Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Fear appeal super-de-duper

Another reminder, should you need it, that copy editors have room to do a lot -- at least, to raise a lot of questions -- in the ongoing tussle for the helm of political language. Here's a pretty good story, of the sort that used to make it to the newspages just because it was interesting and important. This is the version that appeared in the N&O (which is closer to the big bases in the eastern part of the state); Charlotte used the same source for a brief:

Air Force grounds all F-15 fighters
Los Angeles Times*
WASHINGTON - The U.S. Air Force has grounded its entire fleet of F-15s, the service's premier fighter aircraft, after one of the planes disintegrated over eastern Missouri during a training mission, raising the possibility of a fatal flaw in the aging fighters' fuselage that could keep it out of the skies for months.

... Although the 688 F-15s in the Air Force's arsenal gradually are being replaced by a new generation of aircraft -- the F-22 -- they remain the nation's most sophisticated front-line fighters. U.S. officials said the F-15s are used heavily for protecting the continental U.S. from terrorist attack, as well as for combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Whoa there. "U.S. officials" may have said that, but somebody needs to put the brakes on and ask for some details. What is it about the terrorist threat that requires such heavy use of this exquisite piece of Cold War technology? Anthrax? The so-called "dirty bomb"? A guy with Semtex in his chucks? Trucks full of ammonium nitrate fertilizer parked next to ... sorry, wrong threat.

Absent a blue-water terrorist navy, the U.S. officials seem to have one specter in mind: another attack using airliners. If that's the real threat, why are we handling it as if it were the Soviet air force? Why aren't we just making every Lambert-to-O'Hare flight the security equivalent of flying El Al from Newark to Lod**? It'd be irritating and time-consuming and expensive, but expensive compared to what?

The point is that letting any and all security issues fall under the blanket of the "terrorist threat" isn't a semantically or journalistically neutral decision. It's heavily loaded, and it's -- oh, what's a nice social science term? -- unidirectional. It boils down to handing readers' brains over to some people of dubious scruples for refilling. That hardly seems a high career goal for journalism.

In this particular case, through some unlucky alignment of the stars, Fox followers got a less imbalanced story*** than the people who read a couple of pretty good papers. I hope it's an exception.

* Brief digression into newsroom sociology. Regional newspapers used to make a point of subscribing to several supplemental services -- the NYT, the Times-Post service, the CDN in bygone days, or the better chains like Knight-Ridder -- in addition to the AP. Using the supplementals over the general news services often carries a lot of perceived prestige: it's more exclusive, the big-paper writers often have more latitude for summary and analytic thinking, and frankly the creditlines look a lot cooler.

Those choices tend to be made independently of how good the stories in question actually are. Supplemental stories can be more turgid (the lede above is 51 words; the AP version used at Fox is 29), and a longer story is often not the easiest to compress into the 250-word hole you have available. Big papers simply can't be in as many places as general services or the BBC, meaning they might be covering the coup by TV and phone from the neighboring capital while the AP is watching the tear gas canisters hit the ground. They might have just rotated bureaus, so a newcomer is still getting grounded in a story that the AP correspondent has been handling for a decade or more (happened right before the Good Friday accords, for example). And sometimes the tone of authority on the supplemental wires is a cover for loopy, ill-informed guesswork and old-fashioned gullibiblity.

All of which aside, "Let's go with the Times!" is a pretty powerful mantra. Like other experience-based heuristics, it saves cognitive time and effort and doesn't pose too high a risk of going wrong. And it's the sort of decision that's appreciated up the food chain. Independent, informed judgment about international and national events was a luxury some papers assumed was their ordained role in the past. Don't expect it to endure.

** Let's hold out for Gold Star instead of Maccabee if we go this route, though.

*** And, if you're interested in those readers in the Goldsboro area, the AP story was also a lot quicker to let readers know how the F-15 pilot in question was doing. Since a good chance of seeing that unit head out for practice is one of the few benefits of using the St. Louis airport a lot, I was kind of pleased somebody thought it was relevant.



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