Neojournalists Disinform with Trite MetaphorsJune 24th, 2010

“WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama sacked his loose-lipped Afghanistan commander Wednesday, a seismic shift for the military order in wartime, and chose the familiar, admired — and tightly disciplined — Gen. David Petraeus to replace him. Petraeus, architect of the Iraq war turnaround, was once again to take hands-on leadership of a troubled war effort.” Obama ousts McChrystal from Afghan command, chooses Iraq war architect Petraeus as successor , Associated Press, June 23, 2010

I count six misleading metaphors in this snippet of gossip masquerading as the lead paragraph of an Associated Press news report. Did Obama “sack” the general? Is the general “loose-lipped?” Is this a “seismic shift?’ Was Petraeus really the “architect” of a “turnaround” in Iraq? And what is “hands-on” leadership? This isn’t just bad writing. It’s disinformation, and the reporters should be sent for additional training. Ten people reading this would come away with ten distinct ideas of what really happened.

“Sack” is a slang term. It means discharge from employment. Most readers would think of a sacking as an abrupt decision prompted by poor performance on the part of the discharged employee or some other cause for dissatisfaction on the part of the employer. The use of this term leaves the reader to decide which interpretation to adopt. It this case, it gives an altogether inaccurate impression of what really happened. In fact, Obama accepted the general’s resignation.

“Loose-lipped” comes from a government poster circulated widely during World War II with this caption: “Loose lips sink ships.” A loose-lipped person is understood to endanger a military operation by reckless talk about some aspect of it, such as the time, place, equipment, strategy, or tactic. McChrystal isn’t loose-lipped at all. He didn’t endanger the operation, and he didn’t talk recklessly but deliberately and to a specific purpose: to impress lifelong civilians like Obama, his entourage, and the vast majority of Americans with the gravity of the military situation and their dismal failure to understand it, much less handle it.

“Seismic shift” is an unnecessarily technical term for earthquake. It’s a change in the topography casued by movement below the earth’s surface. To apply the term to a change of military command is not just an exaggeration; it’s an obfuscation, and it’s also redundant. What the writers seem to want to get across is that this is a big deal. Do readers really need to be told that a change in the high military command is a big deal? And how big a deal is a “seismic shift?” The writers don’t know, and they don’t care either. They wanted a picturesque (if trite) metaphor, and they found one.

An architect is a designer of buildings. A military strategist is not an architect. Calling a general an architect implies that military strategy is a creative activity of some kind, when in fact it’s an altogether destructive endeavor in all its aspects. Generals undo the work of architects by bombing buildings and unleashing artillery on them. These reporters mean to glorify this general, and describing him inaccurately as an architect is their means of accomplishing this.

“Turnaround” means a change of direction. Has there been a change of direction in Iraq? Do these reporters want us to believe that the USA is winning now when it was losing before? Do they want us to think there’s peace now, when there was violence before? What turnaround are they talking about? Who knows? Who cares?

“Hands-on” leadership is meant to imply close personal involvement in every function performed by the people being led. Is that what generals actually do? Mostly not. These reporters were looking for a complimentary metaphor to attach to this particular general’s personal style, so they took this nearly meaningless but ultimately misleading term and just threw it in there for the heck of it.

Two reporters, Anne Gearan and Jennifer Loven, and at least one editor had to sign off on this disinforming lead paragraph. What motivated them to do that? Why didn’t somebody object? The reporters could have said this: “President Barack Obama accepted the resignation of his Afghanistan commander Stanley McChrystal Wednesday, after remarks critical of the civilian command and attributed to McChrystal appeared in a national magazine. The President chose Gen. David Petraeus to replace McChrystal. Petraeus commanded US forces in Iraq under President Obama and is very popular among Washington politicians and the media.”

I don’t know what motivates reporters and editors to mislead us, but I suspect it’s part of the dumbing-down that’s been accelerating in recent years. They use shorthand and metaphor because they take us readers for idiots. They think we won’t read their account if it’s long or complicated or informative in any way. We”ll get bored, they think, and quit reading. Instead of telling us what happened–a bunch of facts and details that are just too complicated for us cretins to understand– they tell us what we should think about what happened. This is win-win for the reporters: they don’t have to do any actual work, and their stuff is accepted gratefully by the corrupt media they serve. They call this journalism .