A Hard Day For Managed News

In the same Friday edition of the Washington Post that detailed President Bush’s prime time news conference  there were a couple of unfortunate cats let quietly out of the bag.  Ann Tyson detailed the Pentagon response to the recent court opinion requiring the release of photos of caskets coming home from Iraq. Elsewhere, Carol Leonnig talks up Erik Saar’s book about how, when he was a translator for the Army at Guantanamo, he witnessed ‘staged interrogations’ run for the benefit of visiting congressional delegations.

The Ivory-Billed woodpecker seen in Arkansas wasn’t the only creature returning from extinct to endangered, as managed news came unmanaged. Much to the chagrin of an administration that put all its chips on black last night and spun the wheel. Like they say, timing is everything.

The president’s been on a losing streak of late, with a majority of voters opposed to his Social Security proposal, no matter that he’s been flying from managed town meeting to managed town meeting. This is a management president, graduate of a management school. It must be difficult for him to watch Tom DeLay and John Bolton come unmanaged in the same week.  Adding all those heretofore photographically withheld caskets and getting caught rigging congressional visits to Guantanamo doesn’t help either.

Of course we knew in the abstract that when the nation suffers over 1,500 deaths in a war there must be caskets coming home somehow. Most administrations would have honored those losses rather than blacking them out. Losing a son or daughter, it would be a comfort to have an official at least meet the plane, perhaps your Senator or Representative, every once in a while the president himself. A photograph for your local newspaper wouldn’t be amiss, something to slip into the family bible, a record of sorts to ease the agony.

1,500 kids spread across a hundred Senators and 435 Representatives shouldn’t be too heavy a congressional load to carry.

The Pentagon said it’s not going to lift the ban on media coverage of returning casualties. It says that ban is intended to "ensure privacy and respect is given to the families who have lost their loved ones." That’s according to Col. Gary Keck, a Defense Department spokesman who somehow didn’t choke on the words. The more ashamed we are of our wars, the more we try to protect families who give their kids. I grew up during WWII, when we grieved but we grieved together. Privacy wasn’t needed, respect for the work at hand was needed and the nation gave it in spades.

If you get a chance, catch 60 Minutes on Sunday night when they interview Sgt. Saar about his book, “Inside the Wire.” According to Saar, for the benefit of congressional delegations and other VIP hostings at the prison, interrogators would grab someone who had already proven himself to be cooperative and re-interrogate as if it was for real. In one ‘demonstration,’ interrogations occurred in conversational tones and cooperation was rewarded  with ice cream.  Ice cream! I guess that works better than stripping them naked and using the threat of dogs, at least in front of witnesses.

In any case, Saar says that little of value was learned at Guantanamo. What is being learned, at terrorist prisons and entry points for war dead, is that management must assume that those being managed are less capable than those in charge. 

As Wall Street unravels and faith in government falls to all-time lows, it may be long past time to reassess our attitudes about managing or being managed.

It may even be possible that unmanaged directness in manner or speech, without subtlety or evasion, like the Ivory-Billed woodpecker, may be brought back from the edge of business and political extinction.

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