Media Business and Morality

So we were gone over the holiday – an annual Labor Day camping trip on Catalina island with 8 other families and Littlest Guy. It was fun and beautiful as always, and TG got to meet the hunky Baywatch lifeguard (long, almost scary finally funny story).

So yesterday, I caught up on the weekend’s news.

The big deal, to me, was the AP’s decision to publish a photo of a dying Marine. The issue has been extensively blogged, but let me make two late comments and try to make a connection.

The first comment is simple; one thing that keeps falling through the cracks in this discussion is that the AP exists to make money, and so that it’s newspaper subscribers and owners can make money. AP is a coop owned and managed by major newspapers, but it’s annual revenues were over $740 million in 2008. It netted over $45 million in 2007.

News is a business, and while it’s business model is rapidly changing (to the detriment of organizations like AP), it’s important to remember that when you read the AP discussion on their decision to release the sensational photo of a mortally wounded Marine.

They made this decision as a business decision, just as the photographer who made it made taking it and submitting it a career decision. So let’s be clear that the conflict wasn’t just between sensitivity to soldiers and to the family of the dead man on one side and a ‘moral argument for telling the truth’ on the other; it was between doing the right thing and doing what was going to make the organization and the photographer money.

There’s a name for that…

The good guy in this appears to have been SecDef Gates, who personally called AP President Tom Curley and implored him not to publish the picture, and wrote a scathing message to the AP after they did. One can only hope that he’s matched words to action and that photographer Julie Jacobson is done embedding, and is back Stateside.

Here’s another glass raised to the demise of the legacy media as it exists today. I’ll point out that Pointer and the other media watchdogs think that this was just A-OK.

Now I’ve written extensively about the perceived conflicts of citizenship and journalism – ‘News and Citizenship‘, ‘The Times and Citizenship‘, and so on.

One of the issues I pointed out was the double standard journalists support in reporting kidnappings in Afghanistan.

A Matter of Professional Courtesy‘, and ‘Res Ipsa Loquitor‘.

This weekend, Stephen Farrell, another NY Times journalist was kidnapped. There was no coverage in the Times or other mainstream media, because – obviously, in journalism-world – the moral weight is on the side of saving the reporter in this case.

Happily, he was freed in a raid by British commandos – one of whom was killed, along with Sultan Munadi, the Timesman’s translator. I wonder if the reporter took pictures of his death…

Afghanistan, And Spatial vs. Cultural Geography

So Jimbo decided that we ought to do a Freefly interview while we were sitting at the hotel patio. After he set the camera up, I asked what he wanted to talk about and he said “Afghanistan”…

Sadly, the video ended before I could really make the points I’ve been musing over. So here we go…

I’ve been working on a long post about Afghanistan, inspired in large part by Andrew (Abu Muquama) Exum’s blog challenge asking:

Is the war in Afghanistan in the interests of the United States and its allies? If so, at what point do the resources we are expending become too high a cost to bear? What are the strategic limitations of U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine and operations? And if the war is not in the interests of the United States and its allies, what are U.S. and allied interests in Central Asia – and how do you propose to secure them?

There were seven days of answers (1,2,3,4,5,6,7), culminating in Exum’s own response (read the whole thing, but here’s the nub):

That unknown colors my own thoughts. I believe, contrary to many of this blog’s readership, that Steve Biddle really does get our interests right in Afghanistan:

The United States has two primary national interests in this conflict: that Afghanistan never again become a haven for terrorism against the United States, and that chaos in Afghanistan not destabilize its neighbors, especially Pakistan. Neither interest can be dismissed, but both have limits as casus belli.

I also believe that both interests can be secured, and I believe that neither interest is worth unlimited U.S. and allied blood and treasure.

Go read forward from this post, and see a lot of other chatter about Afghanistan.


Once I read all this, I’m left deeply anxious and concerned. These are among the smartest people in the country who are engaged around this issue; they are all people who have significant experience in foreign and military policy.

And it just seems to me like they are missing the most important point.

A resurgence of terrorist violence across Southeast Asia has exposed links between various Islamist terror organizations that have proved resilient despite a yearslong U.S.-funded crackdown by authorities in the region.

The rise of terrorism has come into focus in the wake of a series of attacks in the Philippines, southern Thailand and, most recently, the suicide bombing here July 17 on the JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels that killed nine people including the two bombers. The terror resurgence comes after years when authorities appeared to be gaining the upper hand.

As the terror groups expand their activities, investigators are uncovering connections that show how the main organizations across Southeast Asia, many of them inspired by al Qaeda, are providing militants, training and shelter to each other. That has increased their effectiveness and made them especially difficult for authorities to crack.

As this story points out, our conflict is not with a country (Afghanistan or even Iraq); it’s with a movement (that is, to be sure partly fed by state sponsorship – but the most important states doing the sponsoring, in money, manpower, and ideas have been Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Egypt). And as long as we keep defining our strategic objectives in the context of a single country, or maybe a country and its geographic neighbors, we’re misaligning our objectives with the problems we face.

What matters in Afghanistan is how our prosecution of the conflict there impacts the broader movement of radical, violent Islam. Outside of this effect, the conflict in Afghanistan is strategically meaningless.

What matters here is not a spatial geography or Westphalian interaction between states who have authority over their own geography and people; we’re talking about a cultural and intellectual geography – a map of relationships and beliefs.

And as long as were fighting on the wrong map, no matter how hard we try or how smart we are, I worry that we are bound to lose.