Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The dark continent

This includes the week's reading assignment, so pay attention. There will be a test.

Last month we asked the editor of one of our favorite papers (to its credit, one that still manages to fit a pretty good bit of news amid the Britney Spears coverage) why his folks kept shirttailing Qaida news onto Iraq articles as if the topics were somehow related. He thought we were reading a bit much into the packaging: "Anyone who reads the Observer regularly knows well that Iraq has not been linked to the events of Sept. 11, 2001."

Leaving aside all the interesting truth conditions packed into that, let's look at today's editorial:

What next for Iraq?
U.S. needs new war plan not based on wishful thinking
Six years ago today, the civilized world watched in horror as the Twin Towers fell and the Pentagon burned. This message was seared on the world's consciousness: We have enemies who are so obsessed with killing Americans that they'll sacrifice their own lives to do so. Earlier they targeted Americans overseas; now they can strike us at home. Sept. 11, 2001, was a chilling reminder of the vulnerability of the world's greatest power.

In the ensuing years, the nations threatened by al-Qaida's murderous network have made the world a dangerous place for terrorists. International vigilance and cooperation, coupled with military strikes, have disrupted the terrorists' communications, financing, training and planning. Yet the danger has not passed, as shown in the recent bombing plot uncovered in Germany.

The anniversary of that harrowing day comes as Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker testify before Congress about Iraq, which has become both a recruiting poster and a training ground for terrorists.

If you read the paper regularly, then, you might "know well" that the two haven't been "linked" (which might or might not be true, and at any rate is drastically different from knowing they aren't related, which has sort of been clear all along but has no significant correlation with reading any particular paper that I know of). But if you just pick the paper up episodically (say, on Sept. 11, 2007), or if you happen to write the editorials that express the paper's opinion, it's pretty obvious that Iraq and Qaida are the same story.

I think, in a way, that suggests why coverage of this week's Iraq events looks so bizarre. And so to the assigned reading, James Carey's "How and why: The dark continent of American journalism" (in Manoff and Schudson's bodacious 1986 volume, Reading the news). One of Carey's overriding points is that in journalism, as in education, our "customers" tend to confuse a class with the whole curriculum. Good as we might be at showing what happened to whom, we're handicapped at explaining why it came to be that way:

Both journalism and education assume the constant student and the constant reader. American journalism assumes the figure who queues up every day for for his dose of news and beyond that the commentary, analysis and "evidence" that turn the news into knowledge. American education assumes the "constant scholar" who engages in lifelong learning; who, unsatisfied by the pieties and simplicities of Sociology 1, goes on to explore subjects in depth and detail and along the way acquires a mastery of theory and evidence. This is both wrong and self-serving. But, to rephrase Walter Lippmann, more journalists and scholars have been ruined by self-importance than by liquor.

If you pay a pretty good amount of attention, Carey is suggesting, you can run across a hed like this (thank you, The Plain Dealer)

and actually make sense of it! You might even be able to incorporate the second graf:

The two officials' air of sincerity and competence probably put to rest the notion, advanced by some liberal groups, that they would parrot the agenda of the Bush administration.

without having your head explode. But if you tend to run across news at random -- and face it, that's generally how the bulk of people encounter news -- you're at risk of being a bit rudderless. Especially if you check in at any of the zillions of papers who update their Web sites with unedited AP:

Gen. David Petraeus said a 2,000-member Marine unit would return home this month without replacement in the first sizable cut since a 2003 U.S-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein and unleashed sectarian violence.

Hard to say what's the most profound here: "First sizable cut," the disingenuously coordinated predicates in the subordinate clause, or the freakin' indefinite article: A 2003 U.S.-led invasion? Were there that many of the things running around?

So for this week, discuss Carey's "dark continent" metaphor in relation to the Iraq invasion, the "surge," and the hearings. Where did all the "why" go? How did this thing come to be accepted as the status quo, and is there something systemic we can do to journalism so it happens less often in the future?


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