Tuesday, May 22, 2007
when i get in trouble with language the fate of the world is what's at stake:
Let me take you on a journey into the beating heart of war journalism. What happens when you've got a quote that seems vivid and redolent, rich in texture, emitting a bouquet of meaning and insight, but... may in fact be a word salad? The answer: print that sucker. Indulge me here.

Kevin reads my Nation piece, pulls out this passage

The MOI is the Ministry of Interior, arguably the most powerful department in the Iraqi bureaucracy. It has control of the police, and since 2005 it has been an instrument of Shiite political power....Haider gets nervous when I press him about MOI complicity with the militias. He picks up a can of Pepsi from his desk. "I can't say anything about the MOI, but here's an example. This is a soda. You know what it is, and what it consists of."

and remarks, "Say what?" Rightly so. Let me explain.

The vast majority of my Baghdad interviews were conducted through translation, helpfully provided by the 57th MPs. Not all of the Iraqi police were keen to talk to me. One fellow, named Lieutenant Colonel Ali, told me that he'd simply tell me nothing: he wasn't authorized to talk to the press, and didn't want to get in trouble. Fine. It happens.

In Khadimiya, Colonel Haider was pretty open to talking to me after Lt. Sherrill indicated that it was OK with him. I immediately started asking him about militia infiltration in the station, as just minutes before, his cousin & logistics officer, Major Ali, had told me it was a huge problem. (The NYT today surveys the extent of militia-enforced Shiite control of the neighborhood Haider & Ali police.) He pointed to the Ministry of Interior as the source of the problem. I continued to ask him about this.

All of a sudden, a routine U.S. checkup on his operations became a case of an American reporter, escorted by the very U.S. soldiers checking up on the station, pressing him about the perfidies of his superiors. He grabbed a soda can on his desk, gave me that quote, and evaded further questions. Now, as I wrote down Haider's words, I thought to myself: Yeah, that's right... a soda. I know exactly what it is, and what it consists of. Much like I know what the MOI consists of. A soda can consists of soda!* The MOI consists of Shiite militiamen! Well played, Colonel Haider.

Later that day, as I was composing an e-mail to friends and family that helped me organized my thoughts from the day's interviews, it occurred to me that the more I thought about it, the less I know about what a can of soda consists of. High-fructose corn syrup? Do they even use that in the Iraqi version of Pepsi? I thought it better not to be overly literal. Even through translation, and through his rather understandable caution, Haider was clearly telling me that the MOI was what it was. Maybe the quote worked better in Arabic. But the trouble remained: Haider's attempt to clarify the matter was in direct contrast to his method of expressing himself.

So I must have gone back and forth with taking that quote out of the piece a million times. If I took it out, I would have a situation where I took the reader right up to the edge of raising the MOI trouble but not crossing the threshold. I tried paraphrasing: "Haider suggests that the Ministry knows everything about the militia presence in the station," or some permutation. But I figured a reader would justifiably want to know what the guy actually said, particularly if he was levying such a big charge. I combed through my notes for similar quotes, and while nearly every police commander blamed the MOI at least partially for infiltration, it would have been awkward to suddenly switch characters, especially because I wanted to ground the piece in a specific police station. So, finally, I opted for the Pepsi quote, and figured that it would make sense in context.

Tell me, faithful commenters: was this a mistake? Be my ex-post-facto editor. Citizen journalism advances another step!

* UPDATE: Wow, is this bad writing. A soda can does not consist of soda. It contains soda. Woe to the holder of the soda can that consists of soda.
--Spencer Ackerman
I think we all know what soda is.

I like it in there.
Blogger caddy lack | 11:56 AM

IMO, you played it exactly right.

The point you were conveying wasn't just Haider's assessment of the infiltration of the MOI -- it was his fear of expressing himself on the subject, which speaks volumes in and of itself.
Blogger Unknown | 1:22 PM

I read your piece last night when Yglesias linked to it. Although I liked the article very much, I have to admit that I read that passage like three times, before I was convinced I knew what it meant. Maybe I'm just dense though.

BTW, I agree with swopa. I think.
Blogger Eric the Political Hack | 2:12 PM

FWIW: I read it exactly as you intended the first time. But then, I'm a cynical type already.

Also, what Swopa said.
Blogger Eric Martin | 3:28 PM

I thought it was a great quote and it almost became my msn name (but it was too long).
Blogger Jacob | 6:49 PM

A soda can does not consist of soda. It contains soda.

If you haven't read James Thurber's "Here Lies Miss Groby", you should, for its discussion of "The Thing Contained for the Container". It's actually pretty funny.
Blogger Robert St. Amant | 9:25 AM

Like Dennis Green's "They are who we thought they were!"

And so they are.
Blogger Daddy Love | 10:01 AM