Monday, March 12, 2007

Exclusive to this day

OK, it's not very charitable to call somebody's story a crock before the evidence is in, and it's impossible to prove a negative, and all that. But we're going to go ahead and speculate that if we check in on this one in six months, or six years, it's going to remain "exclusive to this day" (I think the phrase originated with Peter Braestrup but am happy to accept corrections). In other words, it isn't going to be matchable, now or then, because it's a crock.

At issue is the "'Shadow' trackers" tale, getting No. 2 play on the Fox home page this afternoon. Seems to be worth a look -- exciting turn in the war on terrorism and all that, right? Let's start with the lede:

An world-reknowned elite group of Native American trackers used by the U.S. Customs to hunt down Mexican drug and people smugglers reportedly is joining the hunt for terrorists crossing Afghanistan’s borders, where Usama bin Laden has been known to hide.

Nothing like getting off on the wrong indefinite article to boost your credibility. Best guess? Somebody goosed the lede by sticking in "world-renowned" and didn't bother to double-check the suturing (or the spelling). But hold that that thought while we wonder about some bigger game: Whose report produces this "reportedly" we're relying on?

The Shadow Wolves unit, recruited from tribes including the Navajo, Sioux, Lakota and Apache, which patrols a 76-mile stretch of Arizona-Mexico border, is being sent to areas along the Afghan border to teach local units the traditional method called "cutting sign" of finding and following clues on the barren landscape, London's Sunday Times reported.

Wizz super! Another Murdoch product!

The Pentagon and the State Department, however, could not confirm the report the report to FOXNews.com, according to a Pentagon official. (Does anybody copyedit this stuff?)

While we had the said official on the line, we might have asked a few questions prompted by the source copy, on the order of: How do you guys go about "requisitioning" civilians who look for smugglers at the Mexican border? And what do you do by way of training before you ship 'em off to a war zone? But at least Fox gives a link we can click to read the full story, so let's:

AN ELITE group of native American trackers is joining the hunt for terrorists crossing Afghanistan’s borders.

Looks like that settles the question about how Fox's lede became "an world-renowned." Let's see how good the Times's attribution is, shall we? Interesting task, because as it turns out there isn't any:

In recent years, members of the Shadow Wolves have mainly tracked drug and people smugglers along the US border with Mexico.

But the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan and the American military’s failure to hunt down Osama Bin Laden — still at large on his 50th birthday yesterday — has prompted the Pentagon to requisition them. (No attribution here.)

Robert M Gates, the US defence secretary, said last month: “If I were Osama Bin Laden, I’d keep looking over my shoulder.” (Well, I would be too -- but he isn't addressing the topic.)

The Pentagon has been alarmed at the ease with which Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters have been slipping in and out of Afghanistan. Defence officials are convinced their movements can be curtailed by the Shadow Wolves.

About this point, I'm longing to hear from one of those defence officials, under whatever cloak of anonymity he or she decires.

Some military experts want the Shadow Wolves to help to track down Bin Laden. ... But a senior US official insisted last week that Bin Laden’s trail had “not gone stone cold”.

Once again, as soon as a real person talks, he's talking about something else -- a classic shell game of sourcing. What we seem to have is a ginned-up tale about mythical figures from American fiction going after the chief evildoer, using their native wiles to help out where technology has failed.

A couple of remaining holes support that conclusion. One, the Afghan-Pak border is, oh, mildly different (topography- and climate-wise) from the Arizona-Mexico border. Two, there's already a set of Wily Native myths in play for this region. Let's let the Washington Post (November 2001) address both:

But our 12-horse team forged ahead, guided through the blinding blizzard by Afghan trackers on foot. The passengers on horseback -- three cousins in the jewelry business, a relief agency worker and three foreign journalists on their way to a war -- were hunched against the cold and the snow, beneath hoods and gloves and parkas. The Afghan guides walked alongside in tennis shoes, without gloves, wearing old army jackets and Afghan scarves.

I don't even want to ask how many words they have for "blizzard." But do you get the idea the the local trackers are not only accustomed to the weather, but already pretty fearsome? Or should we ask the Torygraph (September 2001)?

I used salt instead of toothpaste, fearing that the Afghan scouts used by the Russians would pick up the scent of Colgate.

Wow! See you an Apache and raise you a Pathan there, bubba. In other words, whatever the border/terrorist/Osama issue is, a lack of "ancestral sign-reading skills" isn't part of it. Unless, you know, bin Laden uses Gleem or something. And you'd think we would have searched his ancestral medicine cabinet by now.

Generally, there's not a lot of mileage in trying to infer motive from news copy, but the AEJMC deadline is coming up, so let's indulge. There's probably a strong corporate sense at Fox, and the other Murdoch products, that "good news" in the GWoT is, at best, given short shrift by the liberal mainstream media. So when a piece comes along that scratches that itch and lets you indulge in some comfortable cultural myths too, it's on its way to a good ride.

The piece doesn't have to be ordered in from the glass offices. In a case like this, it'd be commendable initiative for a low-ranking desk to advance the story (even with a mere phone call) and pitch it for good play. All you have to do is ignore all the warning lights and you've got a pretty good tale on your hands.

Is there a lesson in that for Fox, or for journalism in general? Sure. Ideology doesn't make a story dumb. Stupid journalistic practice makes a story dumb. Ideology just makes it easier for people who already don't like you to point out how dumb you are.

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