Mystery virus of the mind infects media, twists truth

Monday, April 7, 2003 at 1:00am

It must have been the sandstorm. Remember a couple of weeks ago when everyone in Iraq was blinded by the whorl of dust? Today we might figure that embedded in those blistering grains of hard dust was a meme, one of those catchy ideas that gets implanted in the human mind and multiplies through the culture like a virus.

The media culture seems to have been infected, as much of what we read and hear doesn't jive with what we otherwise know to be true. Headlines and news stories, for instance, variously tell us we're in trouble, we're falling behind, our plan has failed, that we're the ones "shocked and awed" by Iraqi resistance.

Yet, on the other hand, we know that this is what's really true: Americans and Brits have secured strategic areas, including oil fields in the south and airstrips in the north; carefully minimized civilian casualties; fed and doctored surrendering Iraqis; uncovered a "torture hospital" and a terrorist camp packed with training equipment for nuclear, biological and chemical warfare; and encircled Baghdad in less than two weeks with less than 50 American casualties.

This is a failed plan? So said formerly employed MSNBC war correspondent Peter Arnett, whose weird interview with Saddam Hussein's television station was otherwise notable for its inaccuracies.

Over the weekend, the media played the meme game to perfection, taking a single quotation and spreading it around like a germ. The quotation du jour, attributed to Lt. Gen. William Wallace, commander of U.S. Army ground forces, and simultaneously repeated in Time magazine, The New York Times (compliments of columnist Maureen Dowd), and a scattering of other newspapers that picked up the original wire story, went like this:

"The enemy we're fighting is a bit different than the one we war-gamed against," he reportedly said. Well, yes, that seems true enough. So what? But as framed by Dowd, it was intended to bolster the position that since the United States was wrong about "Iraqi resistance," we're wrong about everything else. Dowd's parenthetical

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