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How the Media Gets It Wrong

A few weeks ago I received a media query from a reporter writing for a major media conglomerate with a sizable liberal, educated, Obama supporting readership.  I receive similar inquiries a few times each year, often relating to my research on academic interactions with military and intelligence agencies.  This email query included a copy of an embargoed call for proposals for the Pentagon’s Minerva Initiative (made public the next day), seeking to fund academic research on the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL).

The reporter contacted me because I’ve published several critiques of the Minerva program since April 2008 when Secretary of Defense Gates announced the program linking academic research with the needs of American military projects (see this 2008 CounterPunch piece).  My critiques have focused on several elements of the program, including negative impacts on the freedom of academic inquiry and more political critiques focusing on linking knowledge production and application with projects of military conquest.

The identity of the reporter and the news outlet aren’t important.  I’m glad he was interested in writing about Minerva and its efforts to use anthropological and social science knowledge for military ends, and that he sought input from a critic of the program; and I don’t care that a story on these new developments did not come from these inquiries.  Lots of stories just don’t pan out for all sorts of reasons, though I suspect my answers did not contribute much to the story he sought to write.  But I am interested in how certain questions get asked, how select media frames appear appropriate and when the answers to questions asked don’t fit these narrow frames, they fall by the wayside in favor of stories or voices that accommodate expected answers.  The reporter wrote me that the Minerva funded Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) “seeks research into innovative ways to understand the ‘cultural forces at play in belief and the rise of terror networks.’  Specifically ‘the formation and spread of beliefs and ideas.’  This would seem to be related to how ideas spread internationally on social networks. What are some of the tools you think researchers might employ to understand the ‘spread of ideas and beliefs’ and should the public be wary of them?”

I read the embargoed call for proposals and answered to the reporter’s questions, but the more I read, the more I found the military (and in following the military’s lead: the reporter), to be fundamentally asking the wrong questions.  The Pentagon announcement clarified Minerva was considering only the narrowest of questions, and in following the narrow frame of the BAA story, so was the media interest in Minerva’s stunted efforts to learn about ISIL.  I replied to the reporter’s questions honestly, but as I wrote him, “at the risk of sounding like a smart-aleck” I found myself,

thinking about what social scientists might offer to a standard funding request like this that would be interesting, needed, and yet no one would pay any attention to it: would be a project studying how American military actions in the region (specifically in Iraq and Syria) contributed to the rise of the Islamic State in ways that some social scientists and other critics warned were possible.  If one considers this mindset, the attached BAA reads very differently from how I assume it was intended.

If one see’s blowback, linked from American actions in the region as one of the contributing factors to the rise of the Islamic State, then one  inevitably reads a request for proposal seeking “innovative ways to understand the ‘cultural forces at play in belief and the rise of terror networks.’  Specifically ‘the formation and spread of beliefs and ideas’” etc. as possibly including innovative ways of understanding how brash American military policies, in part relying on exaggerated claims of possibilities that counterinsurgency could lead to militarized victories, were (unintentionally) part of the cultural forces at play that helped create the conditions under which the Islamic State was formed.

I don’t see Minerva funding a study (or if they did fund it, I don’t see anyone reading it) of how American civilian, military, and intelligence activities in the Middle East contributed to the rise of the Islamic State.

I keep thinking back to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of Gust Avrakotos in Charlie Wilson’s War, with his truncated telling of that old good news/bad news joke, where the old Zen master keeps saying “We’ll see…” with each new development.  Minerva isn’t interested in looking at these sort of issues, but they should be.  If I had the time to waste, I’d submit a Minerva proposal looking at the American military culture that inadvertently contributes to the “cultural forces at play” that contributed to conditions under which things like the Taliban or Islamic State.

In response to a question about how this work related to the spread of international social networks, and how researchers might use knowledge of the “spread of ideas and beliefs,” I responded that,

With the rise of net-centric warfare, I have concerns that civilian leadership and military decision makers are putting too much faith in the claimed predictability and promises of social network analysis.  These models are flashy and can at times be used to track and identify connections, yet most anthropologists understand that whatever social networks are, they don’t work in the linear ways that many of these models, claim.  I can completely understand why the military is attracted to these models, but understanding social networks, to understand the spread of ideas and beliefs in places like Iraq approaches absurdity.  Minerva keeps funding programs that make sense to the military (and thus, they get what they want), but don’t make a lot of sense to independent social scientists.

He asked whether I thought that the rise of ISIL “added special impetus to this sort of research,” and I replied that I thought, “that avoiding coming to grips with the role that blowback from American actions in the Middle East has played gives rise to new call of bringing in complicated looking social science models to come up with ways to put out these fires.”

He cited text from the Minerva funding request seeking work exploring “the role, if any, of identity in building or undermining political unity and coalitions, especially across disparate communities and religious groups and independent of formal political or geographical boundaries.”  I wrote him that I was skeptical that,

Minerva studies of “identity” would focus critical attention on the role of US military action and policy decisions played in forming the identity of Islamic State members.  I wouldn’t expect the psychology of identity to explain these sorts of political forces in any meaningful way, yet this is the sort of misguided question these military programs keep funding.  This call for research appears to be obscuring the sort of motivations that people like Patrick Cockburn identify and elucidate, in ways that connect the rise of these ideologies to American actions in the region.  I just don’t see Minerva funding this sort of critical work.

He asked me questions about efforts to “weaponize anthropology” though Minerva and other programs, and about the “proper role of anthropology in national security research.  I replied that:

The more I know about the Minerva Initiative, the more concerns I have that it, and the numerous other military and intelligence funding programs that have grown since 2001 are contributing to the reduction of independent analysis of the sort that is needed.  With declining independent university funding opportunities, and the rise of directive research opportunities like Minerva, I see a real danger of a Sovietization of social science, as funding opportunities increasingly become available to those who agree to study specific problems within a limited framework.  This can easily warp the production of knowledge to meet funders’ expectations.  Anthropologists could play important roles in national security research, but with programs like Minerva—and specifically, with this BAA, they seem to always be asking questions in limited ways, or in this case it appears to me to be the wrong questions, that will produce the answers they want to hear, but to what appears to me and many other anthropologists: answers to the wrong questions.

The reporter politely thanked me for my responses and my “insight.” And without any real surprise, again my words hit the cutting room floor.

My point in recounting this small exchange is not that my views are more important, or even necessarily any more correct that those reported in the mainstream news; it is instead simply that when identified experts tell the press that the frame of analysis they are using is wrong, they frequently wind up outside the story.  I suspect this is far more prevalent than most people think.  Unless one were to somehow document or map the dead zones pervading media coverage, we have no idea of
weaponpricethe various views experts hold when their replies to media questions are that the media is asking the wrong questions. When we couple these unmapped media silences with this week’s investigative report by Lee Fang in The Nation documenting how retired Pentagon personnel shamelessly pitch warfare and the machinery of warfare while not identified by the networks as being on the payroll of defense contractors, we get some idea of how short the media comes from reporting news relating to American militarism.  Instead, our press reassures itself and its readership by reporting, if not things they already think they know, then reports that best fit in the comfortable context they already have.  When contacted experts say unfamiliar things, or respond by saying the wrong questions are being asked, they often wind up on the cutting room floor.

None of this new.  At this point I could fill a decent sized file with my unsuitable news interview outtakes (I think my favorite was a response to queries for a piece on David Graeber being denied tenure at Yale back in 2005, when I responded to Karen Arenson’s at the New York Times that “Professor Graeber’s treatment might well have been ‘procedurally clean’—sort of a bureaucratic equivalent of beating someone with a rubber hose so that no marks are left behind.”). But the media’s tendency to tell readers things they already know has serious political consequences.

Regardless of the intentions of individual journalists working within a system guided by limited frames, when queried experts answer questions that were not asked, it is natural ignore these and go with familiar forms that fit known narratives.  But as Thomas Pynchon’s Proverbs for Paranoids, number three reminds us, “if they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.”

David Price is Professor of Anthropology in St. Martin’s University’s Department of Society and Social Justice in Lacey Washington. He is the author of Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State published by CounterPunch Books.

 

 

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David Price a professor of anthropology at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. He is the author of Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State published by CounterPunch Books.

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