Saturday, May 21, 2005

The heart of darkness -- in a single-source scoop 

News junkies like me, and like the people who comment on this blog, sometimes forget that many, many people pay virtually no attention at all to politics and political news.
These people are the Skimmers -- they skim a newspaper in the morning and listen with half an ear to the radio news on the way to work, but they're not really paying close attention. They just develop a simple, generalized impression about what is going on in the world, and then they start thinking about the next sales call or project or meeting or task and that is it. The Skimmers are not going to follow the ins and outs of a lengthy, controversial and complex news story. No criticism here -- we are all Skimmers of one kind or another. For myself, I am a skimmer for most of the sports and entertainment news, only paying attention when Canada or a Canadian does something extraordinary or when the next plot twist for Desperate Housewives is leaked.
The Skimmers are the people for whom the sound bite was invented.
Now, over the last week, us news junkies have been following Newsweek vs. White House Koran abuse story and questioning its contradictions -- the Pentagon had said the week before that the Muslim riots were not caused by the Newsweek story, but then this week suddenly the party line changed and everybody was blaming Newsweek's "lies" about prisoner abuse. The White House and the syncopant pundits piled on with solemn intonations about the danger of single-source stories, saying the "scoop" mentality was outmoded -- just too, too last-century, you know. And the 101st Fighting Keyboarders piled on with their "Newsweek lies and people die" outrage.
I started to wonder whether there was actually an agenda here -- with the Bush administration, it seems like we're often waiting for the other shoe to drop. Did they want to intimidate the news media about running any more prisoner abuse stories? Or were they trying to give Skimmers the impression that prisoner abuse stories are just media lies?
Well, guess what? It's both.
On Friday the New York Times posted an old-fashioned single-source scoop. The military investigation file into detainee deaths in Afghanistan was leaked to them "from a person involved in the investigation who was critical of the methods used at Bagram and the military's response to the deaths". And the Times had the guts to go with it: In U.S. Report, Brutal Details of 2 Afghan Inmates' Deaths. It's the kind of story which, depending on where it leads, could win author Tim Golden a Pulitzer. It is the Pentagon Papers for the Bush administration's Muslim wars.
I do not doubt that the White House knew this was coming, because the Times would have been calling the military leadership for comfirmation and comment, as well as searching out the military torturers named in the story.
The Bush administration couldn't stop the Times from publishing. Now they can only try to deter other news media from picking it up. And try to persuade the Skimmers that it is a media lie.
I think -- I hope -- that they will not succeed.

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