December 12, 2005

Liberal Heck: the Rest of the Stories

Hatched by Dafydd

In our post from a week and a half ago, Buy an Ad, Go to Liberal Heck, we exploded the conventional "wisdom" anent the Los Angeles Times's infamous story claiming that dastardly PsyOps officers were tricking gullible Iraqi newspaper editors into publishing skewed, flawed stories, not realizing they were actually passing along propaganda from the U.S. government.

What was in fact happening, the Times's own evidence indicated, was that the Lincoln Group did hire stringers to place the American-written stories in Iraqi media sources, and they did pay the news media for running the stories -- which cash-strapped Iraqi newspapers and radio stations routinely demand from everyone who wants to run a point-of-view story. But there is no evidence that the Lincoln Group deliberately sought to conceal from the editors the American origin of the stories, as the L.A. Times had explicitly claimed.

Rather, it appeared that the Iraqi stringers had quickly discovered that saying "this is from the American government" merely jacked the price way up... so the most likely explanation is that they figured out how to scam a few bucks by failing to tell the editors the stories were from Americans, getting the cheap rate, but then telling the Lincoln Group that they had to pay the high price -- and pocketing the difference. Entrepreneurship... Iraqi style!

Yesterday (Sunday), the New York Times -- far more reputable than the Los Angeles namesake (but then, so is the Fortean Times) -- has a lengthy and fascinating article on the wider story: our entire strategy of countering terrorist lies with American truth by publishing or broadcasting stories, public service announcements, and even fictional dramas and comedies, all designed to undo some of the momentous damage that decades of anti-American propaganda have done to Moslem attitudes towards America and the West. The facts of the article are actually presented fairly, by and large... assuming you ignore the snarky tone and cluck-clucking that permeates the piece.

Let me show you what I mean:

The entire Times article is worth reading; but as Holmes would say, there are a few points of particular interest.

Definitions and Determinations

The [media center in Fayetteville, N.C.] is not part of a news organization, but a military operation, and those writers and producers are soldiers. The 1,200-strong psychological operations unit based at Fort Bragg turns out what its officers call "truthful messages" to support the United States government's objectives, though its commander acknowledges that those stories are one-sided and their American sponsorship is hidden.

This is the root of all the trouble. The MSM, as part of the Left (institutionally, not each individual), long ago absorbed the bromide of the Left... that to control the terms is to control the debate; to control the debate is to control the world. Hence, they have decreed that a "news organization" can only be one sanctioned by, and following the rules of, the American mainstream journalistic community, at the apex of which squats the Columbia School of Journalism on the academic side and the New York Times on the practical. It's hardly a wonder that the Times itself moves swiftly to disabuse us of the notion that raw information coming from soldiers -- or from bloggers -- can be "news," when it has not been edited through the proper filters.

"Too much information" is not just what you tell Aunt Agatha when she launches into a detailed description of her hysterectomy. It's also the cry of the storyteller, for too much information obscures the clear plotline he's already designed. It's what Mary Mapes and Dan Rather said when various experts suggested that Bill Burkett's documents appeared to be forgeries. Likewise, what louts like Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean say when folks tried to tell him that there was a gushing firehose of contradictory intelligence information about Iraq and WMD, and that any conclusion was as logical as any other... but the one Bush chose was considerably less dangerous.

(But all information is storytelling, and "TMI" can refer to good guys as well as bad. See below.)

Both News and Politics seek ambiguity, but only on their own terms: they want to control all the choices to make sure none points to a possible alternative than their own explanations.

So information must be culled, rationed; and the most effective method is to secure the sources. Thus, information is only news if the Times says it is, the true meaning of their otherwise inexplicable motto, "all the news that's fit to print." Best translation: all the news that fits -- fits the Big Story, that is.

Cosmic Background Journalism

The [Lincoln Group]'s work was part of an effort to counter disinformation in the Iraqi press. With nearly $100 million in United States aid, the Iraqi media has sharply expanded since the fall of Mr. Hussein. There are about 200 Iraqi-owned newspapers and 15 to 17 Iraqi-owned television stations. Many, though, are affiliated with political parties, and are fiercely partisan, with fixed pro- or anti-American stances, and some publish rumors, half-truths and outright lies.

From quarters at Camp Victory, the American base, the Lincoln Group works to get out the military's message.

Are We There Yet?

But the work of the contractor, the Lincoln Group, was not a rogue operation. Hoping to counter anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world, the Bush administration has been conducting an information war that is extensive, costly and often hidden, according to documents and interviews with contractors, government officials and military personnel.

Now this is new information! The Times has let slip that they do not actually control all the news; they haven't previously reported that Bush did, in fact, absorb the most urgent lesson from the eyes-wide-shut 90s: there is no escaping the Great Game. What Sir Arthur Eddington (perhaps) wrote regarding the Three Laws of Thermodynamics applies equally well to the War of the Words, as Donald Rumsfeld called it in July in the Wall Street Journal (well worth reading as a companion piece to this Times article):

  1. You can't win.
  2. You can't break even.
  3. You can't even quit the game.

Information and energy are different avatars of the same phenomenon (as are noise and entropy), so it's not surprising that rules developed for energy work reasonably well to describe information flow, too:

  1. No country can "hold[] monopolies on news and commentary," as the secretary puts it;
  2. Nor can you even stop false or misleadingly oversimplified information from getting out, because "due to the ubiquitous sources of information and access, most things -- controversial or not -- become known eventually;" and
  3. You cannot even "quit the game" by refusing to generate your own information supporting your side of a controversy, as we tried to do during the Clinton (and Carter) years... because refusing to overtly defend your own case amounts to covertly attacking it, because the rest of the world takes silence as an embarassing admission against interest.

So it's good that Bush has thrown off the lethargy of 1989 through 2001 and at least leapt into the Great Game, the War of the Words, with both feet. Back to the Times writeup.

Nuts and Bolts

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the focus of most of the activities, the military operates radio stations and newspapers, but does not disclose their American ties. Those outlets produce news material that is at times attributed to the "International Information Center," an untraceable organization....

Like the Lincoln Group, Army psychological operations units sometimes pay to deliver their message, offering television stations money to run unattributed segments or contracting with writers of newspaper opinion pieces, military officials said.

"We don't want somebody to look at the product and see the U.S. government and tune out," said Col. James Treadwell, who ran psychological operations support at the Special Operations Command in Tampa.

The original charge by the Los Angeles Times was that the PsyOps corps was concealing the American origin of the articles from the newspaper editors and radio producers themselves; now, the controlling moral authority of the MSM, the New York Times, backs away to a position better justified by the evidence: that the origin of the stories are sometimes concealed from the readers, but there's no hint the editors are not aware of the source, by and large.

But being provable means the new charge is also less interesting or useful. The value of information stands in inverse proportion to its predictability. If I tell you that I let go a ball and it fell down, I have conveyed virtually no information (not actually zero; you know I'm not in orbit, for example). That's because gravity is highly predictable, so the information that it was obeyed is essentially valueless. But if I tell you that I let go a ball and it hovered in mid-air -- a highly improbable, even dubious statement -- then I've conveyed much more interesting information... either I am in orbit, or I have some means of levitating the wall, or else I'm a liar of cosmic proportions. Any of these data is valuable!

So we now know that we paid editors to run our point of view; but since this is neither dubious nor unpredictable (we are, after all, dealing with the Middle East), its value as information has likely dropped below the attention threshold of the typical American voter.

Some Information Is More Equal Than Other

In finding that video news releases by the Bush administration that appeared on American television were improper, the G.A.O. said that such articles "are no longer purely factual" because "the essential fact of attribution is missing."

But remember what we identified earlier as the battlecry of those who would control information: too much information! There is a "sweet spot" of information control we must find: too much control, and you have an information cocoon -- that swiftly becomes an information bubble, quickly popped as people seek to find out what's outside the wall you've erected. But too little control, and you have nothing but cacophany. Think of a symphony: you want creativity and originality but constrained by some regulating elements -- rules of melody, harmony, dynamic range, and dramatic progression.

Betimes, attribution is not only not an "essential fact," it actually hinders information transfer by shifting focus from the content to the actor. Consider the name "Publius" in this context.

Learning Curve

While some [articles placed in Iraqi and Afghan media] were plodding accounts filled with military jargon and bureaucratese, others favored the language of tabloids: "blood-thirsty apostates," "crawled on their bellies like dogs in the mud," "dim-witted fanatics," and "terror kingpin."

A former Lincoln employee said the ploy of making the articles appear to be written by Iraqis by removing any American fingerprints was not very effective. "Many Iraqis know it's from Americans," he said.

~ No Comment ~


The military has sought to expand its media influence efforts beyond Iraq to neighboring states, including Saudi Arabia, Syria and Jordan, Pentagon documents say.

Excellent... so we really are serious. Great news!

This Book Is a Mirror: When a Monkey Looks In, No Acolyte Looks Out

My friend Rich Galen, in his long-running cybercolumn Mullings, sums up the situation perfectly, as usual; I make this quotation my closing remarks:

The main point of the NY Times article appears to be that anything which is uttered, written, published, or televised should have a disclaimer, "Paid for by the United States of America."

Information has become as important a weapon as anything in the Army, Navy, Marine or Air Force's arsenals.

The enemy has become expert in deploying the information weapon. The notion that our troops should be handcuffed in its use is - and should be - an outrage.

Many major news outlets, including the Times, have been embarrassed in the past several years by the misdeeds of their own reporters, producers and/or editors.

The major media should take care that they don't attempt to cast out their own demons by demanding that brave warriors working in harsh and dangerous environments, adhere to standards they, themselves, have not been able to maintain. [Emphasis added]

Indeed. Call it Eason's Last Fable: Light-Fingered Louie, his pockets stuffed with stolen jewelry, angrily accuses the new manager of pocketing a couple of Havana cigars.

Louie would be better served not drawning so much attention upon himself.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, December 12, 2005, at the time of 6:36 AM

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After last December's flap over the Coalition paying Iraqi newspapers to plant "propaganda" -- which is what the New York Times labeled truthful, pro-democracy stories -- even an optimist could be excused for thinking we would, quite naturally, abandon... [Read More]

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