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The Media Distract the Public from War

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If one is to judge by the tone of the television commentators, America must be deep in a crisis. Long stretches of cable time are devoted  to the breaking news. Each detail is presented as more grave and consequential for the republic than the last. The fate of the country surely hangs in the balance.

What is it? War? Fiscal crisis? Mass unemployment? A double-dip recession?

No. A congressman was caught sending lewd photographs of himself to women over the Internet.

This is what now consumes so much of the news media’s attention. This is what outranks in news value continuing occupations of foreign countries, three overt and an undetermined number of covert wars, and a looming fiscal crisis. As America’s imperial elite seeks to hold on to and extend its global power in defiance of economic reality, the spectacle of a congressman, Anthony Weiner of New York, apparently sharing pictures of his private parts with female strangers has taken center stage.

This betrays an odd set of priorities, to say the least. It’s not that the Weiner story lacks news value. When a so-called representative demonstrates low character (lying to his wife and others) and poor judgment (leaving himself open to blackmail), his constituents are entitled to know. But that does not justify the news media’s preoccupation — indeed obsession — with the story. The United States will be little different whether or not Anthony Weiner resigns his congressional seat.

During the more than weeklong scandal, some indisputably more important things have been going on. For example, just a few days ago five U.S. military personnel were killed in Iraq. Remember Iraq? That’s the country the U.S. government invaded in 2003 on the basis of cynical lies about weapons of mass destruction and al Qaeda collusion, and has occupied ever since. Last year President Obama triumphantly announced to the American people that the war there was over as he withdrew all but about 47,000 troops. (As though that is an insignificant force.) MSNBC’s Obama cheerleading section was on the scene to record the historic event. Wikipedia gives opening and closing dates for the war: March 20, 2003 – August 31, 2010. So it must be over, right?

Tell it to the families of the five soldiers. They were killed in a rocket attack from Shiite-controlled east Baghdad. That sounds like combat. That sounds like war. The American people are not being leveled with.

Under the Status of Forces Agreement between the Bush administration and the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the U.S. military is to leave Iraq by the end of the year. Iraq’s Iran-backed government and the most powerful figure outside the government, Muqtada al Sadr, have said they want U.S. forces out. But despite President Obama’s reassurances, American military leaders aren’t so certain it’s time to leave. As the Christian Science Monitor reported, “[T]he attack could provide a new impetus for the Pentagon to push for an extension of the US military presence in the country.” It quotes the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen: “[T]here is still much work to be done and still plenty of extremists aided by states and organizations who are bent on pulling Iraq back into violence.”  Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last month that staying on would send “a powerful signal to the region that we’re not leaving, that we will continue to play a part. I think it would not be reassuring to Iran, and that’s a good thing.”

Gate’s soon-to-be-successor, Leon Panetta, says the Iraqi government will probably ask that some American troops stay on after the deadline. If so, “that ought to be seriously considered by the president,” Panetta says. But on this matter, Gates has conceded, “[W]hether we like it or not, we’re not very popular there.”

So the “non-war” rages on and may continue past the promised termination point. Of course Iraq is not the only serious matter being overshadowed. Afghanistan, Libya, and Yemen are still deadly playgrounds for the ruling elite, and an attack on Iran cannot be ruled out. But Rep. Weiner’s online sexual activities outrank all of this. Perhaps keeping the American people distracted is the mainstream media’s idea of serving the country.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.