Monday, January 01, 2007

Grim Milestone Watch

[posted by Callimachus]

You'll have to see these today, because the Newseum doesn't archive them, but here's a sample of big (36 point or higher) media headlines this morning featuring "Grim Milestone."

That's just a sample, mind you. And it doesn't count those who used some variation ("Grim number," "Somber milestone").

Every 100 deaths in Iraq is a "grim milestone," by fiat of the media. It is the most overworked cliché of local journalism since, "Rain couldn't dampen the spirits/enthusiasm of _____ graduates of _____ high school as they looked to the future and pondered the past during last night's commencement ceremony."

It requires no thought or reflection. It treats round numbers as the definition of reality, and an excuse to stoke pessimism -- this is not a headline for the present state of things in Iraq, remember; this has been a media trope since the first shots were fired ("After days of intense searching by ground and air, U.S. forces on Saturday found the bodies of two soldiers missing north of Baghdad, as the toll of American dead since the start of war topped the grim milestone of 200 ..." -- Associated Press, June 29, 2003; emphasis added).

Some will see this as simply calling a thing what it is. I see it as perilous group-think and an obsession with words and clichés over realities. I doubt anyone who wrote any of these headlines could explain to you why death number 3,000 was enormously more significant than death number 2,997. If it's true the American people can discern realities by simply reading facts, certainly we are capable of determining on our own what is a grim milestone without being led by the nose to it.

Does it help you to know these numbers divorced from context? Are there not many Americans who would consider, say, every 1,000 abortions nationwide a "grim milestone?" Even if you set 1,000 battle deaths (not the AP's preferred 200) as the benchmark for "grim milestones," you had a grim milestone every five days during America's involvement in World War II with nary a "grim milestone" headline to show for it.

UPDATE: Bill Quick has a few more.