Friday, June 13, 2008

Grim and Few

Our Defense Secretary just handed the mainstream media the prize it had sought in vain: How to write about the decline in violence in Iraq without 1. making it look like things are going well for the U.S., and 2. admitting the media's convictions about it have been wrong for a long time.

In this new trope, Iraq becomes just a backdrop to talk about how badly the U.S. is screwing up in Afghanistan. Why, the scribes even got to bring forth their favorite adjective again:

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) — It's a grim gauge of U.S. wars going in opposite directions: American and allied combat deaths in Afghanistan in May passed the monthly toll in Iraq for the first time.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates used the statistical comparison to dramatize his point to NATO defense ministers that they need to do more to get Afghanistan moving in a better direction. He wants more allied combat troops, more trainers and more public commitment.

More positively, the May death totals point to security improvements in Iraq that few thought likely a year ago.

But the deterioration in Afghanistan suggests a troubling additional possibility: a widening of the war to Pakistan, where the Taliban and al-Qaida have found haven.

Note that "few," by the way. Always note a "few" or a "many" or a "most" in journalism in a passage where no statistics are cited. It's a sure sign the writer is trying to drag you over a talking point without letting you feel it.

What "few?" A year ago, in June 2007, according to the polls, 39 percent of Americans thought "the surge" would "improve the security situation [in Iraq] over the next few months." Almost 40 percent might arguably be called "few," but it would seem to stretch the definition of that word.

But chances are the AP writers and editors weren't thinking of that number. They were looking around their newsrooms or thinking of their social circles. "Nobody we talked to expected anything good to come of it." Therefore, "few" feels justified.

So if 39 percent is "few," then I guess 11 percent is "very few indeed," "next to nobody," or some such thing. But do you see that sort of phrasing in discussions of the run-up to the War in Iraq? Yet that was the figure in a CBS News February 2002 poll who thought Iraq "currently does not possesses weapons of mass destruction." That was well before the serious Administration push to sell that point to the public was underway.

But the AP doesn't write stories with lines like, "The failure to find stockpiles of WMD in Iraq a development few thought likely before the overthrow of Saddam."