Sunday, April 15, 2007

PERSPECTIVE

“The manner in which objects appear to the eye in respect to their relative positions and distance, one’s mental view of facts, ideas and their interrelationships; the ability to see all the relevant data in a meaningful relationship.”

The importance of perspective has never been as clear to me as it has been since I returned from Iraq and I have watched the version of events there that is portrayed to the American public each day. It is not that the information being conveyed is inaccurate, but rather that it is incomplete. It is one dimensional, lacking perspective. The bombings, killings and other atrocities that form the majority of our media coverage of events in Iraq are certainly happening – these events are undeniable. The danger is in the perception that this is all that is happening there.

As I was initially confronted by this skewed coverage upon my return to the United States, my reaction was, “What would people think of life in America, especially in our cities, if all we saw were the murders, atrocities and tragedies?” Then it occurred to me, those events are primarily what we see in the news. So what is the difference? It is that we have our own experiences and reality to compare to the reporting which allows us to put it in perspective. We may read about a murder in Syracuse, but our own experiences and relationships convey to us that most people were not involved in violent criminal activity yesterday. Thousands of people went about their daily lives in a peaceful, productive fashion.

Most members of the American public have not had the opportunity to put events in Iraq in perspective. They have not had the chance to see with their own eyes the progress that has been made, particularly over the past year and particularly in Western Iraq (which has been the epicenter of the insurgency for most of the war). While in Iraq I had the opportunity to compare media coverage to my own daily experiences and put it all in context. Since I have returned home, I have been shocked by the absolute lack of balance here on the home front. It comes as no surprise that atrocities are favored over stories about progress – the expression, “if it bleeds, it leads,” is well-known and true. More disappointing are the charged words and misleading images. The line between reporting and editorializing seems more blurred than I recall before deploying. Ever notice the images which run in the background during most cable news stories? Have you noticed that they use the same footage over and over? What you may not realize without perspective is that those images are months or even years old and don’t reflect the current reality in many cases. Images are very powerful… and sometimes powerfully misleading.

I point these things out not to fuel a politically charged argument about media bias, but rather to alert people to a reality. You are not getting the whole story. The reasons for incomplete coverage are numerous. Factor number one is the inherent complexity of everything in the Iraq and the Middle East. It is not easily boiled down to a sound-byte or a two minute story. There is also extremely little coverage of anything outside Baghdad. In four months of extensive travels throughout Al Anbar Province, I encountered three journalists (one print, one blogger, one broadcast team). The vast majority of reporting comes from a media pool in Baghdad largely covering the same stories in the same way.

There is an additional definition of perspective I omitted at the onset, “a technique of depicting volumes and spatial relationships on a flat surface.” Just as in art, this is a complex task in journalism. A newspaper article or news broadcast is also like a flat surface and despite the talent of the journalist, the reader will never have as complete a view from just one vantage as they would by comparing multiple views. For this reason, I see it as a duty of all those who return from Iraq to share their experiences - a duty I intend to fulfill myself in the coming weeks. The debate we are having over our present situation and future direction in Iraq is a healthy endeavor in a democratic society. This debate can only be enhanced by improved perspective.

9 Comments:

At 7:11 PM, Blogger Ed said...

Welcome back!!! I'm sure you'll find the nice little bit of cold wet Great Lakes spring weather to be comforting enough!

I wish I could find the article from awhile back on the state of Journalism education. The gist, I believe, was that if would-be journalists spent more time studying history, they might better recognize a good story, and one that had real relevance.

One gets the feeling these days that the MSM has lost all sense of storytelling when it comes to war. Ernie Pyle seems to have no meaning or stature whatsoever to today's editors. On hearing an NPR story recently which interviewed actual soldiers, I nearly crashed the car in giddy surprise.

Yet how should the intrepid journalist know how to cover war? We have all but erased stories of people in general from our schools and curriculae. Lessons primary or collegiate don't talk of George Washington the young Major/Diplomat stumbling into a world war, or Lincoln the Captain of Infantry perhaps not as capable a commander as might be desired. Certainly Dienekes or Alvin York but rairly visit a classroom.

We give students too many -isms, -ologies, thematic units and eras; and too few stories of great people, events, and deeds heroic or dastardly.

It goes deeper than that, of course: there's a culture of criticism present which transcends genre or domain. Most everyone outside the engineering departments at universities are taught that criticism is all, and crafting a potent critique is all the building that usually matters. Journalists merely take this attitude to the extremes.

Then, too, the President is not without blame. Or at least he has been ill served by his public relations staff who have oft failed to humanize the war. The 2006 State of the Union address was his first to introduce people in the gallery with their stories, and even that could have been better staged. Even I can only take so many retreats to the word "Democracy".

A scholar last month reminded us of FDR gathering the nation for a fireside chat and asking each American family to bring a Rand McNally world map to the radio so they could follow the troops and the strategic vision. A2007 Whitehouse, 5 years into war and generations of technology past FDR could certainly do better at storytelling.

Thanks for your work. Enjoy the family if not the weather. And good luck!

Ed Jones
OpenHistoryProject.org

 
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