This is why readers see media as negative

I couldn’t help reacting this way this morning:

Yeah, I know: The first American soldier killed in Iraq in four years is definitely news. But, of course, the reason no Americans have been killed is that we haven’t had Americans engaged in combat on the ground for four years. I can see how, if we had been conducting successful commando raids in Iraq every week, and this was the first time we’d lost a man, then yeah, that casualty would be the one fact you would choose for your headline if you could only fit in one.

To me, looking at the big picture here, it seems that the main news is that we sent men into ground combat in Iraq for the first time in four years. See it as good news or bad news, that’s the news. That, and the fact that the action was successful. The loss of a man is important, and terrible, but it is a result of the first thing, which is the big news…

And hey, you couldn’t work in that the raid succeeded in saving 70 people who were about to be killed and dumped into mass graves? No, they weren’t exactly the peshmerga fighters we went in to save, but apparently we still saved 70 people from the bad guys.

I honor Master Sergeant Joshua L. Wheeler. He was a great soldier, as I know from the fact that he was with Delta Force. We — and those people he helped save — owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude. I am in awe of what he did, and his sacrifice.

But I would not have mentioned his death as the only thing worth noting about that raid.

Let’s take ourselves out of our immediate, narrow, 2015 frame of reference and consider another example, from another time…

Lt. Den Brotheridge was the first Allied soldier killed on D-Day. He is known for that, and honored for it. He was charging a German position across the bridge now known as Pegasus Bridge just minutes after midnight, leading his glider-borne platoon that had just crash-landed a few yards away.

But what we remember is that his British unit, part of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, took that bridge, which was critically important to protecting the landings that would begin on the nearby beaches a few hours later.

We remember Lt. Brotheridge for the way he died. He is not forgotten. But we remember the deed, the feat of arms, and why it mattered, more. Stephen Ambrose’s book about that remarkable coup de main operation is named “Pegasus Bridge,” not “The Death of Den Brotheridge.”

But we don’t look at things that way any more, do we?

23 thoughts on “This is why readers see media as negative

  1. Mark Stewart

    Generally, the media industry doesn’t believe that humans are capable, or interested, in delving more deeply into issues – either globally or locally.

    They would rather take the simplistic way out and stop with the “if it bleeds it leads”. Classic example of why setting higher expectations delivers higher results.

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    Most of the reporting of this raid led with the death of Master Sergeant Wheeler, and emphasized that above all else. It wasn’t just the Post.

    It’s almost like these journalists are numbers people (which, in reality, few journalists are — most are words people like me). It’s as though they can get their heads around a statistic or a “first” — “First soldier killed in four years” — but they can’t grasp an important development such as “The United States openly sent troops into combat in Iraq again,” and see the death as a function, one of a number of results, of that larger point.

    No… that doesn’t explain it. I’m kind of groping here.

    Maybe it’s ME. Maybe this isn’t the development that I see it as. Maybe we’ve had commando raids routinely in Iraq over the last few years, and everybody knows it but me.

    No, this isn’t the start of a new, sustained presence or anything. I realize that. It’s one raid. A pretty big one, but one raid, and it’s over, which is why we’re hearing about it. But I still think it’s something new. If nothing else, it’s a definite strong action against letting ISIL just keep executing hostages. And I still think the headline is more something like “U.S. Special Forces rescue 69 hostages in Iraq.” Am I wrong?

  3. Mprince

    Mr. Warthen, inveterate Victorian sentimentalist, regrets that we no longer shout “Huzzah!” as often as we used to.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      On one level, yes. Can we not be pleased by a good deed done?

      But as I explained, it doesn’t matter what you think of it. Maybe, like many, you think it’s terrible news that we’re engaged again in ground operations in Iraq. You may be more inclined to say, “Oh, no!” rather than “Huzzah!” But that is indeed the news, and that headline missed it…

  4. Kathleen

    Well now I know it isn’t just me. I can’t recall a single report that pointed out the obvious reason for the headline/statistic they all seemed fixated on.

  5. bud

    Wow Brad. Even for you this is an astounding missing of the point. Simply put, BOOTS ARE ONCE AGAIN ON THE GROUND IN IRAQ. That is a huge big deal. The president promised on numerous occasions that this would not happen. Yet it has. The fact that the mission was a success is very much a secondary matter. The press got the headline right. Why is this very obvious point so hard to grasp? It’s huge. I’m glad the mission succeeded but for heaven’s sake that is such a minor point here. The death of one American may not be significant in and of itself, although it is tragic for him and his family, but the combat roll that lost life represents is really huge.

    1. Bryan Caskey

      Don’t blame POTUS for this. According to the White House, the Commander in Chief didn’t sign off on these combat troops doing combative things in a combat zone. The whole thing was someone else’s call.

      We’ve come a hell of a long way since “The buck stops here.”

      1. Mark Stewart

        Bryan, I disagree; this isn’t a question of ducking responsibility. This was a case of having empowered the command structure to make decisions as needed. Clearly the rules of engagement had been worked out in advance – and that these rules gave a great deal of latitude to the chain of command.

        None of our strategic opponents can marshal this particular militaristic command strength. I think Obama was making that point on the global stage. It hasn’t been his strength, so hopefully this was indicative of a learning moment.

        1. Bryan Caskey

          “This was a case of having empowered the command structure to make decisions as needed.”

          That’s “signing off”. If POTUS tells military commanders that they are authorized to make decisions as needed, and those decisions include the ability to conduct direct ground attacks against hostile forces, then guess what? POTUS has “signed off” of the combat.

          I’m just pointing this out, because it’s clearly a dodge from the White House. They want to placate people like bud by saying “Look, we didn’t really directly know about this raid. This isn’t our doing, because there is no “Combat” going on. The SECDEF is totally responsible for this, not POTUS.”

          It’s a gutless political dodge to placate the isolationist left. Any Commander-in-Chief worthy of the title would stand up and take responsibility, and then explain why he authorized the mission. In this case, it’s an easy explanation: We saved a bunch of innocent people who were about to be murdered, killed bad guys, and lost one soldier. The mission was a success.

          However, in this case: a military raid occurs, it saves 70 people from being murdered and dumped in a mass grave, kills a bunch of terrorists, captures others at the cost of an American serviceman’s life and the President had no idea? That’s their talking point?

          I’m sure that goes over really well with the troops.

          1. Mark Stewart

            I see your point; but to me it was more that the President was saying this was different than the raid to kill bin Ladin – no specific executive order to “go” was given. But the idea that this was unaccountability meant to placate isolationists at home would be troubling.

            I’m just not sure that was the intent, especially as I have not heard anyone say this was an aberration and the type of action not likely to happen again. From what I heard it seems the message is that this is to be considered a normal escalation and something that could continue to occur in the fight against ISIS. To me, that is good messaging.

      2. Brad Warthen Post author

        Responding to “We’ve come a hell of a long way since ‘The buck stops here’…”

        Actually… we’ve gone back to something more like in Truman’s day.

        This business of POTUS riding herd on each military operation is a function of modern communications technology. And while it gives us every excuse we need to hold our political leadership responsible for everything done at the sharp end of the spear, I worry that it can blunt effectiveness on the ground, by hobbling initiative. Initiative that was apparently taken in this case, in response to the developing situation.

        After reading about this raid, I got to thinking about the failed Son Tay rescue mission in Vietnam. I looked it up, and was surprised to learn this bit of trivia: “It was also the first joint military operation in United States history conducted under the direct control of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”

        Why had that not happened before 1970? Because, I suppose, it had not been technologically feasible before.

        That said, in World War II, even though we had means of communicating instantly across the ocean, Dwight Eisenhower had complete autonomy as Supreme Commander. Even something as momentous as whether to launch the Normandy invasion when he did was completely up to him.

        Which gets me to thinking about a critical moment during that invasion. A couple of hours after the initial landings, Omaha Beach looked like a complete disaster. Our guys were apparently all either dead, wounded, or huddling wet, cold and scared at the foot of the bluff, many of them having lost their weapons in the surf, unable to advance or retreat while the enemy fire still blanketed the beach.

        On a ship within site of the beach, Omar Bradley surveyed the disaster and seriously considered calling it a failure and trying to evacuated our people — which would mean the entire invasion would be a failure, as it would have created an unstable gap between Utah and Gold beaches, keeping the American and British forces from combining effectively to consolidate our beachhead.

        Through binoculars, it looked like defeat. But what couldn’t be seen was that junior officers and sergeants were taking the initiative, getting guys together and forming little ad hoc groups to fight their way up the bluff and take the German gun positions. And because (unlike the Germans) we trained people that way — to be flexible and think under fire — the invasion was saved.

        What would have happened if a bunch of civilians were nervously watching from the White House situation room and calling the shots?

        1. Bryan Caskey

          A well-made and illustrated point.

          Yes, commanders on the ground used to exercise more direct command autonomy because it was not logistically possible to involve the higher chain-of-command in such decisions in a timely manner. However, I disagree that “we’ve gone back to something more like in Truman’s day”. POTUS not signing-off on a raid like this is now the exception, rather than the rule. If the White House was routinely, as a matter of policy, giving autonomy to commanders on the ground within an overall framework or objective, then that would work, but that’s not what this White House is doing. (Example, to hear the White House talk about the Bin Laden raid, you would have thought that Obama all but personally raided the compound.)

          As you mentioned, Roosevelt gave Eisenhower a lot of autonomy. This was possible only because strategic objective (as determined by the Commander in Chief) was so clearly defined: Invade Europe and open a Western front against Germany. The how and when were largely left up to Eisenhower because…they could be. The policy was decided by civilian leadership, and the implementation was left to the men in uniform.

          Conversely, the current Commander-in-Chief has not articulated a clear strategic objective in the Middle East, or elsewhere for that matter. Accordingly, there is no overall strategic objective that commanders down the chain can look to and say, “Ok, see, the CiC has said we’re trying to achieve [insert goal], so let’s figure out how best to do that here on the ground.

          Consequently, I don’t agree that the current Commander-in-Chief has gone back to the Roosevelt/Truman model.

        2. Bryan Caskey

          “What would have happened if a bunch of civilians were nervously watching from the White House situation room and calling the shots?”

          I’ll give you another one: What would have happened if CNN and FoxNews has been reporting from Omaha Beach giving the American public live updates (including video and Twitter posts) from the front lines?

    2. Brad Warthen

      Bud says, “Wow Brad. Even for you this is an astounding missing of the point. Simply put, BOOTS ARE ONCE AGAIN ON THE GROUND IN IRAQ. That is a huge big deal.”

      He apparently completely missed what I said:

      “To me, looking at the big picture here, it seems that the main news is that we sent men into ground combat in Iraq for the first time in four years. See it as good news or bad news, that’s the news. That, and the fact that the action was successful. The loss of a man is important, and terrible, but it is a result of the first thing, which is the big news…”

  6. Mark Stewart

    Wait, did someone believe American boots were not on the ground in Iraq? That this was a mission accomplished, past tense thing? That would only be true in the absence of a strategic threat. And that isn’t the world we live in, Bud. Never has been. Between Iran, Isis and Russia, we aren’t leaving Iraq anytime soon.

    Make – and keep – strategic promises. Never make tactical promises, as things change all the time. These are very different concepts; as Americans we are not good at seeing them as distinctly separate. But they are.

  7. Brad Warthen

    Now, I’m going to walk my position back a bit…

    We seem to have backed into this action. Our guys were there as support to the peshmerga, things went south, and the Delta guys had to pitch in and fight to save the situation.

    So… we don’t exactly have a deliberate decision to send American troops into action on the ground. It’s muddier than that.

    So the one CLEAR thing that was new here was that one of ours was killed. That makes the emphasis on Sgt. Wheeler’s death by the media more defensible…

    See, y’all? I can change my mind as more facts come in. That’s why I’m a P rather than a J on the Myers-Briggs scale…

  8. bud

    Can’t we just get out of the region? Seems like the Russians and Iranian are more than willing to take a crack at stabilizing the region. We’ve obviously failed at it. No need to get more soldiers killed in a fools errand.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yeah, because, you know, Russia and Iran “stabilizing things” is just the same as the United States doing it.

      Because all countries are EXACTLY ALIKE and have exactly the same motives and goals, and it really doesn’t matter which one influences a situation…

      Here I am being facetious as all get-out, and yet I sense that some of my friends out there are going, “Well, yeah…”


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