A Cheesehead’s Musings on the Sunday NYT


Milwaukee, WI.

America is a big, gorgeous country. Thank the heavens, also diverse. If the fate of all Americans is intertwined in some way, it’s also a good bet that the world looks different from Wisconsin than from New York.

Now, this is no diatribe on the evils of the East Coast or the insular politics of the D.C. “beltway.” Here in the land of Brett Favre and Ahman Green, we embrace our friends on the coasts, in the south and in the mountains. But honesty and directness are particularly Midwestern virtues, and it’s about time someone–even a Cheesehead–took the New York Times to task.

Let us then take a closer look at Sunday’s Times, for therein the battle for truth is being waged, and lost. Again and again, despite meticulous wordsmithing, dangerous assumptions become impossible to ignore. And if these words run to sarcasm, forgive me as I forgive Times writers.

Eric Schmitt’s big front page article on American G.I.s in Iraq describes Iraqi guerrillas as a “shadowy,” “criminal” “insurgency,” engaging in “hit-and-run strikes.” Schmitt’s use of terms like “gangs” and “attackers” makes Iraqis sound like caricatured gangstas on a drive-by, only with mortars and explosives instead of Uzis.

The article quotes military personnel–without refuting falsehoods or providing perspective–rhapsodizing about how to maintain the “continuing welcome” of “ordinary” Iraqis who are now “accusing [U.S.] soldiers.” There is no indication that the U.S. military, the most powerful fighting force in world history, is in fact an occupying power which invaded a sovereign nation in violation of international law. Schmitt merely quotes soldiers saying things like “We’re not God. But we signed up for this,” or “Things ar! e a lot better here [since the invasion].” Our troops, we learn, are frustrated that “Iraqis are not taking the lead” and say “it doesn’t seem like [Iraqis] want to help themselves.” The article concludes by praising a lieutenant for ordering his men to “tidy up” and giving $120 to a household whose door was just blasted off its hinges with shotguns, then ransacked, based on the mistaken belief that the occupants were part of the “insurgency.”

In the “Week In Review” section, we find an interesting piece by Daniel Okrent, “The Public Editor,” who, we are told, “serves as the readers’ representative.” Okrent lets two Times reporters off the hook for their “elision” (omission) of two crucial words in quoting President Bush, who said he would support gay marriage “if necessary.” The newspaper’s unwillingness to acknowledge the importance of the “innocent misstep,” Okrent admits, might make some readers think the “simple mistake” was a “willful misdeed.”

Maybe readers are ready to indict the “Gray Lady” because she fails to maintain her objectivity; as we are told in an interesting review of Marianne Moore’s poetry in the Book Review, “omissions are not accidents.” In recent memory, the Times has run transparent front-page articles by Judith Miller on Iraq’s nonexistent “weapons of mass destruction,” greatly amplifying the Bush Administration’s war drums. (We won’t even start on Jayson Blair.) Or maybe readers simply find it hard to believe that not one but two of what ought to be very competent reporters somehow missed a crucial qualif! ier, inexplicably assuming President George W. Bush capable of voicing outright support for gay marriage. The Times remains this country’s most intelligent and comprehensive daily, a source of information a writer based in a northern outpost like Milwaukee can ill afford to ignore. But if “skepticism is the status quo” when it comes to “the government in Washington,” as two-thirds of Americans expressed in last week’s Times/CBS poll (Week In Review), why is the Times so indifferent to its own mistakes?

Is it simple arrogance? The paper’s ad for itself, on page 12, lauds its readers as “the world’s most influential, affluent and educated consumers, business leaders and decision makers.” On the Op-Ed page, editors throw out adjectives like “scandalous” and “shocking” when talking about north African, Middle Eastern or Asian nations’ efforts to acquire the Bomb (Iran, North Korea, Libya, Algeria and Iraq are mentioned). Meanwhile, the U.S. has been the world’s biggest arms merchant for a half-century, yet our mistakes, like arming Saddam and the Taliban, go unmentioned. And why would small countries not fight mightily to ensure their own survival when a gorilla like the United States of America is kicking ass on five continents?

One might as well ask William Safire, who writes a column in the Times magazine, why he refers to himself in the third person.

What about mad cow? Any words of wisdom? Here’s a timely post-holiday article (“Jumble of Tests May Slow Mad Cow Solution”) on how restaurant chains are designing menus for millions on low-carb (high-beef) diets such as Atkins or South Beach. Did you think mad cow disease was a hot topic just because many other countries stopped buying our beef, because we tested only 20,000 out of 35 million head slaughtered last year, or because Secretary of Agriculture Ann M. Veneman’s response to the crisis has been minimization? Whoops–yesterday’s news. Writer Sandr! a Blakeslee adroitly points out that “the universe of testing for this elusive disease is murky.” And “conventional testing methods are cumbersome” (“but a greater problem lies in the mysterious course of mad cow disease”). In truth, the greatest problem lies in government’s response to the problem, and mainstream media’s failure to cover the story adequately.

“The United States invaded Iraq to install its vision of democracy, based on free speech and equal opportunity,” Edward Wong postulates in Sunday’s “Week In Review.” Besides revising (updating) history, Wong asks whether of not Iraq should be split into several nations, a question that assumes we have the right to do that. (Well, we did do that to Central America once.) Wong writes that “American officials are focusing on how to create a working democracy” (that’s one of the things they’re focusing on). Remember, Mr. Wong, the first thing our troops secured upon entering Baghdad was oil infrastructure. (Meanwhile, the world-famous Koranic Library and National Museum were being looted under our noses.)

In an essay titled “Naked Terror” in the Times magazine, Jeffrey Rosen writes “cable TV isn’t the only institution of democracy that has an incentive to exaggerate risks.The vicious cycle at this point should be clear,” Rosen writes. “The public fixates on low-probability but vivid risks [like terrorism] because of images we absorb from television and from politicians.” Newspapers like the Times, then, are innocent?

We come across an interview (one page, huge photo) with Tom Kean, head of the “independent” commission investigating 9/11, by Deborah Solomon. Any tough questions–say, about the well-established Bush–Bin Laden family connection, or White House efforts to stall the investigation? Solomon gives us “Do you feel the 9/11 commission has had full access the the documents you need?” The answer–duh–is “yes.”

Such cream puff treatment of the very real questions as to why the President and other neoconservatives are trying to slow down an investigation into 9/11, or why all information related to 9/11 has been so closely held, is a prerequisite for articles like James Traub’s “The Things They Carry,” the Times magazine’s cover story. Traub analyzes why Democrats are such a bunch of scared rabbits in foreign policy. “The attacks of 9/11 ended the brief post-cold-war interval and recreated elements of both the psychological and the strategic environment of the cold-war 1960s,” Traub writes. If questions about how 9/11 happened and who has gained from it are irrelevant and best left to complaint bureaucrats lik! e Kean and wink-wink writers like Solomon, we should be discussing the strategies of Democrats for dealing with the “new” landscape. If, on the other hand, the 9/11 attacks were convenient and dug the Bush Administration out of a crisis–if (shh, shh) the events of 9/11 were actually precipitated by neoconservatives, (the Project for a New American Century detailed the necessity of just such a “Pearl Harbor” event) Well. Historians accept today that Nero set Rome afire so he could rebuild it, though such thought was anathema during Nero’s time. Traub says the 9/11 “attacks” transformed our e! nvironment, but it would be just as true to say that our government’s “war on terror” has transformed things, yet we won’t read that in the Times.

The title of Traub’s article is borrowed from a 1986 short story by Tim O’Brien that tells, unforgettably, the horrors of the Vietnam War. Traub, or whoever titled the story, should read O’Brien again before using his genius to scold the Democratic Party for losing the impetus to war and proffering baloney such as “Hawkishness or dovishness on Iraq thus does not correlate with some larger difference in worldview, as, for example, the left and right views on Vietnam once did.” I’d like to respond to Traub’s obfuscations with less circuitous profanities at this point, but my New Year’s Resolution stops me. (Traub writes a sentence later that “And yet it sure feels as if it does.”) Tim O’Brien would never mention, as Traub does, Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons in killing 300,000 people and not write that those very same weapons were supplied by–guess who–us.

Did I mention that, all sarcasm aside, I still really like this newspaper, in all its 28-page glossy ad section glory?

In the magazine’s Style column, “The Quicker Fixer-Upper,” by Mary Tannen, we learn that “serenity, like everything, has its price.” ($300 plus extra for “seaweed salad and green tea and other stuff.”) “Reconnected to ki, the energy that makes up and underlies the universe,” Tannen tells us, “you leave with a bag full of lotions, serums and soaps.” Actually, I find inner peace in yoga exercises (free), sitting meditation (free) and volunteering at a local homeless shelter, Casa Maria–where, truth be told, I sometimes leave with generic soaps donated by Target. But that’s just me, and I don’t write for the New York Times.

The SundayStyles section always offers a few new words. This week, it’s “eiderdown,” which Webster tells me is a comforter filled with the fine soft down used by female northern sea ducks to lining their nests. Guy Trebay reveals his neurotic side while taking on an easy target, self-help books: “just when it is obviously time to draw a healing yoga breath or pause for that moment of mindfulness or relax my tongue to ease tension in my jaw, neck and face to break into spontaneous song so that music can fill my heart, something else happens. A whiny voice starts whispering in my inner ear.” In “To Tranquillity, Cabbie, and Step on It,” Trebay reviews a book entitled 1,001 Ways to Relax, and his “little whiny inner voice wants to know how the co! mma in the title of the book got there.” Like all Times writers, Trebay uses the proper but antiquated qualifier “Mr.” to refer to the book’s author, Mike George, even while ridiculing him. Poor Mr. George.

Moving on to the Arts & Leisure section, Michael Azerrad informs us of a new movement in rock music: “therapy rock.” Azerrad’s article, “Punk’s Earnest New Mission,” is interesting, but its subject is so, well, safe. Good Charlotte is, of course, pure MTV, middle class and white, but the real question is, why do other artistic movements, say, hip-hop’s provocative leanings toward anarchy, never get covered? To be fair, ninety percent of the section’s 40 pages is movie ads anyway, so there’s no space.

In Travel the truth of the story is hiding in plain sight: a half-page, exquisitely colorful photograph of a Papua New Guinea tribesman in full regalia. The story is summarized below: “Traditions still exist in Papua New Guinea, but they take some searching.” Traditions still exist? Are they sure? Did they ask any actual natives? Let me take a shot: “Objectivity still exists in the New York Times, but it takes some searching.”

Just to be fair, I’ll send these musings to the Times. However, as I am not (going down the list) a Princeton professor, WNYC talk-show host, Executive Editor of the New York Times Almanac or professor at the University of Virginia, I won’t hold my breath.

THACHER SCHMID lives in Wisconsin. He can be reached at: thacherschmid@hotmail.com