Friday, March 17, 2006

Life imitates J4400

Good old real life, jumping in again to remind us that all the boring stuff in your basic editing classes is actually there for some sort of reason, honest.

Tuesday's discussion was about bad reasoning, particularly stuff that sources try to push past us or stuff journalists do to themselves. And it touched on errors of ambiguity, as in the textbook* example of the fallacy of equivocation: "I gave you my reasons, but you don't listen to reason!" The misunderstanding comes from the shifting meanings of "reason" in the sentence: "I gave you my (explanation/justification), but you don't listen to (sound thought or judgment)."

Comes now Thursday and the onset of Operation Swarmer, as urgented by the AP: U.S. and Iraqi forces on Thursday launched what was termed the largest air assault since the U.S.-led invasion, targeting insurgent strongholds north of the capital, the U.S. military said.

Well, that seems to have gotten editors' and designers' attention, leading to heds on the order of "U.S. attack in Iraq massive" (see the page here) with, well, no story but some bullet points to hold them up. Papers still covering Iraq on their own (and running stories rather than bullet items) didn't necessarily fare much better; the Chicago Tribune lede pointed to an "airborne assault near Samarra that the military described as one of the largest of the war."

It's nice to see the now-three-year-old Iraq war pushing its way onto the front despite the onset of the basketball tournament.** But is this smoke-'em-out effort being played in tune with its scale and relevance? A refreshing rejoinder, appropriately if snarkily titled "Airtime assault," at the BBC points to the success of equivocation here.

"The international news agencies immediately rang the urgent bells on the story," as the Beeb's Jim Muir puts it. "Around the world, programmes were interrupted as screens flashed the news, which dominated the global media agenda for the next 12 hours or more. On the New York Stock Exchange, oil prices jumped $1.41 a barrel "with a massive US-led air assault in Iraq intensifying jitters about global supplies of crude", as one agency reported it. "

The bloom is a bit off the rose by the Friday ayems coverage. Here's the AP: U.S. and Iraqi troops pressed their sweep through a 100-square-mile swath of central Iraq on Friday in a bid to break up a center of insurgent resistance, the U.S. military said. No resistance or casualties were reported.
"We believe we achieved tactical surprise," Lt. Col. Edward Loomis, spokesman for the 101st Airborne Division, said of the day-old Operation Swarmer. He said about 40 suspects were detained, 10 of whom were later released.
(The BBC says 48, "of whom 17 were freed without delay").

Here's Muir on how it all got so urgent on us:

The use of the phrase "the largest air assault operation" was clearly crucial, raising visions of a massive bombing campaign. In fact, all the phrase meant is that more helicopters were deployed to airlift the the troops into the area than in previous such operations. ... A US military spokesman gave the BBC the following official definition of the term:
"According to US joint [multiservice] doctrine, an air assault is one in which assault forces, using the mobility of rotary wing assets and total integration of available firepower, manoeuvre under the control of a ground or air manoeuvre commander to engage enemy forces or seize key terrain."

Sounds a bit less dramatic if "air assault" only means one thing (troop movement by helicopter), rather than two (BIFF! POW! ZANG!), in the same conversation, doesn't it?

Muir also takes us back through the files:
Operation Swarmer clearly bore no comparison in scale to the initial attack which brought down Saddam Hussein's regime or to the massive assault on the insurgent stronghold in the city of Falluja in November 2004.

Nor did it appear to match a series of counter-insurgency operations involving air strikes and ground forces in remote areas near the Syrian border in western Iraq last year. In one four-day campaign last May, the US military said it had killed 125 insurgents for the loss of nine of its own men killed and 40 injured.

Nice thing is, nobody had to lie to anybody. The Pentagon seems to have been perfectly happy to explain the meaning of "air assault" to any journalist who asked. And those who didn't at least got some nice heds out of the whole matter.

* "With Good Reason," by S. Morris Ernst. Highly recommended.
** And while we're at it, let's add "madness" to the list of Forbidden NCAA Hed Words, along with "Dance," "Elite" and "Sweet."


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