Number 269 September 17, 2004

This Week:

Quote of the Week
What It Is: Naming A Lie
The “Very Good News” That “Will Come As a Shock”


I’ve been writing these rather lengthy, analytical and theoretical pieces lately, haven’t I? I’m sorry about that (although not too sorry, apparently, or I wouldn’t keep doing it.) So, it seems like it’s time for a little “catch-up” issue, with lots of tidbits, amusing details from the news, activist alerts, and whatever else I have stored up. Maybe next week.

The pieces are so long this week that I don’t have much space for this editor’s note. I do want to say Thank You to the people who sent in their pledges this past week, to the new subscribers this week, and to those who wrote to me in response to the “Dialectics” piece last week. I really appreciate all these forms of support!

Until next week,


"Quote" of the Week:

United States President Lyndon Johnson used to refer to people who had qualms about his Vietnam policy as “Nervous Nellies.” Perhaps a Nervous Nellie is a variety of “hand-wringer?”

Consider the following words from White House spokesman Scott McClellan, talking to reporters about a recently-leaked National Intelligence Estimate from July that, as it turns out, was quite “pessimistic” about what was and is going on in Iraq, despite Mr. Bush’s repeated assertions that “progress is being made.” Mr. McClellan said:

“You know, every step of the way in Iraq there have been pessimists and hand-wringers who said it can't be done. And every step of the way, the Iraqi leadership and the Iraqi people have proven them wrong because they are determined to have a free and peaceful future.”

What It Is: Naming A Lie

On September 14th there ran a story about the U.S. occupation of Iraq in the nation’s media that I think is worth looking at. It’s only one among innumerable articles, of course, but I want to use it as an example of the type and magnitude of the failing of our media to plainly report what their reporters can plainly see.

The story was specifically about the U.S. attack on the “rebel-held city of Fallujah” that occurred on September 13. As I surveyed various reports on this attack in the nation’s newspapers, the only thing upon which all the reports seemed to agree was that the U.S. attacked something in Fallujah that day. What – or who – did they attack? And why? Well, it depends on which news source you happened to see.

Framing the Story

The headlines in the daily papers around the country, for the most part, would have you believe that this was a strike against the enemy. Here are a few headlines that are typical of the day’s fare: “Us Jets Hit Suspected Rebel Hideout in Fallujah; 20 Dead” (Chicago Tribune) “Us Strikes Rebel Base in Fallujah” (Baltimore Sun) “US Jets Target Terrorist Hideout” (Salt Lake Tribune) “Bombings Focus on Al-Qaida Targets” (New York Newsday)

Rebels? Terrorists? al-Qaida!? Maybe, maybe not. The purported “target” was “associates” of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who may or may not be “linked” to al-Qaida. What is true is that many civilians were killed by U.S. forces in this attack. Or, rather, these attacks, since there appear to have been several. The Associated Press (AP) said: “At least 20 people were killed and 29 wounded in the airstrike, said Dr. Ahmad Taher of the Fallujah General Hospital. Women and children were among the dead.” ABC news reported the same: “Local Iraqis said women and children were . . . killed.”

The AP also reported that “witnesses said one explosion went off in a market as sellers were setting up their stalls, wounding several people and shattering windows.” ABC confirmed that: “Witnesses . . .said there were explosions in the market as stalls opened.”

An ambulance also was hit, according to the AP: “An ambulance was struck while rushing from the area, killing the paramedic driver and five wounded patients, hospital official Hamid Salaman said.” This, too, was confirmed by ABC: “”And a rocket hit an ambulance with seven people in it. All of them died.” The wire service Agence France Presse quoted a different witness, “undertaker Falah Abdullah,” who said “So far we received 15 bodies. Among them is an ambulance driver and two nurses, plus five wounded who were in the ambulance when it was bombed.” If there were any doubt, COX News Service published a photo, with the caption: “Fallujah residents walk past the wreckage of an ambulance after a U.S. strike Monday allegedly hit al-Qaida backers.” (A strange caption, I know.)

The U.S. Response: Official Lies

The official U.S. military response was to lie about what happened. These lies were dutifully reported in the press. Here is a sampling:

COX News Service: “‘The U.S. military is confirming that we did not hit an ambulance and we did not hit a marketplace,’ said military press officer Sharon Walker, referring to news accounts.”
The AP: “‘Intelligence reports indicated that only Zarqawi operatives and associates were at the meeting location at the time of the strike,’ [a U.S. military] statement said. ‘Based on analysis of these reports, Iraqi Security Forces and multinational forces effectively and accurately targeted these terrorists while protecting the lives of innocent civilians.’”
The AP ran a simple statement from one “Maj. Jay Antonelli” who “said in a statement” that “We did not hit a marketplace.”
The AP added to this last one that “there was no immediate comment on the accusation that an ambulance was hit.”

Only in the London newspaper The Independent, in an article by Patrick Cockburn, could one find the relevant context necessary to understand the comments from U.S. officials. Cockburn reported: “The US air force has claimed repeatedly since the invasion of Iraq in March last year to be hitting hostile targets identified by US intelligence. During the war it made 50 air strikes to kill senior members of Saddam Hussein’s regime, some of which caused many civilian casualties. Only after the war did US Defence officials admit that all the air strikes had missed their target.”

Both the Star Tribune (Newspaper of the Twin Cities!) and the New York Times (“All The News That’s Fit To Print”) reported on this story as they were expected to. The headline in the Star Trib was “U.S. Targets Reported Militant Meeting in Fallujah.” The Times head was almost the same: “U.S. Attacks Rebel Base In Fallujah; 20 Are Killed.”

There was a major story here: the story of yet another U.S. attack on civilians – most likely accidental, but not unusual – accompanied by numerous official lies about the incident. But this was considered less than front-page news in the press. In the Star Trib, it ran on page 4, in an odd mish-mash article drawn from at least five different news sources (but credited to only four). The valuable front-page space that day was reserved for a story on the “election gear” that people are buying these days (wall clocks, lunchboxes, etc). The Times, likewise, relegated the story to an inside page, page 12.

Neither the Star Trib nor the Times (nor any other mainstream media outlet that I saw) could or would use the word “lying” when reporting this story. The Star Trib story, for example, simply reported both “sides:” The numerous eyewitnesses on the one hand, and U.S. Military Press Officer Sharon “We Did Not Hit an Ambulance and We Did Not Hit a Marketplace” Walker on the other. The Times was pretty much the same, citing “officials” who “maintain that the airstrikes are weakening Iraq's insurgency,” adding mildly that recent events “seemed to cast doubt on that claim.”

This small look at one part of one day’s reporting from Iraq illustrates, I hope, how good reporters can see and report some very important facts, but are prevented by the mass media’s absurd norms of “balance” and “civility” from accurately naming what they see. What I hope this article helps you see is that it is OK for you – in fact, it’s IMPORTANT for you – to name for yourself what we all see happening in Iraq. A lie, after all, is a lie.


The “Very Good News” That “Will Come As a Shock”

On September 15 the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education released a major study called, “Measuring Up 2004: The National Report Card on Higher Education.” The report was a “good news/bad news” report, and it was interesting to see the difference in the PET (Placement, Emphasis, and Tone) that two different newspapers chose to use in reporting on it. The two papers I looked at most closely were the national newspaper of record, the New York Times, and my local paper and Minnesota’s paper of record, the Star Tribune. What a difference!

First of all, what did the report itself say? The good news, according to the authors, is that “Over the past decade, there has been a substantial increase in the proportion of high school students taking courses that prepare them for college.” The bad news... well, I’ll quote kind of extensively from the report to give you the tone:

“The rest of the story [beyond having more college-prepared kids] is less encouraging and will, we suspect, come as a shock to many Americans. The improved preparation of high school graduates for college has not brought about commensurate gains in college participation or in completion rates of associate or baccalaureate degrees. Also, paying for college has become increasingly difficult for most American students and families; the cost of college, even with financial aid, represents a larger share of the income of most American families than it did ten years ago. In short, the nation’s progress toward college opportunity and effectiveness has stalled.... The twenty-first century economy relentlessly punishes undereducated nations, states, communities, and individuals.... Measuring Up 2004 is a “wake-up call” for our country. . . The inescapable fact is that America is underperforming in higher education. Following the path of the past decade will take us to the wrong destinations: diminished opportunities for many Americans and greater economic vulnerability for the country and the states.”

Even in this overall bleak picture, the usual outrageous inequalities persist. As the report puts it: “The nation’s gaps in college participation between affluent and poor students have widened. The college-going gaps between whites, African Americans, and Latinos persist.”

So, as you can see, the report card featured a little good news and a lot of bad news, especially for kids of color and poor kids.

Comparing the PET of the Star Trib and The Times

Placement: Neither paper considered the report to be front-page news, with the Times placing it on page 26 of the first section. The Star Trib considered it “local” news, relegating it to the front page of the “B” section, called “Metro/State.” These choices reflected the differences in the two papers’ choices of emphasis.

Emphasis: Here’s the headline from the Times: “National Study Shows Colleges in Need of Help.” The lead paragraph gave some of the nuances: “America's schools – from kindergarten to high school – have improved in recent years. But, in many states, universities are being left behind, according to a national ‘report card’ of American higher education being released today.” The Times did a pretty good job of emphasizing the same things the report itself emphasized: More kids are ready to go to college, but fewer are doing so.

The Star Tribune, on the other hand, found the “local angle,” mostly encouraging. The headline: “A Higher-Ed High Achiever; Minnesota Is No. 2 Performer, But Racial Gap Is Growing.” The lead paragraph says basically the same thing. It not only emphasized the local “good news,” it barely mentioned the dismal national picture, except for a single sentence about declining high-school graduation rates.

Tone: As you can sort of tell, the Times adopted an appropriately negative tone, in tune with the report upon which it was focused. The Star Trib was relentlessly “upbeat,” with the following quotation from Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty’s top education adviser, who said, “Overall, we’re pleased. This is very, very good news. But is it good enough? We’re doing really well for many of our students, but not very well for others.” While the paper noted that Minnesota got a grade of “C-” in “Affordability,” it found a silver lining: “While the affordability grade sounds dismal, only two states did better. Most got an F.” In the Star Trib’s provincial view, this is apparently “good news.”

Eleven paragraphs later, near the end of the article, the Star Trib does point out that “Minnesota’s grade on affordability has taken a steady tumble since 2000, falling from an A in 2000 to a B in 2002 and finally to this year’s C-.” This “tumble” seems to have accelerated during the tenure of the “No New Taxes” Pawlenty administration, a fact about which his education adviser might have been asked, had I been the reporter.

So, this little case study shows, I hope, how important the media’s PET can be. If you only read the local paper, your impression of the state of higher education might be pretty sunny. But if you happen to live somewhere else, the news might come as a “shock.” I’m not accusing anyone of bias, or even intentional slanting of the news. The point is that every reporter and every editor, everywhere, uses their own set of ABCs – Attitudes, Beliefs, and Conceptions – to make sense of the news for themselves. Then those ABCs are passed along to us. This is important to remember when you read the newspaper. That’s all I’m saying.