Friday, May 11, 2007

Fox isn't always the problem

As much fun as it is to sit around and make light of the agitpropsters over at Fox News, it's worth noting that Fox often doesn't have to do much to "real" news copy before it fits the mold. I'm not entirely sure what copyeds can do about that, but based on this, we might want to start making a little more noise in a few more of the right places.

Our case in point is this AP tale. Fox does a lot of routine ideological tweaking to AP copy: "suicide bomber" becomes "homicide bomber," militants become terrorists, and Quran is changed to Koran (reversing the style change AP made in 2000). So it's not unreasonable, at the outset, to hypothesize that something similar is afoot:

Cheney Issues Stern Warning to Iran: Keep Sea Lanes Open
Vice President Dick Cheney issued a warning to Iran while aboard an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf on Friday, saying the United States would join allies to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons "and dominating the region."

With two U.S. carrier groups now in the region, the vice president declared, "We're sending clear messages to friends and adversaries alike. We'll keep the sea lanes open."

Fox puts its thumb on the scale in the hed -- "stern" doesn't have any particular support in the text -- but the rest is straight-up AP. (If you're scoring along at home, this appears to be the first version of the story, which showed up here around 8 a.m.; AP tweaked it twice for afternoon papers before the ayems writethru appeared around 1 p.m.) That's the unnerving part, because warning Iran that you'll keep the sea lanes open -- the construction also shows up in AP's suggested hed -- isn't free of implication. It's sort of like holding a press conference outside your congressman's office and proclaiming that you'll keep schoolboys safe from predators. To paraphrase the immortal (or apocryphal) words of Lyndon Johnson: You don't have to say it to make the other sumbitch deny it.

Iran exerts considerable control over the narrow passageway that separates the Persian Gulf from the open waters of the Arabian Sea. Roughly a quarter of the world's oil supplies pass through the Straits of Hormuz.

It's the Strait (not Straits) of Hormuz, and it connects the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman, not the Arabian Sea. Which is why desks have atlases and gazetteers and people who use them.

Iran loomed about 150 miles to the east as Cheney spoke aboard the USS John C. Stennis. The carrier was steaming about 20 miles off Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

Uh, captain? Looming east of this position (unless the Stennis is playing Ship of the Desert) is more of the UAE. Followed by Oman, followed by the aforementioned Gulf of Oman. Iran is to the "north." But hiding among the geography is a bigger question: If Iran is "looming" (me and Webster are guessing the AP means "appear in an impressively great or exaggerated form" or "take shape as an impending occurrence"), then what do you figure two carrier battle groups are doing?

It was the latest shot in an escalating war of words, with both Tehran and Washington seeking to increase influence over states bordering Iraq. Cheney's visit comes just two days before Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was to visit Abu Dhabi.

"We'll stand with others to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating this region," said Cheney.

Let's stipulate, for the future, that any claim of an "escalating war on words" be accompanied by at least three (3) examples clearly demonstrating an escalation. And -- did we mention reporters and maps? -- that reporters should look at maps. The Emirates don't border Iraq. Iran, on the other, rather does.

Both Shiite-dominated Iran and Saudi Arabia, with a predominantly Sunni Muslim population, are vying for influence among their respective ethnic factions in Iraq.

Those factions are confessional, not ethnic, and this is a good point to stop the tape and point out why some of this stuff happens. The story is from the White House beat (Fox usually cuts AP bylines), not from international. That explains a few of the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspects. And, to a degree, it explains why a generally unremarkable pep talk gets national circulation.

Which might be the bigger problem, and the real reason copy from the allegedly liberal media can be slapped up on Fox without changes. Wouldn't it be nice (and don't you expect at least some AP staffers with long memories would be happier?) if executive branch saber-rattling came with a bit of context? As in: What sorts of things tend to happen when Washington strolls around the Persian Gulf looking for a fight?

Well, sometimes our friends (Saddam Hussein's Iraq, in this case) will sort of accidentally-on-purpose put a missile into one of our ships. The attack on the Stark killed about twice as many Americans as the later attack on the USS Cole and caused people like Bob Dole to say things like: "We need to rethink exactly what it is we are doing in the Persian Gulf. What are our goals? What is our strategy? What are the risks? And how much cost are we willing to pay?"

(Yes, that's the Bob Dole who a couple of years later -- when Cheney was secretary of defense -- nuzzled up to Hussein in Mosul: "I think Saddam Hussein believes there is this capability by America, the British and Israel to tarnish the image of his country and to send out false statements.")

And sometimes ships hit mines. Ships and planes shoot at each other. And every now and then, things go really, really awry and people shoot down things they shouldn't -- like other people's civilian airliners.

Cheney didn't do Iran Air 655, and a story that tried to play cause-and-effect with any specific bit of tough talk would be silly. But we'd probably all be happier with international coverage if stories about White House policy didn't sound so much like the white-hatted sheriff had just walked into the Hormuz Saloon to stare down the bad guys. It's worth noting that this movie has been on before. A lot.


Blogger Strayhorn said...

Oh, the huge manatee.

Geography does seem to be a lost art. Is it no longer being taught? I was shocked to discover that even at two Tier 1 universities at which I have worked no geography course is required for the history major.


Even at my own humble alma tomata, geography was considered part of the core curriculum for history. While the names of countries may change at the whim of politicians and other freeloaders, the land masses remain pretty stable.

And Uncle Billy Sherman said it best: war is hell. Bad things happen - even in undeclared wars. Ask the Armenians.

9:43 AM, May 14, 2007  

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