Missing the Forest

Posted: Oct 13, 2006 12:00 AM
Missing the Forest

Arthur Hailey saw this coming.

Back in 1960, the pop-novelist published “In High Places,” a tale about Canada’s government. In it, the prime minister is considering whether to align more closely with the United States to protect the great white north from nuclear attack. But his government may well collapse -- not because he’s considering signing away Canadian sovereignty, but because the press is focusing relentlessly on a stowaway named Henri who wants to enter the country.

The lesson is that in the midst of serious events, frivolity can be a real threat.

Today it’s North Korea, not (as in Hailey’s book) the Soviet Union making nuclear threats. And the Stalinist North Korean government (which already has tested long- and short-range missiles) now says it’s tested a nuclear weapon. Sounds serious. Too bad it can’t compete for attention with the ongoing Mark Foley scandal.

The day after North Korea’s purported test, the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s lead headline announced “N. Korea claims nuclear test.” But Foley was right next door on the page. “Foley e-mails go back to 2000,” the paper announced. Inside, the Foley story covered most of page 3; those interested in Korean nukes could flip to page 9. Cable news coverage was similar: Open with North Korea, but get to Foley as quickly as possible.

Not even a master storyteller such as Hailey could have imagined this. In his novel, he at least had the stowaway play an active role. By contrast, Foley is gone. Long gone. As soon as ABC News revealed that he was sending sexually suggestive Instant Messages to former pages, Foley quit the House and headed out of town. Yet the media continues to flog the story, just as political partisans are doing.

Out in Minnesota, Democrat Patty Wetterling is in a tough fight with Republican Michele Bachmann for an open House seat. Within days of the Foley revelations, Wetterling was on the air with an ad claiming the entire GOP leadership is at fault here. “For over a year, they knowingly ignored the welfare of children to protect their own power,” the ad claimed. She’s just following the Nancy Pelosi line. On Oct. 5, Pelosi claimed, “The fact that the Republican leadership in this Congress chose to protect Mark Foley for political reasons, rather than protect the children, cannot [stand].”

Well, to date, there’s no evidence that House leaders knew anything about Foley’s IMs. House Speaker Dennis Hastert insists, “The Republican leaders of the House did not have them. We have all said so, and on the record.” If evidence appears proving these leaders did engage in a cover-up, they should, of course, resign. But otherwise it’s past time for this “scandal” (in reality, just the story of one man’s serious misbehavior), to go away.

Still, in a way, maybe it’s good that the media is obsessed with Foley. After all, when it tries to cover an important story it usually stumbles. For example, NBC’s David Gregory wants to blame the Bush administration for allowing North Korea to go nuclear.

“In 2002, the president said that he didn’t want the so-called axis of evil, the worst regimes in the world, to get the most dangerous weapons,” Gregory told presidential spokesman Tony Snow on Oct. 10. “Here we are in 2006, this president has invaded a country that had no nuclear weapons and there is a country that in that process has been able to acquire more nuclear weapons.”

Gregory’s missing the point. It’s not the fact that we used the U.S. military in Iraq that allowed North Korea to get the bomb; it’s the fact that we basically agreed not to use the U.S. military against North Korea.

For more than a decade, American and British air power contained Saddam Hussein. He couldn’t build nukes because we were effectively at war with him. Finally, in 2003, “we went ahead and we dealt with a terrorist threat. And, frankly, the world is safer without Saddam Hussein,” as Snow explained to Gregory.

Meanwhile, on the Korean peninsula, the U.S. agreed to endless rounds of talks that included South Korea, China, Japan and Russia. And while those talks dragged on, North Korea worked on a bomb.

The sad fact is that there are a handful of bad regimes in the world. It never will be easy to deal with them. They usually refuse to negotiate, and when they do talk they refuse to abide by their agreements (as Saddam refused to obey more than a dozen U.N. Security Council resolutions). For that reason, the best option for dealing with these regimes is usually going to be using our military to remove them.

That probably seems counterintuitive to most reporters. They’d rather talk about the sexual proclivities of a former congressman than fight to remove real threats to global peace. That’s one reason our country is where it is today.

As Hailey might have put it, maybe truth really is stranger than fiction.