Why does the Washington Post sound so certain about “maybe?”
This week, it gave us a story with the blaring headline “Terrorist threat may be at new high.” (February 10 2011 A-6) By the same logic, it may not be at a new high, so take a guess.
This essay may be something worth reading, or it may not, but once I use the word “MAY”, I am simply opening the portals of possibility, not much more.
It may rain tomorrow, but then again, it may not. So what? It hardly rises to the level of significance, unless my wedding is tomorrow and its in the back yard. But even then, I will want to look at the weather reports, not rely on hearsay.
In the same Post edition this week, we read “Pakistan may be building 4th plutonium reactor, nuclear experts say.” (A-8) OK, this is at least quoting someone else’s guess. But the opening paragraph goes on…
” Pakistan has begun work on what independent experts say appears to be a fourth …reactor …a move that could signal a further escalation in Pakistan’s arms race with …India.”
When something ‘may be’ and ‘appears to be’ and ‘could be’, how on earth does that constitute news? Speculation, conjecture, hypothesizing, all have their place, but surely in the Opinion pages, not in a Hard News Section called “THE WORLD.”
To get a sense of how irresponsible such faux journalism is, lets unpack the narrative logic. Someone sees someone do something, and the experts-”independent experts” mind you, ( are there dependent experts?) say that this could appear to be something else that could then mean something else. We are building solid conclusions on pure speculation, which is based on a suggestion. Lets test that out.
Say someone said they saw you at the pub, and independent experts said that could indicate you have a drinking problem, which would then suggest that you are having marital problems. But you could be running a Quiz night to raise funds for the local Boy Scouts Club. If when asked, you decline to comment, you will be adding to the intrigue, because now you are hiding something, which is of course what all good alcoholics do!
When the topic is nuclear weapons and terrorism, we are all narratively vulnerable (Chapter 13, The Presidential Plot) the implication being DANGER, BE CAREFUL, but it’s as legitimate in this form as your Mother telling you not to talk to strangers who have red beards because they could be bad guys and they could kidnap you and hold you for ransom and demand 5 million dollars. The story runs away with itself. You are scared because you are already at the dreadful end of the story, when in fact, there is hardly a basis for a beginning, save for some vague hint of concern.
Beware of any headline or news story that uses the subjunctive, “may, might, could, appears to be, suggests that,” as in “New pill may cure cancer” or “Peace Talks might take a while” or “Palin may run for President.” We are getting the certainty of a maybe, a story that is not a story at all, but a piece of eye candy, a phantasm because translated, it simply means, “Something is possible.” And any item that throws in “independent experts” together with the principals “decline to comment” you know this is probably an overworked, under-resourced journalist with a deadline to meet.
One could suspect one reason these “maybe’s” get paraded as news is that someone is trying to scare us into action. but that is pure speculation, not news. Life is scary enough from real threats and challenges, without loading us down with such speculative nonsense. Journalists used to be taught-Back it up, ground it in some evidence, name the so called experts, show us the thinking behind the thinking and be clear, opinions are not facts. Just because someone guesses at something-no matter how drastic, doesn’t mean it rises to the level of Page A-6 news. Or even better, create a special section called Speculations and Hunches and put it all there.
One hopes The Washington Post will realize how often it makes certainties of its maybes, but it may not too. But as I say, that is pure conjecture not worthy of a headline, even if I am an independent expert, and even if I say so myself.