The New York Times spins away

This morning’s front page headline at the online Times was horrifying: “At Least 7 Afghan Children Killed in U.S. Airstrike.” The first two paragraphs describe carnage and what appears to be inaccurate intelligence:

The American-led coalition forces in Afghanistan killed seven children during an air strike on what they say was an Al Qaeda base in the east of the country, the military said in a statement today.

The air strike, which took place on Sunday night, hit a compound in the Zarghun Shah district of the border province of Paktika, which contained a mosque and a religious school and which the coalition forces said intelligence had shown was being used as a safe house for Al Qaeda fighters.

It’s only when you get to the third paragraph that you discover that the intelligence was good and that there were, in fact, militia leaders on site:

Several militants were killed in the strike, and two militants were also detained, the coalition said. The children’s deaths come amid mounting civilian casualties in Afghanistan and rising public anger in the country over them.

The next paragraph explains that a lot of civilians have been dying in recent raids, making the Afghanis really angry.  Only in the paragraph after that one does the Times quote an Army spokesman who makes a point about the same problem Israel routinely struggles with in dealing with Palestinians and Hezbollah — human shields:

“We are saddened by the innocent lives that were lost as a result of militants’ cowardice,” Army Maj. Chris Belcher, a coalition spokesman, said in the statement. “We had surveillance on the compound all day and saw no indications there were children inside the building.”

Oh, and by the way, now that the Times is dealing with actual facts, not a political agenda, it turns out that this carefully targeted air strike followed an attack in which the Islamists terribly targeted civilians, killing 24 people and injuring scores more, with most of the dead being police on their way to work:

The attack followed a mammoth bombing by insurgents in Kabul on Sunday, which killed at least 24 people and was one of the deadliest insurgent attacks in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Of those killed, 22 were police academy instructors on their way to work.

The blast occurred at 8:15 and was powerful enough to shear off the roof and both sides of the bus and uproot many of the front seats.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, with Zabihullah Mujahid, who said he was a spokesman, saying in a phone interview that a suicide bomber had infiltrated the police and guilefully boarded the vehicle.

Kabul’s police chief, Esmatullah Daulatzai, said the precise tactics of the attack were unclear. “Our investigation shows that a suicide attacker jumped into the vehicle and blew himself up,” he said.

Whatever the method, it was spectacularly lethal, unleashing shards of glass and metal into a crowded area beside police headquarters, the governor’s office and the national archive. Two other vehicles were ripped apart by the explosion. The wounded included pedestrians waiting at an adjacent bus terminal.

Raz Muhammad, a policeman standing guard at headquarters, was among the first to reach the scene. “Those in the front seats, their bodies were very ripped apart,” he said. “Half of their heads were gone and there was brain matter all over. Very few of those inside survived. I could help those able to walk.”

There is confusion about the death toll. Police officials originally said 36 had died, but the chief later amended that number, adding that 52 people were wounded, including 38 who had to be hospitalized. It remains possible that more than 24 people perished. Bodies were taken to more than one hospital and then quickly released to families, perhaps sacrificing an accurate mortality count.

Indeed, the remainder of this article is about the horrors of the Taliban attack on civilians.

So now we know how a New York Times article is structured: Bury the major story in the last part of the article. Open with an attack on America. And slowly reveal that both the headline and lead paragraphs are misleading. That’s great journalism.

UPDATE: Incidentally, there are other ways of reporting the story about the air strike. In The Telegraph, on the news page that has the headlines and the little blurbs meant to attract readers’ attention, this is what you see (as of 11:14 P.S.T.):

Seven children killed in Nato airstrike
An airstrike on a religious school sheltering al-Qa’eda militants in Afghanistan killed seven children.

The Telegraph definitely gets the shock headline about the seven dead children (in the “if it bleeds, it leads” hierarchy, nothing leads better than bleeding children), but it quickly follows that attention-grabbing fact with the other newsworthy part of the story: militants were hiding amongst children. The headline readers and news skimmers who seldom dive into the whole story will understand the heart of the issue, which isn’t that children die, but that militants ensure that children die.

Go to the Telegraph story itself, and you’ll see that the focus continues to be on the issue of human shields which, as DQ points out in his comment to this post, is the real story:

A Nato airstrike on a religious school sheltering al-Qa’eda militants in Afghanistan killed seven children, coalition forces admitted today.

The children died along with several militants when coalition jets bombed a compound containing a madrassa and mosque in the Zarghun Shah District of Paktika Province in eastern Afghanistan yesterday.

Nato forces insisted they were unaware of the presence of children in the compound. Major Chris Belcher, a Nato spokesman, also accused the al-Qa’eda militants of not letting the children leave the compound and using them as human shields.

“We are saddened by the innocent lives that were lost as a result of militants’ cowardice,” Major Belcher said in a statement.

“This is another example of al-Qaida using the protective status of a mosque, as well as innocent civilians, to shield themselves.”

As the Times did, the Telegraph follows its discussion of the air strike with a description of the Taliban suicide bombing that occurred on the same day. This time, however, including the two stories in one place makes sense, because they both focus on a Taliban tactic: using the innocent as weapons of war. This stands in stark contrast with the Times reporting, which never tied the two stories together, and made the headline and first five paragraphs of its report look like nothing more than US/Nato bashing appended to an otherwise unrelated story about Taliban suicide bombers. Indeed, it did worse, because it seemed to imply parity: the US and Nato kill innocents, the Taliban kills innocents. It’s all the same in media land.

UPDATE II:  I reread my post just now and discovered that, aside from multiple typos and awkward phrases, I fell into one of my little writing:  I overuse the phrase “in fact” or the word “fact.”  I’ve cleaned up the post’s language (a lot), both to erase awkward phrases and verbal tics, but otherwise left it unchanged since I first wrote in such a rush this morning — and that’s a fact.

11 Responses

  1. That’s the trick with reading newspapers these days. You never know what page the First Page story will be on, nor do you know what paragraph in a story will contain the key First Paragraph facts. It’s a form of sudoku.

  2. The story represents a legitimate decision as to what was newsworthy. It is not news that the the Taliban blew up a bus full of police academy instructors. Taliban attacks happen all the time. It is not news that militants were hiding behind civilian shields. They do that all the time. Dog bites man. It is news that Americans killed 7 children that were a part of a civilian shield. That is man bites dog stuff. It rarely happens and is legitimate news. It was also newsworthy that our excuse was that we didn’t know there were kids in the place we bombed.

    Frankly, I’d have been a lot happier of we had simply said we will take out terrorist wherever we find them and if they hide behind civilians we will kill the civilians without hesitation. I know, we are too decent to do that, but it is the only way to keep the tactic from working. If we flat said that every time terrorists hide behind civilians we will take out the terrorists and the civilians, and if we regularly acted on that threat, then perhaps our killing civilians would not be so newsworthy. But we try mightily to avoid civilian casualties so, when we fail in that effort, it is legitimate news and the Times is not to be faulted for reporting it as such.

  3. DG, I agree that the story’s composite parts are legitimate news. It’s the spin that drives me crazy. 90% of that article was about a Taliban bombing. In other words, the Times could simply have done an article about the Taliban bombing, and it would have functioned perfectly as a stand alone, especially since the Times failed to make any effort to tie the bulk of the story (the Taliban suicide bombing) to the headline and opening (“Coalition slaughters innocents”). It was, simply, bizarre to have a headline and five paragraphs about the military air strike in an article that otherwise had nothing to do with that subject.

    You’re right too that it is news (a) that we killed Talibanis and (b) that they’re hiding behind human shields. But again, that’s not how the Times chooses to spin it. The spin was, first, that we’re slaughtering children; second that the children almost coincidentally happened to be in a terrorist headquarters; and third that it turns out that they were there intentionally, as part of a regular pattern of human shielding. If I were setting up the story, I would have started with the human shielding problem and worked backwards.

    And I agree with you that we need to get over our agony about civilian deaths because of our enemies’ little habit of hiding behind children. You fight the enemy you’ve got, and you have to accept that they might not be as nice as you want them to be.

    So, overall, DQ, I agree with you about what’s newsworthy. I don’t agree, however, with the Times’ habit of intentionally structuring articles so that headline readers and story skimmers won’t actually get the real story, but will just come away with an ever growing sense that America is engaged in the mindless slaughter of innocents.

  4. I disagree. It probably is news to regular readers of the New York Times that “militants” regularly hide behind human shields, especially children. Most of these stories are spun as collateral damage only, i.e. the U.S. military attacks a target and civilians are killed. What these “civilians” were doing there, or why the target was attacked, is not usually made clear. Just look at the Qana story from last summer, where the media set the meme, and forced others to debunk it. It is much more difficult to rebut something that has been proclaimed as fact from a loudspeaker when all you have is your unamplified voice.

    People who get their news and commentary from alternated sources know how the enemy operates, and his true nature. I am not so sanguine about those who still rely on the old media to inform them.

  5. The story represents a legitimate decision as to what was newsworthy.

    There are no objective standards for legitimate decisions. This is due to the fact that in order to have such objectivity, you need a psyche profile of every editor and the reasons they made their decisions on. Since you and others don’t even bother to attempt to acquire that data, how can you say as if there is an objective standard that decides whether something is a legitimate decision or not?

    So now we know how a New York Times article is structured: Bury the major story in the last part of the article. Open with an attack on America. And slowly reveal that both the headline and lead paragraphs are misleading. That’s great journalism.

    Great propaganda, also. It’s subtle, not as effective, but then again we live in the Information Age so they couldn’t do North Korean propaganda even if they wanted to or were capable of it.

    The headline readers and the skimmers will understand the heart of the issue, which isn’t that children die, but that militants ensure that children die.

    Of course, Book, they understand that the NYT gives them free propaganda, public relations, and free good advertisement whenever they get children killed. Why would they stop? Would a business ever stop doing something that nets them free and good advertisement and name recognition? Humans are humans after all. The New York Times gets a slowdown of their decrepit business, while the jihadists gain good image with killing. Everybody benefits, isn’t that what a Democratic Socialist system is all about, regulated capitalism?

    It is not news that the the Taliban blew up a bus full of police academy instructors.

    You act like reporters and editors are interested in the news, that whatever subjective clause and description that you place on what is new means that the newspapers themselves share the same motivation and viewpoint. They don’t. Nor is news just whatever is new to a specific person, like you.

    The propaganda that the New York Times puts out is not new. It is formulated and pre-planned. The technique has already been pioneered and perfected. Yet you ignore the motivation and the technique, Don, behind the story and by ignoring that you ignore much of the story’s substance.

    It is news that Americans killed 7 children that were a part of a civilian shield.

    Are you telling me that if America used nuclear weapons for every hour of the day, 365 days in a year, on civilian cities that this would stop being news after…. what? You would just ignore it after half a year? The New York Times would be justified in not reporting it because it was no longer news? Or even that the NYT would actually stop reporting it? They wouldn’t stop, and you know it.

    You talk about the “they do it all the time” meme, but it doesn’t mean anything because that’s not a standard that applies to the US. The US could do exactly what the Jihadists are doing right now, and the US wouldn’t even get 10% of the positive propaganda coverage that the New York Times puts out for the Jihadists in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    I kind of get the reason why people say that something isn’t “news” or something, like the Fox News Media watch (oh horrible) show. But I cannot really agree with such a limited vision of the subject.

    I know, we are too decent to do that,

    You act like you don’t get it, Don. Which is puzzling. Certainly “decency” might be a reason, but the military mind is already focused on killing enemies and ignoring civilian shields. The primary reason you don’t hear it more as a stated policy however, is because the folks akin to the New York Times will always cover Americans killing children, regardless of whether that is “news” or not “news” in your lexicon, Don. Keeping it in the shadows makes it easy for the military commanders and executors of such a policy, akin to why Special Forces don’t talk to the media at all about their ops, future, past, or present. Current Media attention and demoralization campaigns on military operations degrade the efficiency of such military operations in all categories and fields. The Military knows this, and the Media knows this. You act like you don’t, Don.

    then perhaps our killing civilians would not be so newsworthy

    Again, a false attribution of your perspective and views on the “news” across to the New York Times decision makers. Go ahead and run an independent psyche profile on the editors at the New York Times, Don. You’ll see that eventually they’re not interested in the news, at all. Their priority is making the US look bad, at least for now. So all things, including news news, takes a backseat.

    I mean if we think about it, we would have to believe that the New York Times reports and broadcasts negative stories about the US military killing civilians because the New York Times is motivated in informing the public of “new” news so to speak. That if the US military started doing this as a stated and public policy ALL the time, that the New York Times would stop covering it because they are just there to report the facts, and just the facts ma’am…. Somehow… I don’t believe that. Regardless of what I believe or not however, the New York Times behavior itself paints that portrait as false.

    I predict that the NYT would run more negative and demoralization stories about the military should the military actually take as a policy something that is militarily effective. I don’t even have to mention the Surge in Baghdad.

    There is a slight chance that you can get the New York Times to stop their demoralization campaign against the American people and the United States military, but it would require severe propaganda and psychological warfare techniques to be applied against the reporters and editors at the NYT. A change in US military policy alone would not be enough to cripple the offensive striking power of the Times.

    But we try mightily to avoid civilian casualties so, when we fail in that effort, it is legitimate news and the Times is not to be faulted for reporting it as such.

    As far as I can see, my analysis of Don’s position concludes that Don sees the New York Times as a reactive function in relation to certain events such as Taliban and US attacks. Book sees proactive choices by the Times; taking the initiative for one side of the pendulum against the other for example.

    I don’t think Don means news to mean “worthy of being news”. I mean the choice after all is between knowing about stuff and not knowing, hearing news and not hearing it. The variation with the New York Times comes down to 2 things. Pro-American news or anti-American news. Such decisions are not simply a reactive decision on the part of the Times, in which the Times editors can’t be blamed for, as if they are children and just reacting not deciding.

    Times is not to be faulted for reporting it as such.

    I cannot agree with Don’s conclusions and position, for the reasons highlighted above.

    The Times is not a machine, they are human and composed of humans, and even if they didn’t do what they were doing right now, they would still be responsible for their actions. For they are as much players in this war as the Marines, the Army, or the JIhadists.

    It does make the Times easier to manipulate however, as the Islamic Jihad have found out. (Cartoon Jihad) Humans are much easier to manipulate than machines. The New York Times understand this as well, even if their understanding is faulty compared to others.

    A proper understanding of propaganda should help anyone see through certain layers of illusion and decisions made by the Times editos and writers. However, if you haven’t studied propaganda, I think you’re in trouble concerning an accurate analysis of the news.

  6. The NYT head made it to German TV and BBC World text ( I haven’t seen the broadcasts yet). It is not news. It is a recruitment ad for AQ. I know the NYT is hurting for readers, but why don’t they spin a little more Paris Hilton.

  7. I don’t think Don means news to mean “worthy of being news”. I mean the choice after all is between knowing about stuff and not knowing, hearing news and not hearing it.

    A couple of clarifications is necessary for that segment.

    The reason for the first sentence is that if a person just saw the reports being made on attacks as just news defined as stuff being worthy of being news, then that sounds like an objective standard. But the standard Don seems to be using is a subjective one. Meaning, whatever he sees as already known is not newsworthy and whatever he didn’t know about, is news worthy. For example, the previous suicide bombing and the use of human shields by the Taliban may indeed be a new thing, in that the current leaders there hadn’t wanted to use it in the past. Now they are. Certainly Saddam and the Baathists and Zarqawi used such things as suicide bombing a lot, but suicide bombing tends to kill a lot of local folks as well. Which is one thing that pissed off Zawahiiri and caused the Sunnis of AL Anbar to turn on Al qaeda and join the US.

    So if Don is just using the media to determine what is new or not new… then that’s a pretty subjective standard for what is new, don’t you think?

    Tracing the model Don uses, as much as possible, I tend to get the impression that the gaps are these. Meaning, if the media, not just the Times, reported on something that changed, then the reader knows about it and it becomes old stuff. Not news anymore. However, when a media refuses to report on certain good news that might portray the US forces in a good light, this is seen as due to positive news “happening all the time” and therefore is not “worthy of news”. I think it then goes back to the basic question of the tree in the forrest. How does everyone know that it is occuring all the time…. when they almost never hear about it on the news?

    See what I mean by subjective. The very notion of what is new or not new for any single person, depends on the news. The judgment on whether the Times made a valid decision or not to cover something, is itself based upon what the Times have itself covered in the past.

    Another gap seems to be, the judgment concerning repetition.

    It is not news that the the Taliban blew up a bus full of police academy instructors.

    Meaning, who gets to decide that an event is stereotypical of the past and therefore isn’t something “new”, but rather just one more thread in the same old pattern folks have seen before. Under that basic definition of being part of an old pattern, why was Virginia Tech news? Is there like a time delay before something that happens in the same way, becomes new from old or old from new? Who gets to decide this stuff?

    The media after all, doesn’t understand military strategy. That is a given. So how is it that they can legitimately decide what is “old patterns” and “new patterns” from their reports in the field that get translated to the news that they publish? Can the New York Times, Reuters, the AP, and such really really legitimately decide what is new for news, when they don’t have a clue as to whether a new event changes the balance of powers for the war?

    Tet, Al Anbar, Fallujah, the Surge in Baghdad. All of these events in war are chaotic ones that obey Murphy’s Laws and the Fog of War. Is the media so omniscient and all wise that they can see through such fog and chaos where the military cannot? I don’t believe so.

    These gaps are just another reason why I can’t agree with Don’s position. Either on news or the people who make the news.

    I can’t, won’t, accept such excuses for the behavior of the Times. Every propagandist is responsible for the propaganda he or she puts out. Whether it saves lives or kills folks, positive or negative, every propagandist is responsible for what they output. Or we might as well just accept that Saudi Arabia is blameless, because they are just doing what they have always done, not reporting on Arab dictatorships because that is old stuff, while reporting on American and Israeli abuses because that is new and sudden.

  8. [...] Bookworm Room, “The New York Times Spins Away” [...]

  9. [...] The New York Times Spins Away Bookworm Room [...]

  10. I wrote a near-identical post drawing from an AP story that was remarkably similar to the NYT’s. Pack journalism at its worst.

  11. I think everyone missed the real news.

    The real news is that our intel is good enough to bust their hideout just hours after a major attack.

    To anyone who has ever been in the field, that really means something. One can infer that at least in Afghanistan, we are winning the hearts and minds. If we could just rotate our troops out of Iraq and through Afghanistan on their way home, then we could finally decapitate Arab terrorism.

    ( I don’t even think the NY Times even understood the implications of their story, but trust me, the enemy does.)

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