Archive for May, 2004

Editorial Discretion in Publishing Images

Sunday, May 30th, 2004

This Memorial Day is a particularly special one for two reasons: we are at war in Iraq and the memorial for the World War II generation is being dedicated on the national mall. Those Americans who stood fast against Fascist forces in World War II have been dubbed the “Greatest Generation.” Now there will always be arguments about what constitutes the “greatest.” How does the WW II generation compare to the generation of our Revolutionary War period? How about the 600,000 who died during the American Civil War? It is the sort of question that historians love to argue about. However, it is clear that part of what made the WW II era so unique was the sense of unity and commonality of purpose. There were sincere disagreements, whether to devote more resources to the war in Europe or to the Pacific theater. However, such disagreements never devolved to disarray and self doubt. Coverage by the press played an important role in maintaining this unity.

During WW II reporters often accompanied troops. Reporters saw their role in winning the war as consistent with their roles as reporters. It is no accident that press coverage was more favorable in the Iraq War when the journalists were embedded with the troops and implicitly shared the same experiences. While embedded in both wars, journalists were censored about details of time and location. However, during WW II, there were conscious efforts on the part of reporters to publish images of the war that did not undermine morale at home. That is part of the reason that you saw images of a flag raising at Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima. It is not that there was a deliberate effort at distortion, to put only an heroic face on the war. Rather there was the realization that context and perspective were important and that graphic images of carnage might distort perspective. Appropriate selection of images and stories were seen as necessary for fidelity to the truth, not as an evasion of the facts.

Words are very powerful and can passionately describe events. However, images have a unique ability to capture an emotion or situation that can serve as a permanent and poignant metaphor for good or for ill. Moreover, during any war there are many images showing pain and joy, viciousness and valor, despondency and elation, anger and compassion. The images that are selected for broadcast and publication can serve to frame the political debate.

In World War II, for example, papers ran photographs of images like the one showing the marines at Iwo Jima . They did not (and perhaps they should have) shown Japanese-Americans looking out forlornly from behind barbed wire at internment camps. Both speak about an important truth of WW II. Raising the flag over Iwo Jima illustrates American courage, while the interment camps represent the worst in bigotry. The noblest images were allowed to frame WW II.

By contrast, the Vietnam War is now remembered in three negative images: the execution of a member of the Viet Cong by Nguyen Ngoc Loan of the South Vietnamese Army; the little girl running, after her clothes had been burned off by napalm; and Americans scurrying onto the last helicopter leaving the American Embassy at the end of American involvement.

Journalists and editors have a duty, of course, to report the facts and they are unrestrained in their efforts to do so. However, just because the press is unrestrained does not mean they do not have an obligation to show restraint. There are many facts and many photographs that can be assembled to tell a story. Many different stories can be told by combining the raw data of facts and images. And while the stories and images may all be accurate, without proper context and proportion they may not, in a fuller sense, be true.

It is the thesis here that the saturation airing of photographs showing prison abuse at Abu Ghraib prison are an attempt to drive public sentiment out of proportion to the entire context of events in Iraq. Breaking the story on the abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison probably did not require publishing the images. Almost certainly, a written or spoken story would have provided the facts without the emotional sensationalism of the photographs. If imagery was necessary to draw appropriate attention to the issue (remember the military had months before publicly announced the investigation of abuse charges), certainly only a couple of photographs needed to be shown. We did not need the parade of images day after day: images that may put American lives in danger and make negotiation with allies and adversaries more difficult. Is it not right for the news media to weigh these considerations in their coverage?

Were these images repeatedly broadcast and published under the pecuniary pressures of ratings and circulation? Were new images dribbled out daily as a part of considered journalistic judgment or used as means to make an anti-war or anti-military statement?

In due course, there will be many words documenting the Iraq War. However, much of what we remember will be determined by images permanently imprinted on our minds now. For the Iraq War, will the images remembered be those of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse, those of the statue of Saddam Hussein being pulled down by joyous Iraqis, or those of bones being exhumed from Saddam’s mass graves that claimed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis? Much depends on what pictures a thrust before us day after day, the choices made by editors and journalist who are said to be writing the “first draft of history.”

Personal Biases in News Consumption

Sunday, May 23rd, 2004

Regardless of any biases, the national media outlets in the US do not generally misstate facts. If the facts are demonstrably incorrect, a correction usually follows. European papers tend to follow this example.

The Daily Mirror made a terrible mistake when it published what turned out to be faked photographs purporting to show abuse of Iraqi prisoners by British troops. Regardless of how anxious the Daily Mirror is to find evidence to discredit Prime Minister Tony Blair’s decision to join a Coalition in Iraq, the Mirror editors were probably too credulous in believing what they now claim was a “calculated and malicious hoax.” Perhaps the Mirror made its anti-government bias a little too conspicuous when it suggested that the government was deliberately calling into question the legitimacy of the photographs because it “likes to produce a scapegoat to distract attention when it is in a crisis.”

In the end the Mirror did the right thing: it apologized for publishing the photographs and dismissed Piers Morgan, the editor responsible. The really unique situation is that Morgan remained stubbornly unrepentant and disturbingly unconcerned about the veracity of the photographs. He dismissed the fact that the photographs were faked by noting that they nonetheless “accurately illustrated the reality about the appalling conduct of some British troops.” The journalistic ethos, at least in the United States, fortunately still has residual respect for facts.

Media biases are typically not evident in deliberately false statements. Rather, it creeps in indirectly and mostly unintentionally via a bias by agenda. Editors have a finite amount of space and resources to devote to coverage. They, therefore, have to make judgments about what stories are more important, more deserving, or just plain more interesting. It is in deciding between priorities in coverage that even editors and journalists who genuinely seek to be fair can unconsciously allow their own perspectives to color reporting.

This difference in agenda was clearer than usual in the coverage this week of the discovery of an unmarked Iraqi artillery shell containing deadly sarin nerve gas. On the day that the information was released, there was some coverage of the finding, but certainly not the saturation coverage granted the prisoner abuse scandal. The next day, Fox News had found military sources confirming that the tests for sarin gas in the field had been confirmed by further tests. The story was a headline all day at Fox News. CNN did not mention this on its home page and neither did the Washington Post. The NY Times had a small link at the bottom of its page to the story. Apparently the fact that New York was still in the running for the 2012 Olympics and that the actor Tony Randall died were all, in the collective judgments of the NY Times, CNN, and the Washington Post, significantly more important than the first confirmation of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq after more than a year. The only way to guard against such differences in agenda is to maintain a truly diverse editorial staff, real intellectual and political diversity.

The bias of agenda based on different editorial perspectives is a well-documented and discussed phenomenon. However, what is less well understood is the bias in news consumption. We all have the natural proclivity to focus on stories that confirm our world view. Hence, those against the Iraq War follow in detail the prisoner abuse scandal, perhaps secretly hoping that the abuse was not isolated and that high officials in the Bush Administration are implicated. While responsible people will not make such an accusation without sufficient evidence, they will still eagerly consume stories like the ones in the New Yorker by Seymour Hersh that suggest some culpability on the part of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in prisoner abuse.

Some follow such stories hoping to be politically vindicated. Yet, it would seem that the proper perspective for an American would be to hope that the abuse scandal is isolated, both to redeem American values and make life a little safer for innocent American soldiers. However embarrassing it might be to concede it publicly, Bush opponents are not above a little schadenfreude at the prisoner abuse scandal, regardless of the cost to American prestige and risk to American lives. Such people should ask themselves whether they will be disappointed or excited to find out that prisoner abuse is pervasive. I know of no way to demonstrate this, but am willing to assert than many who are carefully scouring the news for information that Rumsfeld is somehow connect to prisoner abuse are not devoting the same study to scandal in the United Nation’s Oil-for-Food program, or evidence of operational links between Al Qaeda, or the discovery of nuclear material in Jordan.

Similarly those who would prefer to see at least one of the reasons for the war more fully vindicated are more likely to follow with rapt attention stories lending credence to the WMD threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Though the prudent would caution against grasping too tightly at the latest discovery of sarin gas artillery shell, would it not really be a cause of celebration to learn with certainty Hussein disposed of his WMD stockpiles shortly before the war? Would it not be better to be assured that the WMD could not fall into the hands of terrorists — terrorists with no scruples against use of such weapons against civilian populations? Some want to believe that their pre-war assessments of WMD, yet evidence supporting such a conclusion might prove to be more destabilizing. Do we really want a world where some WMD have been taken to unknown haunts? Some should ask themselves if they would be disappointed to find out that all WMD stockpiles were destroyed before the war so that the threat of war was sufficient to disarm Saddam (even if we didn’t know at the time). Of course, for those who accepted pre-war WMD assessments, there is sill a graceful way out: These WMD stockpiles could be found and disposed of now.

We are all subject to ugly, quiet feelings. We would rather nestle in the comfort of feeling right, even it that means others would be less well off. From a political perspective, the prospects of the party out of power vary inversely with the prospects of the country as a whole. In this case, the more destabilized Iraq becomes and the slower the economy grows, the better off Democrats are. It is an unfortunate position to be in, but there is no escaping the logic of the situation. There are times when people find themselves grasping their convictions firmly, while at the same time having to hope that they are wrong.

A Rumsfeld Resignation

Sunday, May 16th, 2004

Parliamentary governments are inherently more provisional than the presidential form under which the United States operates. Temporary changes in political fortunes can force elections, while presidents, save for “high crimes and misdemeanors” are permitted at least four years to attempt to implement their policies. The provisional nature of parliamentary governments is probably the reason that ministerial resignations for failures are more common under parliamentary systems. These resignations are more common even if the responsibility for failure is not directly attributable to a minister. Like the captain in command of ship, what ever happens, the minister takes responsibility.

There is, admittedly, a certain satisfaction and closure in a minister’s resignation. It conveys as sense of accountability, salutary in democratic governments. There is even statistical evidence accumulated by political scientists that suggests that the timely resignation of a minister can cauterize a political wound and even enhance the political fortunes of the minister’s party. Perhaps it is the inveterate American emphasis on individuality that makes it difficult to assign personal blame unless there are personal actions involved. Calls for resignation in the United States do not typically arise from a principled insistence upon absolute accountability, but rather from political oppurtunism. The calls for the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld fall into this latter category.

Many Democrats, who want to maximize the political damage to the Bush Administration, are the same ones who were willing to overlook far more consequential decisions by Democratic cabinet members. Two cases come immediately to mind. In 1992, Attorney General Janet Reno specifically approved the assault on the Branch Davidians cult compound in Waco, Texas. The assault did not go as planned and 75 people died. In 1993, then General Colin Powel asked Secretary of Defense Les Aspin to grant the request of the US commander in Somalia for armored vehicles. Wishing to avoid a heavy presence, Aspin denied the requests. Partially as a consequence of this decision, 18 soldiers were killed in an ambush in Mogadishu.

Neither Reno nor Aspin willed those tragic outcomes. They erred in good faith. However, they were far more directly involved in the decisions that led to the disasters than Rumsfeld is to prisoner abuse, yet few Democrats asked for Reno’s or Aspin’s resignation. Republicans, of course, did, and Democrats reflexively defended Clinton’s cabinet members.

Democrats and Republicans playing political games is expected behavior, but today when the stakes in the War on Terror are so grave, we should expect more. We know that the higher echelons in the military initiated an investigation immediately as information about prisoner abuse worked up the chain of command. Investigations apportion responsibility. However, the anxiousness by some on the Left to bring down Rumsfeld and to indirectly suggest that the US military is engaged in systemic and inherent abuse is unwise and unbecoming.

This is the opportunity, the moment of imperfection, that those who wish ill on the US have waited for. With or without finding WMD, there can be no doubt that Coalition troops liberated Iraqis from a fascist regime. By the conventional measures of availability of food, electricity, water and sewage treatment, and the less conventional measure of freedom, Iraqis, as a whole, are far better off than they were a year ago. Security, of course, remains a primary concern. However, if the ethical distinction between Americans and Saddam’s regime can be blurred, the morality of American actions can be called into question. That is why in the Middle East, there has been far more press coverage of the abuses at Abu Ghraib than of the slashing of the throat of an American civilian by terrorists. The juxtaposition of American abuses coupled with the apology of American leaders stands in stark moral contrast to the actions of terrorists we fight, evil bullies who brag at the opportunity to slit American throats.

No one is suggesting that investigations into prisoner abuse should not proceed with due diligence or that there should be no press coverage. Nonetheless, an excessive and disproportionate focus on the prisoner abuse by the loyal opposition and saturation press coverage does not bring us closer to the truth. Indeed, it can distort truthful context in a way that may endanger American and Iraqi lives. The honest application of justice remains the only way to salvage American honor from the dishonor the Abu Ghraib prison. If the abuse at Abu Ghraib looks so bad, it is because Americans aspire to higher standards.

Punctuation and Politics

Thursday, May 13th, 2004

Many of us can remember a course or two in college that we expected to be interesting because it covered a topic we were particularly fascinated by, but we were disappointed by the droning of a dry and boring professor. On the other hand, some of us might also be able to recall a course taken solely for scheduling convenience that pleasantly surprised us. A passionate and pedagogically competent professor introduced us to what we had thought to be an arid topic. Many will undergo the latter pleasant experience when they read the current bestseller, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, by Lynne Truss. The book focuses on what many formerly believed to be the most parched of topics: punctuation and its (definitely not “it’s”) abusive use.

Clear writing and clear thinking are intimately linked, and punctuation is indispensable for clear writing. Punctuation is a late development in the history of the written word. As Truss explains, we emerged from a “scriptio continua swamp” where words where placed in sequence without punctuation, and where the reader was often required to literally divine the meaning of passages. Indeed, religious controversy swirled over the meaning of simple passages, ambiguous for the lack of punctuation.Consider the meaning of the word sequence:

“verily I say to thee this day thou shalt be with me in paradise”

Perhaps it is a promise of immediate entrance into Paradise as in:

“Verily, I say to thee. This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise.”

Or, perhaps it is a present promise for a more distant heavenly reward:

“Verily, I say to thee this day. Thou shalt be with me in Paradise.”

Despite the interesting historical lessons in punctuation, the charm of Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, rests with Truss’ sardonic British wit. She describes herself and kindred spirits as “sticklers” and half-seriously as wanting to lead the militant wing of the Apostrophe Protection Society. This militant wing would be armed with markers and paint to mark in desperately needed apostrophes or to eradicate impertinent ones from public signs.

In addition to humorous anecdotes illustrating hilarious confusion associated with misapplied punctuation, Truss uses wondrous and loving metaphors to describe punctuation. Did you know the period is male and the apostrophe is female? As Truss explains:

“In fact while one may dare to say that the full stop [a period for Americans] is the lumpen male of the punctuation world (do one job at a time; do it well; forget about it instantly), the apostrophe is the frantically multi-tasking female, dotting hither and yon and succumbing to burnout for all the thankless effort.”

Two trends have allied together to form the current assault on punctuation. The first is education. Children for the last few decades have not been instructed on the rules of punctuation. There is little wonder that the misuse of punctuation has proliferated. Second, the explosion of unedited text on the Internet and e-mail increased the speed of writing with a consequent loss of thought, consideration, (note the comma) and punctuation.

The Washington Post even once touted as an advantage of e-mail that employees “took less time to formulate their thoughts.” No wonder Truss was momentarily excited about a fictional Strunkandwhite [After the Strunk and White Style Guide] computer virus that would prevent the sending of ungrammatical e-mail.

Ironically, the lack of punctuation has compelled people to include emoticons to clarify e-mail made ambiguous with poor writing and punctuation. Add a smiley, [:-)], a facial glyph, to the end of a sentence so the reader realizes you are telling a joke. Truss laments:

“Anyone interested in punctuation has a dual reason to feel aggrieved about smileys, because not only are they a paltry substitute for expressing oneself properly; they are also designed by people who evidently thought the punctuation marks on the standard keyboard cried out for ornamental function.”

Truss awakens in the reader a sensitivity to the use of punctuation and language. With this new awareness, it becomes clear that much of the political difference between Democrats and Republicans might be rooted in minor punctuation differences.

For example, many Democrats suffer under the illusion that Bush is something of a bumbling fool and excessively dependent upon staff like National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. A Democrat might assert, “Condoleezza: without her, George is nothing.” Republicans, by contrast, understand that, “Condoleezza, without her George, is nothing.”

At one time, Democrats were friends of the working class, worried about supporting working class families. They could honestly say, “Democrats — we’re here to help you.” However, Democrats have degenerated into mouthpieces for Liberal special interests, often conspicuously dismissive of middle class values. We are forced to concede, “Democrats were here to help you.”

Seemingly trivial punctuation differences also separate Republicans and Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. Kerry has been caught more than a few times switching positions on political questions to follow perceived public sentiment. This fluidity is a measure of what John Kerry thinks of other Americans. “The voting public, believes John Kerry, is fickle.” In response to mercurial positions, however, Republicans might assert that, “The voting public believes John Kerry is fickle.”

No person or group is perfect. Occasionally, one can find a Republican who has fallen into temptation and engaged in an “extra-marital affair.” However, as the previous president has taught us, Democrats loose the hyphen along with moral inhibitions and add one more notch to their conquests by having an “extra marital affair.”

Yes, Lynn Truss has inadvertently opened our eyes to an entirely new mode of political analysis.

Needing Help From Abby

Sunday, May 2nd, 2004

Dear Abby,Perhaps I am self-delusional, but I judge myself to be a reasonably intelligent and well-informed person. Yet, I am having difficulty resolving seemingly irreconcilable ideas. How could evidence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) be so compelling before the war, yet one year later after the liberation of Iraq WMD stockpiles have not been found? I am reduced to asking for help from an adice columnist.

It is clear that virtually every intelligence organization in the world prior to the war concluded that the Iraqi regime possessed WMD of one sort or the other. The US did. The British did. The French did. The Germans did. The Russians did. Even the United Nations Security Council collectively concluded that Iraq had not complied with its obligations to rid itself of WMD and related programs. Iraq had even acknowledged possession of significant quantities of anthrax and other agents and could or would never provide proof of their destruction. Moreover, if Saddam would have simply provided evidence that the regime had rid itself of WMD, then he would have had access to billions of dollars of additional oil revenue. If he had demonstrably renounced WMD and consequently allowed the world to withdraw economic sanctions, he could have waited a decent interval and re-started his WMD program. Abby, help me with my dilemma: stockpiles of WMD have not been found, yet if Saddam had no WMD program why did he endure economic sanctions for a decade?

Though post-war inspections teams have found evidence of WMD laboratories and evidence of long range missile systems in violation of the Gulf War cease fire, but they have not yet found anticipated stockpiles of WMD.

Abby, there are some possible explanations. Perhaps with your help the apparent inconsistencies with these explanations can be resolved.

The WMD Were Hidden or Transferred: Given the several month run-up to liberation by Coalition forces, Saddam’s regime certainly had sufficient time to effectively hide his WMD or transfer stockpiles to Syria or elsewhere. It is very easy to hide the small volume required for militarily significant amounts of WMD, so perhaps there are still dangerous stockpiles that have not been located. Saddam’s regime has been known to bury entire planes to keep them from the prying eyes of Western surveillance. Yet, one would imagine that the inspections teams by now would have been able to persuade at least some of Saddam’s weapons experts to indicate where such WMD might be hidden.

The transfer of WMD to Syria is problematic as well. Saddam would not be anxious to supply WMD to Syria and thereby increase the relative power of a neighbor and competitor. Nonetheless, there is precedent for this behavior. Before Gulf War I in 1991, Saddam sent many of his fighter aircraft to Iran, a former mortal enemy, rather than have his entire air force destroyed by the Americans. Not surprisingly, Iran never returned the aircraft.

Iraqi WMD Were Destroyed Long Ago: Is it possible that Saddam long ago destroyed his WMD stockpiles, but was unwilling to admit it for fear that he would be vulnerable to attack from his regional enemies or from the United States? However, this explanation is also unpersuasive. If Saddam was so fearful of his enemies, relying on a deception about possession of WMD would be a precarious arrangement. If these enemies came to realize that Saddam had no WMD, the deterrence and respect they provided would immediately evaporate. Why risk the possibility of enemies discovering that his WMD cupboards were bare? It would be more in Saddam’s self-interest to keep WMD stockpiles while constantly thwarting international inspections in the hope that the international community would weary of the hunt and eventually drop economic sanctions altogether. Then Saddam would have WMD, without the cost of sanctions.

Saddam Was Fooled: A third scenario is that the world’s intelligence agencies were so convinced that Saddam’s regime possessed WMD because Saddam was erroneously convinced he did. Perhaps Saddam’s weapons engineers were truly unable to stockpile WMD under the watchful gaze of weapons inspectors or were too slow in WMD development. Rather than face the anger of a frustrated Saddam, these engineers tricked Saddam into believing that Iraq had WMD. How would Saddam know whether a particular barrel was filled with a chemical agent or with water?

However, this explanation also has its weaknesses. As much as the inability to construct WMD might raise the lethal ire of Saddam, being caught lying to Saddam would probably pose an even greater peril. Surely, someone would have found it to their temporary political advantage to inform upon others who were deceiving Saddam about WMD.

Should not additional information have cleared issues up one year later? Abby, how is it that some potentially revealing interesting developments have not received attention or reasonable scrutiny in the popular press?

Early this year, routine screening found a barrel containing several pounds of “yellow cake,” uranium oxide, in a shipment of junk metal from Jordon to Rotterdam. Uranium oxide can be refined into enriched uranium, a potential fuel for a nuclear weapon. The presence of the yellow cake was confirmed by the International Atomic Energy Agency. An investigation found that the Jordanian junk dealer was acting in good faith and that the likely source of the material was Iraq. Uranium oxide is not found naturally in barrels. Someone in the Middle East region, Jordan, Syria, or Iraq was the source of material and the matter is directly relevant to determining which of the above three scenarios is the most likely. Abby, am I missing something, or is this an important clue here?

This last month, Jordan claims to have thwarted an attack by Al Qaeda that would have used chemical agents, potentially killing tens of thousands. Now the Jordanian government is not particularly reliable, but there seems to be very little reason for it to create this incident. Abby, should not evidence that Al Qaeda operatives, in the geographic vicinity of Syria and Iraq, have chemical weapon capability be the subject of intense scrutiny and interest?

Perhaps it is difficult for news organizations to untangle the circuitous route of nuclear material or uproot Al Qaeda plots in Jordan, but they should at least by apply pressure to authorities to track down clues to the disposition of Iraqi WMD. Why are these cases not leading the evening news? If they have been debunked, let’s hear the evidence? Silence is not sufficient. Abby, can you help me understand?

— Still Confused