Thursday, September 25, 2003

Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds is leading the charge against media misrepresentation of current conditions in Iraq. I'm not sure why he's harping on this particular issue, given that he doesn't seem to be all that convinced of the accuracy of media representations of current conditions in America, either.

For that matter, it's not even clear that the notion of "current conditions in America" (let alone in Iraq) can even be defined, independent of media representations of it. In huge, diverse countries populated by millions of people, it's extraordinarily difficult to characterize "current conditions" in any meaningful way. In modern democratic societies, there are enormous industries--journalism, polling/market research, electoral politics--dedicated to gauging "current conditions" and catering to them for financial or political benefit. The outputs of these industries--press reports, advertising, election results--can then be used to infer a reasonable aggregate picture of the society's beliefs, concerns and interests. But in non-democratic societies, these mechanisms don't work, and any attempt to construct a substitute from the scanty evidence available is doomed to be hopelessly distorted.

Historical descriptions of ancient and medieval societies, for example, tend to concentrate overwhelmingly on a tiny fraction of the population--the ruling elite--whose lives and actions generally had a negligible effect on the vast majority of the population. However, because these groups had control of the only means available for propagating information about their "current conditions", their surviving stories eventually became a proxy for "current conditions" (at the time) in those societies. Something similar may be happening in Iraq today: because the occupying American forces are largely in control of the flow of information in the country, "current conditions" in Iraq are a function of the perceptions and concerns of those troops. Since those troops are naturally highly preoccupied with the rate of guerrilla attacks on their comrades, these events are portrayed in the press as a key criterion for evaluating "current conditions" on the ground--even though most Iraqis probably care little about them.

In time, Iraqi society will no doubt reach the point where its institutions convey a coherent picture of "current conditions" there. (Whether that picture is one of rigid fealty to an absolute ruler, chaos and civil strife, or something more akin to the peaceful freedom of modern democratic states remains to be seen, of course.) Until then, however, complaining that the foreign media's portrayal of "current conditions" in Iraq is inaccurate--when the fragmented, shoestring local media are themselves far from agreeing on one--makes little sense. One would do better to complain about foreign media purporting to portray "current conditions" in Iraq in the first place.

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