Monday, June 06, 2005

Yesterday I noted how the American military -- and Rumsfeld in particular -- has recently exaggerated the threat which China poses.

Today I want to look at how the media is amplifying that distortion. The two clearest examples of this are the ones I mentioned yesterday: the May Atlantic Monthly and Saturday's lead story in The Times. In each case, what bothered me wasn't so much the writing itself as the apparent lack of editorial judgment with which it was published.

Take the May Atlantic: the article was written by Robert D. Kaplan, who has spent the last few years touring military installations throughout the CENTCOM and PACOM theatres in order to research his latest book, Imperial Grunts. With the exception of Iraq, anyone in either of those theatres is going to be concerned first and foremost with China. The country is now and will be for the foreseeable future our principal competitor in those regions.

The trouble is, Kaplan seems to have gone along, rather uncritically, with the military's automatic conflation of competitor with threat. As I wrote yesterday, China has reasons to compete with us, but it does not have reasons to endanger its relations with us -- after all, they are as dependent on our economy (and perhaps even more so) as we are on theirs.

The worst part about this is that no one at the Atlantic seems to have been concerned with Kaplan's objectivity. Although Kaplan has worked extensively within the American military, not only did the Atlantic not pause to wonder if perhaps his views were a little biased, they apparently ran his story carte blanche. Further, they ran it on the front cover, alongside what is surely one of the more nocuous caricatures they have ever printed. The result? The Atlantic as a whole, and not just Kaplan, ended up looking like nothing more than a propaganda arm of the U.S. military.

Saturday's Times doesn't go nearly as far, but it again does represent a serious editorial midjudgment. Undoubtedly, when the Secretary of Defense chastises a country for its arms build-up, that constitutes news. But unless the arms build-up is either particulary sudden or particularly threatening, it does not constitute frontpage news, let alone lead-story news. Rumsfeld's statements at the security conference in Singapore were only news because he was the one speaking, not because nobody previously knew that China's military was expanding. As a result, his comments should have shown up on page four or five.

Yet the Times ran it as the lead story anyway. Why? All I can think of is that the DoD is treating China somewhat like the President treated Iraq: keep hammering away at the idea that a country represents a more urgent threat than it really is, and eventually the media -- even The Times -- will let its guard down.

Again, I don't think the Times is nearly as at fault here as the Atlantic, but they did fall for some of the military's more blatant propaganda. Hopefully they'll return to their more discerning ways in future.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Creence Lin said...

Hi Chris, Welcome back to the States. I have been reading your blog since I heard about it in class notes so I figured I'd drop in and say hello instead of being a stalker. Congratulations on your notable blog and landing a teaching fellow position at Andover next year. There are probably many things you could have done with your Andover plus Harvard education that would have made more money, but I commend you for choosing such a noble profession.
Being dependent on an economy doesn't stop China from endangering relations with others. During the first direct presidential election of Taiwan, China purposely practiced missile exercises close to the Taiwan strait. This was despite the fact that many Taiwanese people had invested lots of money to set up factories and other infrastructure in China, and the Chinese economy was dependent on those investments. I could say more, but I am at work now and our internet use is monitored so so I have better get back to work.

8:53 AM  

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