Another wartime disconnect

Another wartime disconnect

We're in the midst of another wartime disconnect, though it's different this time around.

During the Vietnam War, the disconnect was between the government and its citizens. With the publishing of the Pentagon Papers, the press solidified a long-suspected belief that the government, through its spokespersons and the military, was misleading the public about the prosecution of the war.

Because they were published in 1971, the Pentagon Papers were late to the game, so to speak, to affect public opinion about the war. Yet they helped turn Americans away from their government: Americans knew their government had failed them, and since then, but for times of extreme crisis, Americans haven't trusted their government to make best-interest decisions.

Today there is another disconnect, highlighted by Wikileaks' publication of tens of thousands of documents purporting to show that the war in Afghanistan is going much worse and with much more innocent bloodshed than the government has admitted. Wikileaks frames this documentation similar to that of the Pentagon Papers, claiming that there's dissonance in what the government is saying and what the public now knows.

But there's not.

The disconnect, instead, is entirely within the public. The unsavory work of special forces, the unnecessary death of civilians, the unpalatable role of Pakistan in propping up the Taliban: all of these were already well documented. The public, however, simply didn't know or didn't care. The disconnect is between hearing facts and then feeling compelled to act on them.

Thus opens a space for Wikileaks and those like 2010 Knight News Challenge winner Teru Kuwayama, a photojournalist trying to break through the shield of indifference by embedding himself with Marines in Afghanistan to tell stories that Americans will--must--pay attention to. As he told journalism.co.uk yesterday:

We've been in Afghanistan for a decade now, and yet the vast majority of Americans have a very limited sense of what we're doing there. That means we [the media] haven't been doing a very good job. We're now in a situation where our press is in serious decline, at a moment when our nation is escalating a war with tremendous costs. That means the public gets even more disconnected from its military, at a time when it should be the most concerned. I can't tell people what to think about this war, but I believe very strongly that they should be thinking about it.

What the Wikileaks episode illustrates isn't that the American government is lying. Rather, it's that we're bad at hearing and processing the truth. We need more compelling methods of journalistic storytelling--whether Wikileaks' data-and-p.r.-intense version or Kuwayama's intimate photojournalism--in order to engage the public, even or especially when engagement is actually enlistment of the public to do more work for itself.

[Edited to include a correction from David Chandler on the extent to which (even less than I'd originally argued) American opinion on the Vietnam War was affected by the Pentagon Papers.]

Comments

Andrew, this is really insightful.

The boldness of Vietnam-era photographers, writers, and editors, and journalism's prominence in the Pentagon Papers and Watergate cases, inspired me to photojournalism. The work is epic.

I do not agree that there can be "will-must-pay attention to" media today. The Vietnam era was a period of intense focus on photojournalism. Magazines like Life and Look synchronized the country around the subjects of the week through "powerful images." Television news still reflected print journalism's sense of social responsibility. There was no Internet. Now the entire output of an issue of Life or Look is streamed live from everywhere, to everywhere, every few milliseconds. There is no consensus at this pace, nothing compelling the collective "us" to focus on an "issue of the day." There are just too many channels on the remote, and the public has learned/been trained that media is for browsing in search of "more" (more entertainment, more fake urgency, more "reality" programming when the real world is just outside the door).

- Jim Youll