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July 2, 2004

"In Our Business, Seconds Count," Says Dan Rather. But is That Really So?

The story broke at 2:30 am in Washington: handover moved up, sovereignty passed to Iraqis. Surely big news for the networks. But the seconds or minutes that elapsed before the news could be broadcast... do they matter at all? Dan Rather says yes. I say: what clock is this man on? The political moment mattered a great deal. The seconds hardly at all.

Dan Rather, known for his cosmic weirdness at times, had another one of his moments after Monday’s surprise ending to the transfer of sovereignty in Baghdad. To head off spectacular acts of violence, the Pentagon and the new Iraqi leadership decided to move things up; and they kept their plans secret. Rather told Howard Kurtz that he didn’t mind missing the ceremony itself. But he would have been disappointed “if I had been locked in that room and found out someone else had broken the story.”

He also reminded Kurtz, “In our business, seconds count.”

But do they, really? Let’s think about it: What mattering map does Dan Rather consult when he explains to us, through Kurtz, that seconds count (meaning differentials involving seconds may matter) in the business of news; and of what possible relevance is this to events in Baghdad this week?

For U.S. audiences, the story broke at around 2:30 in the morning, Eastern, 1:30 am Central, 11:30 pm Pacific. MSNBC had it first, according to Kurtz, at 2:23 am in Washington (quoting diplomatic sources), followed by Fox at 2:30, CNN at 2:33. Rather and his CBS crew weighed in at 2:43, and Peter Jennings at 2:52 with an eyewitness account. (Rather, on assignment elsewhere, did not make it to the ceremony.)

Tom Brokaw figured NBC was already on it with its cable division, so he waited for the Today Show. “Honestly, the other guys don’t have anywhere else to go up but their network,” said Mark Lukasiewicz, chief of special events coverage for NBC News. “We do, and that’s where we came up.”

Thus within 25 minutes all the major electronic news firms we’re on the air live—or “came up,” as Lukasiewicz said—reporting the same story. Just by glancing at the clock in the Baghdad bureau, one knew the great bulk of the audience was going to learn the news when it awoke, many hours later. Kurtz says of the correspondents on the scene: “at the moment that they realized they were watching an abruptly scheduled transfer of power from U.S. authorities to the new Iraqi government yesterday, most of America was fast asleep.”

So this is the first question we need to put to Dan Rather, once we get him to think about his (clichéd) observation, “in our business, seconds count.” In whose experience does the counting occur? Does it count to me, a typical East Coast television viewer, for example, whether MSNBC beats CNN to the news by ten minutes at 2:30 in the morning? Do seconds count for you on this story?

It would seem not. From the information consumer’s point of view, it might matter how quickly the news system as a whole got the big word out—that is, it matters when “the world” learns the news— but the relative performances of different firms within a bundle reporting the same story do not signify much. If the minority of people who want overnight news turn to the Internet, then I suppose a competitive advantage could be had if they’re trooping to your website ten minutes early. But then diffusion is so rapid online that this edge cannot amount to much, either.

Most of the time, “seconds” don’t factor one bit into the user’s experience, and the fact that we can think of a situation or two when they might—like September 11th in lower Manhattan—should tell us that almost always differentials of seconds or minutes are irrelevant, even when they involve large items of news. “In our business, seconds count” must refer, then, to some other experience, or situation. It is not common sense. Nor is it common experience.

Professional sense, then. There, we know it’s important to be first with the news because this is one way of building reputation, winning peer respect and keeping score with rivals across the dial. We’re familiar with patterns like that. Professionals have a way of creating their own intramural competition, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Wanting to be first is an engine of news gathering; it makes things come alive with activity. If we want journalists to be discovering new stuff, digging for truth, then our knowledge of human nature, and our understanding of competition, would have us accept the race to get it first. That drive is not inherently perverse.

But “seconds make a difference” is perverse in the actual situation before Dan Rather in Baghdad. He and the other network anchors were there for the handing-over ceremony, but also for the “moment” of transfer, a political, quasi-legal, and ultimately mystical event that can barely be seen, and yet it involves the transfer of real power, and has many grave consequences in the real world. Such is politics, made of durable fictions. And this is especially so when matters of sovereignty are involved.

The network crews in Iraq had a date— Wednesday, June 30th. This was the date they had repeatedly endlessly in news stories because it was a deadline set by President Bush. They associated this date with the “moment” when Iraqis would re-take official ownership of the state. But in fact journalists did not know when this moment would come, and that was a clue to what would happen.

There had been no announcement of time and place. Rumors were circulating about an early transfer; the CIA had predicted major acts of violence timed to June 30th. The press itself was more and more confined to the protected Green Zone in Baghdad because of the ongoing war, and there were known fears that the ceremony itself would be a bomb target. Over the weekend reporters were told the handover had been moved from Wednesday to Tuesday.

Since preventing an attack—not ceremony planning—had to be the top priority of American and Iraqi officials, there was no reason to expect anything but a sudden announcement, and an improvised ritual, mostly shrouded from public view. Everything argued for this course; the risks of doing otherwise were too great. And since there is nothing television does as well as public ceremony with a script, there had to be some disappointment among network producers, especially because they had moved the anchor operations across the ocean to cover the transfer, an expensive decision.

They had scheduled a big show for Wednesday. But on Monday when it actually happened the handover took all of five minutes, reporters had their cell phones confiscated, there was only one television crew there, incompetently placed (almost missing the actual “moment,” the passing of a blue portfolio) and after there were no questions allowed, at least according to the Post account. The new Iraqi President and, apparently, United States ambassador Paul Bremmer did make brief speeches. (The Post story said no Bremmer speech, but blogger Tim Blair has the links that say there was one, and a question or two from reporters also. Hat tip to Patterico.)

One thing this event was for was to accomplish the transfer, in a signed document, copies-to-both sense. That happened when the blue portfolio changed hands. Another, harder thing was to accomplish the transfer symbolically, and make it convincing to key audiences ringing outward from the Green Zone: the city of Baghdad, the nation of Iraq, Muslims in the Middle East, allies in Europe, and of course concerned Americans back home. (Al Queda too.) This part barely happened.

In fact, one of the striking things about the transfer as it finally unfolded was how uncommunicative it was— in part because of security threats and the improvisation required, but not wholly so. Three facts to illustrate this strange decision:

1.) Ambassador Paul Bremmer, the man who handed over sovereignty for the United States and who had taken on the task of re-building the country, took no more than two questions at the ceremony. The dramatic endpoint of all his efforts had just passed, and instead of telling the story of what the United States had accomplished, (instead of being asked questions by the Iraqi press, now “sovereign” too) he hustled to his helicopter and left the country without any further word.

A possible justification for this is the laying low defense. Ceding the stage to the Iraqis means just that: no big press conference for American honcho! But here is what I mean by non-communicative. Bremmer is perfectly capable of getting up on stage, in front of the international press, and pointing backward to the position of power he had just vacated, in order to make the point (which was the best point he had) that the power he and the Americans once held is now an Iraqi possession, just as we said it would be. That isn’t getting in the way, that’s demonstrating what way was chosen.

2.) The event could have been held entirely in secret, with a military camera recording it, and the world told after the fact. But that option (the safest) was not chosen. Why not? Because having the news media there authenticates what happened far more effectively. People in the White House who think they don’t need journalists and who call the press a special interest should think hard about this detail, and the options not selected. Open press access was not selected. Instead, there was controlled access, and a clumsy attempt at a 100-minute embargo. A single “pool” camera was permitted; but placement was wrong, so it was hard to see the principles as they transacted their business.

3.) According to Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post, the Arabic satellite channel al-Arabiya, a key source of information for Iraqis and others in the Middle East, was not even notified:

No one, it seems, had bothered to call the Arabic-language channel that says it has the largest viewership in Iraq. Their cameras were not even in the room when Iraq was reborn as a sovereign nation (or “so-called sovereign” in the local parlance).

“I don’t know what they were thinking — they didn’t tell anybody,” said Abdul Kader Kharobi, an assignment editor at al-Arabiya, a few hours after the transfer at 10:26 a.m. local time. There was no frustration in his voice, just disgust and a lot of weary irony.

American reporters were luckier. They were told only to hustle into the Green Zone for a background briefing, those insidious occasions when officials give out news, but not their names. Kurtz describes what happened:

Jennings and Rather were planning to spend time with U.S. troops elsewhere in Iraq when they heard of the supposed background briefing…. they broke off the trip and CBS staffers were dispatched to the occupation headquarters.

Amanpour was told not to bring a camera crew because a pool camera would be there.

When about 30 journalists and photographers, including a Washington Post correspondent, arrived, they were not told anything about a transfer of sovereignty.

At 2 a.m., authorities took the reporters’ cell phones and placed them in brown envelopes to prevent them from calling their news organizations. The journalists were then told that the handover ceremony was about to unfold, but that the news was embargoed until 4 a.m.

The embargo plan did not hold because the BBC broke the story using diplomatic sources, so everyone rushed to their terminals and began to report the news: it happened, handover complete. But did seconds count in that situation? It’s easy to see how the illusion is created. From an AP report:

When the transfer was complete, officially at 2:26 a.m. EDT, the reporters couldn’t get to their phones fast enough.

“There were a lot of heavy bodyguards who were extremely physical in the way they tried to keep me away from my phone,” [Amanpour] said. “It caused quite a few tempers to flare.”

One can imagine it well. What burly guards are trying to keep you from doing becomes that much more important to a journalist. But for somebody like Dan Rather and Christiane Amanpour, what really matters is not exactly when you tell a waiting world that a handover happened, or who is on the air first, but your ability to say what happened, and to comprehend fully— but quickly—the nature and meaning of the event. Sure, the clock is ticking, but it is a very reductive view of the clock Rather has when he says, “seconds count.”

There’s the clock showing sixteen months from March 2003, when the war to oust Saddam started, until June 2004. It “ticked” forward in a big way during the handover, compared to a very small way like going up at 2:23 am vs. 2:43. There’s the clock that began in 1979 when Saddam became the sovereign. This would figure greatly in the week’s events, as the Iraqis began to put him on trial, and he argued with the judge about who indeed was sovereign. There’s also the clock—or story span—in which the military situation had deteriorated so badly that a moment hard earned and seen by all sides as necessary, when the mysteries of political power were transacted in the Iraqi people’s historical favor, had to go underground and on the hush-hush. Kennicott of the Post noted that what might have been

the most public, ceremonial moment in the birth of a new country was a private, invitation-only event. A war of images, of toppled statues and looted museums, of captured Americans and mangled children, a war whose ending was marked with a premature victory celebration on an aircraft carrier more than a year ago, was given another ambiguous marker. Iraqis were once again nominally in charge of their country, but al-Arabiya, for the moment, had no way of proving it to its viewers.

It’s not the seconds in the information market that counted— but the political moment transpiring between Iraqis and Americans, Iraqis and their past, Iraqis and their wholly uncertain future. When exactly it happened is a detail. So is what time of day we found out about it. Who won the race to tell us first is less than a detail, it’s a footnote for insiders.

So if “seconds count” explains anything deep and true to Rather about his business this week in Baghdad, he does not understand a reporter’s business this week in Baghdad. And if he was not upset about missing the ritual itself, not being there, then he does not understand political ritual and its use of “charged” moment.

To be at the event is one thing; to be conscious of the moment in time we’re at is another. One needs a feel for the mystery in who’s sovereign? as a question in politics and a riddle of power. For while that mystery is always there, underneath the settled patterns of government, it comes right into the room when a government changes hands. You can almost see it. Every detail speaks in such a setting, if you bring enough knowledge to it.

Why does PressThink conduct an argument with a harmless cliché of the news business? Because it is time that our journalists learned how to tell proper time, and bring the priorities of their business into better alignment with common sense, civic experience, and an enlarged historical sense. It’s good to compete with peers who are trying to get the story. But it’s better to have a firm sense of when such competition has internal significance only, and no public import at all.

There are times, I suppose, when ticks of the second hand might figure in the larger world beyond the news trade. But there are many more times when journalists will be tempted into that illusion, and they should resist. They should resist because finding a time frame for narration that is appropriate to a particular event involves a critical and sensitive act of judgment in journalism, without which the news comes up lame. But problems of judgment can be skirted, repressed, just forgotten about, and often the work of forgetting is done by a reporter’s lazy convention or an anchorman’s tired cliché.

AfterMath: Notes, reactions & links…

Fred Kaplan in Slate: Let’s hear if for the handover:

Intelligence analysts expected new torrents of violence to erupt in the days leading up to the handover. With an Iraqi government put in place now, any future terrorist attacks can be reclassified from “anti-occupation” to “insurrectionist.”

The distinction is not merely symbolic—or, to the extent it is, the symbolism might be sufficiently potent to alter popular attitudes and behavior.

Kaplan’s is a distinction you don’t see too much— between symbolism that is impotent and symbolism that is important. For journalists, it’s a far more useful set of terms than “symbol” vs. “substance” or “ceremonial” vs. “real.”

Howard Kurtz, Phoneless Reporters Can’t Make the Call.

Tim Blair on the Bremmer speech missing from the Washington Post account. He quotes the San Francisco Chronicle on what Bremmer said: “You are ready now for sovereignty, and we think it’s an important part of our obligation as temporary custodian to return the sovereignty to you. I have confidence that the Iraqi government is ready to meet the challenges that lie ahead.”

David Folkenflik in the Baltimore Sun:

The event was notably low-key, said Marcy McGinnis, CBS’ senior vice president of news coverage. When she reviewed the ceremony, she said, it looked a lot like “five men in a room.”

The coverage required hard work to convey news occurring at a time of night when the networks get a modest fraction of their primetime audiences: from 2 a.m. to 3 a.m., for example, Fox News averages nearly 400,000 viewers, while CNN attracts 209,000 and MSNBC 123,000. By contrast, The O’Reilly Factor, Fox News’ top-rated program, typically pulls in nearly 1.9 million viewers, and CNN’s Larry King Live at 9 p.m. draws more than 1.1 million people nightly.

From Cable Newser on the day of the handover:

Why Wasn’t Coverage Wall-To-Wall This Morning? When I turned on the television this morning, FOX was in a commercial and CNN was airing 90 Second Pop. I was stunned that the cablers weren’t covering the handover story exclusively this morning. One e-mailer agrees: “I would have appreciated more wall-to-wall, commercial-free programing all morning, especially when people are getting ready for work and surprised to see such a shocking development,” he says. Will there have to be a terrorist attack in Baghdad in order for the country to get coverage?…

One source offers his reasoning for not going overboard with coverage: “The handover story is important, but it’s not as if breaking info continues to come out of it. Instead, it’s an event that’s passed and now we pull in experts to analyze. Don’t forget, commercial free coverage isn’t free to the cable channels.”

David Bauder, AP television writer: Media scramble to cover early Iraq news.

Marine Corps Reservist Eric M. Johnson, who was in Iraq, on the Washington Post’s Baghdad bureau chief:

Iraq veterans often say they are confused by American news coverage, because their experience differs so greatly from what journalists report. Soldiers and Marines point to the slow, steady progress in almost all areas of Iraqi life and wonder why they don’t get much notice – or in many cases, any notice at all.

Part of the explanation is Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the Baghdad bureau chief for the Washington Post. He spent most of his career on the metro and technology beats, and has only four years of foreign reporting, two of which are in Iraq. The 31-year-old now runs a news operation that can literally change the world, heading a bureau that is the source for much of the news out of Iraq. (via Andrew Sullivan)

Chris Allbritton, Reaction to handover ranges from jeers to jubiliation.

Fouad Ajami in the Wall Street Journal: “We now stay under new terms—a power that vacated sovereignty 48 hours ahead of schedule, and an Iraqi population that can glimpse, just a horizon away, the possibility of a society free from both native tyranny and foreign control. There is nervousness in Iraq: the nervousness of a people soon to be put to the test by the promise—and the hazards—of freedom.”

Cori Dauber, @ Ranting Profs:

Fair enough, it was a rushed ceremony and there’s no hiding that or the reasons for it, but lets also be honest about the fact that had there been an elaborate ceremony — particularly if the Arab channels had received special invitations — then the complaint would have been that the thing was stage managed to manipulate Arab opinion. The writer assumes that there’s some way to win a rigged game, and that’s never been true.

Ritual matters to people, and at some point there’s going to have be some kind of elaborate ceremony or ritual or party to mark officially the end of the occupation and the beginning of a new Iraq. But you can’t force people to feel a particular way through a ritual they feel is imposed over a situation; it has to be organic and it has to feel appropriate. Yesterday was not the moment. Soon, but not today.

The Prime Minister of Romania, Adrian Nastase, on the handover: Lessons for Liberty in Iraq. (Boston Globe, June 29, 2004).

Blogging the watchdogs, columnist John Leo of US News writes about clued-in-bloggers shaming the out-to-lunch Los Angeles Times on Paul Bremmer’s farewell speech to Iraqis, which the Times said never happened, though bloggers from Iraq and the U.S. were writing about it. Then the Times compounded the error with an editorial blasting Bremmer for giving no farewell speech, and it compounded it again with a lame and inadequate correction.

One blogger wrote: “Bremer’s farewell address had been common knowledge among readers of Internet blogs since at least June 30,” four days before the Times criticized Bremer for having given no speech. Apparently nobody at the Times reads the American press either. Margie Wylie’s Newhouse piece discussing the Iraqi reaction to the Bremer talk ran five days before the Times said the speech hadn’t been given. (July 19, 2004 issue)

Posted by Jay Rosen at July 2, 2004 6:12 PM