Is Baghdad Burning?

Who controls communication about this war?  That has become more a question about peoples’ information consumption habits, rather than about control of the channels themselves.

Consider a comparison of today’s Presidential video con with the troops and the blog Baghdad Burning. 

W, like all recent presidents, has an awesome information machine at his disposal.  It used to be (starting with Ike) that for personal TV coverage of the Pres, there was a news conference—going to that level of real time was reportedly a scary loss of control for the handlers in those days.  Now, the news pump can be always on, and hooked into the zillions of fibres carrying propaganda to your home instantly.  This level of saturation and message control is the logical evolution of a process that started to pick up steam in the 60s.

Of course, all the imperfections get instantly transmitted as well (Nixon’s five-oclock shadow, for example).  With W, you get that funny sense that his words are not quite connected with his brain—I don’t mean that he seems stupid, just that he seems to be working very hard to say the thing he thinks he should or has planned to say, while also trying to seem folksy and spontaneous as if he had no plan to say it.

The medium is so open and omnipresent now that big imperfections also are sometimes revealed.   Like today’s totally scripted prep for W’s up-to-six questions of the troops, caught ahead of the actual call via the already open cable feed.  From ThinkProgress:

Earlier today, Pentagon communications aide Allison Barber “insisted” to reporters that questions during President Bush’s photo-op teleconference “were not rehearsed,” and that no “specific questions” were prepared.

Unfortunately, she was caught on tape acknowledging just the opposite — that she had “drilled through” “all six” of the questions that Bush was going to ask:

BARBER: So here’s what you to be prepared for, Captain Kennedy, is that the president is going to ask some questions. He may ask all six of them, he may ask three of them. He might have such a great time talking to you, he might come up with some new questions. So what we want to be prepared for is to not stutter. So if there’s a question that the president comes up with that we haven’t drilled through today, then I’m expecting the microphone to go right back to you, Captain Kennedy, and you to handle [it].

If W’s usual cardboard folksiness didn’t destroy the attempt at spontaneity, this news certainly did. 

Pres_videocon But lets assume all came off as "planned"—what would the best case have looked like?  W, talking from a podium (as Wonkette points out) "cheated toward the press cameras with one quarter turn", spilling out the rhetoric fewer and fewer citizens are buying, sucking whatever political life he can from the obvious patriotism and bravery of soldiers in the field.  That is the best he could have hoped for.  It falls pretty far short of convincing, or even of having its own kind of integrity though you disagree with the position.

No amount of communications technology can substitute for the acute observation of a single, engaged, critical observer.  In contrast to Bush’s preamble to the scripted questions today

We got a strategy, and it’s a clear strategy. On the one hand, we will hunt down these killers and terrorists and bring them to justice, and train the Iraqi forces to join us in that effort.

The second part of the strategy is a political strategy, based upon the knowledge that you defeat a backward, dark philosophy with one that’s hopeful. And that hopeful philosophy is one based upon universal freedom. I’m very impressed that the Iraqi government has continued to work to have a constitution that attracts Sunnis and Shias and Kurds. They’ve worked hard to get a constitution, and now the people of Iraq are going to get to vote once again, on a constitution, in this case.

you can get an entirely different point of view on that wonderful constitution from the author of Baghdad Burning, a blog apparently by a young Iraqi woman living there.  She (I believe in both her girlness and Iraqi-ness, so I’ll honor that possible truth) has, unusually often for her, posted every week for the past three, discussing and dissecting the drafts of the constitution (from the Arabic as well as English language NYT translations).  Her most recent entry is more about how the constitution does or does not fit into Iraqi life, as she knows it anyway, describing her irrascible neighbor’s use of her copy of the Arabic draft to clear up some tooki berries pruned from a shared tree.

I frowned and tried to hand her the Arabic version. “But you should read it. READ IT. Look- I even highlighted the good parts… the yellow is about Islam and the pink is about federalism and here in green- that’s the stuff I didn’t really understand.” She looked at it suspiciously and then took it from me.

I watched as she split the pile of 20 papers in two- she began sweeping the top edge of the wall with one pile, and using the other pile like a dustpan, she started to gather the wilted, drying tooki scattered on the wall. “I don’t have time or patience to read it. We’re not getting water- the electricity has been terrible and Abu F. hasn’t been able to get gasoline for three days… And you want me to read a constitution?”

“But what will you vote?” I asked, watching the papers as they became streaked with the crimson, blood-like tooki stains.

“You’ll actually vote?” She scoffed. “It will be a joke like the elections… They want this constitution and the Americans want it- do you think it will make a difference if you vote against it?” She had finished clearing the top edge of the wall of the wilting tooki and she dumped it all on our side. She put the now dusty, took- stained sheets of paper back together and smiled as she handed them back, “In any case, let no one tell you it wasn’t a useful constitution- look how clean the wall is now! I’ll vote for it!” And Umm F. and the hedge clippers disappeared.

Riverbend (apparently her nom de plume) only has a PC and a connection (intermittent, no doubt) to a web service.  W has total, permanent, always-on, massively connected infrastructure at his instant disposal.  Today, who do you believe is giving you the real story on Iraq? 

Juan Cole cites Brit journalist Robert Fisk, quoted more fully here from the online Independent:

He said that the portrayal of Iraq by Western leaders ­ of efforts to introduce democracy, including Saturday’s national vote on the country’s proposed constitution ­ was "unreal" to most of its citizens. In Baghdad, children and women were kept at home to prevent themCnngreenzonemap_halfsize from being kidnapped for money or sold into slavery. They faced a desperate struggle to find the money to keep generators running to provide themselves with electricity. "They aren’t sitting in their front rooms discussing the referendum on the constitution."

With insurgents half a mile from Baghdad’s Green Zone, Fisk said the danger to reporters from a brutal insurgency that did not respect journalists was increasing. "Every time I go to Baghdad it’s worse, every time I ask myself how we can keep going. Because the real question is ­ is the story worth the risk?"

I’m not listening to a huge amount of TV news—has there been much visibility there of the fact that (for many, many months now) reporters can’t actually report, as we normally understand the word, from Iraq?  By the way, this is a big mistake on the part of the insurgency.  If most Americans could see what is really going on (what Riverbend is already telling us, along with many others) we’d be out of there in no time flat.  Between the pre-scripted bullshit we get from from the Bushrovers and the fearful jabbering silence of the talking heads in the Green Zone, there is no bad news, or news at all.

Green_zone0

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