Along the Tracks

Friday, October 10, 2003

Some questions ‘answered,’ but few ‘covered’

My 20 questions struck a chord with the blog community a couple weeks ago, and I’ve seen some effort to answer what I continue to believe are important areas for journalists to explore. Unfortunately, very little of this has been done in the “big media.” You know who I’m talking about: New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today; Time, Newsweek; CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, PBS, NPR and BBC. (If I’ve left some members of the “big media” out, I apologize for the damage I’ve caused to egos.)

There are exceptions - a story on northern Iraq here, a look at the story behind the museum looting there - but for the most part, the daily assignment board is: attack coverage, anger-behind-the-attack coverage, and “deterioration” coverage to fill out the big picture. Only after we’ve had eight minutes or 60 inches of this template do the “opposing” sides start to appear: Bremer testifying to Congress or soldiers talking about their work or Iraqis taking responsibility for their country.

When these stories do finally arise, they have been framed by the previous “negative” reports and are measured in that light. Thus, Bremer’s statements are not offered as a professional assessment, but as defensive posturing against what we’ve all just seen - often complete with partisan harassment by Democrats. Soldiers are allowed to tell their stories, but within a narrative which assumes their efforts are noble but hopeless. And the Iraqis? In story after story I have seen, the Iraqi cops and new military recruits, the garbage collectors, oil workers, lawyers - they are all presented for comic relief. The journalist tells us how silly they look in uniforms, how silly they look without uniforms, how clueless they are about Miranda rights or how little English they know. And somewhere in the story, there is always the ominous note that “many Iraqis we talked to” consider their countrymen who are helping the Americans to be “collaborators” or “traitors.”

Two examples, courtesy National Public Radio: Recently, there was a story on Iraqi courtroom operations (I searched for a link, but no luck). First, it was noted how silly folks looked in the robes they wore under Saddam. Then, the lawyers were derided for wearing jeans and T-shirts. A list of “humorous” cases being considered was offered. Then the required shot at the occupation: The caseload has skyrocketed due to claims against the Americans for breaking things and killing people.

The second story, heard just this morning, was one of those “anger-behind-the-attacks” pieces. Two strikes inside Shia-dominated Sadr City - a police station hit by a suicide bomber and an ambush against American soldiers - were presented as yet another sign of the coalition “losing the peace.” Suddenly, NPR was happy to note how the Shia had originally welcomed the Americans (something they largely dismissed while the welcoming occurred), but now the tables had turned. Sadr City has “exploded” with violence, we were told. Seething anger and bitter resentment has replaced open arms and flowers. People “blame the Americans” for the assassination of a Shia cleric in Najaf a couple months ago, and now the results of that sentiment are being felt in Shia areas like Sadr City.

So there you have it - Iraq descending into violence, soldiers facing an insurmountable task - and oh, look at those silly sycophantic Arabs sucking up to their American masters ... they’ll get what’s coming.

That’s the message the “big media” are delivering, with their blood-and-bile, prepackaged stories. It’s not true, it’s not honest and it displays an elitism, even racism, which would be condemned in any other field.

Mark Steyn noted in an interview that American “J-school” journalism is crushing the craft of writing - but it's worse than that. It's destroying principled journalism. I’ve been in newspaper and radio for over 15 years - and have always considered myself a “journalist.” I’m just a little guy in a little town in a forgotten corner of a declining state, but I’ve always believed good journalism was universal, whether covering a village council’s work on an ordinance or an administration’s build up to war. Choose your stories based on how well they reflect the larger situation. Choose trusted sources where available, and a range of sources where integrity is in doubt, especially when dealing with government officials. Ask intelligent questions which challenge assumptions. Don’t accept anything, good or bad, as “fact” on the words of a few - look for corroboration, other sources and other interpretations. Know your own biases - and when a story seems to confirm them, make extra effort to challenge that point of view. Seek the whole story. Seek balance. Seek the truth.

My high school speech teacher and newspaper adviser, Mr. Burke, liked to encourage us by dramatically delivering a favorite maxim: “The cream ... shall rise ... to the top.” I used to believe that was true - but something else has been bubbling up in the media world, and it has a distinctly different look and an unmistakable odor.

UPDATE: This New York Times article at least covers Bremer’s assessment of progress in Iraq. I’m less impressed than Glenn Reynolds, but he’s right - it’s motion in the right direction.

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