Elizabeth Bumiller, Royal Stenographer and Messenger

by tristero

This is another post where I try to look rather closely at the way something is being said. Here, the topic is pretty serious - the communication of important data within the Pentagon - but that topic, while addressed, is not my main focus. Rather, it is the way that topic is reported that concerns me, and concerns me a lot. Obviously, my reasoning and conclusions are speculative, but I don't think they're entirely unfounded.

Those of us who have been enduring Elizabeth Bumiller's reporting for the New York Times over the course of far too many years have marveled at how someone so lazy, so incurious, and so biased could hold onto her job. I think I can offer a partial explanation. She's a messenger, not a reporter.

Still, rarely has her sloth been on such prominent display as it is here, an article about the Pentagon's dangerous obsession with elaborate PowerPoint presentations in lieu of serious analysis and genuine comprehension. But, appearances aside, this article wasn't written for you or me, instead... well... Go ahead. Read it. I'll wait.

Don't see what I'm talking about? Of course you don't. After all, you're not a reporter who's supposed to be doing an article on the problems with Powerpoint presentations, or who accidentally happens to know something very important about the subject. You're simply someone who relies upon the media to, you know, inform you. So it's quite understandable that you wouldn't realize that the problem with Bumiller's article is what is glaringly not mentioned. That omission would make this an appallingly bad piece of reporting... if Bumiller's intention was actually to inform the ordinary reader about the nature of the problem.

In fact, if you were a reporter, rather than a royal stenographer and self-appointed Messenger to the Mighty, and you were doing an article on problems with PowerPoint presentations in the military, you would be obligated to mention Edward Tufte's famous essay, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint which brilliantly described how thoroughly misleading and counterproductive these cheesy slideshows can be.

Who is Edward Tufte? Again, it's not your job, Ms/Mr Ordinary Reader, to know who he is. It should be a reporter's job to find out, however, but apparently Bumiller never did. Tufte is, barely arguably, the foremost authority on the visual presentation of complex data in the United States. Data like the stuff displayed in a military PowerPoint slideshow. Since the publication of his first masterpiece, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Tufte has become well known as THE expert on how to create effective visual presentations, either in print form or live. Here's a link to an excerpt from his work, where he discusses the problems that were hidden in plain sight in a PowerPoint presentation during a space shuttle disaster, a presentation which gave NASA the misleading impression that the problem wasn't that serious.

In short, if you are actually writing an article about the problems with PowerPoint presentations, it absolutely behooves you to contact Edward Tufte (who incidentally recently received a presidential appointment). But Bumiller didn't bother, and for good reason, I think: her article is not really about the problems with PowerPoint. It is an expression of the whims of the miltary's leaders .

Let's analyze what Bumiller actually did do to write her article. It wasn't much. She looked at, maybe read, a couple of articles in military journals and looked at a website. She also read a short section of Fiasco. And she interviewed the following people:

Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster
Capt. Crispin Burke
Thomas X. Hammes, a retired Marine colonel

That is, apparently, all she did (and got a nice clipping - front page, above the fold, for her efforts). While there is a blizzard of apparent facts, there is virtually no attribution for many of them. For example, Bumiller writes,
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates reviews printed-out PowerPoint slides at his morning staff meeting, although he insists on getting them the night before so he can read ahead and cut back the briefing time.
How does she know? She doesn't say. I read this as implying she spoke to Gates, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say she probably didn't, that she got this tidbit from one of the fellows above. Why? Because I don't think a reporter wastes a Defense Secretary's time by making a special effort to interview him about when he reviews his PowerPoint slides. Or rather, she calls him up specially and asks about something that minor exactly once.

There are also problems with the following excerpt. As I read it, Bumilller makes the quote appear as if it came from a formal interview, but again, it is all but certain that someone told her about it, or that it was a casually dropped aside while she was taking dictation - I'm sorry - reporting on some other story she was discussing with Petraeus:
Gen. David H. Petraeus, who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and says that sitting through some PowerPoint briefings is “just agony,” nonetheless likes the program for the display of maps and statistics showing trends. He has also conducted more than a few PowerPoint presentations himself.
Another curious feature of the article is that the attribution of a considerable amount of information is hidden from public view. Instead, we get euphemisms like "Senior officers say..."

So what are we to make of what Bumiller wrote? First of all it's "he said/she said" with absolutely no focus or interest in trying to grapple with what the actual problems with PowerPoint presentations in the military might be, or what should be done to fix them. (A few apparently bewildering slides does not a case make.)* In short, it is stenography: Bumiller simply wrote down what she was told, looked up a couple things and thereby got herself a prominently placed clipping.

But if it is stenography - and it surely is - it's stenography with a particular message. Somebody powerful - Gates? Petraeus Both? Others? - is really fed up with sitting through all the stupid fucking PowerPoint presentations and wants it reined in. Rather than exercise direct authority issuing memos (at least not yet, it's too trivial, unless your initials are DR, and he's history) he called in Elizabeth and - not directly, of course - told her what to write and who to contact. And so she did.

And that's all she did. She didn't do a single thing to verify beyond an article or two, which she didn't do more than mention, that there really was a problem. She simply told us what the Big Guys think, and that's all.

What's the problem with that? Well, here's one. Since Bumiller is not reporting, but merely doing the bidding of the powerful leaders in the military (if not the Defense Secretary) we are not provided enough facts to be fully informed as to whether there really are serious problems with PowerPoint. All we are told is that powerful people think there are. We're not even given any access to sources that would enable us to make up our own minds.

As it happens, there are very good reasons to cut back on the incredible amount of time wasted preparing slides, and to be alarmed at the misleading, insipid presentations. But what would happen if the Powers That Be were wrong, or deliberately trying to mislead or promote misinformation? You'd never know that was going on from Bumiller's style of reporting. She clearly doesn't think that is her job. (I wonder: why did the name "Judith Miller" just pop into my head? Weird...)

I'm sure that, ever since the first newspapers, powerful people have been using them in order to send messages of this sort to others. But there was a time when newspapers, including the Times and the Post, would not only pass on those messages but sometimes provide context, sometimes dissent. Not always, surely, but enough so that, for instance, a criminal president - Nixon - was forced to resign.

I suppose to some extent it still happens, a little. But whenever it does, suddenly there are more Millers and Bumillers running around, taking dictation, writing articles where the Royals talk to other Royals in code, and the rest of us are left looking at entrails for signs about what is really going on.

And that is doubleplus ungood.

*Yes, that Afghanistan slide looks awful, but if it were in a long paper, and if it were properly annotated, it might actually make sense (although probably Tufte would have a lot of objections, even then). Clearly, the biggest mistake was to project something that deeply complex and think you've explained anything.