- - Wednesday, September 11, 2013



As the American public, Congress and the president grappled with the apparent use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, the media failed to provide a coherent understanding of what the United States should do and why.

Columnists and commentators have used some of the most twisted logic to justify or oppose an American role in Syria, including a diplomatic one. The media have become almost useless in helping their readers peer through the fog of discussion.

The general perception is that the media failed to press the George W. Bush administration hard enough about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so this time reporters and pundits were not going to let that happen. Furthermore, the usual tilt of media liberals opposing war and conservatives supporting it has almost been reversed in the journalistic debate over military action against Syria.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who opposed U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, led the charge for military action in Syria. But his analysis was so odd that it’s no wonder he skipped law school for a tour of Syria in 1982.

“Skeptics are right about the drawbacks of getting involved, including the risk of retaliation. Yet let’s acknowledge that the alternative is, in effect, to acquiesce as the slaughter in Syria reaches perhaps the hundreds of thousands or more,” he wrote last week.

It seemed Mr. Kristof wanted the United States to toss some cruise missiles into Syria on humanitarian grounds. What if those missiles accidentally created some collateral damage — otherwise known as civilians? “If we were fighting against an incomparably harsher dictator using chemical weapons on our own neighborhoods, and dropping napalm-like substances on our children’s schools, would we regard other countries as ‘pro-peace’ if they sat on the fence as our dead piled up?” Mr. Kristof added. I guess he also missed the course on logical fallacies. An argument by comparison falls under the category of a weak analogy — one of the most frequent logical fallacies used.

But Mr. Kristof was not alone in providing misinformed and poor analysis in the debate about Syria.

Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times viewed the debate through the lens of the 2016 presidential election, but his perspective made little sense.

“Every member of the Senate with a glimmer of ambition to run for president — and that’s most of them — knows that a vote for war can make or break a political career. The example [is] of Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose vote to authorize the 2003 invasion of Iraq crippled her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination,” Mr. McManus wrote.

I checked a variety of sources, and her vote on Iraq hardly created a blip in her campaign. Most analysts pointed to an unsuccessful theme of her experience versus Barack Obama’s theme of change, an inadequate social media campaign and an uninspiring message for young voters.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry and a number of journalists pointed to a column in The Wall Street Journal by Elizabeth O’Bagy, which seemed to provide some useful distinctions about the Free Syrian Army, a reportedly secular and democratic rebel group, and rebel fighters linked to al Qaeda.

It wasn’t until a conservative website pointed out that Ms. O’Bagy worked for the Institute for the Study of War, a group that supported the Syrian rebels, that The Wall Street Journal added a clarification that made much of her information suspect. In fact, she was fired from the institute for falsely claiming she had a doctorate degree.

I expect news organizations to provide help in sorting through the options about Syria. Unfortunately, the media have given little aid and comfort to those who wanted to learn more about what the U.S. role — whether it’s military or diplomatic — should be in the Middle East.

Christopher Harper is a professor at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20.” He can be contacted at [email protected] or @charper51.

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