By Charles M. Young
'Did you see the bird droppings the Times is writing about Iran? Awk!'
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On Thursday, January 5, I was waiting for the elevator in the lobby of my building when I was joined by a woman who lives up the hall from me. She was carrying a grocery bag with The New York Times poking out the top. "Why did you buy it?" I asked. "They just raised the price to $2.50. Who can afford that for a daily newspaper?"
"I have a very large birdcage," she said. "It's the only newspaper that fits the bottom of my birdcage."
My neighbor is a classical musician who makes a living at it. She pays attention to politics and votes. She buys things. She's a little older than the actors playing obedient yuppies in the NYT commercials that beg for subscriptions, but is otherwise their ideal reader.
"The only thing I don't like about the Times is all the color pictures," she continued. "One of my budgies is listless, and I think it might be chemicals leaching out of the pictures. So I cut them out before I put the paper in the cage. I may have to take my budgies to the vet."
Afterward I sat in my apartment and thought, "Wow, that was the perfect lead to a Thomas Friedman column, one of those deals where he has a chance encounter that resonates with symbolism for some earth-shaking problem, like the death of print. Would Friedman see the budgies as upper management at the Times, making disastrous business decisions for the entire 21st century and crapping on journalists by cutting their benefits? Or would the budgies be the readers, listless with their diet of toxic ink? Or would the budgies be reporters caged by corporatism? The world is a flat birdcage, and the metaphors would drop like turds from the sky. Is it for Tom or myself that I cry?"
Perhaps I was being unfair, I further thought. Perhaps the Times had changed and I didn't notice because I hadn't read it regularly since the last millenium. Oh, I glance at it almost every day online. But a careful read? Nah. I hadn't bought one outside of an airport for years. So, for $2.50, I bought a paper copy--"the world's best journalism in its original form," as the commercials say-- the very same issue that my neighbor put on the bottom of her birdcage.
I spent three fitful hours reading that night. When I woke up the next morning, I couldn't remember anything, except for an article about a girl group in Myanmar who had just released their first album. It was hard to tell if the girl group had anything to say, or if they were just acting like they had something to say, in the manner of corporate commodities like the Spice Girls and Lady Gaga. They did sing and dance in a mildly suggestive manner, which is novel and controversial in a socially conservative country run by a crazy military junta, but...I don't know...was I supposed to be happy that the girl group was expressing itself, or sad that Western-style junk pop might be penetrating Myanmar?
When I went online later in the morning of January 6, I discovered an article by Robert Naiman of Just Foreign Policy saying that the Times had lied in an article by Steven Erlanger, who wrote that the International Atomic Energy Agency thought Iran's nuclear program had a "military objective." In fact, said Naiman, the IAEA inspections revealed only that Iran had "technology that could be consistent with building a bomb."
"AIPAC," he said, "is trying to trick America into another catastrophic war with a Middle Eastern country on behalf of the Likud Party's colonial ambitions."
Hmmm, I thought, how did I miss this sequel to the weapons of mass destruction that disgraced the Times when it was cheerleading the invasion of Iraq? I went back to the front page of the Times of January 5, and there it was in the fifth paragraph, above the fold: "The threats from Iran, aimed both at the West and at Israel, combined with a recent assessment by the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran's nuclear program has a military objective, is becoming an important issue in the American presidential campaign."
Okay. The problem when I read the story the first time was that I didn't get past the headline and the first paragraph. The headline said: "In Bold Step, Europe Nears Embargo on Iran Oil". The first sentence said, "European countries have taken their boldest step so far in the increasingly tense standoff with Iran over its nuclear program, agreeing in principle to impose an embargo on Iranian oil, French and European diplomats said on Wednesday."
When you see a value-laden word like "bold" in a headline in the ostensibly objective news section, and then you see "boldest" in the first sentence of the story, you know that they really, really, really want you to think something is bold. And you know that you're going to wade through a factory farm lagoon of bullshit. In this case, to spell it out, the thing they want you to believe "bold" is an act of war, which is what an embargo is.
So the neocons are drooling with bloodlust again. I already knew that. The only news value I saw the first time I read the article was that "bold" appears to be the new "robust." In the Bush administration, pretty much any atrocity committed by the United States, any call for atrocity, or any weapon used in an atrocity, was "robust." Now that robust is enfeebled with the connotation of innumerable Bush military fiascos in the Middle East, it's time to dust off bold for the next round of fiascos. What, after all, is bolder than provoking a war that will disrupt oil production in the middle of a depression and could easily escalate into a nuclear exchange with Iran's allies? Our grandchildren will sing songs about how bold we are. Or maybe robust will make a comeback by then.