OxBlog

Friday, October 24, 2003

# Posted 12:42 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

BATTING PRACTICE: Matt Yglesias is the Tim Wakefield of the blogosphere. He's a knuckleball blogger who can tie your hands at the plate with unpredictable and creative thinking. But some knuckleballs just hang there over the plate, waiting to be smashed into the bleachers. Today, Matt has served up one of those floating knuckeballs.

Yesterday, I took the NY Times to task for writing in a straight news article that
With Mr. Hussein still at large, with American soldiers dying here almost every day, with no unconventional weapons found, with America's allies reluctant to help, many supporters now justify the war on the grounds that Iraqis are better off and the nation is on the road to stability.
In response, Matt asks
But what's wrong with [that]? Mr Hussein is at large, no unconventional weapons have been found, American soldiers are dying almost every day, our allies are reluctant to help, and many supporters of the war do now justify it on the grounds that Iraqis are better off and the nation is on the road to stability.
The implicit premise of Matt's statement is that any factually correct statement has a legitimate place in the news. Yet surely a professional journalist such as Matt knows that editorializing is not just a matter of expressing subjective opinions, but emphasizing certain facts at the expense of others.

So let's take a look at the context in which NYT correspondent Ian Fisher wrote what he did. The subject of the article in question is Iraqi citizens' (allegedly) surprising desire to have American forces stay in Iraq for the time being. While the NYT deserves credit for reporting some news at odds with its editorial line, the whole premise of surprise reflects the Times' assumption that the Iraqi people ought to see American soldiers as destructive invaders rather than constuctive liberators. But as it turns out,
"We really feel good for the improvement in our lives," Samir el-Amili, 40, said cheerily as he worked to reopen his demolished jewelry shop on the ground level. "We got something very real from Saddam's going."
Excuse me? Did an Arab just say that freedom is something "very real"? That the end of Saddam's vicious dictatorship was worth the price? How much did Condi and Rummy pay him to say that?

Of course, not everyone is as happy as Mr. Amili.
Saad Atta Mahmoud, 45, a former army officer, was more ambivalent. He grumbled that "the Americans have done nothing good," but said they should stay in Iraq for now.

"How could they leave now?" he asked. "Let's say someone came to your house and he made a big mess. He destroys everything and then says, 'Oh, I have to go now.' No, he has to clean things up."
I don't know about you, but if some psycopath came into my home with a baseball bat and started f***ing sh** up, I wouldn't insist that he stay around any longer than he has to. Thus it seems that even Mr. Mahmoud belives that a continued American presence will do far more good than harm.

Now here comes the paragraph in question. Apparently, the NYT felt that it needed to expand on Mr. Mahmoud's suggestion the United States "has to clean things up." Thus, its correspondent observed that
With Mr. Hussein still at large, with American soldiers dying here almost every day, with no unconventional weapons found, with America's allies reluctant to help, many supporters now justify the war on the grounds that Iraqis are better off and the nation is on the road to stability.
But what if Mr. Fisher worked for Fox News instead of the NYT? Perhaps he would've written that
Cleaning things up in Iraq seems to be at the top of the American agenda. Despite public and congressional resistance, the Bush Administration is fighting hard to appropriate $20.3 billion for the reconstruction of Iraq. In addition, the President has made an unconditional commitment to bring democracy to Iraq, despite the fact that American lives must be sacrificed on almost a daily basis in order to do so.

Yet in spite of the chaos in and around Baghdad, relative calm prevails throughout most of Iraq, where citizens are rushing to take advantage of their newfound freedoms of speech and religion. In many critical areas such as the establishment of local government, the occupation of Iraq has made more and faster progress than did the American occupation of Germany after World War II. By the same token, currency reforms has proceeded apace and Iraqis can now purchase an impressive array of goods at well-stocked local stores.
I'm guessing that Matt wouldn't consider this hypothetical paragraph to be "fair and balanced" despite the fact that it contains no factual errors. Nor should he. Because even-handed journalism is just as much about emphasis as it is about accuracy.

To be sure, there is no objective standard according to which one can measure the fairness of an article's emphasis. That is why I offered a hypothetical alternative to the NYT's editorial comment. To show that there is an alternate (and valid) perspective on the occupation that the NYT glaringly omits. In other words, what the NYT was giving us in a straight news article was not news, but rather its private opinion.
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