Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Jingoism goes uptown

Here's an interesting bit of storytelling from one of the few remaining papers that make a serious effort at international coverage (in this case, coverage of Latin America, but that's certainly a start).

It's interesting because it sounds so Fox-like, and it sounds Fox-like because one way to tell whether a nation is deemed a good guy or a bad guy is whether it's personified as its leader. "Germany" and "Britain" do stuff we like, while "Saddam" and "Ayatollah*" ... well, you know what they're up to. It's no surprise that Chavez is the actor to pay attention to if you're Fox News; the only surprise about the Fox image below is that it appeared Sunday, whereas all the multinational backing away** from the metaphorical brink had happened Friday.

The surprise is seeing "Chavez's nation" in a grownup newspaper, and on top of an important -- and so far underreported -- story, at that. (Another good job by McClatchy, though it could have used a bit more skepticism about the overtly ideological nature of the "terror sponsors" list.) There's a pretty simple explanation, at least from here: "Venezuela" is a nine-count word, and that hed has only eight units per line, and you can do the math yourself.*** So what are the circumstances under which a nation would be referred to as belonging to its leader? "Olmert's nation" is right out; Israel is shorter than either). "Abdallah's nation"? No for Jordan, perhaps for Saudi Arabia. "Correa's nation"? Pretty much a wash with Ecuador. "Blair's nation"? Well, why shouldn't that catch on?

Readers aren't always interested in mundane technical explanations, no matter how valid, for why dumb stuff appears at the top of the front page. Somebody needed to push the design desk to give some ground on this one.

All that said -- pretty interesting set of developments in Chavez's neck of the woods last week, eh?**** Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador had a pretty serious militarized interstate dispute. Why didn't it escalate into actual conflict? None of the countries qualify as straight-up "democracies" on the Freedom House scale. All three are most recently rated "partly free"; is a regime-type peace, rather than a democratic peace, having its effect? Or could it be our old friend freedom of the press?

Hmm. Colombia's improving slightly over the past three years, but still at the better end of the "not free" press category. Ecuador is steady in the better end of the "partly free" category. Venezuela has slid the farthest, but that's where the interest lies. As of 1994, when the pretty stable 100-point scale that Freedom House uses for press freedom came into play (and when Chavez was pardoned for his earlier coup attempt), Venezuela was still at the low end of "free." It took a fairly sharp fall after that, then stayed near the bubble for a few years until the early 2000s.

Why is that a big deal? Well, divide the FH scale into six levels (two each for free, partly free and not free), and there are two points at which improvement in press freedom is associated with a significant reduction in your likelihood of initiating a militarized interstate dispute. One is the border between "free" and "partly free"; Venezuela had no MIDS in 1992 or 1993, but five in the next four years and two more in 1999-2000. The other is the border between "not free" and "really, really, North Korea-level not free." Venezuela's losing points (as, to be fair, is the United States, which is somewhere around 20th in the league tables these days), but it hasn't crossed that other boundary yet.

There's a growing body of evidence for some sort of pacifying effect from all that tedious civics stuff about press freedom. The next prize is for figuring out how and why it works and whether Fox actually makes the same sort of contribution as NPR. But more on that later.

* A religious rank that has nothing to do with being the leader of Iran, but try selling that one to your Night Deputy AME for Cluelessness.
** Silly Fox! Prepositions are for kids!
*** Or, as the news desk at one Southeastern daily had to be reminded every week or so: "Palestinian" didn't fit in a 1/36 yesterday. What makes you think it's going to fit today?
**** If anybody runs into Language Czarina on the way back from the library/hardware/fishmarket run, tell her I'm not procrastinating. This is, um, theory-building.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let us not forget that right here in the land of free enough to know better, we failed to take advantage of that freedom to adequately question a notable MID that started five years ago next week. E&P editor Greg Mitchell's new book "So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits — and the President — Failed on Iraq" has a bit too much of an I-told-you-so tone for my taste, but it does effectively point out that self-censorship can be as bad as the other kind.

8:24 PM, March 11, 2008  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Genuinely curious: If you can give up two lines to

Chávez's
Nation

is it impossible to do

Venez-
uela

?

Are hyphens banned in heds?

5:38 AM, March 12, 2008  
Blogger fev said...

Yes, breaking words onto two lines with a hyphen is traditionally banned. That's among the reasons words like "mull" and "irk" survive in heds but not in the rest of life. Although my mom used to say "irk."

I haven't read the Mitchell book (probably will when it shows up on the new shelf). Self-censorship is an issue, but I'm not sure it's the best or strongest explanation for the series of failures that preceded the Iraq disaster. The press-freedom measures are interesting and important, but they don't go into areas like what makes a "free" press do more or less stupid things, or why a more diverse press system doesn't necessarily inhibit governmental blundering any better.

Details as they develop...

9:01 AM, March 12, 2008  

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