The news of the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is deservedly blanketing the airwaves. He was a significant figure in Iraq and was responsible for untold devastation. He was certainly a major target of the U.S. military, who can view his demise as a success.
But Fox News may be carrying the celebration into a bizarre area. Their commentary is almost devoid of the rational reality that Zarqawi was not a lone wolf. The Iraqi insurgency is a diverse group that is still capable of much turmoil. By overplaying the impact of this, they could even end up diminishing its value.
Zarqawi was not Superman. Indeed, just a few weeks ago the Pentagon was ridiculing him as incompetent. They released a video of him wearing American sneakers and struggling to operate an automatic weapon. In addition, he was not considered to be an icon of stability. He feuded with his al Qaeda handlers and Osama bin Laden, who opposed the beheadings as a tactic that generated bad PR. It is hypocritical to portray him as a buffoon when he is at large but a terrorist mastermind in death.
Fox anchors have repeatedly referred to this news as a turning point in the war in Iraq. They have said that other recent news that casts a negative light on the war, like the massacre at Haditha, will be subsumed by this morning’s events. The problem with this short-sighted and unseemly journalistic cheerleading is that it will only take one new bombing to demonstrate that this war is still in progress and decidedly deadly. In fact, as I write this, CNN is reporting a bombing in Baghdad that has killed 19 and wounded more than 65 Iraqis.
Yet Fox soldiers on conducting an interview with the father of Nicholas Berg, the contractor who was reportedly beheaded by Zarqawi. The interview took on a confrontational tone because Mr. Berg is a critic of President Bush, but Fox was in no mood to tolerate criticism. They were able to quickly regain their footing by interviewing a procession of retired officers who were more cooperatively positive.
As for turning points in the war, there have already been many that turned out to be cul-de-sacs. The declaration of “mission accomplished”, the capture of Saddam, and the annoucements of several diplomatic milestones in the development of the new Iraqi government, are all examples of raised hopes that were followed by evermore increasing violence. And therein lies the danger that media hype presents in these matters. Each time the press gloats about having turned a corner, and then is confronted by more turmoil, the enemy is emboldened and less likely to take the news seriously or be demoralized by it. They may even be motivated to escalate violence to prove that they have not been deterred by the loss of a leader.
What will Fox and other media optimists say if things continue as they have been for the past months and years? What will they say if things get worse? I’m all for personally savoring victories when we have them, but the media must be more reflective and responsible because the consequences of their missteps can be far-ranging and destructive.