Fat Steve's Blatherings

Monday, May 30, 2005

How to Completely Miss the Point

      Short answer: be Kevin Drum.

      The long answer will come as we fisk Drum's post.  He gives us a road map of things to do wrong.

      MEA MAXIMA MAXIMA MAXIMA CULPA....Newsweek's editor-in-chief, Richard Smith, engages today in yet another public mea culpa over the Koran desecration story: "Trust is hard won and easily lost," he writes anxiously, "and to our readers, we pledge to earn their renewed confidence." And make no mistake: procedures will be changed to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.

      This is like watching Darkness at Noon in real life.

      If you haven't read Darkness at Noon, you should.  For now, suffice it to say that it is about a prisoner in Stalin's USSR being physically and psychologically pressured into confessing to things that the prisoner and his interrogators know are not so.  In the Newsweek case, everything the magazine has apologized for is something the magazine actually did.

      How to Completely Miss the Point, lesson 1: Convince yourself that apples are oranges.

      Newsweek made a small error in a 300-word blurb a couple of weeks ago,

      OK, let's stop and fisk the Newsweek story.

      Newsweek May 9 issue - Investigators probing interrogation abuses at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay have confirmed some infractions alleged in internal FBI e-mails that surfaced late last year.

      This is bad writing.  It should say something like 'investigators probing charges of interrogation abuses.'  The reporting is bad because it doesn't give you a source for the e-mails, or quote any allegations that they contained, or tell you which allegations the "investigators" have now confirmed.  Neither does it go into the other allegations, the ones that were not allegedly confirmed -- were they proven false, dropped as unimportant, left hanging as undecidable?  Are they still being investigated?  We aren't told.  Nor are we give any information on the identities, competence, or background of the investigators.  (In justice to Newsweek, space limitations excuse some of this.  But not all -- if you don't have room for the story, don't run a fraction of it).

      How to Completely Miss the Point, lesson 2: Be oblivious to bad writing and bad reporting.  Concentrate on something else besides the content of the story, and the evidence supporting it.

      Among the previously unreported cases

      More bad writing and reporting.  You can't "confirm" a report never made (confirm: To support or establish the certainty or validity of; verify).  Should be something like 'In addition to the now confirmed allegations, which we decided not to tell you about, some new abuse reports have arisen.'  And why aren't they telling us what the allegedly "confirmed" reports are, and why are they telling us about the new charges?  I can only speculate, but I think the hunger for a scoop overrode the need to inform.

      sources tell NEWSWEEK:

      A lie.  'One source, who won't let us identify him, said something we will paraphrase' is what actually happened.

      How to Completely Miss the Point, lesson 4: Don't worry about honesty in reporting, especially when the story advances your political agenda.  Be very indignant when some people demand honesty and accuracy, regardless of politics.

      interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Qur'an down a toilet and led a detainee around with a collar and dog leash.

      Bad reporting, again.  A good reporter would have asked for a copy of the report.  Or he would have had it read to him over the phone, with page citations, title, name(s) of author(s), etc.  Isikoff was not a good reporter that day.

      Oh by the way, what happened to the "dog collar and leash?"  Seems to have dropped into the memory hole.  Thinking about it (something Isikoff didn't do), it sounds like Ms. England, doesn't it?  Thinking might have alerted Isikoff that the sole source was likely confusing things he'd heard other places with the upcoming report.

      How to Completely Miss the Point, lesson 5: When a process that's supposed to find the truth produces falsehood, don't ask why, and don't seek to correct it in the future.  Instead, just brand it a minor error.

      An Army spokesman confirms that 10 Gitmo interrogators have already been disciplined for mistreating prisoners, including one woman who took off her top, rubbed her finger through a detainee's hair and sat on the detainee's lap. (New details of sexual abuse --including an instance in which a female interrogator allegedly wiped her red-stained hand on a detainee's face, telling him it was her menstrual blood -- are also in a new book to be published this week by a former Gitmo translator.)

      Were the interrogators disciplined because of the contents of the upcoming report?  Did the report confirm that particular charge by the translator?  It seems the only connection between these sentences and the beginning of the paragraph is the fact that they contain allegations of misconduct.  This suggests that publishing charges against the detention center was more important to Isikoff than the contents of the report.

      But I don't want to jump to conclusions.  Maybe it's just bad writing.

      And given the public nature of a spokesman's job, why didn't Newsweek name said spokesman, and quote him directly?

      How to Completely Miss the Point, lesson 6: Only think about motives when you disapprove of someone.

      These findings, expected in an upcoming report by the U.S. Southern Command in Miami

      "Expected?!"  That sounds like Isikoff isn't sure what the report will say.  If he's not, why not?  The authority of the "sources" isn't doing so well here.

      How to Completely Miss the Point, lesson 7: When confronted by weasel words, take them at face value, rather than thinking about them.

      could put former Gitmo commander Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller in the hot seat.

      Rank speculation.  Where's the evidence?

      How to Completely Miss the Point, lesson 8: Confuse assertions that are potentially checkable with stuff the reporter just makes up.

      Two months ago a more senior general, Air Force Lt. Gen. Randall Schmidt, was placed in charge of the SouthCom probe, in part, so Miller could be questioned.  The FBI e-mails indicate that FBI agents quarreled repeatedly with military commanders, including Miller and his predecessor, retired Gen. Michael Dunleavy, over the military's more aggressive techniques.

      So what?  Lots of people quarrel about lots of things.  Why should I believe "quarrels" will hurt Miller's career?

      How to Completely Miss the Point, lesson 9: Don't recognize non-sequiturs in a story.

      "Both agreed the bureau has their way of doing business and DOD has their marching orders from the SecDef," one e-mail stated, referring to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

      Again, so what?  The military is not the Justice Dept., war is not a criminal investigation, and different ways of "doing business" may be equally valid.

      And why was it necessary to raise Rumsfeld's name, but not, say, the director of the FBI, or any of the allegedly abusive interrogators?

      How to Completely Miss the Point, lesson 10: Be oblivious to political bias, both blatant and subtle.

      Sources familiar with the SouthCom probe say investigators didn't find that Miller authorized abusive treatment. But given the complaints that were being raised, sources say, the report will provoke questions about whether Miller should have known what was happening -- and acted to try to prevent it.

      OF COURSE Miller should have known what is command was doing, or at least been taking steps to find out.  That's S.O.P for all branches of the military.  Did Miller take such steps?  If so, what were they?  Without know this, we can't say anything about Miller's probable future.

      How to Completely Miss the Point, lesson 11: Be ignorant of your subject matter.

      An Army spokesman declined to comment.

      Which Army spokesman?  The same as the one mentioned above?  Why can't we have names?  "Declined to comment" about what, specifically?  What exactly was the spokesman asked?  What's going on here?

      How to Completely Miss the Point, lesson 12: If the writer of a "news" story has your political opinions, trust him blindly.

      OK, those are the problems in the Newsweek piece.  It's vague, biased, has little information, doesn't give us any way to easily check even publicly available sources, lies to us, is biased, and oh yes, it's wrong.  That's what made the story so controversial.  It would appear Drum missed all those flaws.  Now, back to his post.

      and since then the right-wing media hate machine, like a jackal sensing a rare opportunity for blood,

      Ad hominem is not a valid argument.  The existence of a "right wing media hate machine" is not proven, or even argued.  If it does exist, the politics and motivations of the "machine", if any, are irrelevant to the accuracy of its charges.

      How to Completely Miss the Point, lesson 13: Delude yourself that people you don't like have nothing of value to say.

      has somehow managed to convince them [Newsweek] they bear responsibility for riots in Afghanistan that were staged by extremists who obviously used the Newsweek article as nothing more than pretext.

      Mencken once said that something like 'For every problem there is a solution, neat, simple, and wrong.'  We don't know much about the riots, or the "extremists" alleged to be behind them, or whether they would have been able to cause any riots if Newsweek hadn't printed it's story.

      How to Completely Miss the Point, lesson 14: Defend against charges of getting the facts wrong, and publishing after inadequate investigation, by using assertions with even less evidence to support them.

      This is really pissing me off. For the record, let's recap what we've learned over the past year or so:

      Pictures from Abu Ghraib showed naked prisoners being stacked like cordwood and mocked by female guards — and there's worse stuff in Pentagon files that Congress has decided not to allow out of its locked vaults. There have been confirmed reports from Guantanamo of beatings, shacklings, and lighted cigarettes being stuck in prisoners' ears. 36 prisoners have died during interrogations. The Red Cross wrote detailed reports documenting abusive conduct in Iraq and was laughed off. The officers reponsible for overseeing abusive interrogations weren't punished, they were lauded for their work and transferred to other prisons. Hardened FBI agents wrote emails expressing their disgust at what they had seen. Innocent men have been tortured to death in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The White House counsel wrote memoranda justifying torture as an inherent right of the president. Rendition of suspects to other countries that have long histories of torturing prisoners is routine. Reports of Koran desecration have been circulating for a long time, and recent investigations have confirmed that mockery of religious symbols is common. The Red Cross warned the Pentagon about this years ago.

      The italics are mine.  I highlighted the sentences because they're the only ones that might apply to Gauantanamo, the subject of Newsweek's story.  The rest is pure guilt-by-association.

      Additionally, no sources for these charges are given.  Many of the allegations are dubious.  Some areirrelevantt (such as legal opinions written by White House counsel, if the opinion was not then circulated to military interrogators to tell them what they were allowed to do).  The bit about rendition is rather hypocritical, seeing that Clinton used the practice. And the failure to mention that the information about many of these alleged abuses started with internal military investigations, or that people have been or are being prosecuted for them, is yet another example of editing-as-lying.

      How to Completely Miss the Point, lesson 15: Defend misdeeds by the press with accusations of different sorts of misdeeds by people who aren't in the press.

      How to Completely Miss the Point, lesson 16: Start out by accusing one group of something unspecified ("the right wing hate machine"), then swing around to attack another (the military).

      How to Completely Miss the Point, lesson 17: Use abundant double standards, so that the alleged crimes of the military are an excuse for Newsweek, but the murders of thousands by terrorists don't excuse the alleged crimes of the military.

      Needless to say, this isn't exhaustive. In the light of this, Newsweek's offense, which was pretty minor to begin with, is about the equivalent of jaywalking across a busy city street.

      Newsweek and the rest of the media need to get up off their knees and start fighting back. They've done enough apologizing.

      First, any sentence that begins "Needless to say" should be deleted in its entirety.  Second, if jaywalking causes a fatal accident, its pretty serious.  Third, the job of the press is supposed to be accurate reporting of the news.  If they can't do that, they don't need to fight, they need to find different careers.

      Newsweek and the rest of the media need to learn to get the story correct in the first place.  They need to think about the impact of their actions on their country.  And they have to learn that making these kinds of mistakes will kill them as businesses.

      Congratulations, Kevin Drum!  You win this weeks prize for cluelessness.  As someone who despises the MSM, I sincerely hope they follow your advice.



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