Along the Tracks

Thursday, February 27, 2003

Rather short-sighted

I must say, I entirely disagree with the Tim Graham piece at National Review Online concerning last night’s Dan Rather interview with Saddam Hussein. Apparently, the Media Research Center’s Graham (and, I fear, many in the camp of those favoring military action) believes that the media should not talk to “bad guys” at all. Are such interviews an opportunity for these “bad guys” to spin lies and spout propaganda? Perhaps, but that in itself is no reason to silence them.

Graham displays a conservative version of the left’s penchant to dismiss the public as stupid. Think about it. Daily, Americans read stories about Iraqi weapons, see television news images of Saddam firing a gun in the air, hear radio quotes from Hans Blix of Iraq’s lack of cooperation - not to mention the full, persuasive case for war made by commentators, politicians and administration officials. Americans are not uninformed. They know the score.

What interviews with the “bad guys” provide, in truth, are opportunities for these said “bad guys” to display their own lack of credibility. Take a specific example: Iraq’s possession of biological and chemical weapons. No citizen in the West who has given even cursory attention to the Iraq debate doubts that Saddam has these weapons. The proof is stacked a mile high. Yet, Saddam and his minions constantly claim they have nothing - an insult to the intelligence of citizens in a free society. Effective propaganda is not based merely on a well-constructed message; it’s based on the elimination of facts contrary to the point of view being espoused. Iraqi propaganda will have a difficult time in the rough-and-tumble of Western media - even Western media which are anti-war.

The criticisms of Rather over his “polite” demeanor are unrealistic and overstretched. If Dan plopped down across from Saddam and started with, “So, Butcher of Baghdad - may I call you ‘Butcher’? - how many children’s fingernails did you pull out this morning?” the interview would have had a quick conclusion. The trick in interviewing a difficult subject really comes down to one thing: getting him to talk. The questions asked only set the general topic; the little “prompts,” repeating a portion of the answer, with a quizzical look tossed in, push the interview subject to expand his answer. That’s where he gets off his “talking points” and reveals his thought process, his true nature.

I thought Dan did an excellent job. The subjects covered were softened enough to keep the interview going; the follow-ups sharp enough to draw some unintended revelations and displays of personality, vain and sinister. Falsehoods were rebutted at breaks with well constructed explanations. In the end, Rather had Saddam displaying his snakelike qualities to the nation. That, in my book, is a service to the country.

Conservative critics like Graham are entirely missing the point. Having Bush call Saddam “evil” may be good enough for him, and the uberhawks may feel it should be good enough for everybody else. But American politics doesn’t work that way - and shouldn’t. People want more information, they seek out the “other side,” if only to get a better grasp of the personalities involved. Americans are smart enough to figure it out.

And by all poll indications, they have.

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