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Free Press? — Why Now?
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Free Press?

Tristero at Hullabaloo got upset over the weekend about “the national discourse” because, with everything going on in the US right now, the first article in the New York Times weekly review was a piece by John F. Burns about feral cats in Iraq.

Burns was the Baghdad bureau chief, and has taken over the Times’ European desk in Britain.

On one level the piece, What Cats Know About War, is just as story about “a reporter’s cats”, an extended Cat Blogging entry, but it works at another level describing life in Baghdad in terms that many people can understand.

Having established that the bureau in Baghdad has walls so high and thick that even cats have trouble finding a way in, Burns notes:

One control measure, having the cats spayed, was unavailable, since all of Baghdad’s domestic-animal veterinarians seemed to have fled, among hundreds of thousands of other Iraqis who have sought sanctuary abroad…

Most people haven’t been in the military, but they know about going to the vet – except there aren’t any in the largest city in Iraq.

The last paragraph gives people a real feel for what it is like to be an Iraqi. Mr. Burns is shipping four cats to Britain and is talking to them to calm them down in the Baghdad airport.

A small crowd of Iraqis had gathered, and one among them, a middle-aged man who introduced himself as a physician traveling to Jordan to see his ailing mother, knelt down beside me and asked, in halting English, if I’d mind a question. By all means, I said. “Well then,” he said, his face breaking into a sad smile, “what I want to ask is this: This proposal you make, is it for four legs only, or also for two? Six months’ detention, British passport, free to stay, guaranteed home, this is excellent. I will take, and many other Iraqis, too.”

How many Americans would trade places with rescued feral cats?

This is the kind of thing you would read in samizdat writing during the Soviet era, hiding your thoughts in a parable to avoid problems with the authorities. It is a habit you get into when you are subjected to censorship.

Think Progress covers an appearance by CBS correspondent Lara Logan, on the The Tonight Show talking about the reality in Iraq.

Americans don’t know. People get fired for taking pictures of the cargo holds of aircraft filled with flag-draped coffins. The networks never show dead American soldiers. The arrival ceremony at Dover AFB is no longer public. The dead and wounded arrive in darkness.

The Malkintents attack anyone who veers from the party line, so the legacy media always walk the straight and narrow. Nothing the government can do is as effective as self-censorship by the media.


1 hipparchia { 10.17.07 at 9:51 pm }

i wondered about that.

my first reaction was like everybody else, in spite of the fact that i prefer cats to most people — wtf?! he’s cat blogging?! when there are thousands of people dying?!

i don’t think i’ve ever read anything else by john f burns, so i don’t know what his views are about the war.

that last bit, though, about the iraqi wishing to trade places with a feral cat, even with the draconian british quarantine, changed my whole view of the article. i hope the quote is for real, and not a piece of creative non-fiction.

[not that i have anything against creative non-fiction, having attended a workshop on it and produced some myself, but i’d really like for that to be a direct quote from an actual event.]

2 Bryan { 10.17.07 at 10:13 pm }

He has been with the Times for a long time and in a lot of wars, but I’m not a fan of the Times [Judith Miller]. The report is credible, given what Riverbend has reported on the problems of getting out of Iraq and the lack of options for refugees from Iraq.

We know that all of these people are dying, but, other than McClatchy and Reuters, the media doesn’t want to talk about it.

I spent a lot of time reading Soviet writing, so I look at things a little differently than most people.

3 Cookie Jill { 10.17.07 at 10:59 pm }

South American writers envelope their real thoughts about the world and home politics in their writing. They had to….if they openly wrote about torture, disappearing, etc., their lives would soon personally involve those topics.

United States citizens don’t do nuance very well.

4 Bryan { 10.17.07 at 11:05 pm }

People shouldn’t have to, Jillian. They should be free to say what they mean.

5 hipparchia { 10.17.07 at 11:52 pm }

hello. my name is hipparchia and i’m a newsaholic. if it even purports to be a newspaper of record, i can’t not read it [agree with you on the judith miller flap]. same with the news magazines.

my car recently developed a little electrical problem that was draining the battery. not wanting to put any time, effort, or money into fixing a car at the time, i just started pulling fuses until the problem went away. now that life is a bit saner, i could easily fix the problem, but really, y’all are lot safer now that i’m not barreling down the highway, yelling back at the idiots who infest my car radio.

i can certainly see why people would have this reaction. i did find myself involuntarily comparing the images from that piece to the mental images i had stored away from reading riverbend’s blog as i was reading it, so i guess it had its intended effect, on me at least.

the human memory apparatus is faulty and selective, so i can’t be sure, but it sure seems to me that the news media of yore covered the vietnam war with more outrage and grisly detail than the present-day msm is giving to this one. then again, i was just a kid, and my parents, in spite of being staunch republicans, were anti-war. they may have been heavily filtering what their kids saw on tv and in the newspapers and magazines.

6 Steve Bates { 10.18.07 at 12:14 am }

“… it sure seems to me that the news media of yore covered the vietnam war with more outrage and grisly detail than the present-day msm is giving to this one” – hipparchia

I’m reading a retrospective called The Jonathan Schell Reader. Schell’s first major gig was as a reporter in the Vietnam war, and the first extended report in this book is his first piece from that war, The Village of Ben Suc (1967). hipparchia, your memory is correct: the reportage from that war was brutally direct. Unfortunately, the main lesson learned by several later presidential administrations from the Vietnam experience was that they needed to control the media more effectively. And they certainly do.

(Schell is one of the best writers around, BTW; I recommend his later work as well, especially The Fate of the Earth, long ago available as a hardbound book, but also included in this anthology.)

7 Bryan { 10.18.07 at 12:21 am }

It was packaged raw and shipped out for the next available news cycle. It wasn’t immediate, but it was no more than hours old when it showed up on your TV screen during the “unpleasantness in Southeast Asia”. The war was televised and the Pentagon swore that that would never happen again.

What the military hasn’t tried is telling the truth. If you don’t know, you don’t know. If it’s a disaster, it’s a disaster. People really do appreciate being told the truth. There were some major screw-ups in WWII, but they were reported, investigated, and people were held responsible. We still won and people didn’t give up.

The problem is that the first time people discover that something has been covered up, that’s the end of credibility. People remember.

8 Cookie Jill { 10.18.07 at 12:26 am }

I agree with you Bryan. But the beauty of writing, such as Pablo Neruda’s poetry, is transfixing, and heartbreaking at the same time.

The Dictators

An odor has remained among the sugarcane:
a mixture of blood and body, a penetrating
petal that brings nausea.
Between the coconut palms the graves are full
of ruined bones, of speechless death-rattles.
The delicate dictator is talking
with top hats, gold braid, and collars.
The tiny palace gleams like a watch
and the rapid laughs with gloves on
cross the corridors at times
and join the dead voices
and the blue mouths freshly buried.
The weeping cannot be seen, like a plant
whose seeds fall endlessly on the earth,
whose large blind leaves grow even without light.
Hatred has grown scale on scale,
blow on blow, in the ghastly water of the swamp,
with a snout full of ooze and silence

9 hipparchia { 10.18.07 at 12:38 am }

glad to know my meory isn’t all that faulty, but it makes me that much angrier to be selectively fed bs.

10 Steve Bates { 10.18.07 at 12:49 am }

“Watching her, and the two litters of kittens she had over the following 18 months, offered we humans a new reaction to the cacophony of the war.” – John F. Burns

Oh, the horror, the grammatical horror… perhaps the NYT should hire me as an editor.

Seriously, I simply do not share Tristero’s assessment that Burns’s “cat blogging” constitutes a trivialization of war reporting. It is likely that I am fonder of cats than Tristero is, though he is far from an insensitive soul. (He is a composer of serious music in real life. I figured out who he is, and confirmed the fact by an exchange of emails, but I ain’t tellin’.) But we humans aren’t the only critters whose lives are ruined by war. Should a state of war diminish the worth of the lives of feral cats? Not in my estimation.

Jill, thanks for the Neruda poem… moving indeed.

11 Badtux { 10.18.07 at 1:13 am }

The Mighty Fang is sitting on my lap and purring loudly. That has absolutely nothing to do with this posting. I just felt like thinking about something other than the people of Baghdad.

Reading the newspapers here in Soviet America has always required something of a keen eye for reading between the lines if you wished to approach anything resembling the truth, just look at the “coverage” of the Iran-Contra hearings (the crimes of the Reagan administration there were similar to the crimes of the Nixon administration ten years prior, but the press had been purged of “subversives” by that time so there was none of the outraged coverage that Watergate received), but over the past ten years I’ve noticed that reporters have had to become far more subtle in how they slip nuggets of truth into morasses of “truthiness” in order to slip it past keen-eyed editors. And many stories, editors simply kill because they do not fit in with the overall picture that editors wish to present to the world. My first indication of the power of the religious right, for example, was an anti-abortion rally that shut down a major city in North Carolina for an afternoon. This rally was covered by… uhm… nobody. Not any of the newspapers in the region. Not any of the television stations of the region. And thus not by any of the national press, which relies on reciprocal agreements with local press to get local stories. Because it was embarassing to the city fathers of this major city, who wished to present their city to major employers as a progressive enclave where their upper-middle-class employees would be happy, rather than as an enclave of inbred buck tooth foul mouth redneck cretins.

It’s just sad that a respected reporter has to write an article about cats now to slip even a bit of truth past the filters at his bosses’ desks… sigh. A free press. It’d be a great idea.

12 Bryan { 10.18.07 at 9:37 am }

The practice does invoke some great writing, but it doesn’t help to spread information because you have to be “in on the joke” to understand what is being said. Much of what can be read as boring social realism is outrageously funny if you know what is happening. Unfortunately it doesn’t translate well because it depends on puns or double entendre which only work in the native language.

If you look at the literature of war you will find an emphasis on birth during wars. It is a human mechanism to shut out some of the horror, an attempt to convince ourselves that something good might result.

Oh, yes, Badtux, can’t have those Yankees getting word of quaint local customs or attitudes that would make them reluctant to spend their dollars in the Triangle.

All of the Nazis died in the war, all of the Klan disappeared. Without the call of money available on television people would never be aware of the odd branches of ?Christianity? that have sprouted down here. They maintain a generally friendly front, but occasionally slip. The code words and euphemisms hide the truth from the public.