have skeletons in our own closet.

The generals, like corporations, like the mainstream media, will always sulk and grouse when denied an opportunity to massage the facts. Their massaging of the facts kept us in Vietnam much too long, assuming we ought to have been there in the first place. They are like BP’s executives: they will defend their stake in whatever they are doing. We expect them to, but that doesn’t mean we should take their word for anything any more than we take a president’s or a senator’s.

Democracy is about our right to the information about what our country is doing and deciding for ourselves if we approve, and that is the story of the WikiLeaks, not the fact that there was a leak.