Wednesday, September 29, 2004

How to Write a Headline about Iraq

The New York Times loves to editorialize in its headlines. Here's one from this morning: "Iraq Study Sees Rebels' Attacks as Widespread." I think the message we're supposed to take from that selective bit of information is this:


Or this:

Cut and run.

Actually, the article goes on to attain a degree of balance:
...The number of attacks has risen and fallen over the months....[T]he highest numbers were in April, when there was major fighting in Falluja, with attacks averaging 120 a day. The average is now about 80 a day....

But it is a measure of both the fog of war and the fact that different analysts can look at the same numbers and come to opposite conclusions, that others see a nation in which most people are perfectly safe and elections can be held with clear legitimacy....

Indeed, no raw compilation of statistics on numbers of attacks can measure what is perhaps the most important political equation facing Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and the American military: how much of Iraq is under the firm control of the interim government. That will determine the likelihood - and quality - of elections in January.

For example, the number of attacks is not an accurate measure of control in Falluja; attacks have recently dropped there, but the town is controlled by insurgents and is a "no go" zone for the American military and Iraqi security forces. It is a place where elections could not be held without dramatic political or military intervention.

The statistics show that there have been just under 1,000 attacks in Baghdad during the past month; in fact, an American military spokesman said this week that since April, insurgents have fired nearly 3,000 mortar rounds in Baghdad alone. But those figures do not necessarily preclude having elections in the Iraqi capital.

Pentagon officials and military officers like to point to a separate list of statistics to counter the tally of attacks, including the number of schools and clinics opened. They cite statistics indicating that a growing number of Iraqi security forces are trained and fully equipped, and they note that applicants continue to line up at recruiting stations despite bombings of them.

But most of all, military officers argue that despite the rise in bloody attacks during the past 30 days, the insurgents have yet to win a single battle.

"We have had zero tactical losses; we have lost no battles," said one senior American military officer. "The insurgency has had zero tactical victories. But that is not what this is about.

"We are at a very critical time," the officer added. "The only way we can lose this battle is if the American people decide we don't want to fight anymore."...
It will be a Vietnam if we decide to make it a Vietnam. But not otherwise.

Think of the headline the Times might have run: "Iraq Progressing Despite Insurgency; Fate Hinges on Americans' Resolve." Now that is editorializing in a headline.