Saturday, February 18, 2012

Don't let him get you





If you're one of the many who've thought so much of the US coverage of Iraq in the last years has been sub-standard, you found out why today on The Diane Rehm Show. Anthony Shadid has died. He was an award winning writer for the Washington Post and then he (and his wife) moved over to the New York Times. At the Post, there was an effort to impose some journalistic guidelines on the writing and he chafed at that. The Times gave him free reign and that was not anything good. I've noted my opinion of his feature writing passed off as hard news reporting. And he, many times, made his clear his opinion of my critique. I had no plans to mention him or his writing today. (He died in Syria from an asthma attack that people are assuming was brought on by exposure to animals -- horses -- on the part of the people smuggling him in and out of Syria.)
But there was Diane Rehm and her guests David Ignatius (Washington Post), Nancy A. Youssef (McClatchy Newspapers) and James Kitridge (National Journal) describing what made Shadid -- in their opinion -- a great reporter. I'm sorry but that's not reporting. It's travel writing. It's feature writing. It's not reporting.
David Ignatius: What I would say about Anthony -- and Nancy and James also knew him -- is that he really represented the thing that makes great journalism special. Uh, he had a way of grasping not the facts but the essence of the story.
Yes, David's correct. And Shadid would have made a great novelist. But that's not what makes a great reporter. A great reporter grasps the facts.
"It was magical story teling," said Nancy Youssef. It was. It was the novelization of the news which is to reporting what novelizations of films are to movies. They're similar, they're just not the same. "You know to me his-his articles were almost love letters about the people he was writing about," gushed Nancy. Again, you're not describing a reporter.
And that goes to why the news is so awful today. Whether it's Iraq or any other topic. The industry doesn't even embrace reporting. They want to be something else. And in the process, they are dumbing down America. This is Bob Somerby's criticism, the heart of his criticism. He momentarily caught up in the 'framing' 'issue -- an early '00 hula hoop -- briefly. But it's the novelization of the news -- news for people who can't process news. It goes beyond the crimes of narrative and hook. It's why Gail Collins is a columnist. They won't cover the facts, they won't stick to whether something's legal or not, they want to give you the 'essence.' They want to give you subjective because it's so much easier to produce and so much quicker to produce. (Anthony Shadid, to be fair, had a real talent for novelization. He truly would have made a great novelist. And as feature writing, some of his 'hard news' reports are amazing examples of style and even insight. But it's not news and that's only more obvious when he moves to the New York Times.) And the proof of that is in the coverage of Shadid's death which is not news, which treats him as though he's Whitney Houston or some other celebrity and refuses to offer an honest appraisal of his strengths and weaknesses. Why else cover a reporter? And the fact that the news industry goes into hype mode ('greatest foreign correspondent of his generation') goes to the tawdry excess that has for too long passed as hard news. What should have been a private moment is turned into a media event.
It's the novelization, not actual news, bad writing that seizes on a partial quote to 'illuminate' -- not a full quote because a full quote actually rejects what the writer is trying to novelize. The public -- as well as the news industry -- would be a lot better off if the press realized that you can't distill the essence and instead started covering that which is observable and verifiable in the physical world?
And for those who will whine this was so unfair, oh heavens, clutch the pearls. I didn't set out to write about Shadid today. I focused on other things. But we didn't get Iraq on The Diane Rehm Show's international hour. We did get testimonials to Shadid. And those who aren't functioning adults and don't grasp that blind praise isn't how we evaluate should take comfort in the fact that I avoided writing at length about the obvious point: 'Shadid was a wonderful person.' A great reporter? When Sy Hersh dies, people will point to stories he wrote, stories he broke. The same with Carl Bernstein, the same with Robin Wright, Ned Parker, Sabrina Tavernise, Alexandra Zavis, Nancy A. Youssef and many others. Whether it's The Diane Rehm Show, The Takeaway or the multitude of programs covering Shadid's death today, no one could point to any news. Because feature writing isn't news writing. If I wanted to be mean, I would've opened with that point and expanded on it for several paragraphs.
I listened to The Diane Rehm Show because, with David on as a guest, I thought (wrongly) we might actually hear something about Iraq. You know their Vice President is in the news cycle. That's actual news. And it matters a great deal on the international scene.
It certainly matters to the Iranian government which is why the Iranian media has been all over the story. There's the Press TV article declaring, "The Supreme Judicial Council said on Thursday al-Hashemi and his employees were behind years of deadly terror operations against security officials and civilians in Iraq." And of course they rushed to put on MP Saad al-Mutallibi (link is text and video) from the rival State of Law political slate who declared:
Because this is the independent, one hundred percent independent justice system, speaking on its behalf, and representing itself and putting forward the accusations and the implication of Mr. Al Hashemi to 150 terrorist attacks against the nation of Iraq against individuals, against the police forces, against the army, against national institutions and of tremendous, as I said, consequences, with direct implication from Mr. al-Hashemi. This would put a tremendous pressure, I believe, on the Kurds to take the right decision and probably surrender him to Baghdad to face trial. Unless of course he escapes the country as the other terrorists have done and spend the rest of his life in exile. There is no way that this matter could be resolved politically.

The Voice of Russia reports Tareq al-Hashemi declared he may leave the country. And why not?
It's not just State of Law using the meida to convict him. It's also the so-called independent judiciary of Iraq. Nine judges with the Iraqi Supreme Court issued a finding that Tareq al-Hashemi is guilty. There was no trial.
And yet the Supreme Court issued a finding. It is the Supreme Court because they used the Supreme Court spokersperson (Abdul-Sattar Bayrkdar) for their press conference and because, as the BBC notes, the nine-member review was "set up by the Supreme Judicial Council."

Tareq al-Hashemi is an Iraqi citizen and, as such, the Constitution (Article 19) guarantees he is innocent unless convicted in a court of law. There has been no trial. The judiciary has not just overstepped their bounds, they have also violated the Constitution.

Lower courts hearing the case in Iraq now will know the feeling of the Supreme Court (which can overrule them) and that could influence a verdict. So, no, he cannot receive a fair trial now. Also at issue is Judge Saad al-Lami. Al Mada notes he can't stop whining about alleged threats against him from Tareq al-Hashemi's supporters and how al-Hashemi publicly named him. And whine on. He did this at the press conference. Is he a judge or not? That's not the behavior of someone reserving judgment. That's the behavior of someone with a conflict of interest. Along with being very anti-Sunni (Tareq al-Hashemi is a member of Iraqiya and he is also a Sunni), the judge also has problems with Iraqiya. Just a little while ago, AFP was reporting on that judge, how he was demanding that Iraqiya MP Haidar al-Mullah lose his immunity so he (the judge) could sue him:

Abdelsattar Birakdar, spokesman of the Higher Judicial Council, said Mullah was accused of having offended Judge Saad al-Lami in a late November interview.
Lami filed a complaint, after which a court "studied the case and then issued an arrest warrant against him and sent a request to parliament to lift his immunity in order to prosecute him," Birakdar said.
Mullah said Lami was "influenced by Maliki."

(If that link doesn't work, click here for the AFP article.) That's one of the 9 'objective' members of the court who decided Tareq al-Hashemi's guilt -- despite 'forgetting' to provide him with a trial.

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