Tuesday, May 22, 2007

A Soda Can Is Filled with Soda. An MOI Is Filled with Shiite Militiamen

I thought this quote from Spencer Ackerman's Nation article was clear. Kevin Drum apparently didn't:

Spencer Ackerman: 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....

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.... 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!"...

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.... [W]hile 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!

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