Gameboy Media: We’ve reached the next level in Iraq

It’s official: Iraq is embroiled in a full-blown “civil war.”

Apparently this is beyond dispute, according to recent corroboration from Bill Clinton (“What’s happening in Iraq is ‘normal definition of a civil war,'” Nov. 30 in USA Today), Colin Powell (“Iraq meets civil war definition,” Nov. 29 in The Associated Press) and the highest authority of all, national television (“NBC brands Iraq conflict ‘civil war,'” Nov. 27 in Reuters).

How, you ask, are things any different from last week–when a “civil war” was some horrible, worst-case scenario looming over the horizon? The answer is that enough people finally died to meet an arbitrary definition of “civil war” agreed upon by American think tanks.

That’s it. No formal declaration. No consolidation of rebel forces. No weapons of mass destruction. We hit a magic number and the level changed, permanently.

Meet the Gameboy Media.

It makes me wonder: Long after we’re gone, when historians look back on these tumultuous times of profound schisms–between East and West, Muslims and Christians, Sunnis and Shi’ites, and economies new and old–what will receive credit for agitating this tragedy?

Obviously, George W. Bush’s administration and the hasty legislation following Sept. 11 will shoulder a hefty chunk of the blame, taking its place alongside the ill-conceived division of the Ottoman Empire and the industrial world’s dependence on oil as convenient, easily-definable “culprits” for rising violence in post-industrial society.

But there’s another factor historians might overlook, scarcely mentioned in the few legible relics of the final days of print media: The role of those newspapers themselves.

Most Americans have little idea what differentiates Muslim factions or what values and beliefs propel disdain for the Western world. When we assess the conflicts in the Middle East, we generally base our opinions on a few headlines or sound bites from daily news sources.

That would be dandy, except the natural function of our hypercompetitive media market inevitably leads outlets to portray a world that cannot possibly improve, no matter what takes place.

Whenever more people die one day than the last, it is widely reported that violence is “escalating.” Whenever fewer people die than the day before, they report the number killed. Then, when violence returns to previously normal levels for a spell, it is again said to be “escalating”–even if it pales in comparison to the events two days prior.

The result is that the conflict has taken on a tone of perpetual deterioration. Once something gets worse, as far as news coverage is concerned, there is no going back.

Both in America and the Middle East, the connotations created by these headlines serve the efforts of insurgent forces working to foster a negative perception of our prospects for success. Consequently, public discord rises and rebel forces succeed in weakening the will of both Americans and Iraqis still seeking peaceful resolution.

Though the designation “civil war” tells us little about the nuances of the situation, that it has been dubbed as such portends a worse fate for Iraq.

To some degree, the media’s coverage is a self-fulfilling prophecy: Call it a civil war, and it becomes a civil war.

If the story, “Fewer people killed in Iraq today than usual,” were ever reported, things would be slightly more accurate. But that’s not such a glamorous story. It’s certainly not very likely to catch a reader’s attention against thousands of other stories every day on the gruesome sectarian violence that plagues the region.

Considering that positive headlines are almost completely unattainable, it’s easy to see how the Bush administration could think the media was another arm of America’s enemies.

For instance, imagine you were trying to work with a person from another land with different interests and priorities than your own government on a situation in which neither government ever takes any consistent approach to anything.

Do you think you might find yourself at odds over some issues? Pretty likely, right?

So why was it a major story that National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley sent a memo expressing doubts about Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s ability to cooperate with the U.S.? As you’ve probably just conceded, we wouldn’t expect any different.

However, in the bold finality of print media, that innocent message took on another life.

Bush was on his way to a rare meeting with al-Maliki and King Abdullah II of Jordan when this news broke on Tuesday, prompting al-Maliki to cancel the summit (“Iraq’s Premier Abruptly Skips a Bush Session,” Nov. 30 in The New York Times). Not because of the personal affront, mind you, but because the Shi’ite factions which back al-Maliki (and already feel as though the U.S. has too strong an influence) would have withdrawn their support after hearing such dissatisfying intelligence.

Thanks to nothing, the chances for peace are slightly fainter. It’s a fundamental problem with the institution of media. News outlets compete voraciously for scoops, and this pursuit leads many major news outlets today to include borderline presumptive assertions about situations. It’s as though news writers feel they will fall behind if they are made to wait to find a quote that will speculate for them anymore. It goes without saying that these assertions rarely touch on concepts like stagnation or progression.

Even when the media reports on something positive, such as the ceasefire in the West Bank, the sub-headline mentions how nobody trusts it. The hopeless history of the conflict prevents them from presenting the possibility of hope, lest they be accused of senseless optimism.

Thus, when citizens of Jerusalem read the paper in the morning, they are greeted by all the doubts surrounding their efforts for peace.

The war in Iraq will probably change significantly now that it’s been deemed a “civil war.” Hopes of stabilization are further dashed, and any faction dependent upon such hopes is now less powerful.

As things inevitably deteriorate even further, we’ll begin to encroach on new, more damaging levels of perception.

No word yet on the official definition of “chaos.”

Matt Piper