Ideally, a country at war should not be a country of divided sentiment. But, as the United States begins to display its firepower in Iraq, sentiments are not only divided, but divisive, especially when it comes to the media.
The liberals believe the media are in favor of the war, in some cases almost without reservation. They believe the unprecedented access journalists seem to have to the conflict will result in unprecedented support for the war’s purposes and methods.
This is an argument that has been discussed on more than one occasion on Fox News Watch, and I will not repeat it now, except to say that the point seems a valid one; the struggle for objectivity, always difficult, may be even more difficult in this case because the military seems so willing to accommodate journalists, to make them, so to speak, allies.
The conservatives, on the other hand, believe the media oppose the war. One conservative in particular, a Fox News Watch viewer named Steve Ende, from Flushing, N.Y., makes another point worth considering. Ende believes the "liberal news media" began slanting their coverage even before the fighting began. How? "By rigging the scorecard by which success will be judged," says Ende.
He then goes on to list 10 criteria he believes have been imposed on the war effort by the media. Among them are the following:
— The war must end in about a week, 10 days at the most.
— There must be minimal, if any, U.S. casualties.
— No "innocent" Iraqi citizens can be killed in the process.
— No Iraqi schools, mosques or hospitals can be damaged.
— Our troops should be welcomed by American flag-waving Iraqis.
— We must find weapons of mass destruction.
— We must kill or capture Saddam Hussein and his sons.
— There can be no oil well fires or other environmental disasters.
"According to the media," writes Ende, "unless all of the above happens, Bush has failed."
As I said, it is a point worth considering. But Ende touches here on a larger point that is even more important. The media should not be imposing standards for failure or success on the stories they cover, no matter what the stories, but especially not in matters military and geo-political, when success and failure are so difficult to gauge and so subjectively perceived.
It is one thing to hope for a short war, a minimum of American and Iraqi casualties, minimal damage to schools and mosques and hospitals, and all the rest on Ende’s list. But it is presumptuous for the media to convert these hopes into guidelines for the measurement of the war’s ultimate outcomes.
And Ende is right; there are certain commentators doing just that, and in the process, it seems to me, trying to justify their opposition to the war no matter what its outcome.
Ultimately, journalists should care less about measuring the war’s outcomes than they do about providing information so that Americans can take their own measurements. They should add up the casualties and costs, calculate the time involved to achieve the stated goals, provide a variety of viewpoints about the eventual political consequences — and then turn the facts and figures and informed opinions over to their audiences.
The problem with reporters who have a strong pro- or anti-war position is that they will filter information through their biases. Those with pro-war positions will be too accepting of unnecessary brutality and damage and waste. Those with anti-war positions will, as Ende suggests, impose such rigorous conditions on the war’s results that success, as they define the term, will be impossible to achieve.
Which means that, in addition to the victims on the battlefield, there will be victims of an entirely different sort among those reading and watching the news.
Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch, which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.. ET/8 p.m. PT .