It has become a welcome staple of contemporary American journalism for a newspaper to run an analysis piece, in addition to its straight news story, following a major presidential speech or policy statement. It’s a crucial component of the coverage, since the just-the-facts nature of news stories never seems flexible enough to accommodate the context or emphasis necessary to help readers understand the significance of the facts they are consuming. More important, the analyses are written by political reporters, rather than opinion columnists, giving them the gravitas of an expert, rather than taint of partisanship.
But what to do when even the analyses fail to put the facts in perspective? Too often, the main difference between the straight story and the analysis is the analysis tag itself.
Following the president’s press conference yesterday at the White House, this morning the big dailies rolled out their straight takes on the president’s comments, and then somewhere deeper in the day’s report we got the analyses.
And in the mix the Washington Post, as has so often been the case on stories about Iraq, got the better of its competition.
The paper’s Peter Baker had a piece on the front page about the news conference, which for its depth and thoughtfulness, beat its competitors hands down. The analysis was handled by Thomas E. Ricks, whose piece was headlined: “Bush’s Proposal of ‘Benchmarks’ for Iraq Sounds Familiar.”
Tapping into the often overlooked importance of what wasn’t said, rather than what was, Ricks wrote: “The president talked repeatedly about ‘benchmarks’ for progress in Iraq, using that word 13 times. But he did not discuss the consequences of the Iraqi government missing those targets. Such a question, he said, was ‘hypothetical.’”
Ricks also observed that the president “mentioned the goal of training about 325,000 Iraqi soldiers and police officers, but he did not address the paradox that as that goal is neared, violence has intensified and the insurgency appears as robust as ever. Nor did he note that after U.S. forces stood down in Baghdad, they had to stand back up again. Instead, without offering much explanation, he said that ‘we are refining our training strategy for the Iraqi security forces.’”
An astute analysis to be sure, and one that was heads above that offered by the New York Times’ John M. Broder, whose surprisingly unoriginal bit of analysis barely managed to offer anything more than the paper’s page-one news story. While Broder’s introductory paragraphs rightfully put the president’s words in the context of the coming elections, the piece failed to really move the ball much further downfield than that.
The closest Broder came to actually analyzing the president’s comments was when he wrote that Bush seemed “more candid than in the past about the military and political problems in Iraq and more willing to admit misjudgments about America’s enemies and allies there.” But he soon fell back into straight reporting mode, offering this bland appraisal: “He said that in many cases Iraqi troops were not up to the job of defending their own country and that he was not satisfied with progress toward a resolution of the political and sectarian conflicts raging across the country.”
It’s true, the president did say this. But didn’t we learn this in Jim Rutenberg’s news story? Why do we need it repeated here, and offered as analysis?
To underscore the Times’ analytical failure, consider what the Los Angeles Times’ Peter Wallsten did with the same information in his analysis. He wrote that the president “offered descriptions of his plans for waging the war that were complicated and at times appeared contradictory. In his opening remarks, for example, Bush acknowledged, “I know many Americans are not satisfied with the situation in Iraq. I’m not satisfied, either.” But asked moments later to assess the war, he responded adamantly, ‘Absolutely, we’re winning the fight against terrorism.’”
The point is not to beat up on Broder, but rather to argue for “news analysis” that actually analyzes and helps us understand the deeper story behind the news. Otherwise, it’s wasted space.