Sunday, January 20, 2013

narrative delusions

I opened the Sunday New York Times magazine this morning and read this from Luke Mogelson:
A truck pulled up, and Lt. Col. Mohammad Daowood, the battalion commander, stepped out. Everyone waited to see what he would do. Daowood is a man alive to his environment and adept at adjusting his behavior by severe or subtle degrees. He can transform, instantaneously, from empathetic ally to vicious disciplinarian. To be with him is to be in constant suspense over the direction of his mood. At the same time, there is a calculation to his temper. You feel it is always deliberately, never capriciously, employed. This only adds to his authority and makes it impossible to imagine him in a situation of which he is not the master. A flicker of recognition in the deranged man’s eyes suggested that he intuited this. He approached Daowood almost bashfully; only as he closed within striking range did he seem to regain his lunatic energy, emitting a low, threatening moan. We waited for Daowood to hit him. Instead, Daowood began to clap and sing. Instantly, the man’s face reorganized itself. Tearful indignation became pure, childish joy. He started to dance.

This continued for a surprisingly long time. The commander clapping and singing. The deranged man lost in a kind of ecstatic, whirling performance, waving his prayer cap in the air, stamping his feet. When at last Daowood stopped, the man was his. He stood there — breathless and obsequious — waiting for what came next. 
 Tell me: what portion of this is actually observable? What percentage of what is written here is something that the journalist in question could prove if he were forced to? Very, very little. Please tell me how you would verify that someone is "alive to his environment," or when he has "transform[ed], instantaneously, from empathetic ally to vicious disciplinarian." I can imagine how that might be expressed in behavior. But you'd have to actually tell me. How you could tell that there is a calculation to someone's temper from the outside, I'll never know. "You feel it is always deliberately, never capriciously, employed. This only adds to his authority and makes it impossible to imagine him in a situation of which he is not the master." Who is "you," here? Is it really impossible to imagine that for everyone?

"A flicker of recognition in the deranged man’s eyes suggested that he intuited this." Bullshit. Bullshit. Even if I thought that a "flicker of recognition" was something that someone could actually observe, it would never in a million years suggest that someone has intuited that another man is calculating in his temper. Never. "The man was his." Ah. And you know that... how? Because he pointed to where the Taliban were, across the valley in some vague sense? How do you know that the colonel here wasn't getting played? That this wasn't some elaborate performance? Because of flickers in the eye and vague, totally unsubstantiated projections? The whole piece is constructed of similarly contrived accounts of feelings and conjecture, delivered in the language of journalistic authority. That's without even getting into the aesthetic horror of saying that someone's face reorganized itself.

This story has all of the hallmarks of good investigative journalism. It's published in one of our most high-profile and respected publications. It involves a journalist gathering facts on the ground in a war-torn and dangerous place. It must have taken hundreds of hours to research, organize, write, and edit. The reporter involved must have risked a great deal in writing the story. But this is shitty, shitty journalism, and indicative of a broad problem within our press corps, the popular tendency to portray what others are thinking or feeling, to hang whole pieces on vague notions of someone's character, aura, or ethos, and to generally express as fact ideas that could not be verified under the best circumstances. And given that this is the Times, I can only imagine that a small army of editors and fact checkers read it all and let it stand.

Easily the most dangerous example of this is the New Yorker piece on the killing of Osama bin Laden by Nicholas Schmidle, which is absolutely chock-full of the impressions, emotions, and thoughts of people who Schmidle never spoke to. I say dangerous because, of course, we have no official accounting of that hugely important event, only the censored and controlled accounts from the Obama administration and the deeply compromised Zero Dark Thirty. Journalists build our history, and they have a profound duty to deliver the facts in a way that is subject to verification, substantiation, and review. I understand the merits of New Journalism and creative nonfiction and the like. But I also understand that depending so heavily on the perception of another person's feelings, or through reference to character that have no expression in particular observable behaviors, is profoundly dangerous. And I'm afraid far too many readers will simply swallow it whole.

Update: To be clear, when I call it shitty journalism, I'm not referring to the whole story. I'm speaking specifically about how often the reporter makes claims that couldn't possibly be verified.

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