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Posted by on Jan 28, 2005 in At TMV | 0 comments

Just in case you forgot… (Greg Piper)

…post-election Iraq will be an awful quagmire of Indochina proportions.  The New York Times, apparently not aware that it is a parody of itself by now, does a story about everyone’s favorite failure and how "comparisons [of Iraq to Vietnam] are no longer dismissed in mainstream political discourse as facile and flawed, but are instead bubbling to the top" (my emphasis).  Before going into the content of the story (which is thin anyway), let’s examine the phrasing of this sentence. 

Joe did a superb post earlier this week on overblown reporting made possible by "journalist hedges" – careful wording that falls apart upon closer examination.  In his cited case, it was repeated use of "could" and "may" in a story about the impending doom from global warming.  In the NYT case, it’s the phrase "bubbling to the top," an in-law of the hedge words "presumably" and "haunt" – all connote the reporter’s inability to speak in purely factual terms.  The article headline ("a sinking sensation of parallels") sets up reader skepticism, and "bubbling" taints whatever useful nuggets the story had.

It’s worth reading just to see exactly how little the Vietnam parallel is "bubbling," though.  The second quote (after a rare interview with George W. Bush) is from Ted Kennedy’s much-discussed (and criticized) speech on Thursday, then four paragraphs from a military professor who explicitly distinguishes similarities to Vietnam (or any foreign occupation, really) from outcomes.  We get a journalist and author on Vietnam warning "You’ve got to be very careful about drawing analogies," and this reference: "…noting recent polls that show overwhelming public concern that Mr. Bush has no clear plan for getting out of Iraq…" (a better poll phrasing would be "winning in Iraq," not "getting out," which like "exit strategy" implies failure from the start).  The article, as far as I can tell, only quotes two strong proponents of the war from the start – the first, a scholar at AEI, notes the Vietnam comparison is popular on Arab television, and the second, neocon standard-bearer Max Boot, says Iraqi troops will probably never rise to the level of "the Marines or the 101st Airborne," but we need to trust them anyway.

This article’s "bubbling" is more like a slipped fart in the bathtub, if I may be crude.  My guess is the editor assumed that the reporter could find plenty of convincing material on the Vietnam comparison in a short period of time, and assigned the story at the proverbial last-minute.  But a first-time election requires a Vietnam memorial to journalists weaned on Vietnam, so they ran with the underwhelming story anyway.  As any first-year journalism student can tell you, newspaper readers will scan the headline and first few lines of a story for about three seconds before deciding whether to drop it or continue.  In all likelihood, most readers who scan the headline won’t make it to the murky reporting that makes up most of the article.

(On a related theme, the "damning but," see here and here.)