Monday, January 24, 2011

Errors vs. cluelessness

Want to start a pool on how long it takes to see a correction in the Nation's Newspaper of Record?

Soon Mr. Obama approved military exercises in response to the North Korean shelling of a South Korean island that killed 46 people.

If the reference is to the attack on Yeonpyeong in November, no. That's a drastic overstatement, and there are a couple of plausible ways in which it could have come about. Before we get to them, though, it's worth looking at the context in which the mistake came about.

The story is actually a rather nice thumbsucker* on the front of the Week in Review section, and though it doesn't exactly get Thucydides in the lede, it gets him into the third graf. As it should, because it's about rising powers and declining powers and signaling behavior and misperceptions and other examples of the stuff realism is made of. And the people it quotes about how states act in these situations are people like Graham Allison and Joseph Nye, not an in-house loony like John Bolton.

That seems trivial, but -- trivially -- it reminded me that just last week I'd read another really good thumbsucker on the Week in Review front: Anthony Shadid's "In peril: The Arab status quo." For assorted scholarly, professional and amusement-oriented reasons, I spend a lot of my news-watching time over at the friendly confines of the Fair 'n' Balanced Network, so you can imagine what a pleasant surprise it was to see a newspaper article mention the Sykes-Picot agreement as if it was something grownups ought to know about before they set out to be experts on the Fractious Near East.

Let's introduce Sarah Palin here for a moment, because -- as a regular Fox reader -- I'm getting fairly good at completing sentences like "Libruls fear Sarah because she's ..."

a) strong!
b) a WOMAN!
c) hawtt!

I don't presume to speak for the libruls, but I'll be happy to share some of my disquiet about the half-term governor of Alaska. It's not just that she doesn't seem to have any idea who Sykes and Picot were. It's that she doesn't seem to have any idea why -- nearly a century after they sat down to redraw the Near East with some rather thick crayons -- people might still be exercised about the idea. Coming up with a "stump the governor" midterm would be a fun exercise. I'd settle for enjoying the view from Sde Boker with her when she discovers that Israel's first prime minister is buried on his beloved collective farm.

Planet Fox, you've probably gathered if you spend much time there or here, is a scary but oddly comforting place. Those pesky foreigners exist only to blow us up or bring us drinks, and the white man's burden consists largely of converting (a) to (b) by force or suasion. For all its errors,** the Times isn't that place. It's still an avenue through which, for a fairly reasonable price, you can pick up some pretty decent clues about how the world works.

How did the Times get the death toll so wrong? Two theories: Either it confused the shelling of Yeonpyeong with the sinking of the Cheosan earlier in the year (which did kill 46 people) or someone yelled across the room "Hey! How many people died when the North Koreans shelled that island?" -- drawing a response like "I don't know -- four to six."

Those are mistakes. People make them. They're very different from the sort of deliberate conceptual errors that inform the Fair 'n' Balanced world, and when we're bitching about the assorted failings of journalism, we'd do well to keep the difference in mind.

* Though we should also call a homonym error on "how carefully both sides had used the past five months ... to diffuse fears" in the fifth graf. Surely "defuse"?
** And I don't want to suggest that opinions from Harvard are invariably perfect, either.

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Blogger John Cowan said...

You may remember some years back when one story said our Arabic preparedness was a disgrace, because only N FBI agents could speak the language, and another story said our Arabic etc. etc. only N diplomats etc. etc. etc. Now either of those stories could be true, but surely not both of them, not with the same value of N!

"It is like the thirteenth stroke of a crazy clock, which not only is itself discredited but casts a shade of doubt over all previous assertions." --one of A.P. Herbert's fictional judges

12:49 AM, January 24, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course, if the South Korean island really had killed 46 people (or even four to six people), the North Koreans might have been justified in shelling it.

9:07 AM, January 24, 2011  

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