Belmont Club

Eyes wide open

Michael Totten goes out with US troops in post-Surge Baghdad, a place much quieter than it was before, but still menacing, still full of problems.  Like a lot of his work, it captures the esssentials of a scene but doesn’t gloss over the contradictions. From the brief time I spent working with him, I think his main strength is to simply tell a story with all the funny, sad and absurd parts left in, in broad enough terms to let you glimpse the whole picture and ragged enough to convey that you will never understand it all. Take this paragraph, for instance, describing a security census in Baghdad.

The U.S. Army was conducting what it called “census work,” where soldiers knocked on doors at random and asked residents their names, their occupations, and a couple of security questions. Citizens selected for visits had no choice but to let the soldiers in, though they were always asked nicely as if they did have a choice.

A man wearing pajamas opened the first door we knocked on and squinted at us. His hair was messed up, and he looked annoyed. I wanted to apologize for bothering him. “Yes,” he said, “please, come in, welcome.” He spoke perfect English. I could tell by the tone in his voice that he didn’t want us in his house. He didn’t seem hostile, just irritated that he was forced to get out of bed. Lieutenant Dimenna rattled off his list of questions: How many people live in this house? What are all your names? Where does everyone work? How many cars do you have?

The man’s adult son came downstairs and said hi. He did seem happy to see us, but the old man was still peeved. I felt like an intruder. I didn’t take pictures. I didn’t even ask if I could take pictures.

What’s so different about Totten’s style of work? It is usually easy to summarize a four page NYT or WSJ article into three sentences. But it is hard to repeat the gist of one of Michael Totten’s pieces without going on for nearly as long as he does. It’s better to say, “read the whole thing” than to attempt a summary. Some readers will no doubt recognize what not being able to reduce a message to a shorter length signifies: nearly lossless compression of a complex reality. The more complex a piece of information, the harder it is to compress. The reason lossy compression programs are able to shrink files is that they treat things that are nearly alike as the same and represent them with the same symbol but only at the cost of throwing away what is adjudged to be insignificant differences. A truly lossless account of things means that you can exactly reproduce the uncompressed data from the shortened version.  The lossy compression of most newspaper stories means you can never get back even the essentials of a situation from what you read in the papers.

There’s a reason for this. Newspapers for reasons of slant and economics tend to reduce stories to familiar templates. They have little standard plots into which all the variety of the world is invariably shoehorned. And while this approaches manages to squeeze things into a consistent editorial policy and in the scant space above the fold of newspaper, it does so at the cost of throwing things away. You get sound bites, if that. The result is that you can read a decade’s worth of Newsweek and never be the wiser. If you’ve ever gotten the feeling that most NYT articles are all variations on a theme, that’s the reason.

The incompressible story gets you as close as you can to a scene without actually being there. But unfortunately, the kind of work Michael Totten does is very hard to support in financial terms. The numbers are depressing. Air fare, insurance, the mandatory body armor, ground transportation, etc — all cost money, and there’s no employer except the readers of his site and the occasional magazine which buys his stories. Even with burgers at a buck apiece in Iraq, as Michael reports,  the cost of burgers add up. Before the economic downturn, it might have been a do-able proposition to fund things through reader contributions. But with the advent of hard times, there is less and less spare money to go around. I know Michael is finding it difficult just to keep going.

One day he might just have to stop. Then we would be back to the standard MSM product, made all the more assembly line-like by the shrinking of the traditional media flagships themselves. We’ll be back to the articles which, despite their length, are really no longer than a sentence and indistinguishable from other stories. We will have real information loss. I think the real challenge for the future media is how to make the Michael Totten model of newsgathering a viable proposition. During the six years that Iraq was fought, a few independent journalists, like Michael Yon, played a disproportionate role in describing things as they were.  Not in rosy terms, but as they were. Uncompressed. Without them, the US would have been much closer to losing the domestic political fight to win it. Today, as the US reorients itself towards Afghanistan, the question is whether we as a society can afford to do without the tellers of long, complex and un-cookie cuttered account. Support Michael and those like him if you can. They’re worth it.