I know, the Times' motto is really, "All the News That's Fit to Print." No scandal, no sentiment, no sensationalism. Just straight, sober, boring facts. That's why they call it "The Gray Lady," right? Well the Times they apparently is a-changin'. "The Gray Lady" ended the month with two lurid lead stories in a row, stoking fear in vivid technicolor.
July 30 top headline: "Jihadists Taking A Growing Role In Syrian Revolt." The lead: "Syrians involved in the armed struggle say it is becoming more radicalized: homegrown Muslim jihadists, as well as small groups of fighters from al Qaeda, are taking a more prominent role."
July 31 top headline: "Militant Group Poses Risk of U.S. - Pakistan Rupture." The lead: "Grinning for the camera, the suicide bomber fondly patted his truckload of explosives. 'We will defeat these crusader pigs as they have invaded our land,' he declared. ... The camera followed the truck to an American base in southern Afghanistan, where it exploded with a tangerine dust-framed fireball."
Even the well-educated, well-to-do movers and shakers who make up a significant share of the Times' readership (which is why it's so influential) might have found their worst fears for our national security confirmed. With hearts pounding and adrenalin pumping, many probably didn't bother to read the whole stories, where they would find some facts to confirm their fears but others to calm them. The truth, it seems, is more complicated than the scary headlines.
Symbols of jihadi and Salafi (strict traditionalist) Islam are growing among Syrians fighting to overthrow their government. But, according to the Times, "both fighters and analysts said not all the jihadist symbols could be taken at face value. ... There tends to be more Salafi guys in the way the groups portray themselves than in the groups on the ground." Why? The fighters desperately need money, and most of it now comes "from religious donors in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf region whose generosity hinges on Salafi teaching."
The old image of a single well-organized monster called "Al Qaeda," sending its cadres around the world, has long been debunked, even by the Congressional Research Service. In fact, says the Times article, "there is, as yet, no significant presence of foreign combatants of any stripe in Syria," and "not all foreign fighters are jihadists, either." But the story's first paragraph, which is where many readers stop, reinforces the false outdated image of a unified bloc of armed "Muslim radicals" spreading its tentacles ever closer to American shores.
The other story, from Pakistan, identifies the suicide bomber as a member of the Haqqani network. U.S. mass media have been focusing on that group for many months as the mainstream Taliban were moving toward negotiations, which remove them from the list of suitable monsters to feature in the headlines. Someone in Afghanistan has to fill that bill, as long as we have soldiers fighting there.
Haqqani is the top candidate. "Inside the [Obama] administration," the Times reports, "it is a commonly held view that the United States is 'one major [Haqqani] attack' away from unilateral action against Pakistan -- diplomatically or perhaps even militarily."
But just as Times readers were absorbing this frightening picture of Pakistan as a hot-bed of anti-American instability, U.S. and Pakistani diplomats were signing an agreement that will allow NATO convoys to move across Pakistan to Afghanistan at least until the end of 2015 and maybe longer. "The pact seems to close, for now, one of the most contentious chapters in the long-turbulent relationship between Washington and Islamabad," the Washington Post reported. Perhaps the Times was exaggerating the danger to U.S. - Pakistan relations just a bit.
And exagggerating the danger of the Haqqani, too. That group has claimed credit for a few high-profile attacks in Afghanistan, leading both the House and the Senate to pass bills that urge Secretary of State Clinton to designate the Haqqani network a "foreign terrorist organization." But "the headlines created by such violence are disproportionate to their military significance," as the Times article itself notes; "Haqqani operations account for one-tenth of the attacks" on NATO troops, "and perhaps 15 percent of casualties."
Is the Times shaping its headlines and lead paragraphs in such unnecessarily fear-mongering ways to influence policy? When it exaggerates the Haqqani threat -- and adds that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency "is covertly aiding the insurgents," according to unnamed "American officials" -- is it encouraging a tougher administration stance against the ISI, just as that agency's new head arrives for talks in Washington? Is it trying to push the administration to give more money to the Syrian fighters, so that they won't have to turn to conservative Muslims for their funding?
Or is the Times just to trying to gain more readers? Most people turn to the news less for factual truth and more for emotionally satisfying mythic narratives. Myths are not simply lies. They are, typically, a complex blend of fiction and truth, with the fiction taking the lead and bending the empirical facts to fit the story. In other words, myths do just what these New York Times front-page stories do.
And myths drive policy. The "war on terror" industry has been able to keep its massive federal funding, while other programs are drastically cut, because the myth of homeland insecurity has taken such deep root in American political culture. The New York Times is doing its part, at least this week, to keep that myth alive.
Ira Chernus blogs at MythicAmerica.us.