Dynamist Blog

We Need More Feature Reporting from Iraq

Although news correspondents tend to get the glory, feature stories with longer time horizons often give readers more truth about the world than scattershot, often decontextualized news reports. If we want to have any sense of what's really going on in Iraq, we need much more feature reporting--like yesterday's great page-one piece by the WSJ's Greg Jaffe:

RAMADI, Iraq -- In the space of four minutes in May, two Humvees in Capt. Nicholas Ayers's unit were hit by roadside bombs. In the chaos, one vehicle was left alone as soldiers, injured and under fire, took cover in a school and radioed for help.

By the time Capt. Ayers arrived on the scene, Iraqis had looted the Humvee's machine gun and high-tech gun sights. Losing equipment to the enemy is a mistake that can ruin an officer's career. Standard Army practice holds that the area should be searched immediately.

Instead, Capt. Ayers, 29 years old, took a risk. He went to the village sheik's house. As a sign of respect, he said, he wouldn't search the village. But he gave the local leader 48 hours to find and return the equipment. "If we don't get the equipment back, I am going to come back with my men and tear apart every house in this village," he recalls saying. If the gear was returned, he promised to reduce patrols in the area.

The gamble ran counter to Capt. Ayers's training, which states that the longer troops wait to search an area, the less chance they'll find what they are looking for. His bosses told him he had made a huge blunder. Two days later, though, the sheik returned every scrap of looted equipment to the Army. Later, he would pay a heavy price for that move.

"I was floored," Capt. Ayers says. "The incident made me rethink the tactics I was using, my relationship with the local sheiks. It made me rethink just about everything."

Fighting the volatile, growing insurgency in Iraq is putting increased responsibility on younger, lower-ranking officers, who are learning through improvisation and error. For the Army, the heavy reliance on officers such as Capt. Ayers is a significant change. As the war in Iraq has turned into a far different kind of battle than the Army expected, it is triggering major shifts in how the service uses and equips soldiers and remaking its historically rigid and hierarchical command structure.

In May 2002, before the Iraq war, a study commissioned by the Army's top-ranking general concluded "the reality in the Army is that junior officers are seldom given opportunities to be innovative, plan training or to make decisions; fail, learn and try again."

Earlier this summer, the same team, led by retired Lt. Col. Leonard Wong, concluded: "Junior officers have become the experts on the situation in Iraq, not higher headquarters." The fast-moving insurgency is forcing lower-ranking officers, who spend more time in the field, to take a more prominent role.

Here's the ending:

Capt. Ayers, who was recently selected by the Army to teach at West Point, has begun to think about how a young soldier could prepare for what he's been through. Before deploying to Iraq, he and his soldiers fought a giant mock tank battle at the National Training Center. It wasn't helpful.

Instead, he says, "I guess I'd drop soldiers in a foreign high school and give them two days to figure out all the cliques. Who are the cool kids? Who are the geeks?" he says. That would be pretty close to what he has been doing in Iraq, he says, with one big exception: There would also have to be people in the high school trying to kill the soldiers.

Read the whole thing. (The link should work for a few more days, even for nonsubscribers.)

Health History on a Card

Physicians (including my brother) often wish their patients carried full health records on smart cards, so that a new doctor could easily see a full history and various specialists could all know what was going on. But paranoid patients have two worries: What if I lose the card? And, what if someone steals it?

This report suggests that the first concern isn't that serious. Patients treat smart cards with care, just as they do driver's licenses and other must-have IDs:

Low-income residents of the New York City borough of Queens are taking active roles in their healthcare by carrying their personal health records on chip-embedded "smart cards," public hospital officials have reported.

Preliminary data presented here last week at the international MedInfo conference on medical informatics found that 99% of returning patients retained their cards during a one-month study period, according to researchers with Queens Health Network (QHN), part of the New York City Health and Hospitals Corp.

"They've really developed a sense of ownership [of the cards], like they were driver's licenses or state IDs," said lead researcher Glenn Martin, M.D., QHN director of medical informatics. Each smart card is a photo ID with an embedded chip that holds 64 kilobytes of data. QHN gave cards to about 10,000 primary care patients at Elmhurst Hospital.

The ready availability of patient records helped reduce the number of hospitalizations during the study period.

"The relatively high density of healthcare facilities within New York City, the mobile nature of the public hospital patient base, and the relative over-utilization of emergency rooms (ER) rather than primary care doctor or clinic settings, make the need for a portable patient record essential for good patient care," according to a QHN description of the project.

Like credit cards, smart cards are, of course, in danger of being stolen--but they aren't all that valuable to anyone but their rightful owner. This is probably a case where paranoia over medical privacy is far less justified than concern over mistreatment because doctors don't know a full history (or patients aren't in the condition to give one).

Blogs and Dispersed Knowledge

Stephen Humphries of The Christian Science Monitor has a smart piece on blogs and the CBS memo mess. (I'm quoted.) The nut graf:

For the most part, political blogs act as forums for armchair pundits to deliver often-partisan commentary. But because blogs link to one another with comments and feedback, the buzz around one story can attract the attention of hundreds of thousands of blog readers, who in turn can offer "on the spot" knowledge or expertise. In the CBS case, bloggers raised the initial doubts, analyzed each new wrinkle, and occasionally did original reporting, scooping the professionals.

As I said in the interview, blogs and their readers acted not only as editors, checking the reporters, but as sources with expertise to bear on the story.

Media Relics

Martin Wooster emails to ask what I think of Anne Applebaum's WaPost column on the CBS scandal. I think it's a great example of saying the obvious but unmentionable: Network news, in all its pomposity, is for old people.

Try as I may, I am unable to conjure up a single shred of nostalgia for the once-fabled network evening news programs. Walter Cronkite is a name to me, not a symbol of reassurance or stability. Edward R. Murrow is a historical figure. As for the hallowed idea of "the six o'clock news," it means nothing: In my adult life, I've never had time to watch the daily news at 6 or 6:30, at least not with any regularity. When I watch television at all, I switch without any particular loyalty from CNN to Fox to C-SPAN, depending on who is doing the talking, and I feel reasonably cynical about all of them.

I hasten to add that I am not writing this because I believe my viewing habits are interesting -- quite the contrary -- but because I suspect that they are typical, and growing more so all of the time. There is little to be said about the amorphous post-baby boomers -- anyone born after about 1960 or so -- but it's pretty clear that as a group we have no emotional attachment to ABC, NBC and CBS....

What became clear, as the story wound down to the inevitable apology on Monday night, was that Rather and his fellow network newsmen are stuck in a Vietnam/Watergate-era time warp. Most of us regard network anchors as faintly pompous talking heads, people who read other people's prose off teleprompters. But the anchors, rather extraordinarily, still regard themselves as the conscience of the nation. They aren't mere "journalists" who have to use authentic documents to prove their allegations but rather people whose fame and large paychecks and unchallenged power entitle them to some kind of automatic credibility, even if their documents are fake.

Read the whole thing.

Flying Without Photo I.D.

I got to DFW Airport on Sunday, only to discover that I didn't have my driver's license. (I'd apparently left it in my pocket when I flew home on the red eye from L.A. on Friday.) While I had a wallet full of credit cards, I had no "government-issued photo i.d." Since going home and back would make me miss my plane, I asked the American Airlines rep if I could get a later flight. No problem, he told me. You can take your original flight. You just have to go through extra security checks. Never have I been so glad to have my bags searched.

Coming home today from New York, I was a little more prepared. I still didn't have "government-issued i.d.," but at least I knew I was headed for trouble. I got to JFK several hours early. The young security guard wasn't sure what to do with me and asked a more senior guard. The elder guard sternly insisted that I must have a photo.

"This is a little weird," I said to the young guard, as I opened my bag and pulled out one of the extra paperbacks I'd snagged from my publisher. "I wrote this book, and here's my photo in it." He laughed and let me through. This time, they didn't even search my bags.

Blogs and the "Political Tone"

Glenn Reynolds has a long, link-filled, and a bit defensive post on how blogs are affecting the political debate:

If "elevating the debate" means a sort of good-government, League-of-Women-Voters focus on where candidates stand on health care, etc., that's mostly true, I suppose. But I think it misconceives what blogs are about. There certainly are bloggers posting on healthcare and other issues -- see, for example, Jeff Jarvis's Issues 2004 posts and this post by Ann Althouse on medical malpractice -- but the political blogosphere is to a large degree about media criticism. If the Big Media were talking more about issues, and less -- to pick RatherGate as the example which I think inspired this conversation -- about Bush's National Guard service, probably bloggers would be talking about issues more, too.

It's true that many bloggers, including Glenn, do a lot of media criticism. Media criticism is relatively easy, and Web links are ideally suited to it. But it's hardly true that "the political blogosphere isto a large degree about media criticism." Many of the best policy blogs have almost no media criticism, nor do they go looking for political scalps. They don't even constantly write about the superiority of blogs. That's why you almost never read about them. Reporters and media critics are bored, bored, bored by the very sort of discourse they claim to support (a lesson I learned the hard way in 10 long years as the editor of Reason). They, and presumably their readers, want conflict, scandal, name-calling, and some sex and religion to heighten the combustible mix. Plus journalists, like other people, love to read about themselves and people they know.

Hence, newspapers don't writes stories about how blogs like Volokh Conspiracy elevate the debate over legal issues or how blogs like Marginal Revolution improve the public's understanding of economic scholarship. You won't read any articles about comparing the military policy discussions on Intel Dump and Belmont Club. Education blogs, science blogs, and foreign-policy blogs all engage in excellent issue discussions, but you'll never, ever hear them held up as examples of the blogosphere at work. Even Glenn forgets they exist.

Elevating the debate is not a story. News reporters do not write about the growth of good, analytical or explanatory journalism. Media critics do not praise such work. It does not get attention, and rarely wins the praise it deserves. That doesn't mean it's unimportant, however. Serious discussion does change people's minds and improve their understanding over time, and blogging has proven a marvelous source of "elevated" discourse. Fortunately, there are some great bloggers out there (many of them scholars using blogs to popularize otherwise academic debates) who don't seem to care whether they ever get invited to go on TV or whether Howard Kurtz ever writes about them.

Tim Russert Gets a Second Shot

When the Commission on Presidential Debates announced an NBC-free list of moderators, Tom Brokaw expressed an understandable objection:

"It's not personal pique," Mr. Brokaw said. "Obviously I would have liked to have done one of the debates. But my big outrage is that they excluded our entire network. And I just think that's unconscionable. ... Even our competitors say, 'What? They left out NBC?' Tim [Russert] has the No.1-rated Sunday show, I've got the No. 1-rated evening news broadcast, and we've done more debates than any other news division in the course of the past year."

The commission has declined to comment on its choices, other than executive director Janet Brown telling The New York Times that a star anchorman might "overshadow" a debate.

Now that a CBS moderator will surely "overshadow" the debate--Bush advisers are reportedly protesting that the network will be out for revenge--it would be a good move for all concerned to replace CBS's Bob Schieffer with Tim Russert. The Kerry campaign should make the recommendation.

ArchivedDeep Glamour Blog ›

Blog Feed

Articles Feed