Often it isn’t what happens, but what gets talked about that makes all the difference.
When President Obama commented on General Stanley McChrystal, the greatest impression made on me was the source Obama cited as specific rationale for his approval of McChrystal’s resignation:
“The conduct represented in the recently published article does not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general. It undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system. And it erodes the trust that’s necessary for our team to work together to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan.”
Conduct represented in the recently published article? The six-page Rolling Stone article by Michael Hastings is titled “The Runaway General,” and it reads more like an off-the-record entertainment piece than a chilling exposé. Coming from a military family, I understand the importance of soldiers respecting the Commander-in-Chief and avoiding entanglement in distracting political divisiveness. Order and unity is important in the armed forces, especially during wartime.
But despite the mucky language said around and about McChrystal himself, whatever he actually did that threatened civilian control of our military some how evades the recently published article that was supposed to make that point. Ironically, when McChrystal had his chance to impact civilian control through his citizen power to vote, he chose Barack Obama to be Commander-in-Chief.
Ah, but a record of the conduct isn’t strictly what matters. It is how the conduct was represented that makes all the difference: Stan McChrystal, the Runaway General who “has seized control of the war by never taking his eye off the real enemy: The wimps in the White House.” Need more be convicting than the headline?
MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann is uncannily familiar with the dichotomy between representation and documentation in the media. While even Ann Coulter was willing to conclude that McChrystal’s resignation is good for other reasons, Olbermann warned President Obama to not accept McChrystal’s resignation, no matter how deserving, because it would risk representing the Runaway General as an American martyr:
“What exactly will the ouster of General McChrystal provoke, in our stupid, under-informed, constantly propagandized America of 2010? Who will be the first to identify McChrystal as a martyr to the evil Obama Administration? How many Americans, still looking for a rationalization to justify their rage at a Democratic president, or a black one, or an intelligent one, will have new fuel to feed their blind hatred?
Keep him, Mr. President. [It] will not merely neuter the political blowback, you will present a front of force, and calm, and intelligence, and a willingness to, dare I use the phrase Sir — a willingness to listen to the Commanders on the ground, even when they shoot off their big brass-covered bazoos.
You can own him, Mr. President, and own the political aftermath, now pregnant with opportunities for your critics. The General can be your voice to speed up the de-escalation. My goodness, he could be your mouthpiece if you suddenly saw the morass for what it is and decided to declare victory and get the hell out now. Who would fight you on that, Sir?”
It may have been unwise for a commanding general to bother talking with Rolling Stone magazine in the first place. It also seems unwise for a national media figure to scold contemporary America as “stupid, under-informed,” and “constantly propagandized.” You, Sir, are among the elite minority actually in a position of power to inform and propagandize.
A commenter on my last article said that Al Gore “is busy with countless tragedies in and around Nashville, which this year has seen floodwaters on par with those of Noah’s days.” What? There was a flood in Nashville? Oh yeah, come to think of it – though if it weren’t for local and independent media I never would have known it existed.
Some friends who live in Tennessee happened to visit my family on the last day of April, and ended up staying with us until the flood waters receded enough for them to travel home. But with Faisal Shahzad dominating the national media, we had to rely on our laptops to find Tennessee articles and homemade videos of flood footage.
When the national news finally did notice the fatal flooding, the media dichotomy began.
What happens: Twenty-nine people die in a “one thousand year flood” in Nashville, and some residents are unable to return to Tennessee for days.
What gets talked about:
Fox News’ Shepard Smith says, “Now for the story we would have been covering, if there hadn’t been so much else going on…”
CNN’s Rick Sanchez interviews Keith Urban about Nashville and tells him, “You’re so good-looking; you even look good on Skype.”
Well, that is the overall image cemented in the minds of at least some viewers of the national media that day. That’s when Tennessee friend Lindy Abbott wrote her Letter to the Editor:
“Visiting friends in Alabama since a day before the flood in Tennessee has been quite frustrating. It is appalling that national news media have all but ignored the tragic disaster. The Internet has been my only source to get video footage and live report information.
As of noon Tuesday, 29 people are reported dead in Tennessee due to this storm system, and it is nearly impossible to get updates. I want to thank the newspapers and local news stations for reporting and providing pictures. But may I ask a simple question, why has Tennessee been considered insignificant by national media?
You wonder if it is because the flooding in Tennessee does not serve any agenda or help to support politically desired interest. Or could it be that Tennesseans truly are volunteers and we are able to help each other in times of crisis, therefore, it is not a big story of people crying out for federal help?”
The letter inexplicably disappeared from the newspaper website about a month later, much to the Opinion Editor’s bewilderment.
Headlines can serve to expose skeletons as well as bury them. Consider the recent Supreme Court nominee, Solicitor General Elena Kagan.
What happens: Notably, Elena Kagan distorts scientific reports to help promote an abortion agenda.
During her time as an advisor in the Clinton administration, Kagan altered certain ACOG claims about partial-birth abortion. ACOG said that “[i]n the vast majority of cases, selection of the partial birth procedure is not necessary to avert serious adverse consequences to a woman’s health.” Kagan fixed the statement to say that the dilation and extraction (D and X) partial-birth abortion procedure “may be the best or most appropriate procedure in a particular circumstance to save the life or preserve the health of the mother…” (read the original documents with Kagan’s handwriting on them here, here, and here).
That is nonsense, of course. A partial-birth abortion procedure is nothing more than a woman giving birth to a baby being killed in the process. Does the tampering of medical documents pertain to the sort of discernment we want on the highest court in the land?
What gets talked about: Elena Kagan has a good sense of humor that disarms the Senate interrogators.
That is what Yahoo Headline News apparently found to be the most important revelation in the confirmation hearings.
But this has barely even touched on the sometimes undemure awkwardness of who does the talking.
Recently you might have caught disgraced former New York governor Eliot Spitzer sitting in for Dylan Ratigan on MSNBC. Now just as Larry King is leaving CNN, Spitzer will be cohosting a show there.
What is any moderately informed individual able to take away from this? There is no such thing as messing up too badly if you’re a politician. Even if you aren’t that great in office or get dethroned due to an adulterous relationship with a prostitute, you can still host a talk show on MSNBC or CNN.
That is, under the condition that you’re a Democrat politician.
I’m all for repentance and redemption, but we must remember the responsibility the media has in conveying images. A couple of years may not be enough time to thrust a person previously exposed in infamy by the media’s lens into the position of manning its stage. But apparently that does not officially harm the integrity of the media so long as that isn’t what gets talked about.
When all is said and done, what part of these stories will be remembered, and what will they mean?
As Sam Clark masterfully captures in a song on his latest album, “Whoever controls the talking points controls your world…unless you change the subject!”
Read more of Amanda’s column Not Your Average Read in the Communities at The Washington Times.