Sunday, May 15

On Background: The Rumor Mill

Some Sunnis Hint at Peace Terms in Iraq, U.S. Says (New York Times):
The Bush administration, struggling to cope with a recent intensification of insurgent violence in Iraq, has received signals from some radical Sunni Arab leaders that they would abandon fighting if the new Shiite majority government gave Sunnis a significant voice in the country's political evolution, administration officials said this week.

"Administration officials said." If I'd been reporting that story and the source declined to go on the record or identify the parties beyond characterizing them as "what they called 'rejectionist' elements among Sunni Arabs," I'd have written the lead this way:

Bush Adminstration officials who declined to identify themselves for the record claimed that "rejectionist" elements among radical Sunni Arab leaders are ready to stop fighting if they get top government posts. The unnamed officials declined to identify or further characterize the person or persons with whom they've had contact.

Then my editor would have thrust it vigorously onto the spike as a non-story, risking impalement with the vehemence of her contempt. And letters to the Times' public editor seem to agree with me, on the whole.

I thought the Washington press corps was putting its foot down on the question of unattributed background briefings?

The mental picture I'm getting here is some cab driver tells some low level diplomatoid that his uncle plants roadside bombs but will knock it off if made Garbage Commissioner where he can make some easy graft.

And look, it took a bunch of guys to pull this joke together:

Steven R. Weisman reported from Washington for this article, and John F. Burns from Baghdad. Reporting was contributed by David E. Sanger and Thom Shanker from Washington, and Richard A. Oppel Jr., Sabrina Tavernise and Abdul Razzaq al-Saiedy from Baghdad.

Not one interview with an Iraqi outside of a government flack and the leader of the National Dialogue Council--whose offices were bombed by insurgents on April 30, and about whom the Times reporters write that it remains unclear how much influence they have over the insurgency. If insurgents are bombing their offices, yes, it is unclear whether they can get the insurgents to follow their lead. Duh! And never mind talking to an insurgent:

The attitude of insurgent leaders is another unknown, not least because American officials, two years into the war, acknowledge that they have little understanding of who the leaders are, apart from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant and operative of Al Qaeda who has claimed responsibility for many of the insurgents' suicide bombings, kidnappings and beheadings.

Yes, there are many things we know we don't know. But there is this:

Many Iraqis say Sciri's leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who holds no government post, may yet prove the decisive voice on crucial policy issues--like Sunni involvement.

Many Iraqis who? Cousins of your stringer? How many? Questioned where by whom?

That's just a tranparently BS story all around. "Administration officials say" what they'd like to see printed in the paper. The Times obliges them with only perfunctory reality testing of the claim. If you can't leave the hotel, you shouldn't pretend you know what's going on.


Blogger Tom Matrullo said...

See, some things a blog can do, such as demonstrate critical intelligence as you do here, tend to be hard to find in places like the NY Times. It might not come down to blogging vs. journalism, but it seems related to the fact that a group of people can function at a far lower level of critical awareness than certain individuals. Maybe not all the time, but surely some. See also this by James:

5/22/2005 09:44:00 pm  
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