Saturday, October 27, 2007

Peggy Noonan on the TNR Scott Thomas scandal and the bigger issue of journalists' backgrounds

I think Peggy Noonan gets it right both on The New Republic's Scott Thomas scandal, at this incisive comment in the Wall Street Journal, here: http://www.opinionjournal.com/columnists/pnoonan/?id=110010780. As she says about the narrative TNR's editors chose uncritically to accept, it was precisely what you would expect if your view of war, the US military, etc., etc. was formed by Vietnam era movies. I didn't think very much about the diarist stories although a very longtime TNR subscriber - I doubt I got more than two sentences into them before deciding I wasn't very much interested in some writerly take on Iraq - like so many other people, for a long, long time I have had no idea what to think of the strategic situation in Iraq, just as a factual matter.

I could believe the NYT, but then I know, from the political subjects that I do know about, that the Times specializes in narrative reporting - better described as writing artful lawyers' briefs, in which crucial facts are left out and others deliberately shaded and colored in ways that shift the perception of the story - eg, its coverage of the Duke lacrosse case. Apart from the great John Burns, I simply don't take seriously Times' reporting on Iraq because my experience in many other areas is that the coverage is so agenda driven that you simply don't have confidence in it. There is no news that won't be painted a bad news if the Times wants it that way.

On the other hand, the cheerleading of the Bush administration from the very beginning has meant that I have had no confidence in its reporting, either.

I take seriously independent journalists in Iraq like Michael Yon - and if you don't send these brave freelancers money, ou should, because they represent something genuinely new in journalism, the citizen journalist blogger who does not simply analyze and comment on what other people have factually reported, but actually goes out there and covers the story and develops the new facts. But the reality is also that their perceptions are generally a ground level one, tactical and not always the strategic view. That is what it means for them to be able to offer actual facts on the ground, that's what makes them good. And in certain moments, the tactical view is the strategic view - that is, at this moment, you can determine whether the Petraeus strategy is working by looking to ground level retail indicators. But there are other situations - the death corridor, whatever it was called, back in the invasion itself, that was regarded by reporters embedded there as proof that the war was lost, whereas seen from the birdseye strategic situation, it was hell for those there but not a big deal strategically (as the generals said repeatedly to American reporters seeing, yet again, quagmire and Vietnam at every turn in the road but then, once completed, effortlessly dismissed as no big deal). It is also true with journalism generally that the safest position is cautious pessmism - wrongly predicting victory is seen as more foolish than wrongly predicting defeat, and if your narrative says that defeat is good, which is alas a largely unavoidable conclusion regarding the New York Times, then the reinforcement is overwhelming.

Anyway, that's why I didn't bother reading writerly accounts that smelled to me from a mile off as someone looking to do - well, Thomas said Hemingway, my reaction Oliver Stone - get a little literary mileage out of something that matters only with respect to the facts, the genuine facts on the ground. I'm not interested in fiction writers' accounts of the war, I'm not interested in Hollywood's accounts of the war - and that would be true even if they were pro-US, I'm interested in what is actually happening, thanks.

But Peggy Noonan does catch my reaction exactly. When I finally did pick up the magazine and read it, the account of the burned female soldier, I thought, well, first off, the number of female American soldiers scarred by IEDs in Iraq is not unlimited, it should not be hard for any editor to verify whether there even was such a person in the Middle East at that time. And, second, it seemed immediately beyond belief that someone who had been scarred in that way would still be in either Kuwait or Iraq - either they were being taken out to some hospital, or else they would be somewhere getting plastic surgery, etc. It didn't seem to me that the US was so desperate for soldiers that it would need to send someone already seriously scarred by an IED back into Iraq. If that's what occured to me after 10 seconds of reading, why didn't that occur to someone at TNR? Etc. Noonan captures the lack of thought among the editors, and why, exactly.

But much more important is what she has to say about the background of the new wave of journalists. Excerpted below. I'd add to that one thing.

The new wave of journalists and editors that Noonan describes have huge difficulty separating truth from narrative; moreover, their educational training has led them to believe that there is no principled difference. Noonan is kind enough to say that instead of reading Dostoevsky, they deconstructed him - but she is being generous; most of them, even from the elite schools, didn't read Dostoevsky or deconstruct him, but instead the hip, multiculturally correct contemporary canon. But in any case, the inability to separate out truth from narrative is a homologue to the definition of narcissism. Narcissism is not, as Jackson Lears movingly wrote in an obituary essay on Christopher Lasch (in, of all places, TNR!), a matter of self love as such. Narcissism is, rather, the inability to separate self from world - to see what is real and what is reflection in the contemporary hall of mirrors in this image-saturated society. At bottom, the inability to separate out truth from narrative is a symptom of narcissism. (At the media forum, where I am currently in Guatemala, I remarked to someone that for what it was worth, Edward Murrow was wrong when he called for a new kind of television to educate; television is about images and therefore about affect, not about thought and analysis.)

(Scott Thomas, by the way, does not fit Noonan's pattern precisely - he did not come from an elite school. He came from a midwestern state college of no special academic account. He was a young man eager to make a mark - in fiction, but since he couldn't tell the difference, why not call it reporting? He was an unscrupulous young man but also a very unsophisticated one - because only an unsophisticated provincial would dream of being a new Hemingway. Hemingway? Good lord.)

*** Excerpt:

I'll jump here, or lurch I suppose, to something I am concerned about that I think I am observing accurately. It has to do with what sometimes seems to me to be the limited lives that have been or are being lived by the rising generation of American professionals in the arts, journalism, academia and business. They have had good lives, happy lives, but there is a sense with some of them that they didn't so much live it as view it. That they learned too much from media and not enough from life's difficulties. That they saw much of what they know in a film or play and picked up all the memes and themes.
In terms of personal difficulties, they seem to have had less real-life experience, or rather different experiences, than their rougher predecessors. They grew up affluent in a city or suburb, cosseted in material terms, and generally directed toward academic and material success. Their lives seem to have been not crowded or fearful, but relatively peaceful, at least until September 2001, which was very hard.

But this new leadership class, those roughly 35 to 40, grew up in a time when media dominated all. They studied, they entered a top-tier college, and then on to Washington or New York or Los Angeles. But their knowledge, their experience, is necessarily circumscribed. Too much is abstract to them, or symbolic. The education establishment did them few favors. They didn't have to read Dostoevsky, they had to read critiques and deconstruction of Dostoevsky.

I'm not sure it's always good to grow up surrounded by stability, immersed in affluence, and having had it drummed into you that you are entitled to be a member of the next leadership class. To have this background in the modern era is to come from a ghetto, the luckiest ghetto in the world, a golden ghetto beyond whose walls it can be hard to see. There's much to be said for suffering, for being on the outside or the bottom, for having to have fought yourself up and through. It can leave you grounded. It can give you real knowledge not only of the world and of other men but of yourself. In some ways it can leave you less cynical. (Not everything comes down to money.) And in some ways it leaves you just cynical enough.

Journalistically, I was lucky enough to work at CBS News when it was still shaped by the influence of the Murrow boys. They knew and taught that "everyone is entitled to his own opinions"--and they had them--"but not his own facts." And I miss the rough old boys and girls of the front page, who'd greet FDR with "Snappy suit, Mr. President," who'd bribe the guard to tell them what the prisoner said on the way to the chair, and who were not rich and important but performed an extremely important social function.

They found out who, what, where, when, why. And they would have looked at the half-baked, overcooked junior Hemingway of Scott Thomas Beauchamp and said, "That sounds like a buncha hooey."

***

(And let me add one last quite different thought. This is to switch gears completely, but not completely, the young journalists of today reflect that lack of basic common sense most often in their inability to comprehend numbers. I will here grossly generalize, but I spend lots of time with journalists and this is one consistent impression I have. A certain basic math sense means, for example, to ask really basic questions about orders of magnitude when faced with data that requires interpretation and analysis. It might sound merely like a technical failing, but it's not. My sense of young journalists is that, with the exception of those that have deliberately gone the business journalism route (a good one), journalists become journalists today in part because they are scared of math and don't want to have to think that way. Strikingly, the almost entirely non-American journalists at this media forum have loads of that common sense - the environments in which they work, hostile governments, lots of hostile groups all around them, force them early on to a certain common sense in their journalism and, anyway, they almost all have had better math education than the Americans who go into journalism. But the kind of math we're talking about here is just common sense arithmetic - another way of asking the question, could that possibly be right, orders of common sense magnitude. To have a sense of arithmetic that leads to skeptical common sense is another way of saying truth over narrative - a highly prosaic one and one that Peggy Noonan's old style journalists wouldn't have even thought worth mentioning because it was built into the skeptical DNA. Whereas too many young journalists today prefer the narrative, follow the narrative in herds and packs because in herds and packs like safety, and so embark on careers of, well, what? Path dependency, I suppose you might call it.)

2 comments:

Nathan Wagner said...

Here are a pair of figures that, in a numerically literate journalism universe, would make the character of certain perennial stories far different from what it is: 0.07 degrees Celsius and 6.5 percent.

0.07 degrees Celsius is the amount of warming that the Kyoto treaty, if fully implemented by all nations and honestly adhered to, would avert by 2050 (given the IPCC's accepted model). That is minuscule, only about 4% of projected warming - and will have no material affect on the problem. Presuming the IPCC's science is correct, if you understand orders of magnitude, the only way of averting a significant amount of warming is pretty much to end industrial society. Or we could go nuclear and electric on a massive scale. Yet, in much reporting on the issue, overwhelming and unquestionable moral onus attaches to US ratification of a treaty that will do effectively nothing.

6.5% is the amount of US gasoline consumption that we could displace were the nation's entire corn crop devoted to ethanol. Think about that one for a moment.

National policy debates would be so much more sane if journalists were numerically literate, expected their audience to be as well, and approached officialdom accordingly.

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