Wednesday, April 8, 2009

NYT Is Shocked To Discover That Iraqis Still Rescue Babies From Burning Cars.

The sentence appeared front-and-center on the NYT's home page this morning, highlighting Sam Dagher's dispatch from Baghdad about yesterday's car bombing that killed eight Iraqis.

If you read it quickly you might have missed some subtle but offensive moralizing about the Iraqi people, masquerading as a dispassionate news summary.

The story itself, under the headline "A Moment of Heroism After a Blast in Baghdad," recounted the rescue of a baby from the fiery aftermath of a car bomb that resulted in eight casualties, including the baby's mother. Dagher detailed the tears of a woman whose son pulled the baby from the car -- a classic tug-at-the-heartstrings account of a simple act of valor in times of war.

Here was how the NYT website summarized the story, under a photo of the woman feeding the baby in the wake of the blast: "The rescue of a baby from the wreckage of a bombing that killed eight seemed to be proof that Iraqis were still capable of extraordinary acts of humanity."

Does the NYT seriously contend that the rescue of a baby should lead readers to that condescending conclusion?

It seems to us that the rescue of a baby from a burning car -- in Baghdad, in New York City, in Tokyo, or anywhere in the world -- proves nothing except the good news that human nature still prevails over political agendas.

But the message of the NYT's absurd moral judgement -- smack in the middle of its home page -- is that for an Iraqi to commit such an act of humanity somehow would be less likely, given the events of the last six years, and thus worth noting as newsworthy.

Read the story and you'll see that what happened yesterday in Baghdad was notable only in that it showed acts of individual human courage. It demonstrated nothing about how Iraqis "were still capable of" anything -- aside from doing what any human being might do in a similar situation.

To implicitly suggest that a six-year war would turn ordinary Iraqis into heartless bastards who might leave a baby in a burning car is naive and grossly simplistic at best.

It's interesting, while coincidental, that on the day after the NYT launched its provocative new "Moral of the Story" blog by Ethicist Randy Cohen, it showcased a sentence in its news pages that implied its right to pass moral judgement on Iraqi citizens for their behavior.

Those sorts of judgements and conclusions may have their place in the NYT's opinion pages, but not in news stories that shape readers' perceptions of a country -- and their view of what moral acts its citizens may or may not be capable.


Brooklyn Bridget said...

This is just the latest unfortunate example of the type of thing the xenophobic rubes of the NYT have been publishing for decades.

Anonymous said...

You misread--badly--the paragraph in question. It is clear the writer is referring to "people in the Nawab section" when he talks about their actions seemed to be proof.

And the author follows with a quote making that point.

For Mrs. Khafaji, the baby was a miracle and a gift from heaven. For people in the Nawab section of the Kadhimiya district in Baghdad, the Khafaji family and other neighbors were heroes. Their actions seemed to be proof that six years of numbing violence haven't dulled Iraqis' capacity for extraordinary acts of humanity.

“The victims are Iraqis — how can we not aid and defend them?” asked Sadiq Khalaf al-Maliki, 36, who had pulled the charred body of the woman presumed to be the baby’s mother from the burning white Peugeot sedan they were riding in.


Nothing was misread. The issue isn't the quote, it's the point. What do "six years of numbing violence," or the fact that "the victims are Iraqis" have to do with an act of heroism? Of course they're Iraqis.

The suggestion that the Iraq War might have "dulled Iraqis' capacity" for an act of humanity is the judgement that troubles us. We see no difference between the Nawab section of Baghdad and the Upper East Side of Manhattan when it comes to a human being bravely rescuing a baby from a car bomb -- war or no war, Iraqi or not. It's human nature.

Anonymous said...

To suggest that war coarsens--no, let's be very clear--to observe that war coarsens, that people are less likely to behave in a moral fashion after years of numbing violence, animates some of our greatest literature. That's why we honor and write novels and make Oscar winning movies about those who nonetheless retain their humanity. That is, those who behave "heroically" by acting in a way that we might consider prosaically decent in a different context.

Try staying in and reading a little more ...


Pulling a baby out of a burning car is an act of heroism. It speaks more to the character of the individual who does it than to the location of the car, or the circumstances of the fire.

We're flattered that someone feels so pained by our criticism that he or she feels the need to defend it with such passion. But there must be a better argument for an ill-considered sentence in the NYT than the precedent of classic war novels and films -- or the suggestion that we don't read enough.

Anonymous said...

This frickin debate reminds me of why Russell Baker said that 90% of what is said to be "news" should really be called "oldz".

If you wanted to print what is new, we could get away with one or two sentences: Baby of X pulled from car by Y. There's no need to even say "people are happy".

But the world seems to require nut grafs and I must say that NYTPICKER seems to be the type that slavishly insists upon well-wrought nut grafs and that writhes in anger if a reporter strays from the path prescribed by said graf. So that's what the poor reporter did. Add some daffy nut graffy language to keep the scolds at bay. But it backfired. C'est la guerre.

Anonymous said...

Interesting debate. And look, another blog had the same reaction to the sentence:
Not sure what a "nut graf" is but seems like this reporter just got carried away, looking for heavy meaning in a simple act. Anonymous makes interesting points but got to give this one to NYTPICKER.

Anonymous said...

So so sensitive. Yeesh.

I'm not pained by NYTpicker's criticism as I did not write the paragraph in question. But NYTpicker's hyper-ventilating -- the reporter was implying all sorts of ugly things what "heartless bastards" the Iraqis -- just struck me as silly in the extreme.

For what it's worth, I agree with the last two anonymous writers: The written on deadline paragraph was not as aptly written as it might have been and too much of a reach.

Peace in our times.

Anonymous said...

the real problem is the ethicist. i still fail to see any code of ethics in his advice. and i have yet to see any serious references to any well regarded ethicists, moralists or philosophers of the past. this "ethicist" is a pontificating idiot with nothing behind him. an embarrassment to the times and a cringe-inducing writer. harrrumph!