Chris Bray: The Heights of Credulity

The Heights of Credulity
Chris Bray
MONDAY, FEBRUARY 6, 2012

The foundation of a successful career in mainstream journalism is the ability to assess a puddle of baffling horseshit and type it up as fact. A key to this performance is the choice of verbs: officials “explain” and “reveal,” critics and dissidents “claim” and “allege.” So there’s some good news for Boston College: your student journalists are learning well, and will be eligible for post-collegiate employment in their field.

A Sunday story on the website of The Heights, the BC student newspaper, reports that the university has sent a warning to its students “studying abroad in Ireland and England,” particularly in “sensitive areas such as Belfast.” Not sure if they’re putting Belfast in Ireland or England, there, but if they mean to place it in Ireland, let’s take it as a political statement and suggest that Sinn Fein send them a thank you note. Our president thinks Tehran hosts an “English Embassy,” so let’s be kind on this point.

In any case, the warning is a stark one. BC’s Office of International Programs — joined by the chief of the campus police — advises students to “avoid wearing clothing that overtly depicts American or Boston College logos during trips to sensitive areas such as Belfast.”

Why is a Boston College connection something to avoid discussing in Belfast, just now? Why, because of those bastards Ed and Anthony, and watch this paragraph dance, dance, dance around a whole amazing set of obstacles:

“The Irish media has been heavily covering the subpoena of the Belfast Project, an international legal drama that could threaten the delicate peace in Northern Ireland. Though participants signed contracts that promised them privacy ‘to the extent that American law allows,’ project supervisors Ed Moloney, an Irish journalist, and Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA member, have been harshly critical of the University’s stance in international media.”

So the subpoena — stick an “s” on the back of that last word, copy desk, so readers think you kind of know what you’re talking about — “could threaten the delicate peace in Northern Ireland.” But the very thing that threatens to cause violence in Northern Ireland, the subpoena itself(*), presents no threat or difficulty to BC students in “sensitive areas such as Belfast.” Instead, BC students abroad should be aware of the difficulties that may be presented to them by the fact that “Ed Moloney, an Irish journalist, and Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA member, have been harshly critical of the University’s stance in international media.”

The subpoena puts all of Northern Ireland at risk of violence; but only these two dudes mouthing off in the press puts BC students traveling in Northern Ireland at risk of violence. Nothing else. Just them. Those premises cannot be reconciled by sentient beings, but they occupy the same paragraph. Wake up when you type your stories — it helps.

The warning to BC students also suggests that they “avoid political discussions regarding Northern Ireland in public settings such as restaurants and pubs,” and that they specifically refuse to talk to anyone about the Belfast Project and the legal case involving the project’s interview materials: “Do not feel compelled to discuss the matter with those who may raise it. This case is a complex legal issue further complicated by the politics and history of Northern Ireland, and it is best to simply decline to discuss it.”

So BC students shouldn’t display BC logos, identify themselves as BC students, discuss BC in public, or talk at all about local politics in Northern Ireland, because of BC’s involvement in a “legal drama that could threaten the delicate peace in Northern Ireland.” The institution that sent you to X location warns you that it is directly involved in an event that is so toxic and dangerous it could destroy the peace in X location, so for crying out loud keep your mouth shut in X location and don’t let anyone know where you’re from. Now, with all that in mind, watch these three amazing sequential paragraphs spool out in the same news story:
 

“The letter was our way of reminding students to follow common sense guidelines for an issue that is likely never to materialize,” Dunn said.

The letter emphasized that the students studying abroad were not in danger, but that they should be aware of the difficult political situation in Ireland.

“Please know that we do not believe that you are at risk in any way, and that we fully expect that your semester abroad will be an exciting and rewarding experience,” the letter read. “Our intention in writing is to alert you to an ongoing issue so that you will continue to use good judgment in all of your dealings overseas.”

 

Warning! Warning! Warning! Don’t tell anyone in Belfast you’re from Boston College, and don’t talk about politics, and we warn you! Warning! Warning! Warning! (Long pause.) Uh, don’t take this as a warning, though. The peace in Northern Ireland is threatened, an event that is likely never to materialize.

This kind of bullshit-straddle has become a normal part of American institutional language: The makers of Gleemonex warn you not to use Gleemonex while pregnant, because the FDA requires us to inform you that your fetus may explode into flames. However, the makers of Gleemonex remind you that our legal department says Gleemonex has never been proven to cause fetuses to explode into flames. But just please oh please for the love of God please don’t ever take it while you’re pregnant, but it’s not our fault.

In fact, this kind of bullshit-straddle has become so normal that you would think everyone can recognize it and perceive its purposes. But apparently not.

Finally, look at this part of the story again: “Though participants signed contracts that promised them privacy ‘to the extent that American law allows,’ project supervisors Ed Moloney, an Irish journalist, and Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA member, have been harshly critical of the University’s stance in international media.”

What evidence does the newspaper have for the statement that “participants signed contracts that promised them privacy ‘to the extent that American law allows,'” and how do they present that evidence?

They don’t, and they don’t. Don’t have it, don’t describe it. It’s a fact claim based on nothing, emerging from thin air. I’ve sent an email to the editors of The Heights asking if someone at the newspaper hasseen the signed contracts with their own eyes, and I’ll post their response if it comes. But here’s my bet: If they had the contracts in hand, the sentence would include a reference to them. Instead we just get a claim that every interviewee signed a contract that included a warning about the limits of the law. Every former participant in a illegal armed paramilitary organization signed a piece of paper that said we’ll give your interviews to the police if they ask, then sat down for candid interviews about their violent criminal past. Don’t worry about evidence for that claim, because it just makes such good intuitive sense.

Boston College keeps lying because they keep getting away with it. I’m disgusted, and I understand the strategic calculation.

At least three times a week, now, I say the same thing about Goldman Sachs: If the country’s political class is dumb enough to let you steal from them, then why not steal from them? If a drunk lets his wallet fall out of his pocket, is it your fault if you pick it up? (Yes, by the way, but I’m not talking about morality, here.) Apply that logic toJack Dunn: If most people will let you lie to them….

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(*Actually subpoenas, but we’re talking about the story at hand, and analyzing their framing. It’s like fingernails on a blackboard, but still.)