Cheap Frames

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

Before I know it I’m sucked into the New York Times story and I haven’t had my Prozac or anything.

Through the miracle of language, here we are, walking with U.S. troops on patrol through the streets of Mosul, and by the time the story’s point has been thoroughly explicated, two kindergarten-age Iraqi boys, bait on the hook of evil, are blown to Kingdom Come by an IED that had been planted in the car in which they sat helplessly.

Even (or especially) if the story is true, I whistle in amazement at the triviality of the use to which it was put in this page-one article, “In Battle, Hunches Prove to Be Valuable”: to illustrate the idea that intuition or a funny feeling that something’s amiss can save the lives of soldiers fighting wars of occupation, or whatever. The story’s focus was as narrow as a videogame, as though aimed, so to speak, primarily at the nation’s couch potato warriors, who support our troops by reveling in virtual danger.

What happened, according to the article, is that the Americans were making the rounds one morning in 2004 when they spotted a car in which the two boys sat suffocating. It was 120 degrees outside. A soldier asked for permission to give them some water, but the commanding officer, inexplicably sensing danger, cried “Fall back!” an instant before the car exploded. No Americans were killed in the incident, but the boys “almost certainly” died, the article notes. (Did no one check?)

This story chills me to the core. Everything about it makes me cry, “Fall back!” Before we move on to further matters, we must, as readers, allow our hearts to rend for the murdered boys and stand in bewilderment at how such a thing could have happened: children as bomb bait, used to lure honest American soldiers to their doom? Well, anything is possible, but at the very least we must face the full horror of the phenomenon, which means refusing to regard it as an illustrative detail but the shocking consequence of a war that we, in fact, started.

The fact that the article asks nothing of the sort from us, or in any way evinces awareness of any context at all in which these deaths occurred — except, of course, the simplistic context of good vs. evil — becomes the second reason why we as readers must fall back, step away from this story and look at it with deep suspicion. And in so doing, we scan the whole terrain of American journalism and are able to see, and mourn, the paradoxical allegiances that are contributing to its collapse.

Every news story, whatever the medium that purveys it — newspaper, television, radio, Internet — has a frame: a verbal context that gives meaning to the raw data being presented. This frame can be painstakingly constructed of multiple and competing viewpoints to provide the audience with a fresh, hard-won understanding of a given event. But more often, the frames are shoddily constructed and prefab: simplistic narratives that coerce the participants in a given story into preassigned roles, regardless of the complexity of what actually happened.

Take, for instance, the “riot-suppression narrative,” as discussed in a study, by the North American Congress on Latin America, of the coverage by Los Angeles television stations of a large immigrant rights rally in 2007. At one point, as marchers gathered in a park, Los Angeles police forcibly broke up the event, moving in on the participants with their batons. A total of 246 people were injured.

While the LAPD, in its own internal report, conceded that it had made many mistakes — the attack was unprovoked, and no orders to disperse had been given — the TV coverage portrayed the event as a riot forcibly but heroically contained by the police, distorting evidence and converting uncorroborated hearsay into fact in order to do so.

“Like all journalistic narrative frames, the riot-suppression narrative features a set of stock characters — villains, victims, and heroes,” wrote Otto Santa Ana, who headed the research team monitoring the coverage. The marchers, no matter that they included moms and dads and children in strollers, were the bad guys, the unruly mob.

To my mind, reporting like this represents the worst of American journalism: feeding the target audience what it expects to hear and not only hardening the divisions among people but perpetuating the idea that there’s always an enemy. This keeps fear and the inevitability of nasty confrontation at the forefront of American consciousness and makes intelligent social policy impossible.

And the “riot-suppression narrative,” of course, is merely a variation of the America at War narrative, with the same stock characters. The high-profile New York Times story has the same cheap frame, the same factual innocence: The enemy uses children as bomb bait while we offer them water.

Forget the children we’ve killed in staggering numbers with our bombs and in so many other ways. Indeed, forget everything. Just read the story. Better yet, turn on the TV.