What’s the difference between good reporting and hardly reporting at all? Look at this comparison of two different reports from the same newspaper printed on the same day – The New York Times for Saturday, September 26, 2009:
In The Arts Section, there is a review of the new ABC-TV drama “FlashForward.” No, that’s not a typo. ABC wants it printed as a single word despite the double capitalization. This is a futuristic, science fiction thriller, a drama with many more questions than answers, a plot rife with ambiguity and subject to varying interpretations from reasonably intelligent people with reasonably different points of view. As a brand new TV show the main question about it is – Will viewers be shown the answers by the season’s end? Look carefully at how The Times’ reviewer writes about this.
“… the producers (of “FlashForward”) have said repeatedly that almost all of the questions posed in the first episode – “virtually” all of them, Mr. Goyer said – will be answered by the end of the first season. Virtually? It is an important caveat.”
Now, that’s good reporting. Why? Because the reporter recognizes a caveat, a qualification when he hears one. And furthermore, the reporter clearly understands his obligation to point out the implications of such a statement. There is doubt there – about the show’s outcome - and the reader knows it because The New York Times has done a good job of reporting.
So much for popular culture.
What about the really important stuff? What about the life-and-death matters of today’s perilous world situation? How does The New York Times report on such weighty affairs of state?
The #1 issue of the day – today’s front-page story - is the disclosure of Iran’s newest uranium enrichment plant. “Deception” cries The Times’ 5-column wide headline, together with a photo of the US President backed by the serious faces of the French President and the British Prime Minister. The New York Times story begins its second paragraph this way:
“In a day of high drama…”
No reader could possibly doubt the seriousness of the situation, which is to say the nuclear threat posed by Iran. After all – no nuclear threat… no “day of high drama” … no frowning faces from the traditional Great Western Powers.
Then… buried a little deeper in the article we find this tidbit:
“American intelligence officials say it will take at least a year, perhaps five, for Iran to develop the full ability to make a nuclear weapon.”
Unlike the reviewer of ABC’s “FlashForward” The Times’ front-page reporter fails to see the caveat, the qualification or the possibility for doubt. Anytime someone uses the phrase “at least” don’t they lose the high ground when measurement is in question? What does “at least” mean? Not to mention the inclusion of “perhaps five (years).”
Which is it – one year or five? That’s some “at least,” some leeway don’t you think. Four years! And if not one, “perhaps five” - why not six or seven or eight or nine… or fifteen? How many years must pass before any reasonable focus is completely lost? We’ll never know because The New York Times doesn’t bother to mention it.
And what do they mean by “full ability to make a nuclear weapon” – huh? What exactly is “full ability?” And does the phrase “to make” mean they “will” make? Does it mean they already “have made?” … or what? If some 31 nations already have operating nuclear power plants and some 14-18 countries openly admit to enriching uranium, right now, today – does that means that they all have the “full ability to make a nuclear weapon” while Iran does not?
Later in the same story, The Times reports this questionable logic about the Iranian enrichment plant’s supposed purpose:
“Moreover, its location (the enrichment plant still under construction), deep inside an Iranian Revolutionary Guards base about 20 miles from the religious center of Qum, strongly suggested it was designed for covert use in weapons, they (intelligence officials) said.”
Where’s the caveat here? Where is the qualification or the reasonable explanation?
Imagine that you were about to build something – something beneficial to yourself but harmless to others – something that many others all around the world already have in operation without controversy – and imagine that the Vice President of the most powerful country on earth publicly favored bombing you and the “something” you wanted to build. Imagine too that your near-neighbor (itself a nuclear power!) also wanted to launch a “preemptive attack” against you. Now, imagine where you might decide to build this “something.”
Does deep underground, perhaps even on a military base, begin to make any sense?
Does that “strongly suggest” a weapons use? Or does it just suggest you might want to keep your “something” from being blasted to smithereens by the mightiest military power on the planet, a country that was already bombing and occupying your most immediate neighbors on both sides of you? If you didn’t put your “something” underground, you’d be pretty stupid, wouldn’t you?
Imagine one more thing – imagine if the front-page story about Iran had been written by the reporter who reviewed the new television show “FlashForward” while the TV review had been written by the front-page reporters for The New York Times.
Then you would know the difference between good reporting and hardly reporting at all.