Monday, November 28, 2005

The Fisk Factor

Robert Fisk is a generation older than me, but he's nothing like the older generation of American journalists I trained under in this business -- with an unfinished novel manuscript in one drawer, a bottle of hooch in the other, a green eyeshade on their brows and somewhere on their anatomy a tattoo acquired in some Navy port under circumstances now, regrettably, hazy.

Fisk is the Middle East correspondent for the "Independent," beloved by the anti-war and anti-American lefts. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Trinity College. I doubt he owns an eyeshade or a tattoo.

He does, however, have a book. The Great War for Civilisation is a "survey of the Middle East in our time," according to the glowing review in the "Guardian," the "Independent's" spiritual sister on the British left.

Fisk is a hero to many contemporary journalists, especially to those for whom a distaste for Israel and America ranks in the top three chosen topics of conversation. He's like George Galloway with a byline. The difference is, Galloway is a politician. Fisk is a reporter. His articles do not appear in the opinion section. They appear on the front page. Yet he openly scorns the idea of journalistic objectivity.

Fisk doesn't believe in the concept, calling it a specious idea that, as practiced by American reporters, produces dull and predictable writing weighed down by obfuscating comments from official government sources.

"It's our job (as journalists) to challenge the centers of power, and to describe with our own vividness the tragedies and injustice and viciousness of the world, and to try and name the bad guys," he says in one interview. The "Guardian" review puts it like this:

His philosophy is "to challenge authority - all authority - especially so when governments and politicians take us to war". He quotes with approval the Israeli journalist Amira Hass: "There is a misconception that journalists can be objective ... What journalism is really about is to monitor power and the centres of power."

If it is proverbially a newspaper's duty to "print the news and raise hell," Fisk abuses the second half of the equation without earning it through the first. People who read him to learn what is going on in a particular place and time soon will throw the "Independent" aside in disgust, realizing that for their investment of time they've learned a good deal about what is going on inside Mr. Fisk's head and very little about what is going on outside it.

His factual errors are so common, and his conclusions from them so distorted, that he has joined the exclusive club of men like Quisling and Benedict Arnold, who have seen their names become common words -- a fisking is a point-by-point destruction of an argument that is built on a sandpile of flawed details.

Even the "Guardian" in its glowing reception of Fisk's book, feels compelled to close the piece with a long laundry list of its errors -- and these were merely the ones that happened to cross the consciousness of the reader who was assigned to write the review:

The book contains a deplorable number of mistakes. Some are amusing: my favourite is when King Hussein's stallion unexpectedly "reared up on her hind legs". Christ was born in Bethlehem, not Jerusalem. Napoleon's army did not burn Moscow, the Russians did. French: meurt means dies, not blooms. Russian: goodbye is do svidanya, not dos vidanya. Farsi: laleh means tulip, not rose. Arabic: catastrophe is nakba not nakhba (which means elite), and many more.

Other mistakes undermine the reader's confidence. Muhammad's nephew Ali was murdered in the 7th century, not the 8th century. Baghdad was never an Ummayad city. The Hashemites are not a Gulf tribe but a Hijaz tribe, as far as you can get from the Gulf and still be in Arabia. The US forward base for the Kuwait war, Dhahran, is not "scarcely 400 miles" from Medina and the Muslim holy places, it is about 700 miles. Britain during the Palestine mandate did not support a Jewish state. The 1939 white paper on Palestine did not "abandon Balfour's promise" (and he was not "Lord Balfour" when he made it). The Iraq revolution of 1958 was not Baathist. Britain did not pour military hardware into Saddam's Iraq for 15 years, or call for an uprising against Saddam in 1991. These last two "mistakes" occasion lengthy Philippics against British policy; others may deserve them, we do not.

So which do you prefer? Journalists who concentrate on getting the facts right, or those who concentrate on "challenging authority?" Do you want your newshawks to be telling you the way the world is, or the way they think it ought to be? Do you want to rely on the newspaper written by the reporters who know how you should vote, but don't know a stallion from a mare?

You might as well stop to ask all this, because the evolution is underway, whether you asked for it or not. And this time you don't have to rely on an anecdote from my newsroom as the most direct evidence. Just consider the awful coverage of Hurricane Katrina.

From a journalistic point of view, the root causes of the bogus reports were largely the same: The communication breakdown without and especially within New Orleans created an information vacuum in which wild oral rumor thrived. Reporters failed to exercise enough skepticism in passing along secondhand testimony from victims (who often just parroted what they picked up from the rumor mill), and they were far too eager to broadcast as fact apocalyptic statements from government officials ... without factoring in discounts for incompetence and ulterior motives.

...[T]ruth became a casualty, news organizations that were patting their own backs in early September were publishing protracted mea culpas by the end of the month, and reputation of a great American city has been, at least to some degree, unfairly tarnished.

Yet Dan Rather called the Katrina coverage "one of television news' finest moments," because, in a phrase worthy of Robert Fisk, the networks "were willing to speak truth to power." But it seems that, like Fisk, they were willing to be gulled by the authority figures who suited their ideologies for the sake of hurling verbal grenades at the ones they despised.

One consequence of all this activist journalism is that the media, more than ever, becomes part of the story. When it claims to merely observe, the media ignores Werner Heisenberg's observation about physics: By observing you change what you observe -- which is as true of current events as it is of particle accellerators. And the more activist the media, the more true it is. Just look at how al-Jazeera's reporting changed U.S. policy in Fallujah, or how the media coverage changed the situation in New Orleans:

... The information vacuum in the Superdome was especially dangerous. Cell phones didn’t work, the arena’s public address system wouldn’t run on generator power, and the law enforcement on hand was reduced to talking to the 20,000 evacuees using bullhorns and a lot of legwork. “A lot of them had AM radios, and they would listen to news reports that talked about the dead bodies at the Superdome, and the murders in the bathrooms of the Superdome, and the babies being raped at the Superdome,” [Maj. Ed] Bush [public affairs officer for the Louisiana Air National Guard] says, “and it would create terrible panic. I would have to try and convince them that no, it wasn’t happening.”

The reports of rampant lawlessness, especially the persistent urban legend of shooting at helicopters, definitely delayed some emergency and law enforcement responses. Reports abounded, from places like Andover, Massachusetts, of localities refusing to send their firefighters because of “people shooting at helicopters.” The National Guard refused to approach the Convention Center until September 2, 100 hours after the hurricane, because “we waited until we had enough force in place to do an overwhelming force,” Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum told reporters on September 3.

“One of my good friends, Col. Jacques Thibodeaux, led that security effort,” Bush says. “They said, ‘Jacques, you gotta get down here and sweep this thing.’ He said he was braced for anything. And he encountered nothing — other than a whole lot of people clapping and cheering and so glad that they were here.”

There never was a golden age of American media, from an ethical point of view. Total objectivity is impossible -- Fisk is right that far. Only a god can see like that. But, like any moral virtue, it is meant as a goal, a steadfast purpose, a lodestar. Something you reach for, not a place where you claim to stand. You set your feet toward it, and it keeps you on the right path.

There never was a golden age of American media. The newsies always embodied, more or less, the blind spots and passions of the wider society. But they did great work, and they wrote stories that did more than just eat away at truth like an acid. They could tell you a battle story, for instance, that included the grueling grunt work, the heroic moments, the tragedy of the carnage -- and the big picture.

The purely negative reporter, a Fisk, obsessed with tearing down the powers that be and setting the world right to his vision, will never give you that final quality -- what was bought at the price of the sacrifice. For him, that's all a lie unless it serves his utopian ideal.

Some of the most effective writing done online in recent years has been parodies of modern media styles that work by applying them to historical news events. There's even a video -- Fahrenheit 1861.

If you want to read the sour wine of new journalism in the old bottles of history, consider V.D. Hanson's imagined editorial by the modern "New York Times" in the wake of D-Day:

The unfortunate slaughter of the last month and the present quagmire in the hedgerows are the unfortunate wages of a certain American arrogance — that we can always simply go where we wish, count on locals to admire us, and see the world in terms of black and white, of “good” Americans and “bad” Germans. As we saw last month, simplistic logic leads to careless planning that in turn results in thousands of dead and wounded Americans on a stormy beach and the survivors huddled a few miles away in a hostile countryside that shows no desire to be “liberated.”

Which could be Fisk, again, except with him it would be a front-page leader, not an editorial.

Or this piece, printed by Marc at "American Future," imagining the modern media covering the Battle of Midway:

Midway Island, perhaps the most vital U.S. outpost, was pummeled by Japanese Naval aviators. The defending U.S. forces, consisting primarily of antique Buffalo fighters, were completely wiped out while the Japanese attackers suffered few, if any, losses. In a nearby naval confrontation, the Japanese successfully attacked the Yorktown, which was later sunk by a Japanese submarine. A destroyer lashed to the Yorktown was also sunk. American forces claim to have sunk four Japanese carriers and the cruiser Mogami but those claims were vehemently denied by the Emperor’s spokesman. The American carriers lost an entire squadron of torpedo planes when they failed to link up with fighter escorts. The dive bombers had fighter escort even though they weren’t engaged by enemy fighters. The War Department refused to answer when asked why the fighters were assigned to the wrong attack groups.

All of it is exactly right. These same facts built up, in another hand, into Walter Lord's "Incredible Victory." But here they sit stacked up with the perspective that puts emphasis only on the failures and shortcomings of Western hegemonists, on "challenging the centers of power," if you will.

Does America need a class of secular priests, a la Fisk? Perhaps Europe, which has abandoned its traditional faiths, needed to convert its journalists into pious inquisitors. But America still has flourishing seminaries, and if our journalism programs start turning out Jeremiahs, who will give us the straight dope on the news?

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