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Friday, April 28, 2006

Journalism 302: Deconstructing the Washington Post's deconstruction of United 93

Good morning, class. Today's topic is writing opinion pieces as though they were straight news pieces. Please open Friday's Washington Post and go straight to Paul Farhi's story on the front page, the one with the headline that reads "When Hollywood Makes History: Invented Details in United 93 Raise Real Questions." After reading it, it seems clear that Farhi doesn't like the fact that United 93 was made. Oh, his story has all the trappings of an objective piece of journalism - the quotes from different sides, for example - but Farhi's opinion still manages to come through loud and clear. Now I'm going to show you how this is done.

First, when writing in an "on the one hand, on the other hand" format, make sure the side you agree with is always the "other hand." This way you can let your side rebut the other's points, rather than vice versa. Plus, you can throw in phrases like, "But others say," or "Despite these assurances," etc. For example:

"United 93," Hollywood's first big-budget film about the events of Sept. 11, 2001, is faithful to the major aspects of the tragic morning it depicts. The movie tracks the key events detailed in the 9/11 Commission Report, the most definitive source on the subject: the commandeering of the United jet by four terrorists, the panic of the passengers and the heroic rebellion that ended with the plane crashing in a field near Shanksville, Pa.

But the movie, which opens nationwide today, is a dramatic re-creation that includes scenes and images that go far beyond what is known about the attacks.

Those scenes raise questions: How far can a dramatic movie go in imposing its own reality before it distorts the public's understanding of the event? And with memories of 9/11 still vivid and raw, is it too soon for such films to be made?

See? If you're not in favor of "X," but want to appear objective, start off by lightly praising X. This allows you to smoothly transition to your "other hand," hopefully leaving your readers none the wiser about your actual opinion.

Another tactic Farhi uses here is the old "some people are saying" ploy. You see this a lot on television: An interviewer asks a question of his interviewee, who responds with his usual boilerplate blather. The interviewer then says - wait for it - "But Senator, some people are saying that your policy unfairly discriminates against gay Palestinian paraplegics. How do you respond to those people?"

Note how the reporter, by attributing this position to "some people," avoids having to admit that "some people's" opinion is, in reality, his opinion. In Farhi's case, he takes it a step further by assigning the passive tense to his position. So questions are "raised," but not by anyone in particular. They just are.

Moving on. Next, you need to let the other side explain why they did what they did. If you've followed my instructions correctly, you've already got them on the defensive, having to justify their decisions. After this attempt at justification, which you will render pathetic, go ahead and list several instances of what it is you're talking about. Make everything "bad" seem as though it was a malicious lie, completely ignoring any justifications that had been made:

"United 93's" director, Paul Greengrass, has said he sought to create the "plausible truth" of what happened, given that many details are unknown.

The film asserts that the hijackers' intended target was the Capitol. In one scene, Ziad Jarrah, the Lebanese terrorist who piloted the plane, props a picture of the building on the cockpit's console, imposing a cinematic answer to a question that the 9/11 Commission could not resolve: whether the terrorists were trying to hit the Capitol or the White House. Investigators said that point was a source of contention among the 9/11 plotters, with Osama bin Laden favoring a strike on the White House and others, including Mohamed Atta, favoring the Capitol.

"United 93" also suggests that the terrorists killed the pilot and co-pilot, for example, but what occurred is unclear. A United 93 flight recorder picked up the terrorists ordering someone repeatedly to "sit down" and discussing whether to "bring the pilot back" late in the hijacking.

"United 93" also shows the passengers breaching the cockpit with a beverage cart and wrestling the terrorists for control as the plane plummets. Although the 9/11 report states that the passengers fought back in the flight's final moments, the commission had no indication that the passengers entered the cockpit. The report suggests the opposite: "The hijackers remained at the controls but must have judged that the passengers were only seconds from overcoming them."

You're on a roll now. Throw in a quick list of supposed "experts" that the other side says helped them, but don't quote any of them. Just list them and walk away. Maybe mention how one of the "experts" ended up on their payroll:

Universal Pictures, the film's distributor, says researchers consulted numerous sources, including the 9/11 Commission Report, military and civilian aviation authorities, and more than 100 family members and friends of the victims. The movie's advisers included Ben Sliney, who headed the Federal Aviation Administration's Command Center in Herndon on Sept. 11; Sliney portrays himself in the film.

Now it's patsy time. Find someone other than the person in charge of the other side and use your language skills to tear him apart. Words such as "acknowledges," "admits," "justifies," and "questionable" are particularly handy here:

Lloyd Levin, a "United 93" co-producer, acknowledges that the film went beyond known facts about the flight, but he justifies the movie's approach as artistically necessary. "Our mandate was not the same as the 9/11 Commission Report," Levin said. "Our mandate was to what Paul wanted to say with this movie. We're not journalists. Paul is an artist."

He called some of the questionable depictions "choices we had to make." Whether the passengers actually breached the cockpit is "a moot point, because at that point you're in the area of metaphor," he said.

Okay, time for another "one hand, other hand" con. By this point, if you've done your job well, your readers are on your side and you don't have to be all that subtle:

Those choices might satisfy moviegoers but they rankle those interested in a more literal portrait of the events of Sept. 11.

Quickly now, a quote for your side from someone with absolute moral authority:

"I would prefer history tell itself, rather than have Hollywood tell it," said Carie Lemack, whose mother, Judy Larocque, was killed on American Airlines Flight 11, the first plane to hit the World Trade Center. "There's so much we just don't know. Unfortunately, they're taking artistic license with history and people will believe it's accurate. Speculation is okay for drama, but it's less okay when it's purporting to tell history. If they didn't know, why didn't they just leave it out?"

Lemack, co-founder of the organization Families of September 11, has not seen the movie, but she says she was surprised and upset by its trailer and promotional poster, which shows smoke pouring from the World Trade Center towers. She also says the filmmakers missed an opportunity to spur moviegoers to find out more about terrorism and call them to action. (Universal will donate 10 percent of the movie's first weekend ticket sales to a memorial fund.)

You're just about unstoppable now! You can, as Farhi does, throw in some more examples of the other side's shameless duplicity. It's probably not necessary, but what could it hurt?

The decision to counterattack the terrorists was made after passengers learned that other hijacked planes had crashed, according to the 9/11 report and the film. In addition to the cockpit recordings, eyewitness accounts came from crew members and passengers, who used cellphones and air phones to contact people on the ground. But those accounts were sometimes contradictory and fragmentary, and the 9/11 Commission acknowledged that many details never will be known.

Levin acknowledges that in dramatizing the course of the flight, "United 93" makes creative leaps to fill in the blanks. For example, it's not clear who among the passengers spearheaded the response to the terrorists. One passenger, in a phone call from the plane, left it vague: "Everyone's running up to first class. I've got to go. Bye." The 9/11 Commission could not identify whose voices are heard as the passengers storm the cockpit door. "United 93" tackles this uncertainty with a reasonable assumption: that the charge was led by the strongest, most athletic men, including a judo champion.

Other scenes appear to be wholly invented. In one, a passenger who argued for cooperating with the hijackers is restrained by others as the counterattack begins. In another, the passengers are shown overwhelming two hijackers and apparently killing them. Both depictions might be dramatically satisfying, but there's no evidence that either of those events occurred.

Now it's showtime: time to bring 'er on home! The important thing to remember here is that you must close with a quote that takes your side. If you forget everything else I've taught you, do not forget this. Anything before this quote doesn't matter. In fact, the best thing to do here is allow the other side to make a short point, then quickly shift into "some people say" mode and wrap it up:

Many of the victims' immediate relatives have endorsed the movie, saying it fairly represents their final hours. David Beamer, whose son Todd Beamer was killed, told the Associated Press this week: "Our personal reaction was one of relief, because they got it right. When it comes to September 11 and United Flight 93, we don't need another movie. This one got it."

But others question whether it was necessary to make even one movie about an event that many have lived through.

Bruce Hoffman, a Washington-based counterterrorism expert with the Rand Corp., notes that the news media have long avoided replaying some of the more disturbing images of Sept. 11. But, he says: "These equally horrible events are now being depicted as entertainment. I don't know why that's more acceptable.

"Producers and directors can have the purest and best intentions to re-create the horror and tragedy and bravery of the passengers. But the bottom line is, it's still entertainment. You have to question whether making it into entertainment cheapens and demeans it."

You may not have noticed the added twist Farhi performs here, like a gymnast making one last rotation on her dismount. He says that many of the "victims' immediate relatives" endorse United 93, then goes into his "some people say" routine by writing "But others question whether it was necessary," etc. Now, the word "others" here obviously refers back to the "victims' immediate relatives," so you'd think that the quote following this would be from a family member. But no, it's from counterterrorism expert Bruce Hoffman, telling us that United 93 "cheapens and demeans" what happened on 9/11.

Hoffman is obviously entitled to his opinion, but as neither a family member of a victim nor an expert in film studies, it's not clear why he's quoted as though he were an expert. However, it really doesn't matter. The article, a beautifully constructed opinion piece in straight news's clothing, is done.

If you're successful, readers will come away parroting your opinion even though they are convinced they just read a harmless news story. If you're really successful, you'll end up on page A01, like Farhi did.

Class dismissed.

(For my take on Salon's review of United 93, click here. For my review of United 93, click here.)

Blogger Rick Moran said...

Perfect takedown. Give that man a 10!

Actually, Hoffman has a legitimate point. And if Greengrass had deviated one inch from the tightrope he was walking, the criticism would have been valid.

But the movie was so spare and devoid of sensationalism that Hoffman's point about making entertainment of tragedy falls flat.

Hollywood is uniquely situated in our culture to make history into myth. This is the way cultures internalize great events like WW II and yes, even Viet Nam. Think John Wayne and Davey Crockett.

Hollywood can get it wrong 9 times out of 10. In this case, they got it right.

Anonymous JD said...

I wouldn't worry too much about this guy having any sort of impact on the public at large, but excellent post all the same. One more point to add: People are going to hold Greengrass to a higher standard of truth for a drama (in which it's always the case that liberties are taken) than they did Michael Moore for his "documentary."

Blogger Stephen M. St. Onge said...

        Very nice.  Let me just add, in response to Lemack's point, that if the film stuck only to what was known before, it couldn't have been made.

        Which is, of course, what the Post wanted.  We musn't be reminded of what kind of people we're at war with.


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