The Washington Times

I never quite agreed with George F. Will’s famous line that if there had been television at the time of the Civil War, America would be two countries today. Nevertheless, he perfectly captured a sentiment that is all the more pronounced now that there are not just three television networks, but multiple 24-hour cable channels, talk radio, as well as near-infinite Internet Web sites offering nearly simultaneous discussion of current events. The sentiment is his own exasperation, and in the case of Iraq and before that, Afghanistan and Kosovo, I share it.

What should you call what you see on cable and read on-line? Information? But shouldn’t information be informative, in the sense of providing facts and relevant background and context? Yet, in the case of the Iraq war and now the occupation, the flood of electrons issuing out of the area fails to be informative alarmingly frequently, whether because initial claims are wrong or because the kernel of truth is embedded in confusion like an insect in amber. Perhaps the term “news report” is better. It qualifies the term “news” in such a fashion as to convey that what you are hearing is only reportedly news.

As for the analysis, the only thing to say is that I hope someone is keeping a scorecard. I used to run an editorial page, and therefore probably have an overdeveloped taste for recriminations. Nevertheless, never have so many been so wrong about so much. Columnist Nicholas D. Kristof’s attempt at self-criticism on the op-ed page of the New York Times recently was commendable, but yet did not quite do justice to how comprehensively wrong-headed his thinking about Iraq was.

And yet, exasperation is surely an incomplete response to the current media environment. The fact is that there really is an unprecedentedly rich amount of informative material available on-line and for that matter, on the cable stations. It’s not all that hard to tell who plays fast and loose in the interest of speed or ideological bias and who is striving first and foremost for accuracy.

And notwithstanding that some analysts let their biases lead them astray and accordingly lead others astray, there has been a lot of intelligent commentary out there as well, probably never more so, again thanks to technology. In fact, as a general proposition, each bit of insanity in commentary has been met with equal and opposite sanity.

And the truth is, the tumbrels of recrimination have already been rolling remorselessly through the public square. You can hardly have uttered something idiotic before it will have been posted throughout the blogosphere, nor made a prediction that turned out to be dead wrong.

And finally, apropos of Mr. Will’s comment, neither the political leadership nor, for that matter, public opinion is required to follow blindly along the path that the worst in the media culture sets forth on. The contemporaneous media commentary on the war went through wild mood swings, hyperventilating from “shock and awe” to “quagmire” and back again. Meanwhile, President Bush and Prime Minister Blair held firm, the Pentagon stuck to its war plan, the commanders on the scene carried out their missions, the troops fought as they had trained to and American public support for the war stayed overwhelmingly high as British support rose.

For a long time in this country, elite or establishment opinion was mainly accountable only to itself which is to say, its own members policed their ranks, elevating those deemed worthy, weeding out those who were not quite up to snuff and, in general, ignoring outsiders’ criticism. A familiar theme on the left today is the supposed stifling effect on diversity of the concentration of ownership of media outlets. But, if you want to see what concentrated power looks like, go back to the days of the three news networks [plus public broadcasting] and the dominant influence of the news judgment of the editors of the New York Times and The Washington Post.

But, even this concentration of power was not strong enough either to lead people around by the nose or to shut up opposing views. Shut out, yes; shut up, no. Dissenting opinion created alternative media and gradually built an audience, until by now, it has become an essential part of the elite opinion from which it once considered itself alienated. This required a capacity for independent judgment on the part of the audience, notwithstanding the univocal character of the elite opinion. The people did not disappoint.

Elite opinion is no longer univocal. It engages in an ongoing argument in real time. And although that can be exasperating, there’s no question that we’re better off for the openness.