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May 19, 2004

MICKEY KAUS offers "an example of why it's so difficult for a blogger, or any other ordinary citizen in the U.S., to figure out how things are going in Iraq even with the aid of the Internet."

He's absolutely right, and his point extends to the entire war. It's hard and -- as various bizarre news stories seem to indicate -- we're in a situation where it's likely that lots of stuff is going on beneath the surface that we don't and can't know about. Add to that the tendency of the media reporting from Iraq to focus on superficially bad news, at the expense of both good news and non-superficial bad news, and it's really hard to tell what's going on.

As I mentioned in an earlier post on this topic, the temptation is to apply Kentucky windage and assume that things are better than the reports make them sound. And that may be true, but we can't know that. (On terrorism, for example, the media in the 1990s stressed the threat of domestic terrorism from "angry white men," while largely missing the growth of Al Qaeda. So things were better than they sounded where domestic terrorism was concerned -- but worse somewhere else, and an important problem didn't get enough attention until it was too late.)

I think, though, that it's a mistake to assume that "how things are going" means much right now. People want a narrative line: "we're winning," or "we're losing," when things are up in the air. My own sense, drawing on admittedly inadequate data, is that things are, in fact, going better than the day-to-day drumbeat of negativity makes them sound. But that could certainly be wrong. And those narrative lines are imposed later, in retrospect -- at the moment, we need to be dealing with the problems in front of us.

Is the Administration screwing things up in Iraq? Maybe. Is it because they're too harsh, as the left says? Or too soft, as the right says? (Does the fact that they're getting criticized from both sides make them, Goldilocks-like, just right? If only it were that simple.) I find this as frustrating as Mickey does, but we can only work with what we've got.

What's most bothersome to me is that the anti-Bush stance adopted by most media organizations makes their reporting less useful to those of us who are trying to figure out what's going on, and makes the Administration, and its supporters, tend to tune it all out, possibly causing them to miss important information. I don't know what to do about it, except to try to point out the stuff that it seems they're missing.

UPDATE: Some readers are unfamiliar with the term "Kentucky windage." In this context it means putting your finger in the air, making a guess, and aiming left or right to correct for the presumed breeze on the way to the target.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Hey, maybe someone should ask Iraqis how it's going!