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August 08, 2007

Wow

Brian's right, this is literally the greatest news story I've ever read:

US President George W. Bush charged Monday that Iran has openly declared that it seeks nuclear weapons -- an inaccurate accusation at a time of sharp tensions between Washington and Tehran.

"It's up to Iran to prove to the world that they're a stabilizing force as opposed to a destabilizing force. After all, this is a government that has proclaimed its desire to build a nuclear weapon," he said during a joint press conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

But Iran has repeatedly said that its nuclear program, which is widely believed in the West to be cover for an effort to develop atomic weapons, is for civilian purposes.

Asked to provide examples of Tehran openly declaring that it seeks atomic weapons, White House officials contacted by AFP said that Bush was referring to Iran's defiance of international calls to freeze sensitive nuclear work.

Look at that! A string of words and punctuation marks in the very first sentence that manage to not only report on the substance of the President's comments, but on their accuracy as well. It's as if this news story was trying to leave me informed, rather than conform to some mysterious stylistic standards meant to protect the writer from criticism.

August 8, 2007 in Media | Permalink

Comments

Oh, I think you will see a lot of those stories in the US traditional media in the near future. Starting the day after Hillary (or Obama or Edwards) is elected.

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer | Aug 8, 2007 1:32:18 PM

Yes, because the most important point about Iran is not their open defiance of the UN, the IAEA, or the world's major powers who seem unanimously to believe that Iran is up to no good and violating its obligations with regard to nuclear power.

What is important is not what they do, but what they say, and thank goodness that Ezra understands that they mean it when the say they have no intention to build a bomb, and too bad for the world that they don't get it.

Surely the worst behavior in all of this is for the President to say they have openly proclaimed what they have openly denied, despite that their actions speak loudly enough for most.

Posted by: Bill | Aug 8, 2007 1:55:39 PM

It would clearer if the "--" before "an inaccurate accusation" had survived the copy-and-paste.

Posted by: DonBoy | Aug 8, 2007 2:00:58 PM

despite that their actions speak loudly enough for most.

WHAT ACTIONS?

Posted by: Adrock | Aug 8, 2007 2:39:55 PM

This is an AFP story. The European press has long been less shy about mixing up analysis, evaluation, and outright opinion with news. The editorial remark is accurate and to the point, but a US journalist would probably not put it that way, and perhaps not in the lead. I'm not sure that's as bad as people make it out to be. A press striving for neutrality and the appearance of neutrality has its advantages.

Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 8, 2007 3:07:13 PM

I'm not sure that's as bad as people make it out to be. A press striving for neutrality and the appearance of neutrality has its advantages.

Being a mindless contrarian apparently has its advantages, too.

The media is supposed to take a neutral position between opposite ideological stances. It is not supposed to take a neutral position between falsity and the truth!

As for giving "the appearance of neutrality," the use of a polite word like "inaccurate" is more than sufficient. No one is suggesting that the article must lead by declaring "Bush lied!!!"

Posted by: Steve | Aug 8, 2007 3:34:27 PM

Sanpete, you appear to be implying that the above quote is "opinion" or somehow not neutral. Please clarify whether your blanket statements regarding the European vs American press apply to the story Ezra's talking about.

Posted by: eriks | Aug 8, 2007 3:46:20 PM

Sanpete, is there any limit to what the press has to mindlessly quote Bush saying without challenge in order to avoid making an unacceptable "editorial remark", in your view? "US President George Bush said today that he has won the Nobel Peace Prize, that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has openly advocated cannibalism and incest, and that Vice President Richard Cheney is not covered by any regulations because he does not actually exist. Some congressional Democrats disputed his statements."

Posted by: KCinDC | Aug 8, 2007 4:16:14 PM

It is not supposed to take a neutral position between falsity and the truth!

Very true, Steve! Since you're presumably not mindless, you probably noticed that nothing I said contradicts that.

ErikS, US journalists often avoid putting the editorializing/analysis up front in part because they see their first function to be presenting the basic undisputed facts. They also know that doing otherwise will more easily open them to charges of bias and acting as analysts rather than reporters. A US reporter would very likely not bother to say the President's charge was inaccurate. She would simply point out that it was a claim long denied by Iran, and that there was no public record of Iran having said what Bush attributed to them, following with the comments from the White House. Americans present the uncontroversial facts and let readers reach their own conclusions about any potentially controversial points. If some balance of opinion is required, they prefer to put it in the mouths of others. I like that approach; if not abused it helps keep news and analysis and opinion separate. One of the things I hate about Fox News is the way they mix those things up.

Sanpete, is there any limit to what the press has to mindlessly quote Bush saying without challenge in order to avoid making an unacceptable "editorial remark", in your view?

I didn't say what you appear to think I did, KC. The press should vigorously challenge controversial, misleading and false claims.

Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 8, 2007 4:22:40 PM

Sanpete, you avoided what I asked of you.

Posted by: eriks | Aug 8, 2007 4:44:26 PM

US journalists often avoid putting the editorializing/analysis up front in part because they see their first function to be presenting the basic undisputed facts.

Next week, in the science section: Shape of Earth: Views Differ

Posted by: Tyro | Aug 8, 2007 4:48:42 PM

ErikS, I assume you're talking about whether the piece Ezra quoted is opinion or neutral? Sorry, I didn't reply specifically. The part about the inaccuracy would be analysis, not opinion. It's neutral in respect to not misrepresenting or slanting the facts. It's obviously not neutral in regard to whether what the President said is true. US reporters would prefer to let the facts speak for themselves even on the latter point.

There is an ambiguity here. US journalists don't try to be neutral in regard to established or uncontroversial facts, of course. They do try to maintain a formal but not always substantive neutrality with regard to disputes and controversies, even if they know which side is correct. They do this by presenting the relevant facts needed to draw the same conclusion they do, and letting the reader draw the conclusion as well.

Tyro, do you consider the shape of the Earth a disputed fact? I don't, not in any relevant sense, the infamous Flat Earth Society notwithstanding.

Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 8, 2007 5:15:21 PM

Whether Iran ever openly declared that it seeks nuclear weapons is only a disputed fact because the President of the U.S. mistakenly claimed that they did. If the President gave a speech tomorrow and said, "The Earth is flat," that shape of the earth would be just as much in dispute as whether Iran "openly declared" that it seeks nuclear weapons.

Whether Iran seeks nuclear weapons is a disputed fact. Whether they have claimed it is not.

Posted by: Elm | Aug 8, 2007 5:26:37 PM

Elm, I agree that it's only disputed because the President said it, and then the White House defended it. (Not quite like claiming the Earth is flat, though, which would require no comment from reporters about its truth.)

Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 8, 2007 7:13:24 PM

Adrock,

"WHAT ACTIONS?" Are you quite serious? How about the ones that the UN has passed unanimous resolutions sanctioning them for; to with, failing to cooperate with their commitments under the non-prolif. treaty.

Here's one of the thousands of articles that come up on a google news search on the theme, though perhaps readers here think we should just read Iran's press releases and go home: http://www.boston.com/news/world/europe/articles/2007/08/08/russia_tells_iran_to_comply_with_un/

Posted by: Bill | Aug 8, 2007 8:29:01 PM

They do this by presenting the relevant facts needed to draw the same conclusion they do, and letting the reader draw the conclusion as well.

And if they didn't, the Sanpete Shuffle would be much harder, because that journalistic prose style always leaves just enough room to nit-pick the logical assumption and make the case for the bullshit one.

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Aug 9, 2007 1:58:51 AM

You used to be so much more imaginative in your pointless rantings, pseudo. Don't you care anymore?

Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 9, 2007 2:15:10 AM

Ignoring the nitpicking shuffler, there's actually an economic rationale behind AFP's style. Their market for wire copy is less focused on the United States than the AP. (Reuters comes somewhere in between, depending upon the bureau. They have unfortunate writers who are forced to serve the demand for false equivalence.)

There's also a cultural factor: I'd assume that most of the AFP's wire reporters didn't go through the food mill that is American J-school.

But we actually see the inherent problem in a particular style of US political reporting. It's predicated on the assumption that there's not a story unless there's a dispute, and since there's a dispute, everything is to be regarded as disputed, because you can't be seen to 'editorialise', can you?

That's journalism in bad faith. That AFP piece is in good faith. They called the White House to clarify and got bullshitted. The WaPo's Peter Baker buried the lede in the penultimate graf of his report, and followed it with a bullshit statement from the White House flack.

Once again, this backs up Ezra's running point about the degree of Kremlinology required for the cognoscenti to read a basic story in a widely-read newspaper. And it makes ever more attractive the idea of a pamphlet guide on how to read a NYT or WaPo story: "NB: any relevant details to challenge the false objectivity of this story will be placed one paragraph from the end."

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Aug 9, 2007 4:04:08 AM

"US journalists often avoid putting the editorializing/analysis up front in part because they see their first function to be presenting the basic undisputed facts."

The basic, undisputed fact is that Iran has always claimed its programme is peaceful. The basic, undisputed fact is that the president was wrong. What is in dispute is whether it was a deliberate lie.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Aug 9, 2007 7:40:04 AM

Rather, Ginger Yellow, the President's statement was wrong. Otherwise I agree. There's nothing editorializing in asserting that a statement was inaccurate if it was, in fact, inaccurate. It's also perfectly ok to make inaccurate statements from time to time if it's a simple misunderstanding. The problem with Bush at this point is that liberals distrust any misstatements he makes a likely lies and conservatives take any assertion of inaccuracy as accusation.

Posted by: Ben | Aug 9, 2007 10:27:45 AM

Tyro, do you consider the shape of the Earth a disputed fact? I don't

Sanpete, I take exception to your blatant editorializing about the shape of the earth. I expect reporters to report on the dispute between flat earthers and planetary scientists, not to start editorializing about who is right and who is wrong.

The problem with Bush at this point is that liberals distrust any misstatements he makes a likely lies

It's an interesting coincidence how all of bush's misstatements seem to fit into the agenda he's trying to push to the public. His misstatements and/or ignorance about matters he talks about never seems to work against his policy goals.

Posted by: Tyro | Aug 9, 2007 10:38:20 AM

Well, you could argue that the famous "Is our children learning?" quote went against his policy goals, but yeah, I agree Tyro.

Posted by: Ben | Aug 9, 2007 10:45:04 AM

That's journalism in bad faith.

Typical logical leap. What's in bad faith about it? Both sides want the media to be more clearly on their side and are frustrated when the stories aren't written to say right out what they think ought to be said. Tough. There's nothing wrong with the US style; as I've said there are advantages to it.

The basic, undisputed fact is that Iran has always claimed its programme is peaceful. The basic, undisputed fact is that the president was wrong.

If the first fact is reported just that way, and the second is left to the reader to conclude from that, that's a problem for you? Why?

Tyro, you seem to be confusing me with a journalist.

Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 9, 2007 1:17:45 PM

Sanpete, I guess I just don't see any impact on the editorializing nature of the quote because it includes the word "inaccurately". To say something is not factual isn't even raising the specter of bias, it's just reporting facts.

I think there might be examples of a bluring of the line between editorializing and reporting in European news sources, but this really doesn't seem to be one. The fact that American news sources have been hesitant to report something which is 100% factual for fear of appearing biased is a rather damning statement about the way our system has performed in the last number of years.

Posted by: Ben | Aug 9, 2007 2:03:07 PM

Ben, my point isn't that this example is harmful in itself. It just represents the different rules that apply in Europe. I prefer the rules here, not because of this example, but because of their usefulness in further separating reporting and editorializing more generally.

I'm not aware of the hesitation to report this that you refer to. I've explained how an American would typically report it, and I don't think she would have any hesitation in doing it that way. If there has been little reporting of this here it's because it really isn't a very important story. I think the way the Washington Post covered it was fine, at the end of a story about Bush's visit, making it clear that Bush was contradicting fact, and giving the White House explanation:

Bush, by contrast, said Iran "is in defiance of international accord" and "seems to be willing to thumb its nose at the international community," referring to its uranium enrichment program. "After all," Bush said, "this is a government that has proclaimed its desire to build a nuclear weapon."

Iran actually has not proclaimed a desire to build a nuclear weapon, maintaining that its enrichment program is aimed only at peaceful civilian power. Asked about Bush's statement, spokesman Gordon Johndroe noted that Iran kept elements of its program secret for years and now is resisting international inspections: "Unfortunately, their intentions seem clear."

Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 9, 2007 2:30:28 PM

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