The journalists who have complained about limitations placed on the media during Desert Storm need a lesson from a good high school English teacher. They have not been specific with their complaints of censorship. The fact is that those who have criticized the media for reporting too much need to hear the same lesson.
The lesson is probably the most- taught lesson by writing teachers, who spend much of their lives writing "be specific" in the margins of student work. The student writes: "It is hot." The teacher then writes in the margin: "Be specific. How hot is it? You need a good metaphor. It is so hot that. . . ."The journalists and the critics both need to be specific. When the journalist writes that she couldn't get the information from the Pentagon she is obligated to be specific. What exactly did she ask for that she couldn't get. How can the reader judge the complaint without knowing what it is that is not being reported because of pentagon censorship?
When the critics of the media say that reporting aided the enemy they need to be specific. What was reported that aided the enemy and how did the enemy benefit from the information? The truth is that most of the stuff that was reported was so general that it wasn't helpful to anyone.
When all that is seen by the public from a country the size of California is the view from the fifth story of a hotel, the public really doesn't know very much. When we see reporters in Tel Aviv putting on gas masks we are getting specific information but not the kind that can be generalized. What is really going on?
The student writer is taught that it is the specific detail that illustrates the generalizations and makes the writing live. Specifics without generalizations and generalizations without specific support provide little useful information.
When the reporter says "we know that you don't know the exact whereabouts of your son and that you haven't had a letter for three weeks, but how do you feel about what your son is doing," the reporter will get some specific information. The problem is that there is no real generalization to support. What larger purpose does this little piece of information serve? What is there to say that can help the public be more informed?
The problem the public had is that the war report often seemed to be either a collection of unrelated specific pieces of information without context or a report that information was not available. The idea that something was not available was not supported with specific examples of what the missing pieces were.
Perhaps the war was too Nintendo- like to report the specific human story. The scenes of buildings blowing up in the cross hairs of airplane television monitors don't convey the specific human tragedy. The only time it came close was during one of the briefings by Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf. He ran a video that showed a car driving through the cross hairs. "I want you to see the luckiest man in Iraq . . . Now in his rear-view mirror. . . ." We saw an explosion behind the car. I asked myself if I had just seen a man die. We were killing people.
Near the end of World War II the allies discovered the German concentration camps and the fact that 6 million Jews had been killed. That generalization is a number too big to understand even when I notice that it is about five times the population of Utah. Hal Boyle of the Associated Press used a specific story to focus the enormity of the crime against humanity. He wrote of the wife of a concentration camp commandant who visited the scene of the killings and had lampshades made of the skins of victims she had selected. He called Ilse Koch the Bitch of Buchenwald.
This is the kind of specific detail that makes the incomprehensible generalization - 6 million killed - terribly real. It made me wonder how many people we killed when video-game videos of the war were shown on the news.
The point is that the specific support of a good generalization makes good writing. It also makes for good argument and an informed public. Specifics should support the complaints of the media as well as the criticisms. This can't help but improve the judgment of the public.
- Roger Baker is associate professor of English/education at Snow College. Comments or questions about "Learning Matters" may be addressed to Dr. Roger Baker, English Department, Snow College, Ephraim, UT 84627.