Some, Many, and Most
While flipping through yesterday’s New York Times I hit upon this piece which gave me pause. For a number of reasons it didn’t sit right with me, and I was happy to see Glen Greenwald highlight a few of them.
I only recently subscribed to the Times Sunday edition, and despite the fact that they still deliver my copy to the neighbor’s door (we share the front porch of a two unit house), I’ve really come to enjoy sitting down with my coffee and searching through the folds of newsprint for a story or two that interests me. I’m not one of the diehards who have to read it cover to cover. Instead, it’s more like doing archeology, excavating layers of typography for something new and insightful.
So when I saw the headline, “U.S. Planning Troop Buildup in Gulf After Exit From Iraq,” I read on. But after several minutes of sifting through I had nothing to show for it. Of course, if the piece were just disappointingly boiler-plate, it wouldn’t be worth mentioning again. Instead, its banality is precisely what makes it so insidious.
As Greenwald explains, the article peddles one malicious assumption after another without even a hint of scrutiny:
“The U.S. will remain in that region to protect and defend the region’s “pathway to democracy” — something it will achieve by further strengthening its “cooperative military relationships” with the tyrannical regimes in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman (White House, October 12: “the President and the King reaffirmed the strong partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia”). But, explained Secretary Clinton, the ultimate U.S. goal in increasing its military presence in the region is to prevent “outside interference” in the region — just as U.S. officials spent the last decade decrying “outside interference” in Iraq and Afghanistan while simultaneously invading and occupying those nations. The only conceivable assumption which can produce this sort of pronouncement is that this region is the property of the U.S., and when it increases its military presence there, that is akin to an owner fencing in his yard to prevent trespassing.
That belief — and only it — is why American officials can announce with a straight face: we’re interfering further in this region in order to prevent “outside interference” in this region (from nations that are actually in that region). I don’t expect Hillary Clinton to point any of that out, but perhaps the New York Times might, rather than just publishing these laughable official decrees without comment.”
Now I don’t think this is about Right vs. Left bias. Sure, those exist, but in conventional news outlets like the Times there’s a more dangerous prejudice at work, and that’s the bias toward establishment consensus, at least where matters of foreign policy are concerned. Perhaps this is in part a result of the journalistic process. Reporters value quotes from qualified “experts” in official positions rather than their unofficial peers. Two people might be equally qualified to speak on an issue, but the speaker who holds office is more “newsworthy.” This signaling on the part of the news media then elevates the perceived expertise and qualification of public officials by readers/viewers, which in turn leads the news media to continue giving more weight to the opinions of “insiders” over “outsiders.” And while this might take place in domestic policy as well, I think the often unquestioned authority with which members of the Pentagon, DOD, and State Department speak on policy matters is greater, and certainly more consequential (it takes hundreds of people to enact a Federal budget or issue bank bailouts, it only takes one to go to war).
But the existence of this feed-back loop and the degree to which it affects the news is all speculation. Here, on the other hand, is something empirical though still not transparent: the seemingly unscientific way journalists go about aggregating “experts.”
Now by “experts” I mean anyone considered knowledgeable or important enough to weigh in on an issue. So John Boehner might not be a Nobel Prize winning economist, but because of his position, both what he and Paul Krugman think about a certain economic policy, lower taxes/more stimulus, matters when it comes to putting together a news story on the subject.
In the article, Thom Shanker and Steven Lee Myers write the following (emphasis mine):
“Mr. Obama and his senior national security advisers have sought to reassure allies and answer critics, including many Republicans, that the United States will not abandon its commitments in the Persian Gulf even as it winds down the war in Iraq and looks ahead to doing the same in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Iran, as it has been for more than three decades, remains the most worrisome threat to many of those nations, as well as to Iraq itself, where it has re-established political, cultural and economic ties, even as it provided covert support for Shiite insurgents who have battled American forces.
Some foreign policy analysts and Democrats — and a few Republicans — say the United States has remained in Iraq for too long. Others, including many Republicans and military analysts, have criticized Mr. Obama’s announcement of a final withdrawal, expressing fear that Iraq remained too weak and unstable.”
What bothers me about this kind of lazy reporting is the lack of any published calculus anywhere. Perhaps the Times is actually being accurate. Certainly, I think many people would agree that “many Republicans” are critical of the President on this issue. But then again, who are these Republicans? Does the many refer to just Republicans in general? Or simply Republican elected officials? Or only Republican members of Congress?
But then there’s the story’s depiction of Iran as the “most worrisome threat to many of those nations.” On whose authority? There aren’t any quotes from officials within those countries supporting that assertion. Certainly, there is plenty to ask questions about on this issue. But again, what criteria are being used to rate the threat of one nation to another in the region? And who came up with those criteria? Those two questions are a lot to unpack, and attempting to do so would certainly pose a problem for the day to day reporting duties of an organization like the Times. The easy answer though is just not to assert controversial hypotheses as forgone conclusions.
It’s not till near the end of the piece that Shanker and Myers offer up opposing views. But interestingly enough, and without a clear idea why, only “some foreign policy analysts and Democrats,” seem to oppose withdrawing troops from the region, while “many Republicans and military analysts” disagree. Who these “somes” and “manys” are doesn’t seem to matter, or have been rigorously arrived at. After all, there’s no thorough polling data of what the foreign policy community thinks, or what the military analyst community thinks.
And there’s even that subtle and nonsensical opposition of foreign policy analyst to military analyst that a reader may suppose is meant to parallel the political opposition between Democrats and Republicans, with which they are joined respectively.
All of this may seem like nitpicking, but it illustrates a larger trend that reappears through news coverage from issues like tax policy to global climate change. And when our public discourse almost presupposes binary divides on every issue, the framing of some, many, and most is all that counts. This is problematic because it makes policy disputes into counting games while at the same time casting aside any kind of actual measurement. Many experts say X, but some say Y, and most feel Z. What anyone is supposed to make of formulations like that is beyond me. Is some approximately half of many? Does most mean just over 50%?
It’s this kind of limbo reportage, not quite the who-what-where-when-how of AP stories, and not quite the fully formulated narrative of longer magazine features, that leaves me completely at peace with the death of newspapers.