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The Unreadable Implications of the New York Times

The Budgies Are Listless

by CHARLES M. YOUNG

On Thursday, January 5, I was waiting for the elevator in the lobby of my building when I was joined by a woman who lives up the hall from me. She was carrying a grocery bag with The New York Times poking out the top. “Why did you buy it?” I asked. “They just raised the price to $2.50. Who can afford that for a daily newspaper?”

“I have a very large birdcage,” she said. “It’s the only newspaper that fits the bottom of my birdcage.”

My neighbor is a classical musician who makes a living at it. She pays attention to politics and votes. She buys things. She’s a little older than the actors playing obedient yuppies in the NYT commercials that beg for subscriptions, but is otherwise their ideal reader.

“The only thing I don’t like about the Times is all the color pictures,” she continued. “One of my budgies is listless, and I think it might be chemicals leaching out of the pictures. So I cut them out before I put the paper in the cage. I may have to take my budgies to the vet.”

Afterward I sat in my apartment and thought, “Wow, that was the perfect lead to a Thomas Friedman column, one of those deals where he has a chance encounter that resonates with symbolism for some earth-shaking problem, like the death of print. Would Friedman see the budgies as upper management at the Times, making disastrous business decisions for the entire 21st century and crapping on journalists by cutting their benefits? Or would the budgies be the readers, listless with their diet of toxic ink? Or would the budgies be reporters caged by corporatism? The world is a flat birdcage, and the metaphors would drop like turds from the sky. Is it for Tom or myself that I cry?”

Perhaps I was being unfair, I further thought. Perhaps the Times had changed and I didn’t notice because I hadn’t read it regularly since the last millenium. Oh, I glance at it almost every day online. But a careful read? Nah. I hadn’t bought one outside of an airport for years. So, for $2.50, I bought a paper copy—“the world’s best journalism in its original form,” as the commercials say— the very same issue that my neighbor put on the bottom of her birdcage.

I spent three fitful hours reading that night. When I woke up the next morning, I couldn’t remember anything, except for an article about a girl group in Myanmar who had just released their first album. It was hard to tell if the girl group had anything to say, or if they were just acting like they had something to say, in the manner of corporate commodities like the Spice Girls and Lady Gaga. They did sing and dance in a mildly suggestive manner, which is novel and controversial in a socially conservative country run by a crazy military junta, but…I don’t know…was I supposed to be happy that the girl group was expressing itself, or sad that Western-style junk pop might be penetrating Myanmar?

When I went online later in the morning of January 6, I discovered an article by Robert Naiman of Just Foreign Policy saying that the Times had lied in an article by Steven Erlanger, who wrote that the International Atomic Energy Agency thought Iran’s nuclear program had a “military objective.” In fact, said Naiman, the IAEA inspections revealed only that Iran had “technology that could be consistent with building a bomb.”

“AIPAC,” he said, “is trying to trick America into another catastrophic war with a Middle Eastern country on behalf of the Likud Party’s colonial ambitions.”

Hmmm, I thought, how did I miss this sequel to the weapons of mass destruction that disgraced the Times when it was cheerleading the invasion of Iraq? I went back to the front page of the Times of January 5, and there it was in the fifth paragraph, above the fold: “The threats from Iran, aimed both at the West and at Israel, combined with a recent assessment by the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran’s nuclear program has a military objective, is becoming an important issue in the American presidential campaign.”

Okay. The problem when I read the story the first time was that I didn’t get past the headline and the first paragraph. The headline said: “In Bold Step, Europe Nears Embargo on Iran Oil”. The first sentence said, “European countries have taken their boldest step so far in the increasingly tense standoff with Iran over its nuclear program, agreeing in principle to impose an embargo on Iranian oil, French and European diplomats said on Wednesday.”

When you see a value-laden word like “bold” in a headline in the ostensibly objective news section, and then you see “boldest” in the first sentence of the story, you know that they really, really, really want you to think something is bold. And you know that you’re going to wade through a factory farm lagoon of bullshit. In this case, to spell it out, the thing they want you to believe “bold” is an act of war, which is what an embargo is.

So the neocons are drooling with bloodlust again. I already knew that. The only news value I saw the first time I read the article was that “bold” appears to be the new “robust.” In the Bush administration, pretty much any atrocity committed by the United States, any call for atrocity, or any weapon used in an atrocity, was “robust.” Now that robust is enfeebled with the connotation of innumerable Bush military fiascos in the Middle East, it’s time to dust off bold for the next round of fiascos. What, after all, is bolder than provoking a war that will disrupt oil production in the middle of a depression and could easily escalate into a nuclear exchange with Iran’s allies? Our grandchildren will sing songs about how bold we are. Or maybe robust will make a comeback by then.

At this point, my eyes bounced off the page, just like they bounce off the television screen whenever the president says anything. I didn’t catch the lie, because I didn’t read it in the first place. I therefore salute press critics like Robert Naiman and FAIR and Glenn Greenwald who can read NYT articles all the way to the end. I can’t.

While we’re on the topic of the bold embargo, did the Times lay off all the copy editors? “French and European diplomats”? When did France secede from Europe?

I did enjoy the last article in the news section of January 5, “Methods in a Cat Litter Ad Don’t Pass a Judge’s Smell Test” by Elizabeth A. Harris, which concerned a cat litter company suing another cat litter company for false advertising. The defendant claimed to have done 44 smell tests using “sealed jars of excrement” treated either with its cat litter or the plaintiff’s cat litter to prove which company’s product made the cat’s product smell better. Skeptical of the science behind the smell tests, a federal judge ruled in a hearing that the suit could proceed. The article survived the editing process with some humor intact—a benefit of laying off a bunch of editors?—and I assume Harris is praying every night that she gets assigned to cover the actual trial, but any cat-owning reader was left wondering, “Why were they doing the smell tests on cat excrement, which doesn’t smell at all two minutes after leaving the cat? It’s cat urine that smells like you just gargled with toilet bowl cleaner. Why didn’t they smell test the urine?”

Next I turned to the Corrections section on page 2. The best correction that day concerned “a type of bird that snow geese may try to displace when they arrive in the water of the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge in the wintertime. It is the white-fronted goose, not the white-footed goose. And the article referred imprecisely to the Tule goose. It is a subspecies of the white-fronted goose, not a separate species.”

Let me be fair here. I’ve made lots of mistakes like that. Every journalist has, because the human brain is imperfect, especially when it has deadlines and quotas. Let him who could tell a white-footed goose from a white-fronted goose cast the first stone. I don’t know anything about the reporter, Felicity Barringer, who wrote about the geese in question, but I imagine her as a Harvard graduate, a history major and veteran of the Crimson, and she’s thinking, “I could have been sent to Paris with a big expense account to promote the next war. I could have been sent to Federal Court in Manhattan to smell cat litter. But nooooooooooooo. They sent me to a swamp. In central California. In the middle of winter. They freeze my ass, they freeze my pension, and they publicly humiliate me because I don’t know one goose from another. Why didn’t I go to law school?”

So let us heap no more shame on Felicity Barringer. Let us salute the Times for manning up and admitting a mistake. Surely it would run a correction in the print edition on Iran’s non-bomb the next day, since they deleted the offending words from the online edition the same day they ran it. I mean, what’s more important to get straight? Provoking war with a country of 74 million people under false pretenses, or a white-fronted goose?

No correction the next day. Nor the next day. Nor the next day. Nor the next day. Nor the next day.

Finally, on January 11, I noticed alerts by Naiman and FAIR that the Times’ Public Editor, Arthur S. Brisbane, had addressed the issue in his blog. “The Times published 3,500 corrections last year, a huge volume that in itself requires a great deal of work to shepherd into print,” said Brisbane. “I usually agree with its decisions about what to correct and not correct, although there are sometimes cases where The Times’s judgment call and mine are not the same.”

In one year, 3,500 corrections? Jesus. Have they considered hiring more journalists?

Brisbane went on to quote at length from the original IAEA report, trying to show that a reasonable person could conclude that IAEA was saying that Iran was definitely pursuing a nuclear weapon, and he linked to Washington Post ombudsman, Patrick B. Pexton, who has similarly been soaked with torrents of outrage from readers when the Post has “overstated” the case for the next war. But Brisbane did finally conclude in a 51%-on-this-side, 49%-on-that-side kind of way that “the readers are correct on this,” and it’s “important because the Iranian program has emerged as a possible casus belli.”

That’s a substantial fraction of a concession there. But “judgment call”? It’s not even a disagreement. The Times knows that the information in the original article was false, and it knew it was false within a few hours of publication because it quickly deleted the false words from the online edition. What it hasn’t done is correct in print false information that remains in print. Does a misidentified casus belli deserve as much attention as a misidentified goose or not?

Meanwhile, as I write these words, another Iranian nuclear scientist has been assassinated, and the Times is doing the same turgid dance between the truth and what’s “fit to print.” I can’t even begin on that one. Let me just observe that there are two kinds of articles in the New York Times: those that have implications for America’s imperial project, and those that don’t have implications for America’s imperial project. The ones with implications are unreadable. The ones without implications are about cat litter.

So if I worked on the business side of the Times and were looking at circulation plunge by the tens of thousands every quarter, I would be a little panicked about the attractiveness of the product. I would talk to the art department about getting rid of the color pictures that might be poisoning my neighbor’s listless budgies. And if I were my neighbor’s veterinarian, I would check to see if the budgies had learned to read.

CHARLES M. YOUNG is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, the new independent Project Censored award-winning online alternative newspaper.