10 October, 2008

The loss of a one-time resource

I used to read the Washington Post online, considering it valuable, relatively unbiased, and full of wonderful information. I still try to buy the Sunday Post when I'm in an area that sells it.

Over the last few months, however, I've lost interest. Part of it was a stream of grossly unfair top-level headlines they ran during the two weeks after the national convention. The only "news value" of these articles was the obvious attempt to smear Sarah Palin: short on any actual scandal, they served no apparent purpose but to throw mud on her and sow confusion.*,** Another part of it has been the OnFaith feature, which has generally struck me as low-quality and representing what strikes me as a rather superficial view of religion. Every now and then they'll hire a new columnist for a "Catholic something-or-other" column and I'll last at most one or two columns before shrugging—heard it before—and looking elsewhere.*** Then there were the breathless headlines that, $700 billion, $1 trillion, and now $2 trillion of wealth "disappeared" from the markets.

I've now reached the point where I visit the site only by habit, and now I may not do that. In the PostGlobal section, the Post published yesterday an unbelievable article titled, Italy's Bridge to Nowhere. In a few short paragraphs, the author, a graduate student in International Relations at Johns Hopkins University, makes the case that the relevant editor at the Post be fired, and the entire American International Relations establishment be shaken up the scheming Berlusconi has concocted a plan to build a bridge that

will stretch more than two miles over the stormy Strait of Messina and link the toe of the boot-shaped Italian mainland to its closest island, Sicily.
Apparently she couldn't be bothered to read enough of the history of Italy to see that Sicily isn't exactly "nowhere". I find it hard to believe she's bothered even to open an atlas and look at the Mediterranean Sea. Comparing Sicily to Alaska's Gravina island strikes me as at best mean-spirited towards Sicilians, and at worst ignorant.

The entertainment only starts there. She writes as if Berlusconi is focusing on the bridge at the expense of the Italian airline industry. This is misleading. First, it isn't the entire Italian airline industry that is collapsing, but the state-supported airline Alitalia. Second, for all his faults, Berlusconi has in fact focused on Alitalia, even using his connections to put together a coalition and plan to save it, largely by merging with a profitable Italian airline named Air One. The plan was rejected by a union, but Berlusconi keeps plugging at it.

Her description of the Strait of Messina as "stormy" has brought about correction from at least two (Italian) readers, who point out that it is, in fact, quite sunny almost every day of the year. (So is the rest of southern Italy.)

This is not to say that everything she wrote was invalid. I do however find it hard to disagree with these comments:
It's amateur hour on washingtonpost.com! What an embarrassment for Johns Hopkins and for the author (who might want to attend more than a month of classes before pushing herself on stage). So Sicily is 'nowhere' is it?

What an ill-informed and simplistic article. I lived in Italy most of my life and moved to the US five years ago. Furthermore, I am no fan of Silvio Berlusconi. But smart and honest people disagree on the merits of such bridge. In any case, calling it a bridge to nowhere is preposterous. There are many blogs out there where people can write all kind of absurdities, but this is the WP!

We all know that Berlusconi is a corrupt politician who is more mafia than the Mafia itself, but this isn't the worst idea he has come up with.....

I have spent the first half of my life in Italy, and the second half in the US, and I can attest to the poor quality of this article and the stupidity of the title. The article is long on sneering ("this is politics under Silvio Berlusconi") and short of facts. Let me fill in some…
Quite possibly the best part of this article is that people who do know something about Italy were able to leave comments to correct the facts, which can be read immediately. In other words, the Post is no longer much of a newspaper; it's just becoming one giant weblog. I find that profoundly disappointing.

*Examples of the Post's attempts to smear Palin, or at least sow confusion, include the careful investigation and reporting of her per diem expenses—something that was not done for any of the other candidates, or if it was, failed to make the leading headline on the website. So, you might ask, the article on Palin revealed something that broke government regulations, or at least looked unethical? No. There was absolutely nothing wrong or unethical with Palin's per diem. She spent less than previous governors on per diem, and the article even admits as much, although you have to read well into the article to find the admission:
Gov. Palin has spent far less on her personal travel than her predecessor: $93,000 on airfare in 2007, compared with $463,000 spent the year before by her predecessor, Frank Murkowski. He traveled often in an executive jet that Palin called an extravagance during her campaign. She sold it after she was sworn into office.
This is somehow scandalous?

Joe Biden talks about how he takes Amtrak back to Delaware every week in order to spend time with his family; supposedly, this amounts to a hefty per diem, no? Where's the article on him?

That said, this article took the cake in trying to link Palin to Cheneyesque rhetoric linking Iraq to 9/11. The article was subsequently edited to soften the claim—edited so quickly after being posted online that, when I read the story that morning, the headline (Palin Links Iraq to Sept. 11 In Talk to Troops in Alaska) seemed to be yet more of the Post's much ado about nothing on all matters Palin.

For extra measure, the paper Post published, in the next day's "Corrections" column, a "clarification" which casts a shadow on the Palin campaign, but the ombusdman's subsequent illuminates a great deal:
The second paragraph was edited on the National desk to say that linking "the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein" to the attacks, "a view once promoted by Bush administration officials, has since been rejected even by the president himself. On any other day, Palin's statement would almost certainly have drawn a sharp rebuke from Democrats, but both parties had declared a halt to partisan activities to mark Thursday's anniversary."

In the print version the next day, the "sharp rebuke" sentence was gone and another sentence was in its place: "But it is widely agreed that militants allied with al-Qaeda have taken root in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion."

[emphasis added by me]

**I was not among the exuberant regarding Palin's nomination for VP, although I also thought it was a smart choice. The irrational exuberance many conservatives hold regarding her, venturing to the level of an indecent leer, has diminished my enthusiasm, for reasons I can't quite put in words.

***The best comment hands-down came after a short column by George Weigel for OnFaith: What's a respectable guy like you doing writing a column here?


Clemens said...

I am not fan of Palin, and for a number of reasons don't think it was a smart choice. Though I will admit that some of the criticism has been both dumb and elitist. Dumb especially because it overlooks several reasons to wonder about her and focuses on stuff that is irrelevant (e.g. her accent and her religion).

But the main reason I'm commenting is because Sicily was a great power in the Middle Ages. Palermo center of the Mediterranean trade, wealthy, sophisticated, and more cosmopolitan than any city in Europe with the _possible_ exception of Constantinople.

jack perry said...

[T]he main reason I'm commenting is because Sicily was a great power in the Middle Ages.

Yes! Much of southern Italy was wealthy, cultured, and powerful. One region retains the name Basilicata because it was the administrative of the Basileos of Constantinople. A visitor to Lecce (and many other southern Italian cities) will find gorgeous churches built at a time the place was awash in money. As late as 150 years ago there was a sayin, Vedi Napoli e muori, which can mean "See Naples and you will die" or "See Naples and you can die", it was reputed to be that beautiful.

I wish I could say more about Palermo but the Italian side of my family doesn't come from that area so I'm ignorant of it more or less.