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Published:October 28th, 2007 05:34 EST
One Helluva Big Duh-Moment

One Helluva Big Duh-Moment

By Djelloul (Del) Marbrook (Editor/Mentor)

(Transcript No. 35 of Del Marbrook’s Hot Copy, a weekly podcast series for The Student Operated Press)

Pack journalism came in for discussion during the Vietnam conflict and later during the Lebanese civil war.  The most memorable image used to describe pack journalism was a bunch of foreign correspondents hanging out in a bar and reporting on what each other said. There was probably some truth to this disquieting image. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect was that drunks always think the next day that they had wonderful conversations.

There is always a danger of pack journalism. I remember covering an industrial fire in New England when a reporter for another paper came up to me, jabbed me in the arm, and said, Howya doin’  buddy, whatcha got? Like I was going to tell him what information I had already gathered. But a much greater danger than pack journalism is the institutional mind, and that is why the concentration of the press in fewer and fewer hands is a clear and present danger to the republic.

When you have reporters and editors spending almost as much time trying to figure out how to ingratiate themselves with the institutional mind of a place as they spend gathering and reporting information, you have an ineffective press.  I wouldn’t argue for a minute that there has always been the task of getting along with the boss, reading his mind well enough to stay out of harm’s way and get ahead.  But a local owner’s mind is much easier to read than a corporate mind hundreds of miles away and insulated by layers of courtiers.  In a large group of newspapers or stations the flagships are emulated, for better or worse, because it’s assumed that that’s where the big shots are and they must be pleased with what the flagships are doing. This isn’t good for anybody, especially not readers and viewers, because all news is local and all localities differ.

But an even more dangerous facet of the institutional mind is that it tends to respect only other institutional minds. The only way a maverick innovator gets ahead is by making more money for the institution, and even that is hampered by the institution itself, which has its own body of received notions, accepted ideas and supposedly proven ways of doing things.

Take the massing of 140,000 Turkish troops on the Iraqi border. Why did it take the press and apparently the United States government by surprise? With a Google map and a Wikipedia entry about the Kurds, it shouldn’t have taken anybody by surprise. We have hair-raisingly expensive intelligence services to forewarn us of just such eventualities. We have a mammoth media establishment packed tight with pundits who write as if they know much more than the rest of us. Why were they all taken by surprise? This is truly a big duh-moment in both the history of foreign policy and journalism.

It’s an example of the antediluvian institutional mind at work. The big brains in the think tanks of the left, the right, and the middle (assuming we still have a middle) didn’t mention the Turks. The White House didn’t mention them. So the institutional press, unaccustomed as it is to thinking for itself, assumed that the think tanks, with all their inherent biases, would have said something if something needed to be said. And if a few anonymous bloggers, like yours truly, raised an alarm, well, who were they anyway?

Let me suggest an even more worrisome thought. It’s 11:30 p.m. in newsrooms around the country. Everybody is relaxing and thinking about that convivial drink or two or three at the local hangout. Got the picture? Okay, now consider this. Not one of those reporters and editors let his fingers or his mind do the walking through the web where he would have found dozens of essays, diatribes, references, maps, histories, all suggesting a possible conflict across the Iraqi border with Turkey.

Or did a few of those reporters see it and raise the issue with their bosses only to be rebuffed by the institutional mind? We’ll never know, because the press doesn’t report on itself, except in the most circumspect manner.

What on earth are our intelligence services paid for if not to warn the nation of such eventualities? And if they did warn the current administration in Washington, why were their warnings not heeded? And why isn’t this a story worth pursuing? Was this  another intelligence failure or another instance of politicians overriding the facts in order to pursue their agendas? And why isn’t the public entitled to raise these questions and see them answered?

The Kurds, who are an Indo-European people, like the Iranians, represent some seven percent of Turkey’s population. The first mention of them was probably made among the ancient Sumerians. The Greek general Xenephon in 401 BC  reported having skirmished with them. The Kurd Salah-ed-Din (Saladin) is arguably the greatest hero in Islamic history, having recaptured Jerusalem from the Crusaders and won their respect. The Turks are a Central Asian people, and Turkey itself contains only a part of the world’s people of Turkish origin. The Arabs are a Semitic people. Like the Turks, they are not as ethnically tied to Europeans as the Kurds and Iranians. The Kurds are Sunni Muslims, but neither their Sunni belief nor their legendary hero, Salah-ed-Din, prevented the now executed Sadam Hussein from persecuting them as they sought autonomy for their part of northern Iraq.

The Turkish Kurds live primarily in large cities like Istanbul or Mersin. They are also concentrated in southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq and northeastern Iran.

Few people argue that the world’s 25 million Kurds deserve a national homeland.  They constitute the world’s largest nationless ethnic group. The problem is that it has never been convenient for the major powers to allow the Kurds their homeland.  When the Ottoman Empire, which had been defeated by Britain and France, with some help from the Arabs, was dissolved in 1922, a golden opportunity presented itself to give the Kurds a homeland. But the victors who were carving up the region felt no political imperative to do so.  The Turks, Iranians and Arabs, to name only the major ethnic groups in the region, regarded the prospect of an independent Kurdistan with some concern, because there were Kurds living in considerable numbers in Turkey, Iran, and the Arab nations that were then coming into being. So the Kurds were ignored and the Arabs were betrayed, and British and French zones of interest were established, as well as a British protectorate of Palestine, which had been part of the Ottoman Empire.

The breakup of the Ottoman Empire, which was by and large more tolerant than the historical picture that has come down to us, precipitated the Kurdish crisis. The Kurds were a nomadic people. Under the Ottomans their peregrinations posed no problem, but the states carved out of the Ottoman Empire took a dim view of shepherds wandering across borders. They initiated programs to make the Kurds farmers and city-dwellers.

It was ironic that states with large Bedouin populations should attempt to impose such a life on wanderers, because few efforts to bring Arab Bedouins in off the desert have ever succeeded.

After World War I, the Kurds came close to having their own country. The Treaty of Sevres in 1920 actually called for an autonomous Kurdistan. But in 1923 a new Turkish government that was more acceptable to the Europeans who had defeated the Ottoman Empire gave the Turks a better deal with the Treaty of Lausanne, which made no mention of the Kurds. The British and the French got huge protectorates, but the Kurds, and to a lesser degree the Arabs, got cheated.

Turkey immediately moved to solidify its gains at Lausanne. There were several Kurdish revolts. They were put down quickly. The Kurdish language was virtually outlawed and Kurds were forcibly removed to urban areas, where of course their activities could be watched. But the worse was yet to come. Iraqi dictator Sadam Hussein is thought to have massacred as many as 200,000 Kurds in the 1980s for their support of Iran in the Iraq-Iran war. A village of 5,000 Kurds was wiped out by poison gas.

The Turks have already begun to shell rebel Kurd positions. There is mounting pressure inside Turkey to respond militarily. But the Ankara government cannot be unaware that this would be a momentous step, because it would be the first time since the dissolution of the empire that Turkish troops had set foot on Arab soil. It would call into question the entire balance of power in the Middle East, which has rested on the assumption that Turkey is a republic with no territorial aspirations beyond her borders.

Turkey and Iran are historic enemies, not only because of their sectarian differences within Islam but also because the nomadic Turkish population of Central Asia had first to overcome Iran on their way to what is now Turkey, posing a threat to Iranian culture at least as great as the threat posed by the Arabs and Greeks centuries earlier.

Iran has been meddling in Lebanese affairs, supporting Hezbollah in its efforts to radicalize the historically moderate Lebanese society. Syria has also been meddling in Lebanon. And, as the Bush Administration has been loudly complaining, Iran has been meddling in Iraq. The presence of Turkish troops in large numbers in northern Iraq would introduce an entirely new element to this volatile mix. The Turks cannot have been happy about foreign trouble-making in Lebanon. Lebanon, like Syria, after all, is part of Turkey’s underbelly. Trouble in those countries threatens Turkey’s well-being.

The subtleties of this situation can hardly be overemphasized. Turkey has been one of our most steadfast Cold War allies.  She has had her own reasons, to be sure. There is a long record of enmity between Turkey and Russia, and there has been much bloodletting between them. Turkey is also an ally of Israel, and allies are in short supply when it comes to Israel.  The Turks have good relations with the Arabs, but nobody is forgetting their centuries-long domination of the Arabs.

If Turkey were to take a hand in northern Iraq the temptation would be for her to act against Iranian and Syrian  skullduggery in Lebanon. It would put Turkish troops in a posture much more threatening to Iran than they have been in the past. On the other hand, Iran and Turkey agree on one thing: they don’t want an independent or even an autonomous Kurdistan.

This is an informed amateur’s analysis of the situation. I offer it merely to pose the question: why should this volatile development have taken either our government or our press corps by surprise? Without cracking a single book, an observer could have Googled the whole picture. Was our government simply hoping against hope that this wouldn’t happen? Was the press willing to play such a game? If so, why? What on earth was difficult about predicting that Turkey would not sit by and allow us to create an autonomous Kurdistan that could be used as a base for rebel operations inside Turkey?

The institutional mind of the government and the institutional mind of the media were apparently incapable or unwilling to explore a situation that has now transformed the entire equation in the Middle East. Can a republic rely on such complacence? Or was it complacence? Is it possible some reporter somewhere said to the big brains in the Pentagon and the State Department, Hey, what about Turkey and the Kurds? Is it possible the big brains said, For heavens’ sake, don’t give them any ideas? And is it possible the press agreed that silence might be the best policy?

That is how a federal security state operates. Not a democracy. Not a republic. I don’t know what happened, but I know that what wasn’t reported is bad for us, and it does not bode well for our freedom if we can’t depend on the press to address such an obvious issue.

You have been listening to Hot Copy. I’m Del Marbrook, and if you want to know more about what I think, please visit me at Del Marbrook Dot Com.