Friday, November 02, 2007

Another News Story I Agree With

The planets must be aligning or something because I don't recall this ever happening in the past. Even though this particular article focuses on the Kerry speech at UF involving Andrew Meyer, it could easily be applied to Jena Six.

"What YouTube doesn't show" by Dennis Jett

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many are conveyed by a video tape? Whatever the number, it is not always enough to understand the situation. That will not stop many people from rushing to judgment based on what they think they know. Their views are formed more by the media stampede and their own biases than by what really happened. And that says a lot about how people react and how information is used today.

Take the case of Andrew Meyer, the University of Florida student who had a Taser used against him by campus police at a speech by Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts last month. Videotapes of the incident made the evening television news and immediately found their way onto YouTube.

People around the world saw the incident replayed as thousands of newspapers and television stations picked up the story. The YouTube videos were viewed more than 3 million times.

As the story spread, many people formed a firmly held opinion. I also had an opinion on the event, but my perspective was unique. I was the moderator of Sen. Kerry's talk and the only other person on stage with him.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement was called in to investigate whether the actions of the officers were appropriate. Their 300-page report was recently turned over to university officials. (A summary of it is at The report concluded the officers acted "well within" their guidelines and also pointed out that the student had provoked an earlier disturbance on campus. He boasted at that time to a friend that if he liked that confrontation he should come to Kerry's speech and see a real show. In a letter released October 29, Mr. Meyer publicly apologized for his "failure to act calmly" during the speech and admitted he had "stepped out of line" and was truly sorry for tarnishing the university's image.

What was not on the YouTube videos was the fact that the student disrupted the speech twice. After Kerry had responded to numerous questions, I announced that one final one would be taken from the microphone on my right. The student then grabbed the microphone on the left and loudly demanded that he be allowed to ask a question. When a female police officer intervened and tried to escort him out, he broke away and continued shouting. At that point, Kerry said he would take the student's question, but would respond first to the questioner who was supposed to have been last. As he finished answering that question the famous videos began.

Because the student had already been disruptive once, there were police officers and officials of ACCENT, the student organization that brings speakers to campus, standing next to him. When he launched into a diatribe and used a vulgar expression, the mic was cut off and he was carried off to the applause of many in the audience, all the while resisting the police.

The reaction of some on the political right who saw video was that the student was silenced because he had asked the senator an embarrassing question. Some on the left suggested his freedom of speech was suppressed. Neither version could be further from the truth.

On television, any number of talking heads offered similar thoughts or ones that were even more farfetched. But the electronic news media require only that those on the air speak with conviction. Any real insights or even information are entirely optional and usually rare. The pundits in print were often equally uninformed and off the mark. Few were willing to wait until a thorough investigation laid out the facts and, when it did, it was barely news. A relative handful of articles came out on the 300 page report and even fewer on Meyer's apology.

In an age of instantaneous communication, there seems to be a widespread expectation of equally rapid judgment. No one was lynched, but the virtual mob, fed by the media and a post-your-own-videos website, drew all the conclusions they needed for a verdict. And what the truth eventually turned out to be hardly got reported. It would be useful for the electronic media (besides NPR and PBS) to offer context and analysis and for the pundits to hold their judgments until they had more facts. That would require the former to cut back on the celebrity news and the latter to engage in less populist pontification. Neither will happen unless the audience demands it.

• Dennis Jett, former US ambassador to Peru and Mozambique, is dean of the International Center at the University of Florida. His second book, "Why American Foreign Policy Fails," will be published in May.


P.S. - I haven't received any hate mail from the blind supporters of the Jena 6. Is that because I'm not making my position (or this one) clear, not enough people read this stuff or because their supporters don't read these types of things? Who cares. DOWN WITH THE JENA 6!!

Thursday, November 01, 2007

What You Won't Hear in the News

"U.S. Troop Loses Plunge in Iraq" by Gordon Lubold

US troop losses in Iraq have plummeted in the past few months to levels not seen since early 2006 – an encouraging sign, say analysts and defense officials, that the US strategy is working, at least for now.

American defense officials cite recent weapons finds, disruption of bombmaking cells, and the 2007 "surge" of US forces as contributing to a dramatic improvement in security in many parts of Iraq, cutting casualties among both Iraqi civilians and US troops.

It is too soon to know if the trend will last or whether the reduction of American forces in coming months, as planned, will undermine what remains a fragile security on the ground.

Nor does it signal that victory is imminent. Instead, the security gains present a "window of opportunity" that will stay open only if economic opportunity, government coherence, and stronger Iraqi security forces materialize in Iraq, says a senior defense official.

"If those things don't occur, then you'll begin to see things backslide on the military side," says the official, who asked not to be named in order to speak more freely.

It's far from clear if the pieces that US officials see as needing to come together in Iraq will do so. Much of the Iraqi government is still not functional, and US commanders marvel at its inability to spend its budget – seen as key to establishing permanent security by stimulating economic activity and restoring basic services to Iraqis.

120 deaths in May; 23 in OctoberThe Pentagon reported 23 service members killed in combat this month as of Tuesday, noting that insurgent and other attacks have plunged in violence-prone places like Baghdad. As recently as May, as the Pentagon completed its "surge" of about 30,000 additional US forces and began military operations in more dangerous areas of Iraq, US combat deaths were five times as high, with 120 killed. This month, by contrast, the casualty rate is on par with that of March 2006, when 27 service members were killed. Since the beginning of the war, only a few months have seen fewer fatalities than this month, including February 2004, arguably the predawn of the insurgency in Iraq, when 12 US service members were killed.

Still, the number of US forces killed so far this year is a few dozen more than the total number killed in action during all of 2006. Yet the recent trend is a positive sign, officials and analysts say.

What makes it significant is that US forces in Iraq are still conducting operations, not "hunkering down" in the relative security of the many sprawling US bases.

"There is no other way to interpret it but as extremely good news," says Michael O'Hanlon, a senior analyst at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington.

Conditions remain dangerous, of course. A suicide bomber on Monday killed nearly 30 people at the morning roll call of a police unit in Baquba, north of Baghdad. The same day, a brigadier general assigned to the US Army Corps of Engineers became the most senior American officer to be seriously injured by a roadside bomb. He is expected to make a full recovery. In the meantime, extremist elements within the Iraqi security forces pose an ongoing concern.

But it's hard to argue with fewer US casualties, says Mr. O'Hanlon, who is both hawkish and critical of the war. He took some flak over the summer for co-writing an op-ed that critics said was too rosy about the troop surge in Iraq, though much of the article's analysis has so far been borne out.

"There are a million things still wrong in Iraq, but it is extremely good news in what remains a very difficult war," he says.

In Iraq, there's never a simple answer to any question, and the explanation for why security is improving is no different.

The so-called Anbar Awakening, in which Sunni sheikhs in Anbar Province came together to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq, and an apparent retreat of the Shiite militia Jash al-Mahdi have lessened the number of bombings and other violence, US military commanders in Iraq say. In addition, the proliferation of what is known as "concerned citizens" – average Iraqis typically paid by the US to maintain security in their neighborhoods – has changed the security situation on the ground in places like Babil and Diyala Provinces, where both US and Iraqi officials say people have tired of the violence.

But the senior military official says recent discoveries of major weapons caches – five in the past week – and the disruption of bombmaking cells by going after their leaders have also had an impact.

"We've really focused on attacking the leadership," the senior defense official says. "We're really focusing on trying to take down that enemy line of operation."

But the situation there is still very wait-and-see. Pentagon officials say violence in Iraq is down considerably since the last of the surge forces arrived there in early summer, and incidents during the holy month of Ramadan – typically a time of heightened violence – were the lowest in three years, according to Maj. Gen. Richard Sherlock, director of operational planning at the Pentagon, during a briefing last week. (Iraq's Interior Ministry has reported that the nation's death toll in October is at the lowest level in 18 months.)

"While this is indeed encouraging, Al Qaeda in Iraq, other extremist groups, and criminal elements in Iraq continue to be major threats," he said. "The likelihood that those groups will attempt spectacular attacks, especially in places like northern Iraq and in and around different areas of Baghdad, remains significant."

Lawrence Korb, a former top Pentagon official who is now at the liberal Center for American Progress, another think tank in Washington, says he is hopeful but not altogether confident that a drop-off in troop losses represents a turning point in Iraq.

"We've seen these lulls before," says Mr. Korb, a critic of US policy in Iraq. He's hoping this one will be permanent.

More US losses in '07 than '06There have been more US combat-related fatalities in Iraq in the first 10 months of this year, 713, compared with all of last year, in which 704 US service members died, he notes.

Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, has said he is planning to cut the number of US brigades in Iraq from 20 to 15 by sometime next summer, with some reductions coming later this year. About 170,000 US forces are in Iraq now. A brigade has about 3,500 service members. Many analysts say that plan is doable, but suggest that, given the current competency of the Iraqi security forces, the second phase of a withdrawal is a much farther reach.

Increased security could unravel when more US troops are sent home, says Korb.

"I think it offers you hope if you're willing to keep a very large number of troops in there for a very long time."

This isn't exactly the kind of story you'd see on Dateline or ABC News.

Let the Truth Be Spread!