February 08, 2005

Pernicious ambiguity at Davos

That disturbance you feel in the blogosphere, if you're back late from a weekend on Mars, is Easongate. Two weeks after the event, the MainStream Media has picked up the story: in a WaPo piece datelined 2/8/2005, Howard Kurtz explains that "What CNN chief news executive Eason Jordan said, or didn't say, in Davos, Switzerland, last month has become a burgeoning controversy among bloggers and media critics."

One reason that it's unclear what Jordan did or didn't say is that although the session was videotaped, the organizers of the World Economic Forum apparently consider it to have been held under the Chatham House Rule, so that neither clips or transcripts have been released. But there's another reason as well: Jordan's remarks, whatever they were, set some kind of record for consequential ambiguity. That's a linguistic as well as a political problem. So what you need is not only a transcript -- or better yet, a recording -- you also need a linguist.

Actually, what you need is a semanticist, someone who knows about meaning, not a phonetician like me. Well, as the old song says, I ain't no semanticist, ain't no semanticist's son, but I can resolve your ambiguities til your semanticist comes...

According to the original account of the session by Rony Abovitz (on 1/28/2004),:

At a discussion moderated by David R. Gergen, the Director for Public Leadership, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, the concept of truth, fairness, and balance in the news was weighed against corporate profit interest, the need for ratings, and how the media can affect democracy. The panel included Richard Sambrook, the worldwide director of BBC radio, U.S. Congressman Barney Frank, Abdullah Abdullah, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan, and Eason Jordan, Chief News Executive of CNN. The audience was a mix of journalists, WEF attendees (many from Arab countries), and a US Senator from Connecticut, Chris Dodd.

During one of the discussions about the number of journalists killed in the Iraq War, Eason Jordan asserted that he knew of 12 journalists who had not only been killed by US troops in Iraq, but they had in fact been targeted. He repeated the assertion a few times, which seemed to win favor in parts of the audience (the anti-US crowd) and cause great strain on others.

Due to the nature of the forum, I was able to directly challenge Eason, asking if he had any objective and clear evidence to backup these claims, because if what he said was true, it would make Abu Ghraib look like a walk in the park. David Gergen was also clearly disturbed and shocked by the allegation that the U.S. would target journalists, foreign or U.S. He had always seen the U.S. military as the providers of safety and rescue for all reporters.

The various accounts of the event (see below for some links) agree that Jordan said something about U.S. forces "targeting" or "deliberating killing" journalists. And in doing so, he ran afoul of at least three kinds of ambiguity so common that they have conventional names: de re vs. de dicto, attributive vs. referential, and specific vs. generic. These interpretive distinctions may not be taught in journalism school, but they should be.

Since this will get a little complicated, let me put my conclusions up front. (In the court of public relations, the Red Queen's rule applies anyhow: "first the sentence, and then the evidence".) Eason Jordan made a big mistake. He said something whose natural interpretation is incorrect and indefensible. He may have meant to convey the natural interpretation of his remarks, either because he believes it's true, or because he chose to exaggerate in order to express animus against the U.S. forces in Iraq. He may have meant to imply the natural interpretation but to leave himself interpretive room to back up, as politicians often do when they want to play to the prejudices of one group while preserving deniability for another. Or he may not have intended to convey the obvious interpretation of his words at all, despite their inflammatory effect and the prominence of the setting. None of these options is acceptable communicative behavior for the Chief News Executive of CNN.

Let's assume for simplicity's sake that what Jordan said was

U.S. forces in Iraq have intentionally killed 12 journalists.

The key interpretive question is how the meaning of "journalists" interacts with the meaning of the rest of the sentence. As soon as what someone wants or intends comes into the picture, we confront the issues of belief attribution known as the de re/de dicto distinction. It may be true that Oedipus wants to marry his mother, because he wants to marry Jocasta and she is (known to us as) his mother, but false that Oedipus knows that Jocasta is his mother. Under these circumstances, the statement that Oedipus wants to marry his mother -- whatever its philosophical status -- is an egregious violation of elementary journalistic ethics.

As Jay Rosen, from NYU's department of journalism, put it :

"The original account was too ambiguous for me. It had him saying United States soldiers targeted journalists, and then claiming that's not what he meant. He later explained it as: the soldiers were trying to kill these people, but did not know they were shooting at journalists."

Curiously, Rosen seems to think that he's using this reasoning to defend Jordan.

In fact, the ambiguities of Jordan's remarks were more extensive and more subtle. One issue is whether particular individuals (who happened to be journalists) were individually and specifically targeted, rather than being killed as a side effect of some more general action, like dropping a bomb on an enemy position. Another issue is whether the soldiers in question knew that the individuals they were aiming at were journalists, and if so, fired because of this knowledge or in spite of it. Finally, there's the question of whether such targeting (if any) was sporadic and individual, or general and a matter of (official or unofficial) policy.

From the discussions of the event by participants, it appears that Jordan played these ambiguities like a xylophone. Here's Michelle Malkin's report of her conversation with U.S. Congressman Barney Frank, who was on the panel:

Rep. Frank said Eason Jordan did assert that there was deliberate targeting of journalists by the U.S. military. After Jordan made the statement, Rep. Frank said he immediately "expressed deep skepticism." Jordan backed off (slightly), Rep. Frank said, "explaining that he wasn't saying it was the policy of the American military to target journalists, but that there may have been individual cases where they were targeted by younger personnel who were not properly disciplined." [...]

I asked Rep. Frank again if his recollection was that Jordan initially maintained that the military had a deliberate policy of targeting journalists. Rep. Frank affirmed that, noting that Jordan subsequently backed away orally and in e-mail that it was official policy, but "left open the question" of whether there were individual cases in which American troops targeted journalists.

After the panel was over and he returned to the U.S., Rep. Frank said he called Jordan and expressed willingness to pursue specific cases if there was any credible evidence that any American troops targeted journalists. "Give me specifics," Rep. Frank said he told Jordan.

Rep. Frank has not yet heard back from Jordan.

And from Malkin's report of her conversation with David Gergen, the panel's moderator:

First, Gergen confirmed that Eason Jordan did in fact initially assert that journalists in Iraq had been targeted by military "on both sides." Gergen, who has known Jordan for some 20 years, told me Jordan "realized as soon as the words had left his mouth that he had gone too far" and "walked himself back." Gergen said as soon as he heard the assertion that journalists had been deliberately targeted, "I was startled. It's contrary to history, which is so far the other way. Our troops have gone out of their way to protect and rescue journalists."

Gergen mentioned that Jordan had just returned from Iraq and was "caught up in the tension of what was happening there. It's a raw, emotional wound for him."

Gergen said he asked Jordan point blank whether he believed the policy of the U.S. military was to sanction the targeting of journalists. Gergen said Jordan answered no, but then proceeded to speculate about a few incidents involving journalists killed in the Middle East--a discussion which Gergen decided to close down because "the military and the government weren't there to defend themselves."

Gergen also echoed Rep. Frank's recollection that Jordan asserted that there were cases involving journalist deaths where "not enough care was taken by U.S. troops." (Gerard Van der Leun takes a closer look at this spin here.) Gergen said he was approached after the session by European journalists who expressed the belief that American troops were "roughing up" journalists and Iraqi nationals. He also said people left the event "concerned and wanting to know more."

The (mostly right-wing, pro-war) bloggers who have focused on this story have emphasized the fact that Eason Jordan has made similar accusations in the past, which appear to have turned out to be untrue or exaggerated; and that CNN had a pre-war deal with Saddam Hussein not to report his regime's atrocities, in return for protection and access (more commentary here; Jordan's complete NYT essay is apparently reprinted here ).

Mickey Kaus at Slate accuses Howard Kurtz of "doing CNN's damage control". We'll see if it's effective: Trent Lott went down, Dan Rather went down, and it looks to me like Eason Jordan is tottering. This being Language Log, I'll just point out that a good semantics course might have saved him.

Well, probably not. But it would have enabled him to analyze his downfall more perspicuously.

[Update: The first MSM discussion of this story was a 2/6/2005 article by Jack Kelly in the Toledo Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. There is also a story by Roderick Boyd in today's New York Sun. Mark Jurkowitz comments in the Boston Globe on a statement from CNN, quoting from it at some length. However, searching for "Eason Jordan" on the cnn.com website does not turn it up. ]


Posted by Mark Liberman at February 8, 2005 08:24 AM