Monday, August 16, 2004


I'm going to ignore my grandfather's sage advice about pissing contests, skunks, and the undesirability of mixing the two, and attempt to talk media issues with a Chomskyite who has been pestering me on this score.

The matter is a post down below about three stories from one story. Here's a recap.

The West Coast newspaper "The Oregonian" wrote this account of Oregon National Guard soldiers who marched into an Iraqi prison to stop Iraqi prison guards from abusing Iraqi prisoners. Then were told by their superiors that they should not be intervening in the situation because doing so violated Iraq's sovereignty. The story also tells how the U.S. diplomatic authorities are handling the matter, and it reports that the U.S. soldiers said they saw no further examples of abuse thereafter, despite watching the prison closely.

By the way, if you follow this incident, be sure to watch the anti-war camp dismiss the U.S. diplomatic effort to resolve the problem in the prison, and, while not praising the soldiers themselves (oh, no, we can't have that in Michael Moore's world), imply that their direct, unilateral solution was the appropriate one. They claim this undermines the U.S. human rights motive for overthrowing Saddam, as though a democratic Iraq will prove just as incapable in the end of human rights (fascism, democracy, what's the big difference, eh?). But they can't spot the hypocrisy of the position that says unilateral American military action should never have been halted for the sake of some nancy-boy diplomat jaw-jaw.

That's almost as rich as the self-defeating hypocrisy of the "Carnegie Endowment for International Peace" spokesman quoted in the "Oregonian" story, who blames the current problems in Iraq on there not being enough Coalition military force on the scene.

The Associated Press wire service picked up "The Oregonian's" story and compressed it somewhat to make this for its national wire. Then AP translated it into German and compressed it further to make this, for release by the German AP (a dominant source of international news in Germany).

The "Oregonian" story has 56 paragraphs. The U.S. AP version has 20 paragraphs. The German AP version, 5 paragraphs. This is not, in itself, an act of bias. AP does this because it presumes local people are less interesting the further you get from local media. I suspect the AP deemed here that what the Oregon soldiers felt about what they saw, and what they did about it, were more relevant to their friends and neighbors than they were to the rest of America or the English-speaking world. To the AP, the focus was on the incident (though it had been reported before), not the soldiers.

In many cases this would be a valid journalistic judgement. But here, it allows the real Americans to drop from sight. All that's left are the abused Iraqis, the abstract, shadowy "American authorities" who sanctioned torture, and you practically have to read between the lines to learn that there were dozens or hundreds of Americans who intervened to stop the abuse of Iraqi prisoners before protocol and the chain of command made them stop.

And this is my complaint about this story, as it is about so much of the AP's Iraq coverage. I looked in vain for photos of U.S. soldiers in action in the Najaf fight last week. The New York Times had some wonderful shots, but the AP ran literally hundreds of pictures of "insurgents" in action and flashing "V for victory," and not one comparable action photo of U.S. military men and women.

American performance in Iraq is news. Not just the actions of the commanders (the usual focus of AP Iraq military stories) but the actions of the soldiers, who in far more cases make a direct impact on the lives of average Iraqis. How are the soldiers doing? Are they taking the interest of the people to heart? If you read the AP, you easily can get that "Farenheit 9/11" impression of a bunch of sadistic cowboys. If you read AP Germany, that's about the only option you have. No wonder European media run stories under headlines like, "Why do Americans kill?"

The story of the abuse itself was not news. Here is how the "Oregonian" describes it:

The June 29 confrontation between U.S. troops and Iraqi officials at the Interior Ministry has been mentioned in news accounts in the United States and Britain. But details about the prisoners' injuries, the actions of the Oregon Guard and the high-level American decision to leave the injured detainees in the hands of Iraqis has not been previously reported.

And by the time you get to read the German AP version of the story (source of 85 percent of German newspaper wire stories), "the actions of the Oregon Guard" all but have vanished, and you're left with abused Iraqis and callous U.S. authorities. It looks like another Abu Ghraib story, which is manifestly not what "The Oregonian" wrote.

Here's a sampling of what you wouldn't read in the German AP story about the Oregon National Guardsmen in the prison:

  • Guardsmen interviewed for this story said they've watched the detention facility closely since then, and that many of the prisoners were released soon after the raid on the detention facility.

  • The soldiers said they have not seen any further prisoner abuse occur there.

  • The country now has a minister of human rights. Government ministries have also assigned inspectors general to examine allegations of wrongdoing.

  • The new Iraqi constitution bans "torture in all its forms, physical or mental," as well as "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment."

  • The U.S. Embassy in Iraq disclosed that the United States raised questions about the "brutality" with Iraq's interior minister.

Yet Mr. Chomskyite turns this on its head, pulls a proverb from the Book of Chomsky, and pronounces this reporting "another example of American press slanting thing to serve state power."

Now, maybe he can answer me this. The two wire service stories, one in German and one in English, are written by the same U.S.-based media conglomerate, the Associated Press. They're not the product of two different entities. How can the same entity, on the same day, be his example of a fearless truth-bearing Prometheus, and his example of craven media groveling under Bush's boot-heel?

Wouldn't it be more consistent to say that "big media" in Europe, such as the German AP bureau, behaves just like "big media" in America, and that in Germany the AP serves the prevailing state power in Berlin? The German version of the story earns fulsome praise from Mr. Chomskyite. It is "the truth." Yet state power in places like France and Germany is dedicated to the proposition that the U.S. effort in Iraq is dead wrong and a total failure. Political careers of the top men stand atop that platform. Chomskyites never seem willing to explain to me how one "speaks the truth" to the power of Chirac and Schroeder.

He holds up the American AP story as "slanted" and claims the German AP story "more faithfully represents what the original Oregonian article actually said."

But the German AP story is simply a condensed translation of the U.S. AP story. According to the AP's own description of how its international branches operate, this is the way such stories are handled. It includes nothing from the original "Oregonian" story that was not in the AP story. And it adds phrases, shades of meaning, and outright errors ("The Oregon" as the name of the newspaper) that never were in the original. It has all the hallmarks of a secondary derivative, written with no reference to the source, yet Mr. Chomskyite would have you believe it is the truest form of the original article.
If you can accept that as logic, I suppose you also can swallow this:

I assume you did not intend on deliberate deception when you posted "Two Ways to Tell a Story". But the fact is the news lede from the Oregonian was "Ordered to just walk away", it was the U.S. version of the AP story that slanted the story, not the German version.

Like his mentor, he can't quite get it right. As I've pointed out (and he acknowledged, privately, before I did so), he means "the headline" here, not "the lede." [But the "Oregonian" story doesn't begin with a "news lede," either, even if you mean "lede," not "headline."] And he tells me, "... the German AP article expresses the Oregonian's headline, the US AP article does not. The question is why do you ignore the headline."

Because a headline is not some crucial thesis statement of a news story, as he seems to believe, or else believes in this case because it suits him. I write headlines every night. A headline has two jobs: Fill the space available, and get people to read the story. It doesn't summarize the story; it can't be factually at odds with the story, but it has no requirement to state the central point of the story. It isn't even written by the reporters who made the story. Headline writing is a copy editor's job.

If there is a thesis-type statement in the "Oregonian" story, I'd take it to be this paragraph:

"In handing over power, U.S. officials gave Iraqis authority to run their own institutions -- even if they made mistakes. But officials understand that the United States will be held responsible when the new Iraqi authorities stumble."

And I'd add that the story makes it clear that this situation is frustrating to at least one Oregon National Guard unit that made a heroic effort to prevent Iraqis from abusing one another.

But not to Mr. Chomskyite. "So if you go to the source," he writes, " 'The Oregonian' it is clear that the US version of the AP story is the one that slants it away from the main idea of the US allowing the human rights abuses to continue by ordering the US soldiers to walk away."

That may be his "main idea," based perhaps on a combination of wishful thinking and reading the headline as the story. Oh, but of course, this being a Chomskyite, it doesn't take long to hear about the suppression of truth in the media.

It is actually worse than this, the US media has suppressed the shocking story of actual killing of six prisoners at the hands of none other than our man, Iraqi PM Iyad Allawi. ... [A]nd by the way, the same Oregonian story had a great quote: "We did not generally put good people in." (and the media can be counted on to suppress this fact, both the fact that we put Allawi in and that he is a brutal murderer.)

Pause for a moment to savor the richness of that second sentence before you enjoy a laugh at the first. Put the parenthetical expression first, and you get, "the media can be counted on to suppress this fact, which was reported in the media" [i.e. "The Oregonian"].

Got that? And of course, when Mr. Chomskyite wants to alert you to the Allawi stories that "the mainstream media" is "suppressing," he links you to hippie underground press sheets like -- the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the BBC. I've read about the Allawi allegations in half a dozen places, mostly in editorial columns, which is where they belong for now, because they're unsubstantiated rumors. The story has one source: an Australian journalist who "said unnamed witnesses claimed to have seen Dr Allawi draw a gun and execute prisoners."

Pretty thin stuff. But that doesn't matter to Mr. Chomskyite. He'll charge on ahead waving it as the red flag of "truth" that is "suppressed" by corporate media in the service of state power. Allawi may very well have killed people, I wouldn't be bowled over by the revelation if he did. But if I'm a news editor on this story, I'm going to wait for more substantial evidence than the claims of "unnamed witnesses" before I go flinging the charge around. Unless, of course, I want to simply besmirch the entire U.S. effort to rebuild Iraq, ethics be damned.