Monday, August 03, 2009

On missing the ball and why it matters

This hed on a Clinton precede misses by just a bit, but it's just enough of a bit to knock things askew. And that underscores the importance of questioning everything: not just the story you're given and the material that went into it, but your own assumptions. If we don't pay attention, we muddy up the stream for everybody.

"Democracy," like "terrorism," is the sort of concept that's often based on whether we like somebody, rather than where that somebody might fall on some tested continuum. That doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't use it, but it does mean we should take some pains to be open and consistent in our judgments. If you wanted to calibrate heds like this one, you might want to bookmark the nice folks at Freedom House, whose business is data on stuff like political rights, civil liberties and press freedom. By their tally, only two of Clinton's seven destinations meet the "free" qualification.

That doesn't mean the trip can't be "aimed at 'supporting strong and sustainable democratic governments'" (though one can be forgiven for wondering how many "State Department officials" actually chorused those last six words together*). It doesn't mean the trip isn't important, or that weak Africa coverage isn't better than no Africa coverage at all. It does suggest that an editor is clouding the mirror a bit. Our already imperfect picture of what's going on is dumbed down even farther.

If you don't think that matters, have a look back at the hometown paper's coverage of the "Triangle Terror Takedown."** Time was, a paper of the N&O's repute would actually have someone on staff who remembered when the Soviets left Afghanistan and would compare that to the alleged travel dates. Owing to that, the paper might have actually put some substantive questions to the US attorney's office on the first day -- as in, "Why does your indictment assert that this dude started fighting the Soviets three years after they left the country?"*** Or "Hmm. Defendant 'did travel to Gaza and attempted to enter Palestine,' huh? Did anybody involved in bringing these charges have the faintest freaking clue what 'Palestine' and 'Gaza' might mean?"

That's the whole point, really, of having a process for producing news, rather than surrendering outright to the happy new world of instant, unmediated information. People look at stuff, and they compare it to what's known, and when things don't match, the discrepancy is noted. When we fail at that, we get a dumber population. Worse, we let the powers-that-be know that they can tell the public the moon is made of green cheese if they want; no one's going to check.

* Or how the writer determined that South Africa was "the continent's most powerful nation," or why some editor thought the writer's opinion was worth sharing. That iteration of the McClatchy Superlative appears in the longer version.
** I don't make this up, you know.
*** The N&O finally took note of this howler five days on, a day after the AP had helpfully done the math. I'm not holding out hope for a correction.

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Blogger Strayhorn said...

I didn't even do the math on the story about the next-door turrists. I just looked at the photo and said: "That guy's too young to have been in on the Mujahadeen action."

Too bad none of the eds at their respective papers saw that same photo. Or maybe I'm just cynical about all the young Vietnam vets I keep meeting.

8:54 AM, August 04, 2009  

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