The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Deciphering the newspaper code: where's the manual?

The idea that the meaning of language is often critically dependent on context is generally understood [1]. (The strange history of the dread word nigger is a well-known case.)

As is the fact that certain professions, sports and other groups appropriate language for their own purposes, often in quite different meanings than the everyday ones. The legal profession, in particular, uses common language as terms of art utterly misleading to the layman tempted to apply the everyday meaning. And, in statutes, it is common for extended or blatantly counterfactual definitions to be employed for convenience: the male including the female, for instance.

The same principle applies to other features that signify meaning: costume, for instance.

Journalism is no exception to the rule. The assumption the unwary layman may make is that, because the product of journalism is the English (or whatever) language (and, moreover, a version from which unfamiliar or technical words have largely been banished), what he sees is what he gets. Which is not true.

The fact that journalists (or rather their masters) fail to supply the means for decrypting the meaning of this misleading prose compounds the deception.

Illustrations come in the excellent 8,000 word New York Review of Books piece by Michael Massing (February 26) on the pre-war treatment of the controversy within USG over the quality of intelligence on Iraqi WMD [2].

The basic question asked is, Why did the US media take so long properly to report the disagreements within USG on WMD intel?

Star witness is the New York Times' Judith Miller, natch [3]. But the charge is a general one.

To cut to the chase, the problem as perceived by Massing (and a few others) was that the key media (WaPo and NYT in particular) were in thrall to the USG, and failed to take cognizance of dissident expert voices lower down the governmental food chain.

It's not strikingly novel, though it is handy to gave the stuff in one, reasonably well-written piece.

[ENORMOUS drawback: next to no links!]

The journalistic MO description is interesting.

But the key thing to note for our purposes is the pagination question.

The layman is used to the idea that the big story goes at the top of page 1, followed by a sort of Order of Precedence (marquesses before viscounts) down to the snippets all of a jumble in corners towards the middle of the paper.

The ideology of story placement is more complicated than that, however. On September 8 2002, the Times led with a Miller piece under the hed US Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts. Supposedly not from a leak, but certainly welcome as flowers in the spring to USG.

Then, WaPo's Joby Warrick had a piece (date unknown) which did pick up on the dissent. But
Appearing on page A18, however, the story caused little stir.

The fact that the piece appeared on A18 is a measure not only of its newsworthiness relative to other material available for inclusion; as I understand the matter, it was, under the professional convention, deemed to be less soundly based.

The layman could not guess that rule in a million years. Or, at least, not in a lifetime of casual newspaper reading.

(There is a parallel to this in the infamous Andrew Gilligan 0607 broadcast that started all the trouble: it was done casually because the story was supposedly chatter in the air - despite the seriousness of the subject matter, it was not a story that anyone was meant to take seriously.

Much of British Sunday newspapers are filled with such stuff. As by the notorious - he is on this blog! - Con Coughlin.)

Then Massing says that the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau did some work on the, by then, growing evidence of discontent within the intelligence agencies on the matter. He then says (emphasis mine)
Unfortunately, however, Knight Ridder has no newspaper in Washington, D.C., or New York, and its stories did not get the national attention they deserved.

So, KR puts out a wire saying the Martians have landed and - oops, not from NYC or DC, so no notice taken...

Another part of the code for future reference.

Massing says
A survey of the coverage in November, December, and January reveals relatively few articles about the debate inside the intelligence community. Those articles that did run tended to appear on the inside pages. Most investigative energy was directed at stories that supported, rather than challenged, the administration's case.

And why? The Bush spin machine, natch. Rewarding lap-dogs, shutting out watchdogs.

The Great American Public co-opts itself, as the pin-up of the blog avers:
Many readers, meanwhile, were intolerant of articles critical of the President. Whenever The Washington Post ran such pieces, reporter Dana Priest recalls, "We got tons of hate mail and threats, calling our patriotism into question."

Plus badmouthing from the fair and balanced boys.

Fine. Nothing unexpected there (just wanted to namecheck Dana...).

What might be unexpected is that
UNMOVIC, which was based in New York and headed by Hans Blix, got considerable coverage; the IAEA, which was based in Vienna and headed by Mohamed ElBaradei, got little.

So, the local source is privileged above the distant one. Is that an expenses thing or what?

Again, you'd expect that foreign news got vastly skimpier coverage than domestic. But this was domestic - in the sense of impact on Americans. Not a flood in Bangladesh or something. And, besides - lustige Wien and all that...

[There's some off-topic stuff on David Kay .]

By giving the IAEA the go-by, hacks (especially Judith Miller) missed the reality check available on Khidhir Hamza, it seems. As a source on NW, he was a dud.

Press-pack fever grew most intense over the famous Colin Powell presentation to the UN Security Council on February 5 2003. The butt of numerous jokes - not least here - it was, it seems, treated as Holy Writ in US media [4].

But, just as with Joseph McCarthy's fantastical stats, the pristine Powell prose featured on page 1 above the fold; the caveats and queries well inside.

Even a writer as esteemed as Walter Pincus [5] couldn't get WaPospace for a critical piece until Uncle Bob Woodward (book on the way) joined the team - A17, in case you were wondering. Another critical story made it to A14.

There is an explanation (emphasis mine):
The placement of these stories was no accident, Pincus says. "The front pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times are very important in shaping what other people think," he told me. "They're like writing a memo to the White House." But the Post's editors, he said, "went through a whole phase in which they didn't put things on the front page that would make a difference."

So, the real editorial in a paper is on the front page, eh? I suspect, with Michael Caine, that not a lot of people know that.

Enlightenment on another element of the freemasonry comes from the eye of the storm (emphasis mine):
Miller said that as an investigative reporter in the intelligence area, "my job isn't to assess the government's information and be an independent intelligence analyst myself. My job is to tell readers of The New York Times what the government thought about Iraq's arsenal."

(That's a 100% word-for-word accurate quote, I hope...)

Don't say you weren't warned; Ms Miller happy to perform in the office of a rectum to allow the passage of USG's message intact.

(Clearly, no need for Bush to be concerned about the Filter when Miller's on the case.)

The Knight Ridder guy makes the point about the food chain of sources (emphasis mine):
One question worth asking is whether we in journalism have become too reliant on high-level officials instead of cultivating less glamorous people in the bowels of the bureaucracy.

Unfortunately, he doesn't explain how this works. Was Miller misled because she refused to speak to anyone below a particular level in the USG hierarchy? Wouldn't more junior reporters more naturally cultivate lower level sources - is the problem getting their stuff noticed by editors? Is there a problem of validation of lower sources - the extraordinary contortions of David Kelly's employment situation provide an example [6].

The idea that there was a credible source on WMD intel that no one at WaPo or the NYT deigned to speak too because he was too junior or his credentials too tricky to check out is, again, perhaps a novel concept for some.

There is, I think, something of a terror amongst media types of showing their workings. It's as if they suppose we readers imagine the news to be extruded from some impersonal machine untouched by human hand. (I'm getting reflux of that colonic metaphor...) Or at least that we would be bored by the inside dope.

Yet, without a knowledge of the conventions - of language and practice - the product on the screen or breakfast table is not only inadequate: it's downright misleading.

A key matter arising in the course of the evidence of the Hutton Inquiry was the fact that HMG allowed to persist uncorrected the misapprehension in the press that the WMD which could be readied for use within 45 minutes was carried by long-range missiles, rather than being (in fact) limited to battlefield use.

Pace the absurd Michael Mates, it is very easy to sex up by omission. Essentially what happened to WMD intel in the most august journals of the Republic.

  1. In practice - it's not general breakfast chit-chat.

  2. I've latterly stayed away from the substantive issue in general; I'm just psyching myself up to going back to the source material in Hutton on the 45 minute intelligence, which is bad enough. Besides, I get the impression that the WMD intel beat is pretty widely covered right now in the blogosphere.

  3. Miller had a furious argument with colleague John Burns on her dependence on Ahmed Chalabi as a source:
    Her assertion that Chalabi had provided most of the Times's front-page exclusives on WMD was, she said, part of "an angry e-mail exchange with a colleague." In the heat of such exchanges, Miller said, "You say things that aren't true. If you look at the record, you'll see they aren't true."
  4. The Paula Zahn/James Rubin story is not without interest.

  5. Who appears in my piece of June 15 2003 which covers something of the same ground as Massing's. There is unflattering back-story on Pincus, inter alia.

  6. Though Kelly was well-known for work outside government buildings.


While the URL is to hand, the American Journalism Review article from August 2003 on Miller's reporting, and the US media treatment of Iraq WMD more generally, is a worthwhile narrative. (No damned links, though...) The piece makes the point that Miller is not alone at fault in the reporting of Saddam and his military threat: if most Americans think that Saddam was involved in 9/11, that implies a systemic journalistic failure.

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