Friday, August 31, 2007

Lazy Reporters

[posted by Callimachus]

From a not-yet-online New York Times profile of Condi Rice:

There was a time when, perhaps more than Hillary Rodham Clinton or Barack Obama, Condoleezza Rice seemed to have the best shot at becoming the first woman or the first African-American to be president. But that was before she sounded public alarms based on faulty intelligence to justify the Iraq war, telling CNN, "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud." It was before a former top Bush administration colleague, David Kay, charged with finding unconventional weapons after the Iraq invasion, referred to Rice in Bob Woodward's "State of Denial" as "probably the worst national security adviser since the office was created."

And it was before furious Lebanese hung a huge banner depicting Rice's face, with blood dripping from her lips, from a bridge in central Beirut.

Take the last one first. Even AFP, no apologists for the United States, identifies the Lebanese who made and hung that banner as "Hezbollah supporters"; Lebanese, assuredly, but a particular subset of them, and a detail worth noting. Doesn't mean other Lebanese aren't mad at Rice, too, but the point introduced as evidence of that turns out to be extremely weak.

Go up a few lines. Same thing. David Kay is an honorable man who knows a great deal about certain things, but his qualifications to judge the historical record of national security advisers doesn't seem to be borne out by his resume. (He's also an odd entry here, since much of his work and many of his pronouncements buttressed the administration's WMD case against Saddam). Again, it doesn't mean Rice isn't objectively the worst in that job. But the Times hardly has proved it with a Kay quip cribbed from a best-selling book by a journalist.

Go up again. Same thing. Rice may or may not have "sounded public alarms based on faulty intelligence to justify the Iraq war," but saying "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud" is not an example of that. It's an example of her proposing a hypothetical situation to be avoided. It introduces no intelligence, faulty or otherwise. It could be read as saying, and many of us do read it as saying, "until we eliminate Saddam as dictator of Iraq, we never will know whether he has the capability and intent to use his military programs to help launch a devastating attack on America." If anything, it's an admission of imperfect evidence, not an assertion of proof.

What's going on here? Laziness. The Times wants to skip through this framing job by saying, "Rice sucks and is a great big screw-up; everyone knows that" and get on with the article. But that nagging tug of professionalism says that has to be demonstrated, not simply presumed. So the reporter does a quick Google or goes and looks up things remembered, and pastes them into the story after each assertion, as though simply being in the same sentence makes them supporting evidence.

It's why people stopped reading newspapers and never went back.