Context Clues

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A reporter from a respected Western news organization hears a shocking story from a trusted source about events in a foreign land, and decides to publish it. Word translates and travels fast, and soon hundreds of thousands of furious people are in the streets. The reporter learns that his source was wrong, but it's too late—the deed is done.

Newsweek's Michael Isikoff, writing about Guantanamo? Nope! It's Reuters' Michael Zantovsky reporting inaccurately that Communist police in Prague killed a student demonstrator on the night of Nov. 17, 1989. Here's Ben Bradlee's retelling of Zantovsky's story, from July 1990:

Soon, he received a phone call from Peter Uhl, a Civic Forum activist who now heads the Czechoslovak News Agency. Uhl told him that a student had been killed by police.

"I asked him if he was sure and he said he had an eyewitness and that the eyewitness is completely reliable and that he was 100 percent certain that a student was dead," Zantowsky [sic] continued.

Almost at once, Zantowsky filed the story, and just as quickly it was broadcast by Voice of America. The world knows what happened next:

"This incident probably as much as anything else caused huge demonstrations on Nov. 20—about 200,000 people," Zantowsky said. "That started the whole thing and got the ball rolling. Now the government of course went absolutely wild and went to great lengths to deny that anything like that took place, but after 40 years nobody believed them and that was the end of the government."

The problem was that the story wasn't true.

"There was no student killed and actually it turned out that there was a secret policeman who lay down on the ground and let himself be covered and pretended that he was killed," Zantowsky continued.

"Why this happened—why this very intricate provocation or ruse was played—is still not quite clear. But in any case the story was not true. Peter Uhl went to jail and I didn't sleep at home for two or three days. Peter was released only after the revolution was over." […]

But, "it all went well," he concluded.

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  1. Interesting story.

    OK, it’s 6 a.m. Eastern time. Any other newsies out there want to take bets how the Newsweek thing will play out on Romenesko today? (Jim Romenesko’s media watering-hole site.) I’m wagering he’ll give it a relatively skimpy mention, and it will go largely unremarked in the letters over there — until Tim Graham or another of the maverick right-wingers steps in to say something.

    It’s just the way it works in Romenesko world.

  2. It sounds likeZantovsky was taken in by an elaborate attempt by the secret police to make it look like someone was killed. He had a lot more to go on than Newsweek did.

  3. Well, my 6 a.m. judgment was off. Romenesko has posted the piece, and seems to understand its broader journalism implications.

    He’s still a durned librul, though!

  4. As far as the Newsweek issue (heh heh), everyone’s guilty. The media is much more concerned about creating sensationalism and making money then to inform the public with facts. Many of them also feel compelled to instruct the ignorant masses of their political beliefs under the guise of objective “journalism”.

    The government is also full of shit. Yeah, maybe a particular Quran WASN’T flushed down a particular crapper, but c’mon.. we’re not talking about a Martha Stewart country club detention facility. The inbreds at the lower levels are getting their yuck-yucks, the middle people are acquiring the information they need, and the higher-ups are busy feeding bullshit to the ignorant masses.

  5. Oh, come on. As someone pointed out somewhere today — I think it was the Powerline blog — there’s really no need to use “Quran” or any variants thereof.

    “Koran” is the English transliteration of the Arabic word. It’s been around for centuries. There’s no need for alternate, fancy-dancy versions, as if using the “Q” somehow makes it a more accurate representation of the Arabic form.

    It’s about as irritating as the network reporters who insist on interrupting a flow of perfectly normal American speech with an abrupt neeka-dawg-wah when pronouncing the name of the country “Nicaragua.”

    (Sorry — I’m not trying to single you out, especially since you’re a nice guy, mister.)

  6. SP,

    Even Quran isn’t enough to meet PC requirements. You need to use the apostrophe and spell it Qur’an. It turns out that Arabic is actually the exact same language as Klingon.

  7. Who called the language police?

    Listen to the Encyclopedia Arabaicanna over there.

    Go back to Peiping!

  8. But the Klingons are our friends! Or didn’t things go to shit on DS9?

    Quran/Koran.. whatever. I personally prefer the term “some basic ancient wisdom buried in primitive, tribalistic bullshit” but that would be confused with the Old Testament.

  9. the Old Testament.

    You mean the Bib’el?

  10. It’s about as irritating as the network reporters who insist on interrupting a flow of perfectly normal American speech with an abrupt neeka-dawg-wah when pronouncing the name of the country “Nicaragua.”

    Yeah. Same for huh-wah-tay-mah-lah (Guatemala). As someone once said, “So how do these guys pronounce ‘France’?”

  11. Wasn’t it Dan Rather who used to do “El Salvador” with the lyrical roll on the final “r”?

    What goofballs.

    I just remembered that Jay Nordlinger penned an amusing piece on this topic awhile back: “Gutter” Politics

  12. Yeah. Same for huh-wah-tay-mah-lah (Guatemala). As someone once said, “So how do these guys pronounce ‘France’?”

    Man, I could rant about this all day. We’re not allowed to say “Canton” anymore unless we mean Ohio, but “Rome” and “Moscow” are apparently still okay. And don’t even get me started on using the apostrophe in “Hawaii”.

  13. I always get a chuckle when my dad bitches about people saying Eye-raq instead of Ee-raq. I always say, “It’s not like they’re pronouncing it right either way.” And don’t even get me started on Mustafa, Mostafa, Mostapha, Mustapha and my personal favorite Moustapha.

    -Mostafa

  14. Are you telling us “Mo” isn’t short for “Moe”? 🙂

  15. The amusing thing about “Beijing” is that few Americans even come close to pronouncing it correctly… Anyway I agree that “Khuh-VUHY-‘-ee” and “El Salvadorrrrrr” are ridiculous, but the war against “Beijing” and “Guangdong” is lost – the use of “Peking” and “Canton” seems more ideological than anything else to me. Curiously, I’ve never seen “Xianggang” – I guess because the Brits ran it for a hundred years.

  16. You know I just have to weigh in.

    “There’s no need for alternate, fancy-dancy versions, as if using the “Q” somehow makes it a more accurate representation of the Arabic form.”

    In fact it IS a more accurate representation of the Arabic form. Even though in English the q (which is pronounced much farther back in the throat) may come out as /k/, there’s no harm in transliterating it correctly to show that it’s different from /k/ (which is also a phoneme in Arabic).
    Also, the glottal stop indicated by the apostrophe is considered important enough in the Arabic alphabet that an A with it is a different letter from an A without it.

    I know, I know, I’ll shut up now.

    But I don’t hear anyone complaining when the Guatemalan news refers to “New York” instead of translating it to their home language and saying, “Nueva York”.

  17. And the thread highjack of the day goes to SP!

  18. linguist,
    What would be funny is if Spanish speaking newsmen pronounced Los Angeles as “The Angels.”

    I propose this become the Newsweek discussion thread, since the other one has become “Why did we go to Iraq?”

    Why is Newsweek getting shit for the riots. It’s not their fault some people went apeshit over this. The allegations were far les offensive than some truths. Abu Ghraib, for example.

  19. By the way, Mo, I read on another thread (that I can’t find now), that you just received an Embeeyay scholarship, and I wanted to offer my congratulations!

  20. The amusing thing about “Beijing” is that few Americans even come close to pronouncing it correctly… – Rhywun

    As if we white devils could get the tones right if we tried! As for Nueva York, I seem to remember Latin radio in La gran manzana using that frequently, and the Newsday page with the al-Qu’ran story – to be really P.C., use the article, right? – has a link to their Spanish paper, Hoy, which uses it.

    I remember the CISPES types would refuse to use the article when saying Salvador en ingles, reserving it for any mentions in Spanish. It must have been a Marxist thing, like calling their favorite doorstop Capital instead of Das Kapital. That every time they said the country’s name, rolling their R or not, they were referencing a savior good commies don’t believe in, always gave me a chuckle.

    Back to the topic, it’s a sad comment on both our military and our media that reporters are so conditioned to believe horribles about our guys that comparisons to events in an actual, if crumbling, police state are apt.

    Kevin

  21. Gracias Stevo. I’ll probably be driving by your area during my move.

  22. linguist,

    Guatemalan news totally says Nueva York. Los Estados Unidos too. And I don’t care. Each language should have its own name for stuff. Makes things a lot easier than trying to force sounds and spellings into the English language that the English language doesn’t have.

    there’s no harm in transliterating it correctly to show that it’s different from /k/

    The harm is that English readers look down and ask “How the fuck am I supposed to pronounce Qur’an?” We’re used to vowels after Qu and apostrophes in words signifying contractions. “Koran” we can say. On the other hand I don’t see any great harm in calling Espa?a “Spain” in English. Might not be satisfying to a linguistics purist, but it sure is practical. What’s next, forcing us to use the actual Arabic and Mandarin characters?

  23. Might not be satisfying to a linguistics purist

    Since that is the English name for Spain, you’d think it would be plenty satisfying to English linguistics purists.

    Nah – this is all about faux intellectual vanity, and has nothing to do with linguistics.

    If you really want to jerk around the lefty language nannies, botch the PC pronunciation with a strong redneck accent – “Paree” for Paris, etc., or use it for cities they haven’t gotten around to yet – “Roma”, say.

  24. the war against “Beijing” and “Guangdong” is lost – the use of “Peking” and “Canton” seems more ideological than anything else to me.

    The war against “Guangdong” is far from lost, since Canton is now Guangzhou.

  25. …Guangzhou.

    Whoops! I was confusing the name of the town with the name of the province.

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