Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Problem with News

Photo by Stefano Corso via Wikimedia Commons.

When it comes to factual data that is easily understood and of little long-term consequence, the synoptic news media can probably be trusted.  If they say that the current temperature of Buffalo, NY is 21 degrees Fahrenheit, or that last night Chicago beat Indianapolis 109-87, they're probably right.

When it comes to editorials and opinions, they are usually wrong and always untrustworthy.

The hard part comes with the in-between stories:  stories that are supposed to deal with facts, but facts that are not easily confirmed; stories that can take on a whole different appearance depending on what is reported and what is buried or on the precise choice of words; stories in which we are "supposed" to see that there are "good guys" and "bad guys", possibly due to the political, cultural, or geographic bias of the news organization, possibly just because such stories attract more eyes and ears.  In these in-between situations we may be getting "nothing but the truth" without getting "the truth, the whole truth", but more often we will have a few lies, mistakes, and insinuations mixed in even with the few limited truths we are given.

This comes up in situations like Syria and the Ukraine.

In the case of Syria, the narrative from most of the media is that Assad is a monster; the narrative from many Catholic and Orthodox sources is that the rebels are Muslim fanatics who murder Christians and desecrate churches.  The odds are that both are true as far as they go.  So what should "we", meaning the US, do?  Honestly, this is the kind of fight we should stay out of.  I slightly prefer the devil I know to the devil I don't know, but that doesn't mean I think we should help Assad.  Whoever wins will be morally problematic, and whoever wins will be in power only for a few years, eventually to be replaced by people who hate them.  There is NO SUCH THING as a long term in situations like this.  We're best off keeping everyone at arms length and not identifying with anyone.

In the case of the Ukraine, depending on who is telling the story it appears to be parallel to one of four precedents.

  1. The US invasion of Panama under Operation Just Cause.  The US had several reasons for this, but the nominal one was to defend US personnel in the Canal Zone.  At least the US did not annex Panama.
  2. The US annexation of Hawaii. It's hard to see this as really justified, and the US did seize the territory on the excuse of protecting Americans in Hawaii.  But at least the annexation stopped there, and over the long haul this has probably worked out to the advantage of the Hawaiians. 
  3. The German annexation of the Sudetenland. The "reason" for this was to protect ethnic Germans living in Czechoslovakia.  However, the annexations did not stop there.  Also, the annexation was not to everyone's advantage early on and ultimately was to absolutely no one's advantage.
  4. The German annexation of Poland, northern France, etc.  There was little attempt to present an excuse; Germany wanted the land and was able to take it, period.
The synoptic media make this sound like the annexation of the Sudetenland; Russian statements make it sound like Operation Just Cause; and American politicians make it sound like it might be most like the German annexation of Poland.  My guess is it's closest to the US annexation of Hawaii, but under the circumstances, it's just a guess.  It's based in part on the fact that although I am not quite sure what to think of Putin and contemporary Russia, I am very sure what I think about Barack Hussein Obama and the European Union.


  1. The closest parallel is Kosovo. I was working in an NATO office when Kosovo broke away, with full support from the West. My Romanian colleague said to me at the time: "This, you will come to regret." He understood the precedence being set. Crimea is probably just the beginning of the "Kosovo precedence" gaining steam.

    1. The parallels with Kosovo don't jump out at me. Care to elaborate?

      I do agree with your general drift, though. When we finally lose a big war, expect the winners to demand unconditional surrender.

  2. Unlike Bosnia and Macedonia, Kosovo had no legal standing to form a new nation. And concomitantly, Serbia had the same right to retain Kosovo, through force if necessary, as Washington DC would have to retain Vermont. Set a huge precedent which the Russians are now enjoying.. Georgia, now Ukraine, next ?

    So Kosovo was a short term setback for the Russians, but it gave them a major long term advantage; by establishing a precedence which has allowed the Russians to protect or liberate ethnic Russians inside other sovereign nation state borders: first Georgia, now Ukraine, next?

  3. I see. Good point. Also, Kosovo is much more recent than the parallels I had thrown up. Maybe that shouldn't make a difference, but it certainly affects how people think

    I hate to say it, but I have always been convinced that the only real US objective in Kosovo was to show Gulf Arabs that the US would kill white, nominally Christian Europeans for a Muslim claim. For that matter, I was convinced from the moment I heard it was underway that "Operation Just Cause" was an attempt to show that the military still needed to be funded after the collapse of the Soviet Union. I can't help notice that both US actions -- in Panama and in Kosovo -- look more arbitrary than what Russia is doing in Crimea.

  4. You are absolutely correct that Kosovo was a peace offering to the Muslims.