"Foot on a Bomb, A Marine Defies a Taliban Trap."
That was the headline on a story that was No. 2 on the New York Times email service that sends stories to my inbox. On the Times website, it was less prominently displayed, but the headline would have grabbed the attention of readers. There was something about the story's first paragraph that read like a novel and drew me in:
SHOSHARAK, Afghanistan--If luck is the battlefield's final arbiter--the wild card that can trump, fitness, training, teamwork, equipment, character and skill--then Lance Cpl. Ryan T. Mathison experienced its purest and most welcome form." Heminway-esque in its tightness and precision. But this is journalism, not a novel.
The story continues in the same vein. There is heavy use of novel-writing forms and words. The tension of the young man stepping on the bomb and stopping. The sharp quotes that you can almost hear an actor saying in next year's dramatization of this story on cable television: "Goddamn Matty man," says a radio operator. "Lucky son of a bitch."
And that's when it struck me. I couldn't figure out where the journalist is in this story. Did he see this happen--a young Marine steps on a bomb--called an I.E.D by the military and now an often-used term by the media as well--and it doesn't detonate? Did he hear the radio operator say that--and what did he leave out. Do people really talk like this? Sharp quick sentences that drive us back to the main point of the story--this was one lucky Marine.
Was Chivers embedded with these troops and was this what he saw on a patrol? Or did he hear about the story later and have them recreate it for him? What are the rules of engagement for this reporter? Does he follow the embedding rules laid out by the Obama Administration? The link gives you insight into what the administration is doing to control images out of Afghanistan. I'll write more in another post about the military's rules for embedded soldiers. But here is a link to Military Reporters and Editors for more information.
Nowhere in the story does the writer describe how he came to find out about the story--whether he saw it or it was retold to him. Why is this important? As a reader, I can only assume that the reporter is there on the ground. As a journalist, I believe in explaining where I am in a story without overtly inserting myself into the story to become a character--which then makes this something other than straightforward journalism--veering toward reportage.
The quotes he uses: were they words he heard with his own ears and the events he describes were they seen with his own eyes? I assume, but I don't know this for certain. One sentence would solve this issue and give readers a better sense of how the reporter came to the story. That sentence: The journalist was embedded with Marines and saw this event happen on a dawn patrol.
I had hoped to gain more insight into the story by reading Chivers' blog post, but he doesn't discuss the story specifically. Chivers may assume that his readers know that this is a first-hand account. I asked him in a comment on his blog. We'll see if he answers me.
Instead I found more loaded phrases and opinion-based writing as Chivers' describes a military base that has been set up in what was to be a druglord's "mansion." To describe the house's opulence he writes: "Think Tony Montana decorates for jihad." Another loaded word "jihad," without explanation or context as to what the word means. But I get the drift. Just as I get the drift from the "lucky" Marine story. Here is a feel-good piece about Marines doing battle against an unseen enemy. (No Afghans are quoted in the story and there is no discussion of what the situation is like in Shosharak.) Lurking behind every dusty hut is the Taliban. They aren't "honorable" fighters because they set these nasty bombs days in advance and then head for the hills.
I'll end with this question: what do we mean by words and phrases such as insurgents and I.E.Ds? Are these words that have been vetted by Times editors and deemed acceptable? Or are these words that are used by the military and are picked up by the media unconsciously. What do the words mean to you?