Sunday, August 17, 2008

The News Hole and the World War That Wasn’t

If you want to see what a news hole looks like, the current Olympics period is the best example I’ve ever seen. Everyone who deals with news is doing fewer and more superficial stories, as a significant part of the audience is away watching the big event. Even BBC News decided it would be a good time to save money by having less news. In my case, though I hope it’s not terribly obvious, my blog posts have been fewer and quicker. I don’t want to take too much of my time writing for the three people who are still reading my blog this month.

In the United States, this is likely to be the biggest news hole ever, continuing right through the Labor Day holiday weekend and the two major political conventions.

News holes are recessionary by nature. A big event like the Olympics means productivity declines, if workers are distracted during the work day, and work hours are reduced, if people leave work early to catch one of the television broadcasts. The entertainment and advertising industries, which depend on being able to catch and hold people’s attention, also have less to do during an extended news hole. All this means less is produced and less is purchased. It’s not really a problem, of course, but it might look bad in the August economic aggregates when they come out.

When people are seeking publicity, a news hole can slow them down. At one time, I had thought to release the audio edition of my new book Fear of Nothing around now, but there would not have been much point. Between the Olympics, conventions, general election season, and holiday shopping season, I would have a hard time finding gaps in which a “new” author with a new book could get some attention in the media.

Fear of Nothing is a small product, but major product launches are being postponed for the same reason, and this too has the effect of slowing down the economy. Not everything can benefit from waiting till next year, so look for the big announcements that can’t wait to be squeezed into the few gaps that can be found in the rest of this year’s calendar. The middle half of September and the middle half of November will surely be jammed with more new things being announced than anyone can keep track of.

Of course, people who want their news to be ignored deliberately release it — or create it — during a news hole. That’s what seems to have been going on in the Georgia war. By the most credible accounts, Georgia launched a carefully planned surprise attack on Russian forces, and on its own citizens, to coincide with the beginning of the Olympics. As with many military confrontations, it is very hard to sort out exactly what happened, but you have to ask what the leaders of Georgia were thinking. They certainly didn’t plan it to come out this way, with the Russian army locking down half their country and taking most of the rocket launchers and other military hardware the Georgian forces had been using to harass the Russians for the past few years. So you have to assume they had really bad intelligence.

And since the Republic of Georgia seems too small to have its own bad intelligence, the suggestion I have heard that its leaders were duped by their “friends” in Washington, New York, and London into starting the war makes sense. One conspiracy theory I have heard is that a member of the John McCain campaign, a lobbyist with ties to Georgia, or someone close to him, provided assurances that the world would back up Georgia if they would get a war started. An alternative theory is that Georgia was told of a fictional planned attack coming from the Russian side. Either way, this would help to explain why John McCain rushed to make a statement backing Georgia in the war, and identifying Georgia as the United States’ closest ally in the region. McCain’s statement, interjecting himself in the conflict, stands in stark contrast to the more measured responses from world leaders.

The claim that Georgia is a close ally of the United States must have come as a surprise to most of the world, probably to McCain himself. McCain, remember, doesn’t know much geography. In that same part of the world he made a policy statement a month ago about the supposed Iraq-Pakistan border, apparently confusing Iraq with Afghanistan. If he can get those two countries confused, it is likely enough that he never heard of Georgia before. As far as anyone else knows, Georgia is no more a U.S. ally than Russia is. And so it seems likely that someone was feeding misinformation simultaneously to at least the McCain campaign and the Georgia military leadership.

Seen in this light, the events in Georgia are an eerie echo of the events surrounding the start of World War One. So was someone using the news hole to try to start a new world war? To me, that seems believable, while the competing official accounts of the war in Georgia are clearly not true.

Who would want to start a world war? The most obvious incentive I could point to would be a commodities trader, perhaps a hedge fund manager, holding a long position in crude oil and scared to death by the recent declines in crude oil prices. Nothing would drive up oil prices faster than a sudden worldwide outbreak of hostilities. But it would be a mistake to look for an answer that obvious. There are no end of reasons people can have for wanting to keep the world, or a part of it, off balance. Leaders who are in a position to start wars have to be very skeptical of information pointing to war that might have been planted by people who have some private gain in mind.

Fortunately, the Georgia war did not spread, and when it is over, we may want to send a thank-you note to Putin, whose advice to the world — essentially, “Everybody stay back” — seems in retrospect to have been the right idea to help keep what was already a tragic situation from expanding into something much worse.