Frame Game

Bad News Bearers


Three weeks into the bombing of Afghanistan, American journalists are beginning to declare the war a failure. Why? Because their political bias in favor of their country is being overwhelmed by professional biases that skew their coverage the other way, undermining the morale of the United States rather than that of the Taliban. Here’s how it’s happening.

1. Vicarious doubt. American reporters worry that if they call the war a failure, they’ll look unpatriotic. But that doesn’t stop them. They just attribute the F-word to somebody else. They seldom identify a source, preferring vague plural allusions. On CNN’s Late Edition, Wolf Blitzer asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about bad things “some people are suggesting” and “some critics are saying” about the war. An article in this morning’s New York Times began, “Like an unwelcome specter from an unhappy past, the ominous word ‘quagmire’ has begun to haunt conversations among government officials and students of foreign policy.”

“Haunt” illustrates a favorite method of vicarious criticism: the immaculate verb. By this method, criticisms emerge magically rather than through the mouths of the reporters who might otherwise appear to be introducing them. At Monday’s Pentagon press conference, one reporter asked Rumsfeld about “criticisms and questions and skepticism that have come up in the last several days.” Another rehashed “this frustration question that seems to be bubbling around.”

The reason such questions “bubble around” is that reporters raise and repeat them in a self-escalating cycle. Here’s how it works. On Friday, a reporter tells an admiral at a Pentagon briefing, “There is a growing chorus now—it’s still a small chorus, but it’s getting louder—of critics who are saying that the United States appears to be bogged down.” On Saturday, under the headline “New Sense of Impatience Is Emerging,” the Los Angeles Times cites the “bogged down” question as evidence that doubts have “crystallized” as “the military faces increasingly skeptical questions.” On Sunday, ABC’s Cokie Roberts opens her interview with Rumsfeld by noting, “There’ve been stories over the weekend that give the perception that this war after three weeks is not going very well.”

Taliban officials don’t have to address such vicarious questions, stories, and perceptions about their troubles, because any Afghan journalist, government official, or “student of foreign policy” who tried to make such a question bubble up would be executed.

2. Expectations game. Since Oct. 7, we’ve killed a lot of Taliban soldiers and destroyed a lot of Taliban infrastructure without losing an American soldier in combat. But according to the media, that’s not the story. The story is that we’re falling short of “expectations.” As Roberts put it to Rumsfeld: “Is the war just not going as well as you had hoped it would?” Expectations, like doubts, appear and grow by magic. At Monday’s Pentagon briefing, a reporter told Rumsfeld that the emerging chorus for ground troops “tends to push this expectation flow against” his defense of the air campaign. The dynamics of “expectation flow” were left unexplained.

That’s unfortunate, because the adjustment of expectations is as important as our progress in meeting them. The New York Times reported Tuesday that according to its latest poll, “Americans for the first time are raising doubts about whether the nation can accomplish its objectives in fighting terrorism at home and abroad, including capturing or killing Osama bin Laden, saving the international alliance from unraveling and protecting people from future attacks.” The Times headlined its front-page story, “Survey Shows Doubts Stirring on Terror War.” But the doubts expressed in the poll weren’t about the whole war. Arguably, the war can be won without killing Bin Laden, maintaining a permanent global coalition, or keeping the United States perfectly free of terrorism. Certainly, victory is more plausible if those definitions of success are surrendered. From that point of view, the public’s lowered expectations make the war on terror more sustainable, not less.

Taliban leaders don’t have to explain discrepancies between performance and expectations, because Afghan journalists don’t dare acknowledge such discrepancies.

3. Subjectivity. American journalists think of us as the war’s subjects and the Taliban as the war’s objects. We think and act; the Taliban budges or doesn’t budge. This framework helps the Taliban, because only the subjects of a war are expected to rethink their behavior. In briefings and interviews, reporters often ask Rumsfeld whether the United States has “miscalculated” or “underestimated” the Taliban and whether our bombing raids “create new recruits” for the enemy. They don’t ask whether Taliban leaders ought to re-evaluate their behavior in light of our violent response to their recalcitrance.

4. Self-importance. On Tuesday’s front page, the New York Times presented its poll results in the context of “threats about anthrax unfolding virtually every day and little discernible progress in the air campaign against the Taliban.” Little discernible progress? The air campaign has inflicted far more death and destruction on the Taliban than the anthrax letters have inflicted on us (four deaths so far). By discounting Taliban deaths and treating even “threats” to Americans as far more significant, we set ourselves up for psychological defeat after any exchange of casualties.

5. Coalition fragility. We have an international coalition. The Taliban doesn’t. In absolute terms, that makes us stronger. But in relative terms, it makes us weaker. It’s easier to lose pieces of a coalition than it is to lose pieces of one country or regime. Because the media focus on momentum shifts, Pakistan’s presence in our coalition since the onset of the war isn’t news, but Pakistan’s possible exit from that coalition is big news. That’s why Rumsfeld spent the weekend on ABC and CNN answering questions about Pakistan’s government “getting impatient” and “the coalition falling apart.” Tuesday’s Washington Post front page distilled the media’s sense of a Pakistan-provoked momentum shift: “Pressure to Curtail War Grows.”

6. Offensive posture. We’re playing offense, and the Taliban is playing defense. In absolute terms, it’s better to be on offense. But in relative terms, it’s better to be on defense, because stalemate is interpreted as a victory for the defense. Reporters keep pressing Rumsfeld to explain why the bombing is limited, why the Taliban remains in power, and why Bin Laden “is still at large” (never mind that he’s pinned down and can’t operate freely). Any cutback in bombing during Ramadan will be portrayed as a retreat. It doesn’t matter that we’ll be bombing the other guys. What matters is that we’ll be bombing them less heavily than before.

7. Boredom. Journalists demand news. If the United States fails to provide news in the form of measurable success, journalists will make that failure itself the news. Last week, a reporter asked Rumsfeld, “What can the Pentagon do to keep the American public engaged in this, [so] that a certain amount of boredom doesn’t set in, as with Iraq? You know, every now and then we’d go and we’d bomb a little something, and everybody yawned. Unless there’s a bombing here every month, how do we really keep the public engaged?” The question revealed nothing about the efficacy or inefficacy of the bombing of Iraq. What it revealed was that the reporter equated military success with news value.

This is a big reason why Rumsfeld is being bombarded with questions about getting “bogged down” in a campaign that “doesn’t appear to be going anywhere,” hamstrung by an “impatient” coalition that’s “falling apart.” Reporters themselves are feeling impatient and bogged down in a story that seems not to be going anywhere. They want to announce that something is falling apart. If they don’t find that story in the Taliban, they’ll find it in the coalition. “Do you believe that you now, in terms of the public image, have gone into a defensive posture?” a reporter asked Rumsfeld Tuesday. The secretary could have replied: Sure I have. And you’re the one who’s put me there.