Thursday, April 8, 2010

New York Times explains it as "psychology"

The NYT is often touted as an example of a "liberal" newspaper. Indeed it is supposedly hated by American right-wingers for its liberal views. Of course the paper has many different journalists and for this reason speaks in many different voices, which is generally a good thing. But on issues where "patriotism" is involved, it has a tendency to put subtle and dangerous spins on the news. An example I recall from the start of the war in Afghanistan (I was in Princeton at the time) was how the accidental bombing of a wedding party by American troops was presented: (i) on the day it happened the news was on the front page, presented as the bombing of dangerous insurgents, with a brief mention at the end - and almost in a tone of ridicule - that local Afghans claimed it was a wedding party, (ii) a week later it was revealed that it had indeed been a wedding party, but this revelation was concealed deep inside the newspaper in small print. And there was no "humanising" of the news, such as presenting names of the deceased or discussing their lives, such as is routinely done when things are the other way.

Today this newspaper has put a shocking and disgraceful spin on the "dead bastards" story about which I blogged a couple of days ago. In an article titled "Psychologists Explain Iraq Airstrike Video", the paper has attempted to "explain" the awful incident in psychological terms. The idea is that this is the way combat training is done, that it's natural for troops in a helicopter to mentally distance themselves and see people as potential threats (and cameras as assault weapons). And that the helicopter crew believed themselves to be in danger of being shot down. You keep reading the article and wait for some line like "of course all this does not justify the awful thing we saw in the video" and then you realise that this line is simply not there. A very dangerous piece of spin has been spun.

Interestingly the spin hasn't fooled a number of readers, including many Americans whom I would like to compliment. I'll quote a few of my favourite comments, the remaining (167 in all) you can read for yourself, and please feel free to add a few.

(i) Well, now that this behavior has been "explained", I'm sure everyone will feel much better about it now. Thank you NYT.

(ii) I am sure when devil goes to see a psychologist, he will get a logically sounding explanation of his mentality. It does not make the devil any less evil though.

(iii) We've been psychoanalyzed to death. Give it a rest. Sometimes a cigar - is just a cigar.

And spin is spin. Shame on NYT.


Rahul Siddharthan said...

I think Glenn Greenwald is right that this is not the exception -- it is the rule. Moreover, the US military is not exceptional in treating the "enemy" -- combatants or civilians -- as subhuman. Look at how we have been treating our own tribal populations. When they are raped and murdered by our police and military, nobody notices. When they retaliate and kill CRPF men, it's suddenly headline news. And then we are asked to believe that all the perpetrators are Maoists. No, they're the original inhabitants of the land who have their backs to the wall and are hitting back in the only way they can.

I don't approve in the least of what the US helicopter soldiers did, but let's not pretend that the rest of us are in any way superior.

ИΞΘ said...

It's refreshing to read something like this. Physicists are generally pointed out as eccentric and idiosyncratic personalities living atop ivory towers with nothing except equations hovering in their minds. This blog serves to confirm the absurdity of such a claim.
BTW, I am Abhranil Das, a 2nd year student of IISER Kolkata.

Maya said...

Check out this

In a reality tv show contestants `shocked a man to death'.

If this is what our psychology is, our psyche is also something which is offended by such happenings. Psychology of all field., is not and cannot (or must not ) be treated as ethically neutral.

vbalki said...

Cultural attunement (to "other" cultures) has never been on the radar screen of the world's most famous "melting pot". Rather, assimilation (of "furriners") has been its predominant technique. And now, when GoogleEarth and GPS have made it possible to pinpoint and zap a penguin in Patagonia from an operations shack in Alaska, the zappers will do just that. Why is either the act, or the spin put on it, of any surprise?

Lumo said...

Dear Sunil,
you're being very unreasonable.

America is in the state of war with a large portion of Afghani people, and unfortunately, given recent pro-Taliban statements by Karzai, it may return to a full-fledged official war with the whole country.

The people in Afghanistan may marry each other but they were still determined to be doing work actively supporting the enemy.

Names could be interesting for you but they wouldn't be interesting for most NYT readers. NYT is not a politically correct institution trying to pay credit to casualties who belong to a hostile country. NYT is a newspaper i.e. an organization - and its product - that tries to inform the citizens of America's biggest city - and Americans in general - about things they find relevant and interesting. After all, this is what largely determines their own profit and survival.

Names and CVs of people from an exotic nation who were at a wrong place in the time of war just don't seem to fit the description.

Best wishes