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Simplicity Itself

November 26th, 2003 · No Comments

Glenn Reynolds believes it was “simplistic” of me to cast “as a simple freedom of the press issue” the decision to shut down the Iraq bureau of the al-Arabiya news agency after they aired a tape purportedly from Saddam Hussein in which (surprise, surprise) he calls for attacks on Americans and their allies.

Now, my H&R post was a link with a brief ironic comment, not an argument, so I don’t know how Glenn knows whether my view is “simplistic” or not. By that standard, we’d have to assume that Glenn’s support for many of his own views consists of such devestating arguments as “heh,” “indeed,” and “more crushing of dissent.” So I’ll elaborate a bit, and if the actual argument sounds simplistic, I’ll live with that.

First, there are a couple of quite distinct issues here. One has to do with journalists collaborating directly with terrorists or attempting to otherwise incite a firefight between Iraqis and U.S. troops. That would make them terrorists, so that’s an easy one. But that’s not why the bureau was closed; it was supposedly closed over the airing of the Hussein tape. Rumsfeld’s allegations might provide an independent basis for shutting the station down, assuming “cooperation” means something substantive. It sounds, however, as though it may merely mean that reporters were tipped off by insurgents that something was about to happen at this or that location. If that’s all it is, that’s not what I’d call cooperation in any meaningful sense, and if it’s more than that, then they should say so and justify shutting down the studio for that reason. The other links Glenn offers have to do with al-Jazeera, not al-Arabiya.

So the one solid reason we’re left with for the station shutdown is the broadcast of the Hussein tape. First, even if that were something to object to, it’s not clear what shutting down the Iraq bureau (and compromising all their reporting) has to do with it. The tape was taken from a call made to Dubai, and broadcast from there. Seems as though they’re perfectly able to continue getting that material out. Second, it’s not clear that it is objectionable. These things are newsworthy: The U.S. media has reported on Hussein and bin Laden tapes too, after all.

Anyway, there are sound reasons above and beyond a general principle of respect for press freedom that make this seem like a poor move. First, it seems likely to confirm the supicions of those who believe this will be a “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” scenario; it’s bad PR. Second, I know it’s hard to believe, but many Iraqis don’t consider Fox News and U.S. press releases as trustworthy as Glenn does. What progress we do make is less likely to be taken seriously if it’s reported only by our house organs. Third, the alternative to at least semi-responsible news organizations is a still dodgier network of gossip and clandestine broadcasts. Shut down al-Arabiya and there’s every reason to believe people will rely on far less friendly sources for their information.

A more general point: libertarians often get accused of holding “simplistic” views. This is typically premature. To think a view too simplistic is to assume that there are complications and objections that its adherents haven’t taken into account. Often, we have. Sometimes, we even have good responses. Asking “what about this?” seems a better way to proceed than presuming that your interlocutor can’t possibly have anticipated your insights.

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