March 18, 2011

On Libya, the American Media and Public Discourse

Over the past few days, I have received a lot of requests from the media to participate in radio or television programs in which I would take one side on military intervention in Libya and would then be paired with another researcher/scholar/pundit who would take the other side.* I learned to detest these kinds of for/against debates on Afghanistan because I think they force you to take stronger positions either for or against an issue than you would otherwise take and that they do not allow you to make nuanced arguments about the relative merits of strategic choices. The single worst experience I ever had in the media was this exchange with Peter Galbraith on CNN, and the second worst was this exchange with Andrew Bacevich on the Newshour. I could not wait to get out of the studio in both cases. The former experience was made worse by the fact that I was not physically in the studio, which left me shouting in from the sidelines, and the latter was made worse by how much I respect Bacevich and did not want to get into some ugly back-and-forth with him. I get that these exchanges make for "good television", but I really detest them because I can almost always make the other guy's case as easily as I make my own and because none of the arguments really do justice to the complex issues that deserve more consideration than the few minutes each person is allotted to argue a case -- which they are incentivized to do in as black-and-white a way as possible. (I should also note here that my own personal instinct, when in a debate, is to always escalate the rhetoric, which may suit my sharp tongue but also reflects poorly on my character.)

What is a better solution? I like the way Diane Rehm has a panel of three or four guests, which allows for a multi-polar discussion and also allows you to agree or contend with your fellow participants -- but not in a me-versus-you, I'm-smart-and-you're-an-idiot kind of way. Another technique is to just interview one person and ask them tough questions. I think people in the media are loathe to do this, because they always want to find someone to argue "the other side," but a good interviewer can press a guest on his or her points in a way that forces them to defend their logic and conclusions. (Bob Woodward did this to great effect in a panel we hosted in December.)

I hope, as we debate the proper course of action in Libya, our news media does the best to inform the debate rather than to simply reflect it.

*I was motivated to write this post after turning down an opportunity to discuss Libya with one of my personal favorite scholars (who supports military intervention) this afternoon on a radio program I really respect. I'm sure all parties would have worked to have made the segment a responsible discussion, but I waved off anyway.