Sunday, November 18, 2007

Nice work you might have missed

Here's a pretty standard reader comment on one of the ombud columns we discussed last week (since it's from the print side, not the Web side, there's not much spittle flying off it; editing has its virtues). It's worth noting because it suggests why some out-and-out good news from the journalism world is worth paying attention to:

Public Editor Ted Vaden's discussion of bias in campaign coverage ... was interesting but hardly new news to most of us. Everyone who cares knows that not only The N&O, but almost all of the mainstream media are biased toward liberalism. If Vaden or anyone else would objectively research news coverage, not only for political campaigns but across the board, including the war on terrorism, the economy and other important issues, I think they would find it very difficult to rationalize the obvious bias that exists.

With all due respect there, quite a few people "objectively research news coverage" (as well we should; nobody's ever gotten tenure just by making fun of Mitch Albom*). And we know quite a lot about it by now. U.S. newspaper endorsements have traditionally tilted heavily Republican. More people in newsrooms describe themselves as Democrats than as Republicans. News tends to reify not just status quo parties but status quo candidates within those parties. Chief executives get a rally effect from international adventures and misadventures alike. Presidential frames get a better ride in the press when there's a lot of consent at the top of the pyramid, compared with times of elite dissent. (That's why Iraq looked and sounded more like part of the "war on terror" in news accounts after Colin Powell went to the UN than it did before.)

For a lot of reasons, then, it's no surprise that when you ask about what the "war on terror" looks like in the mainstream press, a good place to start is "what does the administration want it to look like?" And since wars on terror are about as old as wars on drugs (both predating the Reagan administration), any such effect is likely to be independent of party affiliation.

Hence this particular small of ray of light, which calls for kudos for McClatchy, which filed it, and the subscriber or member papers who ran it (this version is from Charlotte, which ran it inside and pretty heavily cut; the PiPress fronted a longer version two days later). It's not an extraordinary piece of journalism. There's not much here in the way of complicated original reporting, or peril to life and limb, or anything like that. What makes it stand out is the sort of stuff it introduces into a debate that, so far, has been dominated by borderline nutjobs like John Bolton** and a bunch of folks who make Mr. Bolton look like the face of sweet reason. Here's some long-absent thinking to the contrary:

"Would I like Iran to have a nuclear bomb? No," said Robert Jervis, a Columbia University professor of international politics who has written widely on nuclear deterrence. But, "the fears (voiced) by the administration and a fair number of sensible people, as well, just are exaggerated. The idea that this will really make a big difference, I think is foolish."

And where has Nutty Professor Jervis been since the world changed in 9/11 -- smoking poppy in the Hindu Kush with Ward Churchill and Osama bin Laden? No, he's been hiding in the mainstream of international-relations scholars (aside from a year spent covering his tracks as president of the American Political Science Association), where he's been for the last couple decades. His view only looks weird if you've -- like, never heard of the Cold War or something. As might this:

Even some commentators in Israel, whose leaders see themselves in Iran's crosshairs, present a more nuanced view of the potential threat than the White House does.

An Iranian nuclear bomb could present Israel "with the real potential for an existential threat," Ephraim Kam of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv wrote in February.

But Kam noted that Israel has its own unacknowledged nuclear deterrent -- estimated at 100 to 200 warheads, larger than anything Iran could marshal for years to come.

So ... a nearly 40-year-old policy on the order of "We can neither confirm nor deny that your capital might look like a sheet of molten glass if you reach for that gun, pardner" might actually work? Shazam! Again, it doesn't sound crazy unless John Bolton is all you've heard:

Why do you think Iran shouldn’t have nuclear weapons? When you have a regime that would be happier in the afterlife than in this life, this is not a regime that is subject to classic theories of deterrence. Retaliation for them, which would obliterate their society, doesn’t have the same negative connotations for their leadership.***

That's why the McClatchy piece is an important bit of journalism. It widens the debate to include people who actually know something about "classic theories of deterrence," rather than people who lie about them in hopes that the audience will be scared stupid. It's not big-play "great" journalism; it's just good, routine, hit-the-cutoff-man sort of journalism. And big plays might be the ones that lead SportsCenter, but routine play in front of a small crowd in a boring August doubleheader is what wins pennants. At least, that's what Updike said.

Anyway, if you saw that one in your so-called "mainstream media," send somebody a thank-you note. People who hit the cutoff man like to know that the fans can tell. Maybe they'll think about it next time there's a discussion about whether the front page needs a little more News2Use and a little less of that annoying international trivia.

* Hey, it could happen. Hope springs eternal.
** Seriously. Having your country represented internationally by John Bolton is like having Miller Lite as the U.S. entry in the World Beer Festival, if Miller Lite was heavily armed, psychotic and well financed.
*** I've been trying for two weeks to figure out what this means: Only godless commies can be deterred? Christians are all happier in this life than the next? Is anybody in India's nuclear command hierarchy expecting to come back as a cockroach on the next turn of the kozmik wheel? Or that you can dummy-code "religion" as a variable several different ways and actually continue to ask empirical questions about deterrence?

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