Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Missing the Editor

In my piece last July about Michael Massing's New York Review article, "The News About the Internet," I tried to focus on two significant losses that we have had to endure in the world the Internet has made. One of these was a consequence of how the world of "Internet speed" has become "a world without reflection." The other has to do with not only Internet speed but the prevailing anyone-can-play-attitude towards the contribution of content. This is the more serious loss, and it is the loss of quality editing.

The TIME Web site may have just provided an excellent case study of what can happen when editors are pushed out of the loop. Since this involves one of their own staff writers at the Washington desk (Mark Thompson), my guess is that the problem can be attributed to the demands of Internet speed, which may leave some nostalgic for the days when Time was a weekly magazine whose publication cycle tended to provide more than ample time for both reflection and editing. Now that they are in partnership with CNN, those days are long gone.

The lesson of the case study can be seen in the opening paragraphs of an article that just appeared on the Web site:

Unlike the chattering classes, senior military officers didn't raise an eyebrow when General Stanley McChrystal recently said he had only spoken once to President Obama since assuming command in Afghanistan. The military chain of command is there for a reason, and Obama seems to be sticking to it more faithfully than President George W. Bush did. But tensions are inevitable as the troop needs of U.S. commanders on the ground come up against the reservations of a political leadership increasingly leery of being trapped in an Afghan quagmire.

Some have argued that McChrystal violated military protocol by giving a speech in London last week emphasizing the need for more forces in Afghanistan at a time when that issue is the subject of hot debate inside the Administration. Obama, who convenes two key strategy meetings on Afghanistan this week, held an unusual meeting with McChrystal last Friday. (There was no dressing down, contrary to the suggestion in some media reports.) (See TIME's photo-essay "A Photographer's Personal Journey Through War.")

But in remarks widely reported as directed at McChrystal, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Monday, "In this process, it is imperative that all of us taking part in these deliberations — civilians and military alike — provide our best advice to the President candidly but privately." Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell insisted, however, that Gates' message was meant for all privy to the Administration's Afghan policy deliberations, and "is not a rebuke of Stan McChrystal."

The military chain of command is a strange beast, rarely understood by civilians. But it's sacrosanct inside the military, which is why President Bush caused heartburn among many in uniform when he began regularly communicating directly with Army General David Petraeus, directly with Army General David Petraeus (who the New York Times reported was diagnosed with early-stage prostate cancer in February while serving as chief of U.S. Central Command), then leading the surge of nearly 30,000 additional U.S. troops in Iraq. That represented a short-circuiting of the chain that ought to have passed through Gates and Admiral William Fallon, then chief of Central Command, and raised concerns that Bush was ignoring a military hierarchy critical to the smooth functioning of the civilian-military relationship and of the military itself. (Read "Congress Tackles Afghanistan Strategy.")

Jones on Sunday appeared to criticize McChrystal's London talk, in which the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan had warned that setting more limited war aims there would yield a "Chaos-istan." The National Security Adviser emphasized that the Administration would prefer that its internal debates be kept internal. "Ideally, it's better for military advice to come up through the chain of command" and remain private, Jones said, instead of being voiced publicly as McChrystal did last Thursday before the International Institute of Strategic Studies.

Jones? Are we supposed to know who he is? Actually, he is National Security Advisor James L. Jones; and, considering the extent to which this is an article about the chain of command and how it might be strained, it would seem that, at the very least, he should have been identified by his position on the organization chart, if not his full name. Granted, I feel a bit defensive about this guy, since I gave him a Chutzpah of the Week award on July 1, basically for his brilliant rhetorical move in telling the commanders on the ground in Afghanistan that any request for more troops would "quite likely" give President Barack Obama "a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment!"

As I see it, there are two explanations for Jones' name suffering from an "unresolved reference." The more likely is that this is nothing more than sloppy editing, and it is the one I would like to believe. The more paranoid explanation is that this is an indication that Jones' real position in the chain of command (that is in the day-to-day practices of who says what to whom) is no longer consistent with his position on the organization chart. This happens in business all the time. Academics like Ikujiro Nonaka have extolled it as a key attribute of a "hyperlinked organization," implying that any business should be as richly connected as any good Web site. Of course not all hyperlinked Web sites are good ones, and there have been a variety of studies concerned with when links inform and then they confound. Because the informative value of hyperlinking is so poorly understood, we can appreciate why the Department of Defense does not want to be such a hyperlinked organization. Unfortunately, even if the only explicit links are the ones that define a strictly linear chain, we shall never get away from implicit links working their way into any operational setting. If those implicit links are gradually squeezing Jones out of his defined place in the chain of command, then Thompson's text may have inadvertently tipped us off that a reorganization is in the works. Thus, a little bit of deconstruction may reveal a more significant subtext behind that sloppy editing!

1 comment:

london said...

Without troops President obama just lost and lost.......lost lost...