One of the strangest news developments of our time is the way the media now focus for days, if not weeks, 24/7, on a single event and its ramifications. Omar Mateen's slaughter of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando is only the latest example of this. If no other calamitous or eye-catching event comes along ("'Unimaginable': Toddler's body recovered by divers after alligator attack at Disney resort"), it could, like the San Bernardino shootings, top the news, in all its micro-ramifications and repetitions, for three or four weeks.
Such stories -- especially mass killings, especially those with an aura of terrorism about them -- are particularly easy for strapped, often downsizing news outfits to cover. They are, in a sense, pre-packaged. A template for them is already in place: starting with the breaking news of some horror and soon after a tagline like "America in shock, [grief,] [mourning,] wondering what comes next." Then follow the inevitable grainy smartphone videos of some aspect of the horror as reporters fan out to capture the weeping faces; the brave or tearful accounts of wounded survivors; the backstory on the killer or killers and his or their tangled motivations; commentary from the usual terror (or mass shooting) experts; the latest on the FBI's follow-up investigations; the funerals for the victims, including the comments of grief counselors meant to help a nation "in mourning"; and finally, of course, the issue of "closure" and "healing," all topped -- if "terrorism" is part of the package -- by an endless frisson of horror and fascination when it comes to the influence of ISIS (or allegiance pledged to the same), lone wolves, the role of social media, and so on. In this strange election season, there is, of course, the added thrill of watching Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and President Obama in mortal battle. Who could ask for more? Not the TV news outfits that now mobilize for these events the way the military might mobilize for war. So, as the New York Times put it recently, "the news industry descended on Florida" last week, and so they did.
Such events overwhelm us, as they are meant to. They glue eyeballs, as they are also meant to, and the reporting of all of this is now so enmeshed in the events themselves that it is essentially indistinguishable from them. Undoubtedly -- given the allure of such intense, over-the-top media attention -- it actually works to encourage future acts that will rivet similar attention on the next lone wolf or group.
There is, however, one small problem worth mentioning. For days or weeks on end, a single place -- call it Newtown, San Bernardino, or Orlando (one school, one gathering of government workers, one club) -- is the center of our universe. The rest of the world? Not so much. However significant the 24/7 event may be, it blots out just about everything else and so plays havoc with our sense of what's important and what isn't. It also ensures that, at least in the mainstream, ever fewer reporters cover ever fewer non-24/7 stories.
For so much that's basic to our world and will matter far more in the long run than local slaughters, no matter how horrific, there are few or no reporters and next to no coverage. This means, for instance, that in the distant reaches of the imperium, much of the time the U.S. military can operate remarkably freely, without fear of significant scrutiny. Which is why, on the subject of the U.S. military's "pivot" to Africa, it's lucky that Nick Turse has been on the beat (almost alone) for TomDispatch. Otherwise in our new media universe, what we don't know could, in the end, hurt us. Tom
The Numbers Racket
AFRICOM Clams Up After Commander Peddles Contradictory Statements to Congress
By Nick Turse
General David Rodriguez might be a modern military celebrity -- if he hadn't spent his career ducking the spotlight. After graduating from West Point in 1976, he began his long march up the chain of command, serving in Operation Just Cause (the U.S. invasion of Panama) and Operation Desert Storm (Iraq War 1.0) before becoming deputy commander of United States Forces, Afghanistan, and commander of the International Security Assistance Force-Joint Command in 2009.
In 2011, the 6'5" former paratrooper received his fourth star and two years later the coveted helm of one of the Defense Department's six geographic combatant commands, becoming the third chief of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM). Rodriguez has held that post ever since, overseeing a colossal American military expansion on that continent. During his tenure, AFRICOM has grown in every conceivable way, from outposts to manpower. In the process, Africa has become a key hub for shadowy U.S. missions against terror groups from Yemen, Iraq, and Syria to Somalia and Libya. But even as he now prepares to turn over his post to Marine Lieutenant General Thomas Waldhauser, Rodriguez continues to downplay the scope of U.S. operations on the continent, insisting that his has been a kinder, gentler combatant command.
As he prepares to retire, Rodriguez has an additional reason for avoiding attention. His tenure has not only also been marked by an increasing number of terror attacks from Mali and Burkina Faso to, most recently, Côte d'Ivoire, but questions have arisen about his recent testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC). Did the outgoing AFRICOM chief lie to the senators about the number of missions being carried out on the continent? Is AFRICOM maintaining two sets of books in an effort to obscure the size and scope of its expanding operations? Is the command relying on a redefinition of terms and massaging its numbers to buck potential oversight?
If Rodriguez knowingly deceived the Senate Armed Services Committee in an effort to downplay the size and scope of his command's operations, that act would be criminal and punishable by law, experts say. That's a big "if." But U.S. Africa Command's response hardly inspires confidence. AFRICOM has refused to comment on the subject, stonewalling TomDispatch on questions about why Rodriguez has been peddling contradictory figures about his command's activities to Congress. And this rejection of transparency and accountability is only the latest incident in a long history of AFRICOM personnel ducking questions, rebuffing press inquiries, and preventing Americans from understanding what's being done in their name and with their tax dollars in Africa.
In March 2015, General David Rodriguez appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee to report on the previous year's military missions in Africa. "In Fiscal Year 2014, we conducted 68 operations, 11 major joint exercises, and 595 security cooperation activities," he told the senators. The U.S. had, in other words, carried out a total of 674 military missions across Africa, nearly two per day, up from 546 the year before. Those 674 missions amounted to an almost 300% jump in the number of annual operations, exercises, and military-to-military trainings since U.S. Africa Command was established in 2008.
These missions form the backbone of U.S. military engagement on the continent. "The command's operations, exercises, and security cooperation assistance programs support U.S. Government foreign policy and do so primarily through military-to-military activities and assistance programs," according to AFRICOM. "These activities build strong, enduring partnerships with African nations, regional and international organizations, and other states that are committed to improving security in Africa."
Very little is known about most of these missions due to AFRICOM's secretive nature. Only a small fraction of them are reported in the command's press releases with little of substance chronicled. An even tinier number are covered by independent journalists. "Congress and the public need to know about U.S. military operations overseas, regardless of what euphemism is used to describe them," says William Hartung, a senior adviser to the Security Assistance Monitor which tracks American military aid around the globe. "Calling something a 'security cooperation activity' doesn't change the fact that U.S. troops are working directly with foreign military forces."
This spring, at his annual appearance before the SASC, Rodriguez provided the senators with an update on these programs. "In fiscal year 2015," he announced, "we conducted 75 joint operations, 12 major joint exercises, and 400 security cooperation activities." For the first time ever, it seemed that AFRICOM had carried out fewer missions than the year before -- just 487. This 28% drop was noteworthy, if little noticed.