State of play in the Middle East: Lebanon is extensively damaged, with a half-million refugees; Syria is tired of being dissed; Israel reacts disproportionately. (Did it work last time they occupied Lebanon?) Condi Rice is undercut by neocons at home. Iraq is completely falling apart. Is Iran the only winner? Everybody else is mad at Bush. The most under-covered story: the collapse of Iraq.
And what do I think this is? A media story, of course.
From the first day of 24/7 coverage, you could tell this was big. By the time Chapter 9,271 of the conflicts in the Middle East had gotten its own logo, everyone knew it was huge. I mean, like, bigger than Natalee Holloway. Then anchormen began to arrive in the Middle East. People like Anderson Cooper and Tucker Carlson -- real experts. Then Newt Gingrich -- and who would know better than Newt? -- declared it was World War III. Let's ratchet up the fear here -- probably good for Republican campaigning.
By then, of course, you couldn't find a television story about the back corridors of diplomacy and what was or, more importantly, what was not going on there. Between Cooper and Carlson, it was obviously World War III, and besides, there were a bunch of American refugees in Lebanon who couldn't get out, and so elements of the Katrina story appeared. Thank God Anderson was there.
Meanwhile, people who should have known better were all in a World War III snit over Chapter 9,271. Actually, they all knew better, but it was a better story if you overplayed it -- sort of like watching a horror movie that you know will turn out okay in the end, but meanwhile you get to enjoy this delicious chill of horror up your spine. What if it really was the End? I mean, any fool could see it could easily careen out of control, and when George W. Bush is all you've got for rational, fair-minded grown-ups, well, there it is.
If I may raise a nasty political possibility: One good reason for the Bush administration to leave Chapter 9,271 to burn out of control is that this administration thrives on fear. Fear has been the text and the subtext of every Republican campaign since 9/11. Could it be that 9/11 is beginning to pall, to feel as overplayed as Natalee Holloway? Fear is actually more dangerous than war in the Middle East. For those who spin dizzily toward World War III, the Apocalypse, the Rapture -- always with that delicious frisson of terror -- the slow, patient negotiations needed to get it back under control are Not News.
All we have to fear, said FDR, is fear itself. And when we are afraid, we do damage to both ourselves and to the Constitution. Our history is rank with these fits of fear. We get so afraid of some dreadful menace, so afraid of anarchists -- Reds or crime or drugs or communism or illegal aliens or terrorists -- that we think we can make ourselves safer by making ourselves less free. We damage the Constitution because we're so afraid. We engage in torture and worse because we're afraid. We damage our standing in the world, our own finest principles, out of fear. And television enjoys scaring us. One could say cynically, "It's good for their ratings," but in truth, I think television people enjoy scary movies, too. And besides, it makes it all a bigger story for them.
What's fascinating about this as a media story is how much attention can be given to one story while still only about a fifth of it gets told. The amount of misinformation routinely reported on television is astounding. For example, "Israel is our only democratic ally in the Middle East." How long has Turkey been a real republic and an ally?
The more surprising development is how completely one story drives another out. At other times, for example, the collapse of Iraq would have been news.
Molly Ivins writes for Creators Syndicate. (Tim Sampson will return next week.)