Sunday, June 04, 2006

Me and Henry, again

Self-fulfilling prophecy time. The reason we here at HEADSUP-L get exercised about journalism predictions on the order of "News will be framed according to your social networks, your age and your tribe" (infra) is twofold:

1) With the possible exception of age, it already is. "News" is a social and tribal construction, not a set of standards kept next to the official metre and kilogram at the Royal Institute of Measures and Stuff. It's as true of "man bites dog" as it is of "dog bites man."
2) That's pretty unexceptional in most cases (my tribe prefers baseball to cricket and buzkashi, and I'm glad the local dailies reflect that). But it's not universally good. And in those cases where it traditionally tends to get out of control -- as in, Man Bites Dogs of War -- it's something journalism needs to actively work against, rather than celebrating it in a race with our friends at Fox to the bottom of the drain.

It's no surprise, then to awaken to Sunday morning tales along the lines of

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- Iran's top leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned Sunday that oil shipments from the Gulf region would be disrupted if the United States attacked his nation, but his threat was dismissed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

TEHRAN, Iran (CNN) -- Ayatollah Ali Khameni, Iran's supreme leader, has warned the United States that any "misbehavior" directed at Iran would serve to disrupt Gulf energy shipments.

You can see how that's an appealing social and tribal frame in a land where much of the tribe drives SUVs and looks on the Middle East as basically a bunch of indifferentiated America-hating nutcases. First he warns! Then he threatens! (Then -- cunning foreigner! -- he monophthongizes the end of his family name, but that's probably CNN's fault; the copy desk looks to have been pretty sound asleep when this one went by.)

What's he really up to? Well, over at the Realist Bar and Grill, me and Kissinger (Condi Rice used to be a member too, until she fell in with the wrong kids) are inclined to call it "stating the blindingly obvious." Gosh -- you figure a war along the northern shore of the Persian Gulf might have some impact on oil shipments? As it usually seems to?

By itself, of course, this is nothing but a little comforting tribal Us-vs.-Them-ism: They're nuts, we're minding our own business. Or to borrow a social-psyc/persuasion cliche: I say, you warn, he threatens. But if you've been watching this particular dance for the past few months, you'll notice a familiar pattern: Iran says "If you punch us, we'll punch back," and the hed becomes "AYATOLLAH THREATENS U.S."

Or -- here's a direct quote -- "The United States may have the power to cause harm and pain but it is also susceptible to harm and pain." See below under bear, woods, Charmin (your round, Henry). Somehow this went from the obvious-if-unspecific to outright doomsday at the hands of the Knight-Ridder Washburo:

The war of words over Iran's nuclear program grew harsher Wednesday, as Iran threatened to inflict "harm and pain" on the United States in retaliation for any U.S.-led effort to force the Islamic republic to abandon its uranium enrichment work.

Alert readers will have noticed that the lede's explicit quid pro quo is nowhere present in the prepared statement the Iranians offered. And they might have wondered how this became "Iran fires threat at U.S." on the front of a daily that's big enough* to know better. Combine that with a good diplomatic forgery or two -- say, this month's tale about religious minorities and yellow badges -- and even a third-rate demagogue can make a compliant press sing along.

The point, measured in mega-duhs, is not that the Iranian regime is cuddly and friendly. It isn't. It's a pretty nasty lot. But it can be counted on to act in what it perceives as its appropriate interests (Henry, are you sure you don't have to drive?). The job of journalism is not to whip the tribe into a frothy-lipped frenzy every time Tehran clears its throat. If we can persuade the tribe to zip it while we try to explain the difference between realist rhetoric and the truly dangerous stuff, we'll actually be doing some sort of public service.

End of sermon. Yes, comps are next month. Why do you ask?


* Its smaller cousin at Myrtle ran the same lede but managed a much more sophisticated hed: "Iran, U.S. sling heated threats, rhetoric on nuclear program."

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