May 11, 2008

Lebanon: Reporting versus Spin in the LA Times

The violence in Lebanon has calmed down. Concerned Arab leaders are meeting on Sunday to discuss the situation and make proposals. Hezbollah has "melted away" from their occupation of the neighborhood near the American University of Beirut. The Lebanese Army has apparently acceded to Hezbollah demands to correct actions taken by the government.

However, in Beirut on Saturday there was an incident in which at least three people were shot and at least two killed. It is unclear if the two deaths were from the three shootings. A picture in the Los Angeles Times Sunday Edition, page A3 shows at least three wounded people, one of whom appears to be dead (no one is attending him). Two articles appeared with the picture on the same page. I happened to move first to the one written by Raed Rafei, “special to the Times,” so he is probably a local stringer. Rafei had a lot of details. According to him, Sunni mourners headed toward a cemetery carrying the coffin of a young man, age 23, who had been a supporter of the government against Hezbollah. The man's pregnant 17 year-old widow was in the procession.

Given these facts, one can understand the anger that might have been present along with the sadness. Some in the procession fired guns into the air. Some men “on scooters ahead of the procession ordered shopkeepers to shut down their businesses. Boisterous slogans against the Shiite militant group rang out.”

And then violence occurs: “Suddenly a large group of men scurried toward a store that sold auto parts. They started breaking the windows with sticks and shouting, 'God is great!'”

And notice what happens next: “The shopkeeper, reported to be a Shiite opposition supporter, quickly grabbed his assault rifle and fired at the crowd. Two people were killed and 15 injured.”

The rest of this story deals with reactions to the shooting, including interviews with the mother of one of the victims and others. After the procession passed, apparently, the shop that had been attacked was torched by “angry government supporters.” Others were encouraged to get guns and retaliate; they would get their arms “ 'from the north of the country, from Syria or even Israel.' ”

(As an aside, I find it interesting that a supporter of the government would even think it possible that arms even could be obtained from Israel to begin with. Syria you understand; northern Lebanon and the Druse militias or the Lebanese mafiosi you understand, but Israel?)

Now what strikes me about this out break of violence is that if a similar attack on a shop had occurred during a demonstration in the United States, particularly in a gun-toting state like Florida or Texas, say after a demonstration against police brutality, and a shop keeper had pulled a gun and shot the people trying to smash his store, there would be understanding from the gun lobby, maybe even sympathy, even as they condemned the shooting itself. An American shopkeeper definitely would not have used an AK-47, and he probably would have been arrested and tried. But you can foresee, I think, that the American shopkeeper's right to preserve his life and his property would have been a particularly strong part of his legal defense.

I am not trying to defend the violence, but to point out that the matter of defending property, even by using a gun, is frequently lauded, and certainly “understandable” in more conservative circles. Recall the orders to shoot to kill in post-Katrina New Orleans. Think of armed Korean shopkeepers during the Rodney King riots here in Los Angeles. Supporters of the Second Amendment--Libertarians, say--would have had no problem with the shopkeeper's defense, only with the extremity of it.

Now, we don't know if the facts here are absolutely accurate, but they occur in a piece that appears to be neutral, uses direct quotations, and which qualifies statements if things are ambiguous, or uncertain. That is to say, the story has a credible feel to it. You get the impression that the shopkeeper, apart from his possible sectarian leanings, which are thought to be supportive of Hezbollah, may have clearly been defending his livelihood and his life against an attacking mob. If he was a supporter, perhaps a sign in his window outraged the hotheads in the procession. Perhaps they began the violence. End of Exhibit 1.

Yet as the Times officially presents it in the top article on the page, a "gunman believed to be a Shiite" causes the violence. Turn to exhibit two.

This prominent piece, "Lebanon leaders take steps to calm conflict with Hezbollah," is written by a Times staff writer, Borzou Daragahi. That he is a staff writer suggests that his work could combine his own writing and an editor's revisions.

But the “facts” of what is most probably the very same funeral are presented differently in the prominent story. The description of the incident occurs three paragraphs in. Opening with reference to Lebanon's long civil war (1975-1990)--the dates of which are not given but should be--and to “tit-for-tat sectarian attacks” in Iraq, it then describes the action:

At a late morning funeral for a victim of the previous day's violence, a gunman believed to be a Shiite opened fire on Sunni mourners in the procession who had trashed his shop.

Note how the initial presentation is of a “gunman,” not a shopkeeper. He is believed to be a Shiite (as in the stringer's story, “reported to be a Shiite opposition supporter”), so the uncertainly, the hearsay element is conveyed, but the essential fact about the person is not: that is, some of the mourners had “trashed his shop.” The Times writer or editor, in the act of "spinning" the information to emphasize "gunman" does not even deal with the logical contradiction: how can the people be in the procession at the same time that they trash the shop? Further, note how the assumption is that the "gunman" is believed to be a Shiite, which is different than "believed to be a supporter of Hezbollah." (He probably was a Shiite, although other reporting I have read in the past few days on the Lebanese situation has suggested that even some Sunnis actually support Hezbollah.)

The contortion of the sentence indicates, does it not, the mental cross purposes that beget the spin?

Subtle but obvious distortions like this show the difference between reporting with objectivity and reporting with bias, and with the spin obviously against the Shiite Hezbollah supporter, termed a "gunman" rather than a "shopkeeper." We don't know for sure that the person who started firing was a Shiite or a “supporter of Hezbollah.”

The prominent fact is not that the “gunman opened fire on the people marching in the procession” but that a shopkeeper, attacked by people from the procession, grabbed his firearm and probably excessively defended his life or his property. It would be incorrect in this context to call him a "gunman," which suggests something altogether different from an irate and frightened shopkeeper. If you had read only the Times staff reporter's story, that prominent fact is subordinated into the relative clause "who had trashed his shop.” Essential principles of writing indicate that such clauses have less than primary details, so in the act of relegating a primary detail to the relative clause, the writer/editor reveals his bias.

And loses credibility as well. You rarely get an opportunity to check the origin of the spin on the same page. A defender of the Times might say that the two stories were juxtaposed for that very purpose. In that case, the "official" story should have reflected the objectivity in the local stringer's story. The local stringer's detail, shorn of any spin, is far preferable to the “official” Times staffer's reporting on how the violence continues, as the subhead put it.

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