18 March, 2006

Amateur Journalism

Update: CDR Salamander is all over this, and Countercolumn discusses who's to blame for the story being overblown.

Maybe my next career should be in journalism. I certainly could do a better job than these guys! Under the heading "How Operation Swarmer Fizzled," these are the opening and closing lines of the report:

Four Black Hawk helicopters landed in a wheat field and dropped off a television crew, three photographers, three print reporters and three Iraqi government officials right into the middle of Operation Swarmer.

...Before loading up into the helicopters for a return trip to Baghdad, Iraqi and American soldiers and some reporters helped themselves to the woman’s freshly baked bread, tearing bits off and chewing it as they wandered among the cows. For most of them, it was the only thing worthwhile they’d found all day.
Apparently the media and Iraqi officials spent their time wandering around the farm, which had been searched. But instead of considering that if the military were dropping journalists and officials "in the middle of Operation Swarmer," they wouldn't be putting them where the action is or acknowledging that on a large battlefield a single pinpoint is not going to give you the story, they snarkily point out those who said the operation was a political stunt, and the headline writer labels it a "fizzle."

Reading closely and further down the column, we find that the operation netted 48 suspected insurgents (17 released), and that "major targets slipped through their fingers" (not entirely true, as they later report the Iraqis may have apprehended a Samarra-based insurgent leader). But the thrust of the story is that the target of the operation was a sleepy community of farmers. Buried in the penultimate paragraph, we find the real story (though written so poorly that context and its relationship to what has gone before is unclear :
With the Interior Ministry's Samarra commando battalion, the soldiers had found some 300 individual pieces of weaponry like mortars, rockets and plastic explosives in six different locations inside the sparsely populated farming community of over 50 square miles and about 1,500 residents. The raids also uncovered high-powered cordless telephones used as detonators in homemade bombs, medical supplies and insurgent training manuals.
At least the AP does a (slightly) better job. However, it's buried in the confusing inter-twining of stories that is typical of reporting from Iraq these days. I had to read and re-read to finally glean the following points on Operation Swarmer (paragraph numbers in italics):
  • Joint operation of U.S.-Iraqi troops 1
  • In the Samarra area 13
  • Netted six suspected of killing three al-Arabiya TV journalists 13
  • Uncovered 15 weapons caches and "significant amounts" of material for IEDs 14
  • Detained 80 suspected insurgents (17 released)
  • Iraq's nat'l security advisor is worried that too many "innocent young men" may be caught in the operation, and that the disarming of some people prevents them from protecting themselves from the terrorists 4, 15
  • The iraqi security advisor actually said: 17
    "Many young people were detained, some of them innocent, and I call for their quick release," al-Samaraie said. But he also called on Samarra's youths "to lay down their arms and join the political process."
Combining the info gleaned from these two sources, here's how I'd write the story:
A joint operation of 800 Iraqi troops and 650 Americans swept through about 50 square miles of sparsely-populated countryside in Samarra, searching for a reputed insurgent training site. Though no shots were fired, troops detained at least 80 suspected insurgents while uncovering 15 separate weapons caches, "significant amounts" of materiel for improvised explosives, and insurgent training manuals.
I'd then go on to include (in order) which Iraqi and American units were involved, the source of the intelligence that inspired the operation (it came from the Iraqi Security Service), the capture of suspects in the al-Arabiya deaths, and the actual quotes from the Iraqi official (perhaps with discussion of whether or not that could indicate an Iraqi consensus about armed resistance to the government). It could also include reference to those who say the operation was a political stunt, but I'm not sure how I'd work that in, considering how inane it sounds when put in context.

So, shall I pursue a career in journalism now?

I swear, the major media get more worthless by the day...