Sunday, May 23, 2010

The NYT's shitty drug war coverage

Despite the paper's supposedly liberal slant, the New York Times' drug reporting is oddly deferential to the government's pro-drug war line, and its reporting suffers either as a cause or an effect. Though they line their articles with caveats and doubts, they spend the bulk of their time repeating the claims of the government, and don't seem to look very far to find opposing point of views to include.

Take as an example this article in Saturday's paper about Afghanistan's poppy problem. While opium poppy has been a lucrative crop in Afghanistan for decades, a recent combination of disease and poor weather has stunted this season's yield, shrinking it by as much as half. Rather than a sober discussion of opium's next season (which, let's face it, are good), the Times' C.J. Chivers article starts out by telling us that there's a chance that within months, the shift away from opium is going to begin.

The first paragraph that essentially tells us that Afghan opium farmers have never had it this bad (doubt it). In the second we learn that apparently there's also some program run by the US Marines, and as a result "the start" of a shift away from opium "could be possible" within mere months:

As farmers around Marja, the heart of Afghanistan’s opium industry, confront harsh environmental conditions and new interdiction efforts, they are also receiving offers of aid in exchange for growing different crops. Both they and the military said that the start of a shift to other sources of income could be possible by the end of this year, when poppy planting would resume.

In the third we get a generic affirmation and a rebuttal (opium prices are up because of the shortage). The next few arguments are non-novel and pretty general ones for and against the program's success, and slowly the reader gets the impression that there isn't anything more to learn about the specific programs, and moves on, with the impression that there's a vague government program that might help rid Afghanistan of heroin.

So it's a huge surprise that half way through the second online page we learn that, in fact, an unknown but potentially huge portion of this program that's supposed to transition farmers from opium to legal crops is a huge sham:

Assessing the program’s effect remains difficult. In many cases, according to Marines on patrols who had to verify that poppy fields were destroyed, farmers were paid based on estimates of a field’s size, which Afghans often inflated.

Marines and poppy farmers also agreed that many farmers waited until the end of the season to register for payments. Then they quickly harvested their opium, plowed under the stalks and collected payments nonetheless.

“That was the only bad thing,” said Cpl. David S. Palmer, who led the squad that provided security for the verification team. “A lot of people were double-taking on us, and there was nothing we could do about it.”

The only bad thing indeed. But never fear, because it's the thought that counts – in the next too many paragraphs we learn that it's an important "stepping stone," it might be working because "what began as a trickle of cooperative farmers...became a busy queue," the program's helping them "reseize the moment," it's providing "much-needed assistance to some of the poorest people in the world," and the "ultimate hope" is peace and a drug-free Afghanistan. Oh yeah, and "[t]he Taliban’s murder and intimidation program is still ongoing." But don't worry, because "through the subsidies, groups of farmers have begun to meet and cooperate with the Americans and Afghan troops."

No real background or reference about past efforts at anti-poppy campaigns, and no citation of any critical voices. And obviously the copy editor wasn't paying attention, because the giant gaping hole in the subject of the article isn't even mentioned until three-quarters of the way through a two-page articles. Let's give it up for another drug war hack job from the New York Times.

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