There are all sorts of definitions of good journalism, but my personal measuring stick is anger.
The best of it should make you angry: outraged, sickened, gut-punch angry.
You will, or should, feel all those things and more when reading and listening to "The Uncounted," the investigative masterpiece published last week in the New York Times, the newspaper President Donald Trump derides as "failing."
Actually, in a sense, the Times did fail. It failed to accept the American military's sophisticated public relations deception about conducting "the most precise air campaign in military history."
It failed to accept a top general's assurance that reports of civilian deaths are grossly inflated.
And most importantly, it failed to assign a cheaper value to the lives of people in a country the U.S. invaded and shattered on a false pretext 14 years ago, causing violent death on a biblical scale that continues to this day.
Full license under Trump
The authors of the Times story, over an 18-month period ending last June, visited the sites of 150 bomb strikes in Iraq, and collected detailed data on 103 of them. The Times says its data clearly shows that every fifth American airstrike in Iraq kills a civilian, a rate about 31 times higher than that acknowledged by the Pentagon.
The revelations didn't surprise Larry Korb, a Washington academic who once served as an assistant secretary of defence under Ronald Reagan. Trump, Korb told me, has given the military what it longed for but was denied under the Obama administration: full licence to carry out airstrikes in any manner it sees fit.
Naturally, conservative hawks and pro-Trump news outlets have basically ignored the Times account. Trump has not commented on it, and if he ever does, it will likely be in a tweet about unpatriotic fake news.
But the piece goes far beyond data. It presents us with bloodied, devastated human beings, most particularly Basim Razzo, who poses a dignified challenge to the cherished American-exceptionalism notion that the U.S. military is the most moral force in the world.
Razzo is from one of Mosul's more prominent families, was educated as an engineer at an American university and speaks excellent English. He is a particular sort of Arab man I've met many times: soft-spoken, mildly fatalistic, almost painfully polite. And progressive: when his daughter Tuqa tried to hide the makeup she'd applied to her face, he told her not to, that she was beautiful.
He and his family lived in a large, upscale home outside Mosul, right beside a similar house occupied by his brother Mohanned and his family. Together, they endured the ISIS occupation of the city, getting by as best they could.
Then, on the night of Sept. 20, 2015, the American military, with its storied precision, sent bombs into both the Razza homes, killing Basim's wife Mayada and Tuqa, and, next door, his brother and nephew.
The Pentagon then, obscenely, posted video of the bombing on YouTube, with the caption "COALITION AIRSTRIKE DESTROYS A DAESH VBIED FACILITY NEAR MOSUL."
"VBIED" is a military acronym for "vehicle-borne improvised explosive device." The Pentagon was basically bragging that Basim and his brother's homes had housed ISIS car-bomb factories, and that it had destroyed them, in a blow for freedom and security.
- Off-target airstrikes in Iraq buried behind wall of secrecy
- U.S. military confirms airstrike on Mosul area 'corresponding' to reports of civilian casualties
Eventually, the Pentagon would admit that was all nonsense, but only after the failing New York Times failed to buy the official explanation, and lent its influence to Basim Razza's desperate search for redress.
Until that happened, Razza had been brushed off by American authorities. To him, it was not just pursuit of justice, but an urgent matter of personal safety. In Iraq, he told the Times, once you've been precision-bombed by the Americans, Iraqi soldiers consider you ISIS, which can lead to all sorts more ugliness. Basim and his brother's wife, who also survived the bombing, wanted to remain alive.
Eventually, with the Times's assistance, Basim Razza wound up in a room with Capt. Jaclyn Feeney, a military lawyer. What followed, recorded and broadcast on the Times podcast the Daily, might even be staggering to the type of American conservative who regards all Muslims as the enemy.
The lawyer explains the airstrike was a mistake. She tells him the United States is willing to offer a "condolence payment." Not a compensation payment, mind you, or any admission of anything, but merely a payment to convey her government's condolences.
Razza did indeed want compensation. He'd calculated the cost of rebuilding his and his brother's house at $500,000 US, $22,000 for their destroyed cars, and $13,000 for the medical treatment he'd received in Turkey after a hellish trip through ISIS-occupied northern Iraq. He also wanted a written acknowledgement that neither he nor his brother had been ISIS bombmakers. He was not asking that he be compensated for pain and suffering, as Americans usually do when making a claim.
The lawyer offers $15,000. Razza tells her the amount is an insult. She basically says take it or leave it.
"I wanted to laugh, but I did not want to be impolite," he told the Times.
It was such an Arab remark; manners above all.
There might someday be an official acknowledgment that he was not ISIS, he was told, but that would involve declassifying certain information, which takes much time. He could formally appeal for compensation, but not until ISIS is officially defeated.
Unissued condolence payments
Listening to the ritual humiliation of Basim Razza, swallowing the anger that such excellent journalism provokes, I wondered whether a Trump voter from Texas or Arkansas would be concerned about politeness if a foreign power had blasted his home to pieces and killed his family, based on the same sort of lousy intelligence it used to justify invading.
As it turns out, Congress has voted millions to be used as condolence payments, but the Times reports not a single person in Iraq or Syria has received a payment since the bombing campaign against ISIS began three years ago. A U.S. spokesman basically told the newspaper the military has other things to worry about.
But the government did worry about Basim's cousin, who was working and residing in Little Rock. An FBI agent visited him to enquire whether the killing of his relatives had made him, "in his heart of hearts sympathize with the bad guys."
The cousin assured them he didn't.