"I didn't mean it that way"

I will spare the readers of East Ethnia the details of the tedious controversy -- interestingly enough, a mostly German debate that seems to have very little resonance in Serbia itself -- surrounding Peter Handke's statements about Serbia, the genocide in Bosnia (and especially Srebrenica), and the role of late President Milosevic. An excellent resource for the whole thing is Caroline Fetscher's blog, which is required reading anyway. (Should you still thirst for yet more and read German, today's Neue Zürcher Zeitung carries a long interview with Handke.) I will equally refrain from commenting on Noam Chomsky's recent interview with the New Statesman.

[I cannot bring myself, however, to refrain from quoting the interview's highlight: "The worst crime was Srebrenica but, unfortunately for the International Tribunal, there was an intensive investigation by the Dutch government, which was primarily responsible - their troops were there - and what they concluded was that not only did Milosevic not order it, but he had no knowledge of it. And he was horrified when he heard about it." If anyone can figure out what he's talking about, please let me know.]

Rather, the point I'd like to make is this: how come two people who have been professionally working with words for several decades and who have received numerous awards for that work don't seem to be able of any unambiguous statement when it comes to the question of war crimes and genocide in former Yugoslavia? Of course, Chomsky is equally obfuscating on a range of other issues, and his extreme negligence -- some might say, willful manipulation -- when handling sources and quotes is legendary. Indeed, the fallout from Chomsky's infamous interview with the Guardian's Emma Brockes (centering on the use of quotation marks and similar), and Handke's current troubles after he spoke at Milosevic's funeral all seem to stem from the same spectacular inability to simply and clearly state what they are trying to say. Pretty remarkable for two guys who make a living dealing with words, don't you think?


The siege of Sarajevo, contd.

An AFP wire report yesterday provides excellent if implicit guidance as to how to deal with the dreaded time between June and September, when very little happens and editors are struggling to fill their pages. (Thankfully, this year we got the World Cup.) As an editor, I very much appreciate such pieces since they help me perfect my craft.

1. Headline properly
This one reads “Bosnian capital shaken by radical Islam,” an evergreen that will attract readers. Try to appeal to the reader's most visceral fears. [Note: This is the editor's job, not the hack's.]

2. Spot trends
It's imperative that what you report is not just a single event but a new tendency:
The people of Sarajevo, renowned for their pluralism, have
been shaken after a series of incidents including the murder of a Muslim woman by her Islamic extremist son who questioned her faith.
Never mind that the only other elements in this “series of incidents” were some couples making out in parks and being harassed by some self-styled guardians of virtue. This allows you to repackage old news--the murder happened on 27 February--and to link the insignificant (a bunch of punks bothering a bunch of kids) to the significant (a murder).

3. Make good use of quotes
This is a critical element in establishing your credibility as a reporter: you've been there, you know the situation, you've talked to the experts.
Upholders of Bosnia's moderate version of Islam say the
problem caused by an influx of hardline fighters during the country's 1992-1995 war has worsened in recent months, highlighted by the gruesome murder.

“Bosnia's tradition of Islam is tolerant, it promotes
pluralism and we should not allow those representing a
one-track ideology to teach us,” says Jasmin Merdan.

The 26-year-old -- a practising Muslim who portrays himself as a “victim” of the Wahhabi ideology before abandoning it -- is one of the few courageous voices in Bosnia who dares to criticise extremism.

The most important thing to remember when using quotes is that they don't actually need to be linked to anything you're saying, as the example above shows. Readers who expect the claim about a worsening situation to be backed up by a quote just don't get it, and the rest will be happy to hear about the courageous young man who dares to speak up.