Monday, November 28, 2005

The Battle of Midway ... and media bias

A dear friend forwarded a copy of one of those anti-media spams we all get. Even as President Bush and his crew attack those who'd revise the history of the Iraq war, somebody has revised the history of Americans at war, journalism and politics entirely.

As the last election proved, the Internet has become a weapon in the politcal wars. Spams like this originate from who-knows-where without bylines, to slice a political foe or institution from the safety of a dark mind, a dark motive and a dark office somewhere.

Here's the "rewritten" dispatch on the Battle of Midway, a great American victory re-imagined in a new form by anti-media mopes. The essence of my response to my friend appears below:

If Today's Media Reported the Battle of Midway:

Midway Island Demolished.
Yorktown, destroyer sunk.
Many US planes lost

June 7, 1942 -- The United States Navy suffered another blow in its attempt to stem the Japanese juggernaut ravaging the Pacific Ocean. Midway Island, perhaps the most vital U.S. outpost, was pummeled by Japanese Naval aviators. The defending U.S. forces, consisting primarily of antique Buffalo fighters, were completely wiped out while the Japanese attackers suffered few, if any, losses.

In a nearby naval confrontation, the Japanese successfully attacked the Yorktown which was later sunk by a Japanese submarine. A destroyer lashed to the Yorktown was also sunk. American forces claim to have sunk four Japanese carriers and the cruiser Mogami but those claims were vehemently denied by the Emperor's spokesman.

The American carriers lost an entire squadron of torpedo planes when they failed to link up with fighter escorts. The dive bombers had fighter escort even though they weren't engaged by enemy fighters. The War Dept. refused to answer when asked why the fighters were assigned to the wrong attack groups. The Hornet lost a large number of planes when they couldn't locate the enemy task force. Despite this cavalcade of errors, Admirals Fletcher and Spruance have not been removed.

Code Broken

The failure at Midway is even more disheartening because the U.S. Navy knew the Japanese were coming. Secret documents provided to the NY Times showed that "Magic" intercepts showed the Japanese planned to attack Midway, which they called "AF".

Obsolete Equipment

Some critics blamed the failure at Midway on the use of obsolete aircraft. The inappropriately named Devastator torpedo planes proved no match for the Japanese fighters. Even the Avengers, its schedule replacements, were riddled with bullets and rendered unflyable. Secretary of War Stimson dodged the question saying simply: "You go to war with the Navy you have, not the Navy you want or would like to have". Critics immediately called for his resignation.

(My response to my friend)

I don't think a modern report would be so obviously ignorant of the overall facts and outcome of the battle, but regrettably, I think this faux-report might be closer to what we'd see today than what we saw at the time of Midway ... especially on TV.

I'm sure I've told you that I was dispatched by the Denver Post to cover the Middle East during the first few months of the Afghan War in 2001. No editor ever took me aside and told me how to "see" what I was covering, nor to report some things and not others. I was aboard the USS Enterprise for about 10 days, and later joined Operation Bright Star, some international maneuvers in the Sahara. Mostly I wandered around the Middle East trying to get a sense of the Arab/Muslim way of thinking about America. For myself, I would not have risked my life to spread my petty political philosophies. I would -- and did -- risk my life to tell the story of what I saw so YOU could decide for yourself. I don't doubt that everything I wrote was taken differently by every reader, but I assure you it was as factually correct as I could make it.

Do you know the ONLY story I wrote that was spiked (in fact, the only story in my entire career that was spiked)? It was a piece I wrote in Cairo that summarized the editorials in the 7-8 Egyptian dailies that particular day. Most were insanely critical of the USA. My editors apparently decided it was probably not a good story for the moment -- about 5 weeks after Sept. 11. So in that one instance, we have evidence of a major American newspaper making a decision that the media's more conservative critics wouldn't believe.

During my reporting, I strove only to tell the story I saw. Sounds good, but I could only report what I saw -- a view rather like looking at the Universe through a soda straw. Today's world requires the reader/viewer/listener to gather many "soda-straw" views and triangulate like a forward observer to get an approximation of the truth. Reporters aren't lying; the good ones care more about the facts and truth than anyone on this planet (including evangelists!) Yes, they are human and humans must make choices.

I've literally had a debate with a reader over whether the subject of a story "hopped," "leaped," ""skipped" or merely "jumped." This reader cared passionately that my description matched his. Bias is generally as much a function of the reader/listener/viewer as the writer; I believe that today's readers aren't as interested in "unbiased" coverage ... they want coverage that suits THEIR biases. Thus, the popularity of Fox and Air America.

One last thing about Midway and WWII media: They were subject to censorship. The front-line coverage at the time simply HAD to be positive or it wouldn't get out (or the correspondent would be removed, maybe prosecuted.)

Do you know the quotation: "The first casualty of war is truth"? There's dispute over who said it, but not its accuracy. And I fear that even an unrestrained media (a relatively new notion) doesn't mean war news is truthful. But I do believe that an unrestrained press (at wartime) is better than allowing the government (Democrat or Republican) to determine what you should know. The Midway piece is fun, and as a parody, it's insightful (and incisive.)

I wish I and my colleagues could prove somehow that we are better than our critics say, but we've dug ourselves into a hole that seems to get deeper and deeper by the day. I genuinely believe, deep in my heart, that humankind has always valued messengers who can report accurately from afar, and we will always value those messengers who bring us information we can truly use to make our lives better. That's what keeps me going in this craft.


Anonymous said...

Well put. Amusing in a way, yet sad in another.

Anonymous said...

I am the author of the article being passed around. Just a private citizen who posted it on one website. Apparently it has gotten passed around as a blog called American Future posted it as having been emailed from someone at the Naval War College.

My intent was to show that a completely factual rendition of the Battle of Midway could portray it as a loss rather than a pivotal victory. Thus being "factual" isn't any guarantee of being accurate. Since everything can't be reported, some filtering needs to happen. Apply the right filter and you can substantially alter an event's significance.

Some of what gets reported from Iraq falls into that category. The NY Times ran a front page article saying US troops had fired on innocent civilians. Actually they reported an Iraqi "policeman" claimed they had. It turned out he wasn't a policeman, wasn't using his realy name and was just tell the reporters what he thought they wanted to hear. About three weeks later, buried dozens of paragraphs into another story, was an acknowledgement that it never happened. Not even a separate retraction. Someone reading the initial story or only the headline had been completely misled. The story was factually correct in that the man made the accusations, gave his "name" and said he was a policeman. In reality, the troops did not fire on civilians. In fact none had even fired a weapon.