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Sunday, November 4

CNN's This Week at War: getting swifter at tracking GWOT but much room for improvement

CNN's weekly This Week at War program, anchored by Tom Foreman, began airing in June 2006; I only began watching it a couple months ago. People who closely follow GWOT via the internet might not see the need for a college try from television, but Pundita was impressed.

Foreman's show struck me as being part of the John Batchelor revolution in news media. Foreman only has an hour to work with, but he manages to cram in an empirical (fact-based) review of war-related developments over the previous week, along with analysis that mixes MSM and OTMSM (other than mainstream) analysis. This week's show featured analysis of the Iraq situation by independent journalist/ milblogger Michael Yon.

The show also discusses situations that while not technically part of GWOT represent potential challenges for the US military; this week Foreman featured segments on the Kosovo crisis and on piracy.

I like it that Foreman stands at a table, which allows him to walk to the large maps that highlight a region under discussion, and that Talking Heads in the studio do the same. And of course this Batchelorite likes the maps.

Foreman himself seems plugged in; his questions and responses to guests' observations suggest he's not simply reading from a monitor. Also, the show's website gives a nod to the internet by featuring transcripts of the shows and a comprehensive list of guests and topics.

All in all, This Week at War is a serious effort to help the TV viewing public get a handle on the huge volume of information about war-related developments. The show is clearly more focused on understanding situations than spinning for a political agenda. I hope CNN brass realize this kind of effort helps rebuild trust in the mainstream media.

Yet just as clearly the show needs a bigger budget, so it can hire more researchers to keep a closer eye on the blogosphere's tracking of GWOT.

Foreman did a good job this week of summarizing news about a sharp decline in the number of Iranian-supplied roadside bombs in Iraq. And he was careful to point out that the US command isn't clear on whether the decline represents Iran's curtailment of EFP shipments into Iran.

Foreman fell down by not picking up on US concerns about Iranian shipments of weapons into Afghanistan. And yet this story is gravely important for reasons that go beyond the trials of NATO forces in Afghanistan.*

This past week Iran announced a willingness to return to discussions with the US about the security situation in Iraq. Those trying to defuse the confrontation between Iran and the US over Iran's suspected nuke building program, and who criticize the US imposition of sanctions against Iran's military, have seized on the straw. And they couple it with hopeful news about the recent decline of Iranian-made EFPs in Iraq and Ahmadinejad's pledge to Maliki to control shipments of Iranian weapons into Iraq.

Yet even if Maddy's pledge is directly connected with the decline of Iranian EFPs in Iraq, he did not pledge to curtail weapons shipments into Afghanistan. Whether and how much Iran's government is involved in shipping weapons into Afghanistan is still a matter for discussion, but this story needs close attention before we read much into any peace signals Iran sends up about Iraq.

(And before I receive more letters demanding to know why I haven't uttered a peep against the new US sanctions, even though I opposed them when they were first floated. My answer is that holding back on sanctions is off the table with even a hint that Iran's military is shipping weapons to the Taliban.)

So it's not enough to be empirical; one needs to isolate the significant dots and connect them, if analysis is to be helpful.

Dan Riehl at Riehl World View knows a significant dot when he sees it. So he pounced on Frank Rich at The New York Times for Rich's clearly agenda-driven attempt to dismiss intelligence about Iranian shipments of weapons to the Taliban.

Dan did more than pounce; he was very precise in his analysis of Rich's assertions in order to expose their flaws. The blogosphere's best representatives shine at this sort of thing, and the Internet medium allows for exhaustive research and pin-pointing of facts and flaws in analysis and opinion.

Granted, one shouldn't expect the television medium to display the strengths of the blogosphere. Yet if TV producers want to break away from the Bunching syndrome they need to look at Foreman's show as hope for the future of television analysis of news events.

Bunching is my term to describe the staple of TV news analysis: A bunch of talking heads are rounded up to discuss a news report, to be replaced by another bunch of talking heads explaining a completely different news topic in the next segment.

The Bunching syndrome has created a crazy-quilt of perceptions in the public mind about world events. The syndrome is to some extent unavoidable because mainstream TV news reporting is organized around pictures, not around a central theme of events.

For example, there is no weekly analysis of a region in Asia or even Asia as a whole. Here's how this works out:

When, say, Burma can provide footage of a crisis, this is picked up by the MSM and the footage is accompanied by bunches of Talking Heads. If Burma doesn't provide footage, it quickly falls off the TV news. But when Burma disappears from the TV screen so does interest and understanding of a region-wide situation.

By the next time Burma can provide pictures, the public has to go to the world map again to find Burma and its border countries. And nobody can connect what is happening in say, Thailand or China with important events in Burma.

This Week at War is not picture-driven, even though it addresses major war news that broke during the previous week. The show is organized around the theme of threat assessment, or at least it's moving in that direction.

That's a good move because it's through organizing news around central concepts that the audience builds up a coherent mental picture of world events. Without such coherence, it's impossible for the public to assess when their government is moving in the right or wrong direction on foreign policy.

Granted, CNN can expect to lose viewers if they move farther down the road of empirical, theme-driven reporting on world events. However, if they stay on the road they can pick up many more viewers.

There is a contingent in the US viewing public that refuses to watch Fox because they accuse it of being a Republican mouthpiece, and another contingent that refuses to watch CNN because they accuse it of being a Democrat mouthpiece. But I think there's a large subgroup in both contingents, and certainly a large group outside partisan groups, which is mostly upset because they don't feel they can trust anything they take in from the mainstream media.

Trust, once destroyed, is hard to rebuild. That is the legacy from decades of extreme partisanship in the major media -- decades that saw a trammeling of empirical-based reporting and comprehensive analysis. That, combined with Bunching, turned the news consumer public into paranoids by the time 9/11 came along, and not without justification.

The road to rebuilding trust is long, but a milestone is This Week at War, if they keep moving in the same direction. If.

American Democrats represent a small fraction of CNN (International) viewers. The station is more oriented toward the world public, which has been greatly anti-American since the US invasion of Iraq. Yet much of what the world public knows about America is from news reports picked up from major media outlets in the US.

So CNN, as with every mainstream US media outlet, has to decide. Do they want to pander to prejudices and assumptions the world over, or do they want to focus on bringing a comprehensive picture of US war-related events to the world public?

Meanwhile, do what faithful Pundita readers do anyhow: support the revolution in reporting on US foreign policy/security issues. Some ways to do this:

Check MSM reports against blogosphere analyses of the same news when it relates to important foreign policy/security issues.

Drop in at Loftus Report radio (on Monday through Wednesday nights from 11:00 PM to midnight ET) to learn about US security threats that don't make it onto the MSM news. (Did you catch the two recent segments about the nightmare of Canada's lax security enforcement and prosecution of criminals and terrorists?)

And stay tuned to the John Batchelor Show (on the air tonight on WABC at 7:00 PM ET and at KFI at 10:00 PM ET.)

* I have missed a few shows since first tuning in and haven't read the transcripts from the missed shows. So it's possible that the show featured a report on the intercepted Iranian weapons shipments to Afghanistan. Yet this wouldn't overturn my point. The important places to analyze the Afghanistan shipments are in connection with new US sanctions on Iran and last week's report that Iranian EFPs are declining in Iraq.
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