Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Alarmingly clueless news decision of the (fading) year

Here's a bit of news judgment that's so strikingly bad, in so many ways, that it's worth discussing for a moment (that's a bit of folio on top of the illustration, so's you can tell it's from the upper right corner of the front page). It's awful because of what it is, but perhaps even more for what it isn't.

What it is? Well, it's a truly mediocre campaign story -- exactly the sort of small-bore, micro-tactical thing we've all been denouncing as a symptom of "horse race" journalism for the past two or three decades.

CLEAR LAKE, Iowa --Sen. Hillary Clinton stepped up her attacks on rival Sen. Barack Obama on Monday, saying the country needs "a doer, not a talker" in the White House and mocking Obama's record in public office.

That' s most of what you need to know: The irrelevant measured by the breathless at the direction of the overpaid. It's a brief at best -- hardly a topic for the front page, certainly not the dominant chunk of political data (let alone the dominant news event) of the day. And to cap it off, the suggestion that all this happens "as race tightens," which of course isn't among the unrelated results we could reliably pretend to be conjuring from the statistics the writer doesn't understand.

Can it get worse? Well, yeah. There's what the story isn't, which is the rather striking admission in the unclassified parts of the latest relevant National Intelligence Estimate that, um, suggests with "high confidence" (the very sort of confidence you ought to have in surveys) that Iran stopped trying to build a nuclear weapon four years ago. Which, if you were picking the lone news event outside your all-important borders that merited Page 1A attention and wasn't a sports event, is a reasonable candidate for your consideration.

Why? For a couple of reasons. One, the system seems to be working a lot better: dissent about strange foreign adventures is reflected both in official opinion and in public discourse. Two, there's a change in opinion at the top; if Fox News is to be trusted, the official view is that Iran is a rational and unitary actor, suggesting that the John Boltons of the world are now being officially categorized as the raving buffoons they are (or that somebody at Fox has passed an undergrad survey course in international relations). Three, that running some unadventurous but competent articles suggesting that March To War isn't the only option at hand is the sort of thing that is rewarded with headlines eventually. Four, that it's more fun to run news that looks ahead -- say, a Monday event that foreshadowed both the president's news conference and the Democrats' radio debate -- than news that looks behind.

And fifth ... hmm. So the chief executive who lied the nation into one war is more or less publicly exposed as trying to lie it into another? Gosh. Since the rest of the front page is devoted to (a) a candidate for county office discussing his secretive past and (b) the transgressions of high school sports officials who apparently enabled some small-scale deceit that allowed some teenagers to play for one school rather than another, do you suppose another bit about the integrity of public figures might have made a neat bit of packaging?

Nobody's suggesting that Iran has suddenly become the land of puppies, kittens and birthday cake. That's not what "rational and unitary actor" means. It does suggest that policy decisions about how to treat Iran are potentially more likely to be based on rational assessments of how Iran intends to go about furthering its interests than on the rantings of a cabal of nutters. And that seems like news, whatever the days ahead might hold for those all-important high school football playoffs.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

We have an unofficial but pretty well binding ban on "horse race" stories in my newsroom. We submit it's of no import whatsoever who's polling second in Iowa or New Hampshire; we further submit it's barely of import who actually "wins" these "races."

Dig a little deeper in the wires, and you'll occasionally find a good candidate profile or an acute analysis of why a certain candidate's fortunes have waxed or waned over a significant period. We much prefer those.

3:21 AM, December 08, 2007  

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