Why the Media (Even the Big Boys) Fail to Ask the Right Questions

Reporting creates personal reservoirs of trivia. My treasury includes South African troopers in vehicles designed to defeat land mines laid by ANC's military wing during the apartheid era. So I wonder why American reporters in Washington, Iraq and Afghan

Reporting creates personal reservoirs of trivia. My treasury includes South African troopers in vehicles designed to defeat land mines laid by ANC’s military wing during the apartheid era.

So I wondered why American reporters in Washington, Iraq and Afghanistan haven’t written about the Pentagon decision to go to war without South African vehicles that could have reduced now-common traumatic brain injury and loss of limbs from roadside mines and IEDs.

ANC’s violent war against apartheid ended 20 years ago. That’s when ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe or "Spear of the Nation," called off operations and prepared for integration into the new and renamed South African National Defense Force.

Rather than trust my memory — I left Southern Africa after Mandela went to prison but before the intense armed campaign helped end apartheid — I turned to the Mail & Guardian in Johannesburg. It’s the successor to the late, great Rand Daily Mail, long a voice against apartheid.

I wanted to know which South African anti-mine vehicles were available if the Pentagon bought them for U.S. soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Journalists in Jo'burg assured me that I wasn’t having a senior moment and sent me to veteran South African military reporter Helmoed Heitman at Jane’s Defense Weekly. He responded quickly and fully from Cape Town:

"The SA Army started off early, with a number of modifications of trucks, such as the Hippo APC and Zebra truck on the Bedford chassis, smaller ones based on large pick-ups (F150 and similar) and some using smaller Toyota type pick-ups as the basis, as well as a Unimog with an armoured ‘bath tub’ on the back for the infantry.

"By the end of the war in 1989, the SA Army was able to field a full range of armoured combat and support vehicles that had at least a measure of mine protection as well as armoured cabs. It was the best-equipped Army in the world for the type of conflict being encountered today. To this fleet was added the Mamba light armoured/mine-protected patrol vehicle, which was built by fitting Unimog mechanicals to a new monocoque hull."

Read that again: 1989. That’s before the Gulf War or we invaded Afghanistan or occupied Iraq. By then, South Africa had at least 20 years experience, starting with anti-insurgency efforts in Southwest Africa (now Namibia). And, Heitman notes, Americans weren’t ignorant of South African developments: "The U.S. became interested fairly early, and Dr. Vernon Joynt, then of Denel’s Mechem division, helped develop a number of mine-protected vehicle types in the U.S., including the Buffalo on a 6x6 chassis for IED clearance teams. Since then the U.S. military has bought RG-31s and RG-33s (some of the former and all of the latter built in the U.S. to the SA design)."

It doesn’t end there, but if you’re not into military hardware skip to Curmudgeon Notes. The following paragraphs fall into the "more than anyone wants to know but let’s tell them anyway" School of Journalism. My point is that these details reinforce the impression of American sins of omission.

Heitman continues: "Several South African companies have developed new vehicles. BAE Systems’ (who took over OMC) RG-31, RG-33 and RG-32M are the best known, with the new RG-35 a large 6x6 with more tactical capability launched recently. Ivema have the Gila, which is essentially an improved Casspir, and a number of other companies have developed cheaper and simpler vehicles similar to the Mamba. Land Mobility Technologies recently developed an armoured/mine-protected cab for the Daimler Actros truck family, which has been adopted by the Canadian Army, and a dismountable armoured/mine-protected personnel transport capsule for 10-ton trucks that is being evaluated by the German Army. LMT have also developed a mine-protection kit for the HMMMV."

Once the South Africans began modifying existing vehicles to deflect ANC mines, things moved quite quickly to purpose-built designs:

• Buffel, a mine-protected APC (armoured personnel carrier) using a Unimog chassis. Variants included a self-propelled 20-mm anti-aircraft gun and a logistic vehicle with just a protected cab and an open flatbed. A similar vehicle was later developed on the local Samil 20 2-ton truck chassis and built in small numbers in several variants.

• Casspir, a "from the ground up" mine-protected APC design, with a monocoque armoured body, used by the Police COIN unit and later also by the Army. Variants included a mortar carrier, a 106-mm recoilless gun carrier, a logistic vehicle (Blesbok), diesel tanker (Duiker) and a recovery vehicle (Gemsbok), all with an armoured cab and a full-length mine-protected lower hull.

• Rinkhals armoured/mine-protected tactical ambulance.

• Kwvol, the generic term for a range of 10-ton and 5-ton trucks with armoured and mine-protected cabs. They included ordinary flatbed trucks, diesel and water tankers, workshop trucks, recovery vehicles, busses and even a horse box for the mounted unit. Later there was also a self-propelled twin 23-mm anti-aircraft system on a 1-ton chassis with a larger cab with space for the gun crew. All of these were based on the local Samil trucks.

• Albatross, the generic term for 10-ton trucks built for the police on the basis of Nissan trucks. They included flatbeds and mechanical horses as well as recovery vehicles.

• Wolf, a monocoque mine-protected APC developed in Windhoek for the Police COIN Unit, with a truck variant and a six-wheeled recovery variant.

“There were also many ‘one-offs’ and small batches, including armoured/mine-protected mechanical horses (truck/trailer) for the Railways road transport service; specialized trucks for the telephone company and SWA Electricity Supply Commission; road graders with armoured/mine-protected cabs; and so on," Heitman says. "Among those built in small batches for the Army were the monocoque Tapir weapons carrier for the Special Forces and the Okapi artillery command and EW vehicle, which was armoured to survive a triple mine under the hull, and some heavy recovery vehicles on Mack and other chassis. There were also, of course, the mine-detection vehicles, the latest of which was the ‘Chubby’, which the U.S. Army has bought.

“Conventional armoured vehicles also had a degree of mine-protection designed in, especially the Rooikat 8x8 armoured car that came too late to see combat. It was accompanied by specialized workshop vehicles with armoured cabs and a full-length mine-protected hull.”

Curmudgeon Notes

• Among my irritating qualities, colleagues typically identified my pissing and moaning when words or facts were used so carelessly that the meaning of stories was affected. It’s still a litmus test for anyone informing (or misinforming) the public in the news media.

For instance, wingnuts are likelier than liberals to talk about “47 percent who don’t pay taxes.” That’s a deliberate distortion. That talismanic number refers to Americans who don’t pay federal income tax, some too rich, many too poor. Like the rest of us, they generally pay Social Security tax, fuel taxes for their vehicles plus state and local income taxes and sales taxes. In short, just about all of those 47 percent pay taxes.

Then there is another shorthand that knowingly distorts child abuse. When reporters, opinion writers and talk show hosts generalize about the awfulness of this abuse, too often they refer to pedophiles, especially among predator priests. The catch is that active pedophiles are men and women who abuse pre-pubescent children. Apparently, visible signs of puberty are a turnoff. So many of the so-called pedophiles aren’t pedophiles because they're attracted only to boys and girls who have reached puberty. They’re ephebophiles, attracted to young adolescents. It’s still abuse, but the difference matters.

Then there is the knowing distortion by journalists who continue to write as though the great danger is some perverted stranger lurking around a school yard when every study suggests the greater danger is family and family friends.

Similarly, reporters rarely ask public officials why they don’t distinguish between persons convicted of unlawful sex with a minor and those convicted of sexual offenses with adults when they impose residential bans. If keeping registered sex offenders away from children matters, why not focus on those most likely to offend or re-offend with children?

• Timidity is no virtue when it comes to journalists covering news makers. Why don’t more reporters challenge Republicans who damn plans to try accused terrorists in federal courts instead of military tribunals? Barring some misconduct, W’s prosecutors did a good job of winning convictions in those courts. It was good enough for Republicans when their side did it. What changed other than the color of the president and attorney general?

Or why don’t more reporters ask whether John Paul II’s policies affected then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s policy and practice when dealing with predator priests? Was Ratzinger restrained in ways that did not affect his pursuit of theological deviance?

• Think about the last time you heard local TV news talk about the Cincinnati pension crisis and its implications for taxpayers and thousands of current and past city employees. Ask the last time you heard local TV news dig into the implications of higher city taxes to top up underfunded pensions. Oh, forget it. Put that energy into reading Barry Horstman’s stories in The Enquirer. He’s good. He was good in his previous career at The Post. And he demonstrates why a daily paper is the only news medium with the resources to let a reporter have the time to dig into a major public issue.

CityBeat’s story on the kerfuffle over the Office of African-American Student Affairs at Northern Kentucky University includes misleading statistics on black student success and failure. Comparing retention/graduation rates at NKU — a largely commuter public university in an overwhelmingly white, suburban environment — with Xavier’s is nonsense. XU is a selective private school embedded in a racially diverse urban environment.

• Gannett seems to love slippery slopes (as in, sliding into ethical iniquity). Two weeks ago, I told you about The Indianapolis Star’s reuse of old news to deceive readers. Now Gannett’s New Jersey papers have both feet on the slope of sleaze, carrying hockey stories written by New Jersey Devils employees. Of course, this ethical breach is cloaked in pious guarantees that it won’t happen to real news, but if you believe that you believe New Jersey is the Garden State.

Even telling readers who is writing this stuff doesn’t let the paper off the hook. Carrying those Devil-written stories as news validates them. Staff shortages are no excuse. But I quote the New York Times interview with Hollis Towns, executive editor of The Asbury Park Press, largest of the state’s six Gannett papers (and former Enquirer managing editor): “As long as it served our readers and we told them where that content was coming from, the readers were fine with it. ... I think journalists get hung up on certain lines of what’s ethical more than the readers.”

• Rupert Murdoch says his Fox News shouldn’t get too close to any political party or movement. If you’re not laughing too hard, read on.

Roger Ailes, the conservative Republican operative who heads Fox, makes no bones about the GOP-Fox News relationship. Nor has Ailes or Murdoch been much bothered by Fox talk show hosts whose toxic interpretations of others’ reporting if they draw viewers. Nor has Murdock or Ailes been much bothered by Fox News’ promotion and support for Tea Party rallies, even to having a staffer cheer lead at one and faking video of crowds at another.

Yet now local Tea Party organizers are wondering whom to believe after Fox ordered Sean Hannity out of Cincinnati and away from their party.

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]

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