A few months ago, Congressional Quarterly‘s Jeff Stein toured Capitol Hill asking a pretty simple question: “Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?” The national security leadership drew a collective blank: Silvestre Reyes, the new Democratic chair of the House intelligence committee, averred that Al Qaeda is mostly Shiite and crumbled when asked which sect Hezbollah is affiliated with: “Why do you ask me these questions at five o’clock? Can I answer in Spanish? Do you speak Spanish?” (“Poquito,” Stein replied.) Five years after (Sunni) extremists flew planes into the World Trade Center; four years into what has, predictably, become a Sunni-Shiite civil war with U.S. troops serving as pawns, proxies, and provocateurs; and six years into an administration that never saw a Middle East conflict it didn’t try to exacerbate, cute evasions are still the norm. It’s as if, on serious affairs, we are all—leaders and citizens alike—content to impersonate Jeff Spicoli (Dude: This Middle East stuff is haarrrd!) even as we proudly flaunt our expertise in trivial matters like Britney and Blu-ray.
Time to hit the books. In this issue, we’ve compiled “The Iraq Handbook for Dummies“—a cheat sheet of things we should have known in 2003, and need to learn now. “Bring the Troops Home” is, by itself, not a sufficient answer. What, for example, do we owe those Iraqis who risked their lives to help U.S. troops, only to be abandoned to death squads (“Thrown to the Assassins“)? And what of Bush’s claim that the war has contained terror? Actually, as researchers Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank found when they analyzed the data, jihadist terrorism—even excluding incidents in Iraq and Afghanistan—has risen 35 percent since the invasion.
Why have Americans been left so clueless? One reason is the downsizing of the Fourth Estate. Earlier this year, we happened to watch as the decimated reporting staff of the Los Angeles Times gathered to toast one of our era’s great newsmen, Henry Weinstein, who’d just won the prestigious John Chancellor Award. It was a bittersweet moment, celebrating something no one in the room was quite sure would exist down the road. Greedy for profits beyond the phenomenal 20 percent the Times was already earning, the paper’s corporate owner, Tribune Co., had just dispensed yet another round of layoffs, offhandedly mentioning that foreign and even national reportage was secondary for a newspaper these days, given that people could find such news on Google.
That’s a stunningly stupid thing to say. For starters, hello, how do they think those stories get on Google, via reporting elves? (And don’t say reporters can be replaced by “citizen journalists”: Blogger Kevin Drum lets the air out of that theory.) Secondly, as Eric Klinenberg notes in his piece on the latest consolidation push by media conglomerates and their cronies at the fcc, most Americans still rely on their local paper or TV station to get their news, so the quality of local news is directly related to our remedial understanding of Iraq. The suits at Tribune and other big media companies have tried to excuse their actions as part of doing business in the Internet age, but don’t be fooled; it’s more like a return to the days of Gordon Gekko. Democracy doesn’t depend on newsprint, but it does depend on quality journalism, and more—not less, as the Bush administration and the Tribunes of the world seem to want—of it.