William & Mary

William and Mary's Three Wise Men

Left to right: George Grayson, Mitchell Reiss, Lawrence Wilkerson.Global trouble spots: Iraq, North Korea, Latin America, Northern Ireland. They've been there and seen that--and earned the wisdom of experience.

That's why three William & Mary faculty members are prominent in the Rolodexes on desks of wire services and TV newsrooms across the country. You've read their comments in the major stories and seen their heads talking. Now George Grayson, Mitchell Reiss and Lawrence Wilkerson, above, get a chance to talk about the global issues, how much we really know and how often the media gets it right.

Read Their Background Bios:

William and Mary's Director of News Marketing Suzanne Seurattan spends a certain large percentage of her time arranging with the national media interviews and appearances for George Grayson, Mitchell Reiss and Lawrence Wilkerson. She e-mailed a set of questions to the three experts. The responses, edited for length, are below. Be forewarned: few punches are pulled. Opinions expressed below are those of the individuals, not Ideation or the College of William and Mary.

Is there still a "world order"?

REISS: Yes. The United Nations and other international institutions, such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, still play an important role in what is referred to as a global world order. Sometimes it is easy to overlook this because of all the global disorder that is out there.

WILKERSON: There is always a world order because there is always power. At times, to the casual observer it may look more like world disorder; but so long as there is power to be had and wielded in the world, there will be men--and increasingly women--to wield it. What we are criticizing when we label the world as full of chaos and disorder is the way men rule.

GRAYSON: There is not a world order in the sense that the Westphalian system remains intact with nation-states dominating the international arena. Rather, there exists an "international mosaic" composed of diverse actors and protean rules of the game. These include three iterations of "superpowers"--Russia, which is waning in influence, but retains a potent nuclear capability plus world-class energy resources; the United States, which has begun to decline politically and economically under the George W. Bush administration, but whose dollar remains the currency of choice and whose culture permeates the world; and China, which is surging in the growth of GDP and exports. At the same time, there are a plethora of important, formal international agencies: the UN, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, et cetera. These are complemented by private international players: non-governmental organizations, multinational corporations, terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, immensely wealthy drug cartels, networks of immigrant smugglers. Last but not least are the financial markets that can affect the global economy as we witnessed in the activities of the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock exchanges just after the Chinese New Year.

What are the top 3 global security threats?

REISS: The conjunction of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, the spread of infectious disease and the real possibility that the U.S. will retreat from its global responsibilities.

WILKERSON: First is the proliferation of nuclear weapons--and the principal source for this is Russia, not Iraq, Iran or the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Then, the possibility of a devastating disease such as avian flu sweeping the globe. Third is the collapse of world markets led by the collapse of the U.S. economy because of its enormous dependence on massive debt. Were I allowed a fourth threat, I would say planetary warming--and if nothing is done soon, I would move that danger to the top of my list.

GRAYSON: For me, it's the arrogant, preemptive, militaristic foreign policy of the Bush White House; the increasing readiness of the U.S. government to lie--blatantly--to its own people and world as it pursues quixotic policies in the Middle East, while placing a low priority on forging a modus vivendi between Israel and the Palestinians; and the pusillanimous unwillingness of the U.S. Congress and most presidential candidates of both parties to challenge executive decisions that are devastating to our national interests and standing in the world.

What should the United States guard against in the Middle East? In Mexico and Latin America?

WILKERSON: The U.S. should be wary of a single power--such as Iran--gaining hegemony over the region and, thus, being able to dictate outcomes to other countries in the region. This is true particularly if Iran remains a theocracy with objectives that are antithetical to U.S. and other free nations' national interests.

REISS: Wholesale retreat. We need to remain engaged in the Mideast peace process and with the Gulf states in particular.

GRAYSON: U.S. presidents focus on Mexico when an economic or energy crisis erupts below or above the Rio Grande. Mexico is an extraordinarily rich country--oil, natural gas, silver, gold, beaches, historic treasures, incredible museums, a robust industrial sector, fisheries and wonderful, hard-working people. However, Mexico's elite pay little in taxes, benefit from ubiquitous corruption, live extremely well, spend anemic amounts on education, health care and job-training, and seek to use the border as an escape valve so that American taxpayers shoulder the responsibilities that the Mexican power structure shirks.

On a scale of 1-10, rate the security threat posed by Iraq. How about Iran and North Korea?

REISS: Objectively, there is no difference in the threat North Korea poses to global security today than a year ago, although the world is much more aware of this threat because of the October 9, 2006, testing of a nuclear device. North Korea poses a threat to the security of U.S. forces in northeast Asia--and of our friends and allies in the region. If Pyongyang decides to export its expertise, technology or fissile material, then it would obviously pose a severe threat to international security.

WILKERSON: The Iraqi people pose no threat to the security of nations in or out of the Middle East region. Certain leaders in Iraq, were they to gain control over the levers of power in Baghdad and rule Iraq--leaders such as Moqtada al-Sadr--would potentially pose a threat to neighboring countries. That threat I would rank about a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10. The chaos that the U.S. and its allies have brought to Iraq, is another matter altogether. That chaos presents a regional threat on an order of 8 or 9 and a threat to nations outside the region of 5 or 6--principally due to any significant disruption in the flow of Iraq's oil into the international market. Iran poses no significant threat so long as it does not possess nuclear weapons. If it gains such weapons and remains in the hands of the current theocrats, it would be a grave danger.

Is the American public well informed about world events? If not, whose fault is it, the public's or the media's?

GRAYSON: We are a parochial nation. Yet, as Bill Moyers pointed out in a recent PBS special, officials in Washington manipulate the mainstream media--including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the three largest TV networks--as if they were yo-yos. A case in point is the abject failure of most print and electronic journalists to scrutinize the administration's insistence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Consequently, the American public is poorly informed--and often misled--about national and international affairs. Stereotypes dominate the view of Americans toward Mexicans (and toward other foreigners).

REISS: I think people are better informed today than ever before, due largely to the rise of electronic media.

WILKERSON: No--and it is the fault of both the media and the people. The media cater to the market, to the sound-bite, and to the dramatic and entertaining, not to sound analysis. The people seem to want the entertainment, though increasingly they are tuning out the sound-bite and the more egregiously slanted reporting. With regard to the public, their disinterest is also a part of the failure of our school systems, public and private, to deliver a meaningful education, particularly where that education should find a focus on civic responsibility and duty in a democracy.

When you are interviewed, do the media seem to have a good understanding of world events?

WILKERSON: Normally, no. One of the great failings of our democracy in the past 20 years has been the almost total transformation of the Fourth Estate into an entertainment industry rather than an essential element of our republic, an element whose main mission is to speak the truth to power. If you are in the entertainment business, detailed, careful analysis and study of an issue is unnecessary.

REISS: Almost always, yes. What they sometimes lack is (1) a broader understanding of the regional or international context, (2) a deeper understanding of the particular details, and/or (3) knowledge of the Administration's policy approach.

GRAYSON: There is enormous variation. The White House Press Corps, for instance, specializes in the activities of the chief executive and knows little about Mexican and Latin American nations. As a rule: (1) personalities trump politics, (2) politics trump policy, and (3) policy trumps digging into the (often bureaucratic) subtleties of policy formation.

When the press reports on world events, are they getting it right?

REISS: They generally get the big things right, but the largest constraint on accurate reporting is the limited amount of space their editors allot to the stories. It is difficult to get all the pertinent information in 800 words.

WILKERSON: First, they do not, as a rule, concentrate on world events. In short, "blood leads" and, with regard to world events, if there is no blood there is rarely any real media interest. Secondly, when the media do focus on world events their reporting is shallow, largely uninformed and geared to the market. By this I mean that, once again, entertainment is the principal motivation.

GRAYSON: With few exceptions, the American media does an abominable job of covering Mexico. Desk-bound journalists thrive on submitting "Headless Man Found in Topless Bar" articles. That is, they focus on quaint indigenous customs, the skullduggery of politicians and exotic religious practices. Meanwhile, someone like Lynn Walker of the Copley News Service really pursues stories and spends time sorting out fact from factoids and fiction. Lisa Adams at Mexico's Associated Press bureau, Ginger Thompson of The New York Times, and Marla Dickerson and Sam Enriquez of The Los Angeles Times also do high-quality reporting. The electronic media--with the exception of CNN and (occasionally) NPR--strain for the sexy sound-bite.

Do you see a bent toward political partisanship in the press? A bent toward entertainment?

REISS: The opinion piece writers, like Nick Kristof of The New York Times, have a partisan approach. Most others are trying to get the story as accurately as possible.

WILKERSON: As I said previously, I certainly see the latter. Depending on the medium, I also see quite frequently the former. I can almost always, for example, count on Rush Limbaugh or Fox News to deliver the hard-line Republican point of view, even at times the extreme margins of those views. On the world scene, an interesting contrast is made by Al Jazeera, the largely Arab network owned by the Emir of Qatar. Despite heavy criticism by members of the Bush administration, this network does attempt in-depth and detailed analysis of and reporting on issues. My appearances on Al Jazeera have been very satisfying, unlike most of my appearances on U.S. media, which are very short and rarely explore issues in depth.

What should the media be reporting on that they're not?

WILKERSON: I find that the most disturbing omissions are generated by an abysmal lack of historical knowledge. For example, one of the most searing aspects of U.S.-Iranian relations today is in part a direct result of U.S. policy toward Iran since U.S. complicity in the coup d'etat that overthrew the first democratically-elected government in Iran in 1953, the subsequent installation of the shah, and U.S. support of that incredibly poor ruler for the next quarter century, until he was overthrown in 1979. I have listened to hours of media reporting on Iran and have never heard a word of this in-depth understanding of why we find ourselves today in the dangerous situation that confronts us with regard to Tehran.

REISS: It is difficult for reporters to cover foreign stories because of the financial cuts at newspapers--there are not as many overseas offices as before. It is also difficult to cover stories that depend on scientific or technical knowledge and those that lack a dramatic hook. Global warming fits the bill for both of these.

GRAYSON: First, the media should inform their readers and viewers about the ominous threat that Mexico poses to the national interests of the United States in terms of the flood of illegal immigrants, the narco-gangs that control major bi-national crossing points, and the monopolies, oligopolies and bottlenecks that impede Mexico's efficiency and productivity. Second, the melting of glaciers and the migration of animals provides ample "photo ops" for journalists to hammer away on the dangers posed by global warming. Third, rather than tout the virtues of ethanol (because of corporate sponsors), the Fourth Estate should zero in on other bio-fuels in addition to the enormous advantages of conservation, including much tougher CAFE standards. Finally, except for Lou Dobbs--with whom I disagree on trade--few journalists are illuminating the ever-more skewed income distribution in favor of the super-rich in "egalitarian" America.

Best/worst/most memorable media encounters?

GRAYSON: Best: When the local press in Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa state, interviewed William & Mary observers at the fall 2005 gubernatorial contest, our students came through with flying colors. Worst: A late-night call from a White House reporter for a major newspaper, who asked for "a couple of good questions" he could ask at a news conference at a summit meeting in Mexico City the next day. An invitation to a fancy White House dinner goes a long way in co-opting the Fourth Estate whose members--with a few exceptions--have become toothless tabby cats.

WILKERSON: My most memorable was when the media began to pick up on and report somewhat in-depth on the detainee abuse issue (with respect to the U.S. abuse of those personnel captured in the so-called Global War on Terror). My worst moment was when I was a member of the Bush administration and on background I commented on how stupid U.S. Cuba policy was--and, later, my comments were written up and attributed to me. However, I have since found a little moral courage and no longer find that revelation embarrassing, but exhilarating.