If we had the 'full story,' could we grasp it?
PORTLAND, ORE. — Imagine a newspaper that is devoted exclusively to coverage of the situation in Iraq, and contains so much information about every aspect of the current conflict that no one would ever be able to accuse the management of editorial bias or selective presentation of the facts.
Since the moment coalition troops attacked Saddam Hussein's forces, one of the most persistent complaints of media critics is that mainstream news organizations in this country are not giving Americans the "full story" on what's happening as Iraq undergoes a historic regime change. Editors from coast to coast receive angry letters every day from readers who believe that negative reports from Iraq are being favored over positive ones, and vice versa.
This ongoing debate made me wonder how a publication could be structured so that its coverage of the war is absolutely complaint-proof. And the only answer that seems to satisfy all potential critics would be a mammoth journal that has no word count or editing requirements.
I'll call this imaginary paper the Iraq NLO Express (Nothing Left Out). Every issue would include a complete rundown of all coalition military patrols carried out during the past 24 hours. There would be daily updates on insurgent activities, suspects detained, interrogation procedures, training and deployment of police recruits, and progress on reconstruction projects. Interviews with American soldiers, Iraqi civilians, private contractors, diplomats, and government officials would be printed as verbatim transcripts.
The NLO Express might be 500 pages long and weigh 10 pounds or more. Older homes might be damaged by the impact of each issue crashing onto the front porch every morning. Personally, I would decline to subscribe.
I'm not saying that mainstream news organizations are running a perfect system right now, but one fact media critics need to keep in mind is that editing information is not an evil idea. Most of us are doing it all the time in various aspects of our lives.
I can't possibly check in with every friend and relative each day to confirm that they're all safe and secure. I don't have complete details on what's happening at my daughter's high school. Awareness of neighborhood events usually comes from visual observations I make while driving on daily errands. A dumpster delivered to someone's driveway is instant evidence that a new roof or other major project is about to start.
Not all information I get is correct. That's why it's important to have a network of sources. Some are more reliable than others. The same holds true for my awareness of national and world events. I'm doing the best I can with the mainstream sources I've learned to trust.
It would be nice to have enough time and brainpower to absorb the daily output of every newspaper, blog, and broadcast commentator. Any media critic who can figure out a system for accomplishing that feat is welcome to call me. If I don't answer the phone, just leave a carefully edited message. The recording machine shuts down after 30 seconds. I like it that way.
• Jeffrey Shaffer is an author and essayist who writes about media, American culture, and personal history.