Readings — From the March 2019 issue

Must Flee TV

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From a resignation email sent to NBC News in January by William M. Arkin, a national security reporter who had worked at the network off and on since 1999.

January 4 is my last day at NBC News. The parting is bittersweet, the world and the state of journalism in tandem crisis. My expertise, though seeming to be all the more central to the challenges and dangers we face, also seems to be less valued at the moment. And I find myself completely out of sync with the network, being neither a day-to-day reporter nor interested in the Trump circus.

I started my association with NBC thirty years ago, feeding Cold War stories to Bob Windrem and Fred Francis at the Pentagon. I became an on-air analyst during the Kosovo War, continuing to work thereafter with Nightly News, delighting and oftentimes annoying in my peculiar position of being a mere civilian amongst The Generals and former government officials. A scholar at heart, I also found myself an often lone voice that was antinuclear and even antimilitary, antimilitary for me meaning opinionated but also highly knowledgeable, somewhat akin to a movie critic, loving my subject but also not shy about making judgments regarding the flops and the losers.

When the attacks of 9/11 came, I spent weeks on and off the air talking about Al Qaeda and the various wars we were rushing into, arguing that airpower and drones would be the centerpiece, not troops. In the new martial environment, where only one war cry was sanctioned, I was out of sync then as well. I retreated, somewhat, to writing a column for the Los Angeles Times, but even there I had to fight editors who couldn’t believe that there would be a war in Iraq. I thought then that there was great danger in the embrace of process and officialdom over values and public longing, and I wrote about the increasing power of the national security community.

Somewhere in all of that, and particularly as the social-media wave began, it was clear that NBC (like the rest of the news media) could no longer keep up with the world. Added to that was the intellectual challenge of how to report our new kind of wars when there were no real fronts and no actual measures of success.

To me there is also a larger problem: though they produce nothing that resembles actual safety and security, the national security leaders and generals we have are allowed to do their thing unmolested. Despite being at war, no great wartime leaders or visionaries are emerging. There is not a soul in Washington who can say that they have won or stopped any conflict. And though there might be the beloved perfumed princes in the form of the David Petraeuses and the Wes Clarks, or the so-called warrior monks like James Mattis and H. R. McMaster, we’ve had more than a generation of national security leaders who sadly and fraudulently have done little of consequence. And yet we (and others) embrace them, even the highly partisan formers who masquerade as “analysts.” We do so ignoring the empirical truth of what they have wrought: there is not one country in the Middle East that is safer today than it was eighteen years ago. Indeed, the world becomes ever more polarized and dangerous.

Seeking refuge in its political horse-race roots, NBC (and others) meanwhile report the story of war as one of Donald Rumsfeld vs. the Generals, as Paul Wolfowitz vs. Eric Shinseki, as the CIA vs. Dick Cheney, as the bad torturers vs. the more refined, about numbers of troops and number of deaths, and even then Barack Obama vs. the Congress, poor Obama who couldn’t close Guantanamo or reduce nuclear weapons or stand up to Vladimir Putin because it was just so difficult. We have contributed to turning the world of national security into this sort of political story. I find it disheartening that we do not report the failures of the generals and national security leaders. I find it shocking that we essentially condone continued American bumbling in the Middle East and now Africa through our ho-hum reporting.

I argued endlessly with MSNBC about all things national security for years. And yet I feel like I’ve failed to convey this larger truth about the hopelessness of our way of doing things, and am especially disheartened to watch NBC and much of the rest of the news media somehow become defenders of Washington and the system.

In the early days of the 2016 presidential campaign, I thought that the mission was to break through the machine of perpetual war acceptance and conventional wisdom to challenge Hillary Clinton’s hawkishness. It was also an interesting moment at NBC because everyone was looking over their shoulder at Vice Media and other upstarts creeping up on the mainstream. But then Trump got elected, and NBC Investigations got sucked into the tweeting vortex, increasingly lost in a directionless adrenaline rush, the national security and political version of leading broadcasts with every snowstorm. And I would assert that in many ways NBC just began emulating the national security state itself—busy and profitable. No wars won but the ball is kept in play.

Under Trump, the national security establishment not only hasn’t missed a beat but indeed has gained dangerous strength. Now it is ever more autonomous, and practically impervious to criticism. I’d also argue, ever so gingerly, that NBC has become somewhat lost in its own verve: proxy of boring moderation and conventional wisdom, defender of the government against Trump, cheerleader for open and subtle threat-mongering, in love with procedure and protocol over all else (including results). I accept that there’s a lot to report here, but I’m more worried about how much we are missing. Hence my desire to take a step back and think about why so little changes with regard to America’s wars.

For me, I realized how out of step I was when I looked at Trump’s various intuitions: his desire to improve relations with Russia, to denuclearize North Korea, to get out of the Middle East, to question why we are fighting in Africa, even his attacks on the intelligence community and the FBI. Of course he is an ignorant and incompetent impostor. And yet I’m alarmed at how quick NBC is to mechanically argue in favor of policies that just spell more conflict and more war. Really? We shouldn’t get out of Syria? We shouldn’t go for the bold move of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula? Even on Russia, though we should be concerned about the brittleness of our democracy that it is so vulnerable to manipulation, do we really yearn for the Cold War? And don’t even get me started with the FBI: What? We now lionize this historically destructive institution?

We are a long way from resolving the rules of the road in this age. I don’t think that we are on a straight line toward digital nirvana—that is, that all of this information will democratize and improve society. I sense that there is already smartphone and social-media fatigue creeping across the land, and my guess is that nothing we currently see? will solve our horrific challenges of information overload or of the role (and nature) of journalism. And I am sure that once Trump leaves center stage, society will have a gigantic media hangover. Thus for NBC—and for everyone else—there is challenge and opportunity ahead.

There is lots of media critique out there, tons of analysis of leadership and the presidency. But on the state of our national security? Not so much. Hopefully I will find myself thinking beyond the current fire and fury and actually suggest a viable alternative. Wish me luck.

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