Tuesday, September 26, 2006

NYT: Tavernise Returns to the Green Zone Determined to Out-Dexy Dexter Filkins

Over the summer, when the Israeli government wanted to demonstrate just how little respect they had for laws and the lives of the others, there was a jaw dropping moment listening to KPFA, when one person (we'll be kind and won't name the individual) felt the need to praise Sabrina Tavernise for her reports. Now we've praised Tavernise here for her reporting in Iraq, we've also slammed her reporting. But the idea that anyone, any reporter, at the New York Times, did anything praise worthy . . .

When the Times reports (or 'reports') on anything involving Israel, there is nothing praise worthy. Their reporting is reflexive and filtered through their Israel-has-to-do-whatever-it-has-done narrative. That's the only narrative they have. Whether Palestinians are involved or Lebanese, it's always Israel did what it had to. Always was the narrative, always will be the narrative.

An individual at the paper can do a better job than is usually done but they will never do anything that resembles a "good job" except by comparison to others at the paper. It's in the structure of the paper, it's in the system. And anyone who leaves the paper or leaves the coverage of that region will discuss this imposed-from-above structure either publicly or privately. "Israel good, others bad." That's how it plays out year after year, that's how it's always played out and always will.

So hearing Tavernise praised for her coverage of the region was a shocker. If her name was mentioned at all, it should have been to note that the Times had no business pulling any reporter covering Iraq out of Iraq to go elsewhere at a time when the UN would announce that an estimated 100 Iraqis were dying a day. It should have been noted that the Times' committment (as it were) to covering the Middle East was (as always) laughable and that the decision to pull reporters from Iraq (and Tavernise wasn't the only one) while people continued to earn checks from London and other European countries (for penning stories that read like they just sat in front of their TVs jotting down notes from whatever SKY TV broadcast the evening before) was one more indication of how thoroughly the paper fails the region.

Tavernise has returned to the Green Zone and today pens the only article from that heavily fortified region of Iraq, "Qaeda Operative, An Escapee in '05, Is Killed In Iraq." Her reporting today demonstrates how damaging it is for any reporter at the paper to attempt to cover Israel in any manner. She's had her bad moments before but she's never come off so stupid. And make no mistake, she's an idiot in print today. How awful?
Dexy's departs from the Green Zone and she comes off as determined to out Dexy anyone.

And she succeeds.

With regard to her Iraq reporting, her finer moments have always been what the Dexys would see as the "small moments." They'd see it that way both because, like Paul Bremer, they spent all that time in Iraq without having any interest in the country or the people and because they were they saw their purpose as printing up whatever the US military told them to. Tavernise, in her finer moments, found a way to report on Iraq in a way that didn't spit out the MNF press releases or appear to rely upon what officials told her was happening around her, but what she (or a stringer -- and yes, people are still smarting over Dexy's disclosures) could see.

Apparently heady from demonstrating just how well she could toe the company line, she returns to Iraq, to the Green Zone, and files the absolute worst piece that her name has ever been attached to. So, naturally, it makes the front page and, naturally, it's short on Iraqis and heavy on puff (sorely in need of editing). But when you've proven your bonafides by sweeping reality under the rug with regards to Israel, you do get the front page no matter how poor your writing is. Working from official sources and an MNF press release, Tavernise tells a tale that, if you read closely, will have you scratching your head.

For instance, there's this:

Bush administration officials said in 2002 that he had given them information about an impending Qaeda attack in the region that year, not long before a bomb blast on the Indonesian island of Bali killed more than 180 people.

Does anyone grasp that tidbit or do they just repeat it? If true, we're talking about the October 12, 2002 nightclubs attack. October 12, 2002 -- over a year after 9-11. Impending? A real reporter would be writing about that "impending". A real reporter would be interested in knowing what the "officials" did with that impending knowledge. After the public remarks of Coleen Rowley, a real reporter might wonder.

A real reporter might mention the name Abu Bakar Ba'asyir but Tavernise probably has no idea of that name because that would require work and it's so much easier just to type up what 'officials' tell you.

Which is what Tavernise does, often without any attribution. Here's opinion (of others) presented as fact:

Though Iraq is awash with insurgents who identify themaselves as members of Al Qaeda, the most senior Qaeda leaders have rarely been Iraqi.

Based on what? Based on what 'officials' tell her. The Times knows nothing about the resistance and nothing about al Qaeda in Iraq. Early into the illegal war, they had an interview scheduled with the resistance. It was a big coup for them, such a big coup that Dexy couldn't refrain from shooting his mouth off (no surprise) and that led to displeasure from the US military and the interview was killed. (And this has been spoken of publicly, in public forums, by other reporters. Do your own research if you're a visitor -- we've covered it before.) That was when there was slight mobility in Iraq (though most chose to Green-Zone-it even then unless they were embedded with the military on one of their missions). So where is Tavernise's 'knowledge' coming from? Where's the attribution for that evaluation presented as fact but little more than conventional wisdom from the mouths of official sources?

You may remember the name Rita Katz. She was a Dexy fave. She's a joke (and she may be the source of that bit of 'wisdom' included by Tavernise) and the paper's rightly stayed away from her in recent months. Katz is discredited -- most recently in the pages of The New Yorker. That should have put an end to Katz as a source but here she is talking about Iraq and being cited by Tavernise. (Maybe we're supposed to take comfort in the fact that Katz's 'wisdom' now gets printed with her actual name attached and no fake nose used for filming?)

From Benjamin Wallace-Wells' "PRIVATE JIHAD" (The New Yorker):

SITE's detractors have also questioned the quality, or, rather, the possible slant, of SITE's translations--an especially troubling issue given the shortage of alternatives. "An Arabic word can have four or five different meanings in translation," Michael Scheuer, the former C.I.A. analyst, said. SITE, in his view, always picks the "most warlike translation."

Which is why, though Katz has been to Iraq since she was a child (even her ever changing tales of her life haven't, thus far, included a return trip to Iraq) she fits right in at the New York Times. But she gets government monies and it probably didn't take much prodding on the part of officials to get Tavernise to quote her. (It never took much prodding from them to get Dexy to quote her either.)

This is an embarrassing article for so many reasons. It's embarrassing because prior to leaving Iraq, Tavernise was actually one of the stronger reporters for the paper in Iraq. There was usually some effort to note Iraqis in her articles. In nearly thirty paragraphs today, there's really not. She does the official dance for paragraph after paragraph and then stumbles across Rita Katz (without noting the group's funding), then she goes to "Ali" (who was offered to many reporters by the US government Monday -- those with sense turned down the offer -- Tavernise clings to him with her life).

I'm counting thirty paragraphs of text exactly (check my math). Yesterday, when I got off the plane and the phone started ringing, those calling about Iraq were laughing about "Ali" and wondering who would be stupid enough to go with him? Since Dexy was out of the Green Zone, I honestly didn't think anyone at the Times would be. I was wrong, I often am. When you're a new 'big time' reporter the way Tavernise is now, you don't share credit in the byline. If she was duped by a stringer, tough. Her name's on the piece and it's an embarrassing one. In paragraph 28, she notes the Iraqi parliament, in paragraph twenty-nine she notes Iraqi deaths on Monday (she goes with "at least eight" -- we'll come back to that) and then in paragraph thirty she tosses out that a US soldier died on Monday. I don't use the pyramid form here. But the Times does. And the form is inverted -- you pile your most important information at the top because most readers don't read all the way through. Or that's the assumption. (Bad writing causing them to move on more than anything else.)

Now if Damien Cave, Paul von Zielbauer, Edward Wong, James Glanz or Richard A. Oppel Jr. had written today's piece, if nothing else, it would have noted in one of the two opening paragraphs that a US soldier died. But when you're fresh off your star turn apparently that's not news. Apparently that death is so unimportant that you don't even mention it until paragraph thirty.

Paragraph thirty. You think the friends and family of that man appreciate that? You think, regardless of their stance on the war, they pick up the paper today, trudge through twenty-seven paragraphs of official and official-endorsed crap and, if they get to the last paragraph, think, "Thank God, the New York Times noted ___'s death."?

They won't. They won't think that. He mattered to some people. His death matters to some people. But it doesn't matter Tavernise today and the why of that goes to the crap reporting she did all summer long when she learned to reduce people to nothing. And that's what noting the man's death in a hastily written paragraph thirty does -- reduces him to nothing. He gave his life serving in Bully Boy's (illegal) war but he doesn't matter. Nothing matters as much to Tavernise as writing down the official line. She's got time to quote the laughable Rita Katz in paragraph twelve (check my math) -- Katz who hasn't been to Iraq in decades and knows nothing about it and has a hatred for the region due to her own personal history.

Katz interjecting herself into something she knows nothing about is "news" -- paragraph twelve "news." An American soldier dies and he's reduced to paragraph thirty.

At her best, prior to leaving Iraq, Tavernise's byline usually meant some form of humanity was in the story, some interest of what it was like in Iraq for the average Iraqi or American. That's gone. She lost her interest in humanity while fitting into the paper's Israel narrative all summer long. That's why she can write "at least eight" Iraqis died on Monday when the number was higher than that before she had lunch yesterday.

When you grasp the Israel narrative, internalize it, there's no need for people anymore, just officials. Tavernise returns to the Green Zone with an interest in nothing but sucking up to DC. Congratulations to her, she's accomplished her task. She's nothing resembling a reporter -- she has no interest in Iraqis, she has no interest in Americans. She's pursuing that special off-breed, "officials." She is the future Cokie Roberts (and may she inherit the jowels as well -- you really do get the face you deserve after forty).

It takes her thirty paragraphs to mention, briefly, that an American soldier died. Her t-shirt reads: "I COVERED LEBANON ALL SUMMER AND LOST MY HUMANITY."

Martha notes Amit Paley's "Al-Qaeda Figure Killed in Raid In Basra, British Military Says" in the Washington Post. Since the Times is its own nasty breed, let me note that Paely covers the death in the final paragraph as well. But that's paragraph sixteen, not paragraph thirty. (Take note before you e-mail.) And Paley's not quoting the laughable Rita Katz or the US military endorsed "Ali." Paley also covers, in four paragraphs, what it takes the wordy Tavernise to do in twenty-six. Paely also notes that at least 13 Iraqis died yesterday. (And that's the one and only compare/contrast I intend to make. That's been noted before and why.)

I can already read the e-mail coming in, about how brave the Times article is, how Tavernise notes that the British troops, according to "Ali," put a bag over an inncoent's head and that someone other than the 'Qaeda Operative' may have died. Brave? One person who turned down "Ali" yesterday was then told, by 'officials,' that tidbit and how "Ali" was willing to talk about that. Why? The thought was to take the heat off allegations of American abuses (no need to worry, the Times goes with a tiny portion of the AP story on three of the Pendleton eight facing the death penalty if found guilty of murder). Call it the Coaltion of the Backstabbers. Or maybe the Coalition of the Willing Backstabbers. But if anyone wants to attempt to justify Tavernise's nonsense this morning on the basis that she's offering that allegation, note that she treats it as a tidbit and uses it to end her 'Qaeda' narrative, not open with it.

The first you learn of it is paragraph 26, where, out of the blue, a major is quoted saying, "It's regrettable that as a result of an exchange of fire he died." He? Who?

Then in paragraph 27, Tavernise writes: "Ali said that he heard sounds of a scuffle and that the British soldiers shouted at someone to stop. A man's voice answered 'God is great' in Arabic." And then Tavernise is done with her tidbit. (She's so unitnerested in her own tidbit that she doesn't do the usual "Shouted 'Allah Akbar'," which translates as 'God is great.'")

It's treated as a tidbit and possibly it should be (any tale involving the supposed Arabic cry of "God is great," should be treated as a fabricated story, as Australian community members know only too well). But if you're including it, you don't do so in a manner that leads readers to wonder if there were two men dead in paragraph 26 because for 25 paragraphs you've had nothing to say.

There are a number of ways a reporter could have handled this story. They could have tackled the intel angle, they could have tackled the allegation of the death of an apparently innocent man, but it takes a real Cokie to do nothing but repeat official sources. If this is any indication of what Tavernise has to offer now that she's returned to Iraq, someone pass on to Steve Roberts that there's a new Cokie in town.

The headline that should have run with this piece is, "Tavernise Returns to the Green Zone Determined to Out-Dexy Dexter Filkins." That's truly the only thing she achieves in thirty long paragraphs. (Where was Bill Keller screaming 'shorter!' on this? Star 'reporters' are rarely edited. Or, as Cokie's career demonstrates, fact checked.) A little less love of self, love of their own voice, eagerness to please officials and a little more actual interest in the topics they're reporting on would serve the readers but star 'reporters' exist to serve their own egos. (Even "officials" take a back seat to their own egos.)

FYI, this is a dictated entry. The e-mail address for this site is common_ills@yahoo.com.

Added: A link turned this into alphabet soup -- if you read this earlier in the morning. It's been fixed. And for those who wondered why the Times' "story" on yesterday's hearing wasn't noted, it wasn't worth noting. Kate Zernike hops in her taxi and does another hit in a few paragraphs (Carl Hulse is her fare for the day) that dismiss the hearing. There's a reason for that and anyone late to the game on Zernike should inform themselves by studying her hit on John Kerry this summer. Thanks to ___ for taking dictation.