The Best Defense

Bring the pane: The "rare windows" of the New York Times

What does a journalist do when he has a penny ante story that he thinks might at least illuminate a larger problem? He maintains that it provides a "rare window" into that problem. To wit, the New York Times reported today that:

...the indictment, handed up last Wednesday in the federal court for the Southern District of New York, provides a rare window into the troublesome question of how military and civilian contracting officers -- few of them sophisticated in the ways of clandestine wire transfers and money laundering -- have so often managed to set up corrupt deals at the heart of the United States enterprise in Iraq, and more recently in Afghanistan..."

But wait! Earlier this month, the Times peered through another such news-filled pane, this one involving the case of a political theorist not granted tenure at Harvard:

The uproar, which has been front-page news in The Harvard Crimson and the talk of faculty meetings and dinners, provides a rare window into the byzantine tenure process at one of the world's most prestigious universities.

Hobbling for broke, this article also noted in the same paragraph that the situation "raised sensitive questions."

In July, the Times found an eerily similar perspective in the story of "a well-known dissident [that] provides a rare window on Iran under its ruling clerics." (To be fair, that was just in a summary of the story. In the article itself, the window in case received a different adjective: "In several lengthy interviews, Mr. Batebi provided an unusual window on Iran under its ruling clerics.")

I could go on. "Legal strategy aside, the report provides a rare window into the inner workings of the exchange." And so on. I suspect book reviewers use this device a lot, too.

But you get the point. This pattern in the New York Times raises the sensitive question of just how rare these journalistic windows are. I am sympathetic to the plight of the reporters involved, and I know I used such crutches a lot during my time with my head inside a computer on deadline. Journalism is indeed a glass house. Still, there is a tiredness in these structural devices. Use them if you have to, but only if you are unable to come up with a fresher way to say it. Everybody involved in these Times stories, from reporters to copyeditors to bosses, should be sentenced to re-read Orwell's Politics of the English Language, one of the best things ever written about writing and thinking.

Update: In this item, the story about Harvard was from 1997, not as I said earlier this month.


The Best Defense

Iraq, the unraveling (XXI): An Iraqi mayor's worried assessment

The former mayor of Tel Afar, the northwestern Iraqi town that saw the first major successful counterinsurgency campaign in the war, has written a paper warning that Iraq may again be drifting toward ethno-sectarian conflict, which is to say, a form of civil war. This is particularly striking on a day when another round of bombings killed at least 50 people in the country.

Najim Abed al-Jabouri was mayor of Tel Afar when the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment took the city back from insurgents and terrorists in 2005-2006. He is now a senior fellow at the National Defense University, at which the study was written. It runs sharply contrary to the optimistic view lately advanced by some experts and observers in the United States that the chances of sectarian fighting have dwindled in Iraq. 

In contrast to American views of the Iraqi security forces, or ISF he writes: "Iraqi assessments suggest that without separating the ISF from the incumbent ethno-sectarian parties, the ISF will be a tool for creating instability in the country. Iraqis realize that the reasons and justifications for a civil war are still at play in Iraq."

A major reason that the army and police can drive the country apart, he said, is that political meddling has created a divisive situation within those forces. "The majority of [Iraqi army] divisions are under the patronage of a political party," al-Jabouri asserts. Unusually, he then lists the political affiliations of various units:

  • "the 8th IA division in Kut and Diwanya is heavily influenced by the Dawa party"
  • "the 4th IA division in Salahideen is influenced by President Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan"
  • "the 7th IA division in Anbar is influenced by the Iraqi Awakening Party"
  • "the 5th IA division in Diyala is heavily influenced by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq"

Similarly, he adds, many of the forces of the Ministry of Interior actually operate beyond the control of that ministry and instead report to political parties. Officers who blow the whistle on the role political parties play in the Iraqi army risk losing their personal security guards as well as their jobs, he notes. 

To my knowledge, word of the report was first published by the Washington Times.  

Steven Pettibone/US Army via Getty Images