Friday, February 29, 2008

Brits: War Too Dangerous for Prince Harry, Okay for Everybody Else

The British press threw a temper tantrum when Matt Drudge reported that Prince Harry, who matters to them for some reason, is serving with their army in Afghanistan. How could Drudge be so callous towards the prince's safety, the tabloids bitched. Foppishly. And also, the Brits had the story two months ago but signed a deal with the Ministry of Defense promising not to publish anything till Harry was back in his London palace bed. British media to Drudge: no fair!

I've never been more proud to be an American, coming from a land of freedom, where semi-professional ad hoc journalists can spread the news without kowtowing to the big divine right lobby. Twenty-four hour news cycle, people, and you'll report on "Dog's tricks are 'better than TV'" and "Fat-carvers bring home top prizes," but not "Third in line for throne serving in Afghanistan?" This is what people want to read on their way into work; think of the advertisers and the stockholders. Think, if you compromise Harry's safety enough and get really lucky, you could see two spikes in readership.

Not that I'm really surprised, but everybody's skirting the real issue here. The media that signed this deal with the army, now that they've been screwed, chastise Drudge's callousness toward the safety of Harry and his unit — marking the first time the British tabloids have ever been concerned for the well-being of one of their subjects. And of course that subject just happens to be in the middle of a fucking war zone, but let's delude ourselves that war isn't supposed to be dangerous. Then the reporters left out of the inner circle are above it all, in an ethical debate over whether one guy's safety overrides the public's "right to know."

But that's a false dichotomy, or it would be if not for the real ethical knot here: the media's cozy relationship to its source and the principles they're willing to sacrifice to maintain that relationship. None of this off-the-record, shady deals nonsense; a reporter's job is to report the news under the theory that the readers are smart enough to filter it. The press shouldn't have spent the ink to write about Harry's detail, not because the Ministry of Defense asked them nicely not to but because it's not newsworthy. Some "news" just isn't relevant to anybody's ability to participate in the civil structure, and the press also has a responsibility to make sure that what's trivial stays trivial.

Look, I don't need to know exactly where in Iraq our troops are stationed and where they're going to patrol today and what time they're having breakfast — and I don't really care either. All I need to know is whether we're kicking insurgent ass, by which I mean providing enough stability for the Iraqi government to restore the nation's infrastructure and secure the borders. And I need to have enough faith in the media so that when the reporter in Basra tells me that we're kicking ass, I can be confident that we are, in fact, kicking ass. Then I use that information to decide whether I want the old guy, the black guy, or the woman to be my next president, and that's how democracy works.