The News Cycle and its Discontents

2 June 2011


One of the dominant features of the political landscape in the world today, and one that did not exist a hundred years ago, is the relentless 24-hour a day news cycle. Every technological development touching upon the mass media has resulted in an increase in both the scope and the tempo of the distribution of information. And the spread of industrialization made the business of news into just another industry, although an industry with a vested interest in promoting the most inflammatory and controversial version of events to the greatest number of people in the shortest possible time.

The 24-hour news cycle as we know it today is an accident of history — no one planned it — and it in turn drives unintended consequences in every sphere of life. The constant political pressure of the news cycle has created an atmosphere in which there is a feeling of urgency and anxiety (if not hysteria) attached to doing something — anything — and as soon as possible. One of the consequences of this nihilistic urgency to act without reflection or consideration has been to box politicians into a few positions summarized in soundbites that are repeated ad nauseam and employed by journalists as a substitute for thought.

The rush to get the story on the air coincides with the rush to poll the public for their reaction, the rush to air the reaction and then the reaction to the reaction, and the rush to ask why nothing is being done, or, if something is being done, why it is being done in this way rather than that way.

It would be easy to suppose that this all-consuming news cycle really is all-consuming, except that when we consider the practical actions that are undertaken by people whose lives and livelihoods are at stake and which have nothing to do with the news cycle, and hence are treated as though incomprehensible by journalists.

A perfect example of this is the civil war in Libya. We all know from the examples of history than civil wars can go on for several years. Yet there has been a drumbeat in the media for someone, anyone, to do something — anything — about Libya, because the perception in the media is that the civil war in Libya has reached a “stalemate” and not enough is happening. There isn’t enough action on the ground to satisfy the television cameras, so there is a demand that something be done. And so pointless embassies are sent out to try to negotiate peace between adversaries who have not yet worn each other down and who are therefore not ready to compromise — yet.

Although there are defections with some regularity, Gaddafi still has loyal soldiers, and he is not willing to go gently into that good night of dictators. Gaddafi knows that he can hold out for some time, and perhaps he even believes that time is on his side, so that the longer he holds out, the more he wears down the rebels, the more likely he is be eventually triumph. The rebels, on the other hand, know that they can hold out too. I pointed out in a previous post (Armed Prophets of Revolution) that Tobruk is eminently defensible, and if the rebels have to withdraw into a stronghold they might conceivably withstand a siege of many months, as the British held out in Tobruk during the Western Desert Campaign. And I assume that the rebels, too, suppose the time is on their side. In this case, I think there is some justification for this belief.

Since both sides in Libya know that they can hold out, they have no reason whatsoever to cave in to the news cycle and to do something merely for the sake of television cameras, or to engage in some settlement that will make a nice photo op for a diplomat but which will not serve the interests of the party in question.

Similar considerations hold for the Arab Spring generally, throughout North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The regimes are hardened and immune to criticism, whether from within or without, while the peoples see a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to press for change. Both sides have reason to believe that time is on their side, so both sides can play a long game that makes few if any concessions to the news cycle.

Another obvious example is the position of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Taliban also play a long game that makes no concessions to the news cycle. In Mullah Mohammad Omar’s Eid al-Fitr Address for 2010 I wrote:

The Afghans will always be in Afghanistan, but the Americans will only be there for a short time. For the Taliban to have to wait a year is nothing. They would wait far longer than a year if need be. Needless to say, the US will not be cleansing Afghanistan of the Taliban in the coming year, so if the pull-out begins as scheduled, Afghanistan will return to its perennial feudal character and internecine conflict.

The Taliban would wait ten years, or twenty years, if need be. And they face the US, which is the political entity most driven by the news cycle, and therefore most likely to act prematurely as a result of the discontents of the news cycle. In the US, every casualty is the end of the world, and every small victory is the beginning of the end. The well-known blindness of the US to history is corroborated by the shallowness of the news cycle, which tells US politicians they are right to act precipitously, as though the relationship between press corps and government were an exercise in the alleviation of cognitive dissonance.

While on the topic of Afghanistan, please allow me to recommend the wonderful story by Anna Badkhen in Foreign Policy, A One-Man Insurgency: How a young Afghan went from policeman to murderer to saint. Badkhen writes of, “the fervent, almost mystical, hatred of the occupier.” Even while the villagers express anxiety about the Taliban returning to power, they still venerate as a Shahid a young man who murdered two US soldiers and was killed in turn.

The same author also wrote the equally well-observed story Trauma Center. Badkhen describes a society that exists “off the grid” of modernity. How could the US fail to misunderstand such a social milieu? Since misunderstanding is all but inevitable, it is probably a good thing that the US has a timetable for withdrawal. Nothing will be “solved” by this, other than a cessation of US casualties in Afghanistan, but the same motives that drove the US into Afghanistan will also militate against a summary withdrawal under these conditions. And, of course, the Afghans will have the US to blame for any and all problems after any withdrawal, since the US did take down their government, leave the place in a shambles, and then move on.

Thus it seems that the US will get dragged into a long game in Afghanistan, not because the US wants to stay or the Afghans want them there, but because of the need to each to obtain moral satisfaction from the other. And moral satisfaction will never be forthcoming. If there ever was a political situation with an obvious answer, one would think that a US wanting out of Afghanistan, and Afghans who want the US out, could agree on something, although this does not look likely at the moment.

And throughout the whole painful process of the US separating itself from Afghanistan, the news cycle will be hyping every development, making itself part of the story and being the source of much misery in doing so.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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