Commentary Magazine


Reading Trash in Sadr City

Some journalists just have a nose for juicy stories, a supernatural instinct that leads them to a scandal or tragedy overlooked by mere mortals. Take, for example, the New York Times’ Stephen Farrell, who wrote a front-page story exposing Baghdad’s “deadly” ice shortage last summer. His lede?

Each day before the midsummer sun rises high enough to bake blood on concrete, Baghdad’s underclass lines up outside Dickensian ice factories.

True, this unspeakable horror was never written about again. But that doesn’t mean Farrell wasn’t onto something. In fact, in using the front-page of the New York Times to write about Iraqi ice, he unwittingly revealed what actually was the biggest regional story of 2007: the success of the troop surge. One knew that if the worst the Times could dig up on Iraq was an ice shortage, things there must be considerably calmer.

Now, we can add Erica Goode to this list of inadvertent journalistic luminaries. In yesterday’s New York Times, Goode penned a story with the headline: “Fighting in Sadr City Cuts Short Effort to Collect Trash.” A month ago Goode, writing with James Glanz, slammed Prime Minister Maliki for his supposed failure in Basra. But as the fighting in that city clearly turned in Maliki’s favor, the charges didn’t stick. However, this time she’s got the Prime Minister nailed:

The setback was a sign of the difficulties faced by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s government, which is under increasing pressure to address the humanitarian needs of Sadr City’s residents . . .

In truth, this municipal service announcement of a story is a sign of something else: Maliki’s progress in the governing of Iraq. When the reporter who declared Maliki fatally impotent a month ago can now only lament his shortcomings in garbage disposal, we know things must be pretty good.

This is the kind of charge faced by, say, an American mayor during a slow news week. Certain quarters of the anti-war crowd had hoped the fighting in Basra would douse the widespread enthusiasm for the surge’s success. The uncertainty surrounding the early stages of battle may have temporarily done so. But ace journalists like Erica Goode help to ensure that the real (and heartening) story gets out there in the end.