September 28, 2003

MORE ON MEDIA REPORTING AND IRAQ: Jay Rosen looks at the reporting on Ground Zero and observes:

There’s no script for what’s happening in Iraq; there was none for Ground Zero. “Did Bush and Rumsfeld have an adequate plan?” is good for point-scoring; but it’s a naive expectation for action and upheaval on this scale. I expect Americans to be good at problem-solving when there is no plan, when the bosses don’t know what to do, or aren’t around, when only an unscripted experiment can work.

So one thing I want to know from the press is: how have these virtues figured in the struggle to rebuild Iraq? That isn’t a negative story or a positive story; it’s just an interesting one… and “probably profound.” It’s not that there haven’t been such reports; there have. (See this, for example.) But in the master narrative for post-war Iraq, problem-solving could have a larger place, which might address some of the concerns about “negative” news.

I’ve seen a little reporting along those lines, but not much, and generally buried.

Rosen also offers this interesting observation:

On a speaking trip to The Netherlands two years ago, I noticed that every time I used the word “experiment,” my Dutch hosts would give me a blank look or reach for their beer. So I finally asked some Amsterdam friends about it. The Dutch think that if you start an experiment it means you don’t know what you’re doing, one of them said. The most likely outcome is to make things worse. “Oh,” I replied, “well, Americans have a different attitude.” “We know,” said my hosts, in unison and now laughing.

I think that ties in with the point noted by Scott Turow (quoted here) on the comparative fragility of European institutions and the political attitudes it produces. And I wonder if the attitude of many in the press — in which trying something that doesn’t work is a “failure” even if you learn from it, because it didn’t work the first time — isn’t something similiar.

Well, I’m not sure what the profound sociological point there is, though I think there is one. But I definitely think that there are a lot of good stories — not cheerleading, but interesting, and informative, and useful at getting things right in the future — that aren’t being reported because people are sticking to a tired Vietnam-era template.

UPDATE: Tim Blair has it all figured out.