Saturday, May 20, 2006

It's the Headline, Stupid

Dr. Sanity finds another example:

OK, children, let's look at yet another "news" story today. This one from the Washington Post exclaims, "Afghanistan Rocked As 105 Die in Violence: Toll Is Among Worst Since 2001 Invasion".

Once again, the invaluable Cori Dauber picks up on the blatant attempt to mislead and distort by noting that 80-90 of that number just happens to be the enemy who were killed. She then links to a report by Bill Roggio at the Counterterrorism Blog who will be an embed in Afghanistan (I am excerpting a large part of Roggio's report because I know that the lefties who come here wouldn't bother to click on the link; but I do hope other, more reasonable readers will take the time):

The news reports of a major Taliban offensive in southeastern Afghanistan are inaccurate, as Coalition offensives and Taliban attacks have been lumped together to give the impression of a coordinated Taliban assault in multiple provinces. A reading of the various reports indicates that while the Taliban has launched a major strike on a police station and government center in Helmand province and a small scale attack on a police patrol in Ghazni, as well as two suicide attacks against U.S. contractors in Herat and an Afghan army base in Ghazni, the fighting in Kandahar was initiated by Afghan and Coalition security forces during planned operations. Over 100 have been reported killed during the fighting, with 87 being Taliban. Well over half of those killed were killed during the Coalition offensives in Kandahar.

There were two separate major engagements in Kandahar province, and both were initiated by the Coalition. Coalition forces conducted a raid and subsequent air strikes against a Taliban safe haven in the village of Azizi. As many as 27 Taliban are believed to have been killed during the operation. A joint Canadian and Afghan security force conducted a sweep in the Panjwai district of Kandahar, and killed 18 Taliban and captured 26 in the process. One Canadian officer was killed and three Afghan police were wounded during the operation.

The fighting in Musa Qala in Helmand province is a bonafide major Taliban attack. The Associated Press reports an "estimated 300-400 militants with assault rifles and machine guns attacked a police and government headquarters" in Musa Qala. The Afghan police provided reinforcements to the beleaguered police station, fought off the Taliban force, reestablished control over the region, and killed 40 Taliban and took thirteen casualties of their own. Two police patrols were ambushed in Ghazni, and resulted in the death of two policemen. There is no evidence the attacks were coordinated. And they certainly weren't coordinated to occur in conjunction with Coalition operations.

It is important to understand how the fighting was initiated, as the current reporting is giving the impression of a coordinated Taliban uprising. This provides the Taliban with a propaganda victory, as their power is perceived as far greater than it actually is, which can negatively influence the government and peoples of the Coalition forces serving in Afghanistan. The narrow passage of the extension of the Canadian mission in Afghanistan (by a 149-145 vote in Parliament) illustrates the fragile nature of the support for the mission in some Western nations.

Now, some of that will be in the WaPo story and some of it won't. The reporters who write the stories usually are there, or are talking daily to people who were there, and they can't entirely turn the story on its head and still be taken with any shred of seriousness.

But the headline writer, he or she wasn't there. Wasn't within 5,000 miles of there. Never will be. Probably never met the reporter, certainly never will have run the headline past the reporter before slapping it on the computer mock-up of the front page.

He or she, instead, has been sitting in that climate-controled cubicle on the seventh or tenth floor, listening to NPR or Neil Young on the headphones, taking them off to chat with the other copy editors about when Michael Moore's next movie will be out or did you ever notice how much Bush looks like a chimp.

Then he'll turn back to that Afghanistan story that he skimmed earlier, and, working not from the story but from the space he as been given on the page (2 columns, 3 columns, 48-point, 54-point, deck head or no deck) and the essential narrative that exists in his head, he'll write that headline.

And somewhere along the way there's a good chance he or she will have forgotten it's called a headline because it goes at the head of the story, not because it's something you pull out of your own head.

And the headline will be all most people see, as they pass the newsstand or stare across the metro car at someone else buried in the inside pages. It will be all most people remember, even if they, too, take the time to skim the story.