"Write what you know" is the standard -- and useful -- advice given to all budding fiction writers. Unfortunately, that bit of wisdom is often lost on journalists and can lead to stories that are at best woefully uninformed and at worst wildly inaccurate.
This month's cover story, "The Media and GI Joe" (page 22), looks at how such ignorance plays out with regard to the armed forces. "Reporters who cover the military...don't just muff a few basic facts about what kind of soldier carries what kind of gun, or which service does what," writes Chris Bray. "They also fail to apply the right skepticism in the right places, or even the right credulity in the right places, and so end up swinging in a wild arc between breathless adulation and naive condemnation. They surrender many of the necessary tools for questioning the authority of the armed forces, and render nearly useless the check and the balance of the Fourth Estate on a major power of government. They create confidence where there should be wariness, and fear where there should be strength."
Anyone who surveys the evening yak shows -- where the Ashleighs and the Geraldos have traded in their civvies for camo wear -- has a strong sense of what Bray is talking about. His experience as an infantryman explains why he can draw a bead so authoritatively on reporters who are impressed to learn that soldiers occasionally train with live ammo.
His firsthand knowledge also allows him to dig deeper and expose how the military itself is a captive of its own mangled internal communications. The result is chilling to ponder as we gear up for the next stage of the war on terror: We've got "a national security infrastructure that is stuck in such a deep rut that it knows about the cliff but can't turn the steering wheel to avoid it," writes Bray, who quotes an analyst certain that only "the experience of defeat" can change the status quo.
The other articles in this issue similarly benefit from deep knowledge. On a lighter note, consider Contributing Editor Peter Bagge's irreverent yet affectionate comic about Christian rock (page 48). Where other self-declared "secular humanists" might simply disparage a religious musical idiom, Bagge charts how Christian performers filched popular forms back in the 1920s, lost control of the process, and eventually ended up influencing secular rock and pop. The result is a delightfully twisted -- and unending -- tale of cultural appropriation.
In "Teen-Demon Tracts," an essay about new parenting books (page 52), Chris Lehmann deflates hysteria about contemporary teens by turning to the relevant social science (and his own past as something of a juvenile delinquent). "As almost no media outlet is going to tell you, kids these days are astonishingly well-adjusted, nonviolent, educated, and polite," writes Lehmann. "Hell, even teen literacy is increasing."
Something similar is at the heart of Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey's positive review of Bjorn Lomborg's controversial new book, The Skeptical Environmentalist (page 58). Bailey, the author of 1993's Ecoscam: The False Prophets of Environmental Apocalypse (St. Martin's), notes that the real beef against Lomborg is that he hews too closely to observable reality for his critics. Lomborg's sin is documenting that global life expectancy is up, food prices are down (as is air pollution in the developed countries), and deforestation rates have been wildly exaggerated.
None of this is to suggest that "facts" -- famously stubborn as they may be -- provide the last word in any argument, analysis, or dispute. But certainly we all benefit from writers who use them as their starting point.