Part of the brand identity of the Washington Post is its coverage of international affairs. That’s why basic, easily checkable mistakes in foreign coverage are so damaging — if they can’t get elementary things right, how can you trust the reporting that you can’t easily check yourself?
A story in Saturday’s paper (posted online Friday night) reports that some of the Druze in Syria have decided to side with the rebels against the Assad forces, even though, as a minority, they face great risk from a Sunni fundamentalist regime (which is the only possible successor to the current Alawite regime). I was running through the story till I got to a sentence that said the Druze “live in the mountainous region of southeast Syria” and that there had been “half-dozen anti-government protests in Sweida province, the ancestral homeland of the Druze in the southeast that had remained relatively quiet since the uprising began nearly two years ago.”
I’m no expert on Syria, but I was pretty sure that the southeastern part of the country is flat, sparsely populated desert. What’s more, there are lots of Druze in Lebanon, which is to the west of Syria. Sure enough, as a quick visit to Wikipedia shows, Sweida (or Suwayda) is in the southwest of the country. Maybe it doesn’t matter where Sweida is to the story, but if you’re going to explain its location within the country (partly, I assume, to show that it’s not happening up near the Turkish border, where much of the action has been) then you’d darn well better get it right.
What’s more, whatever error the three reporters given credit on this story may have made, it’s laughable that a foreign-news editor didn’t catch something so basic. It’s not like this was published in the sports section, where stories on Syrian politics seldom appear. It’s not even like it’s a story about Mexico, which despite being the most important country in the world with regard to America’s vital interests, bores reporters and policy types, who consider it uncool. This is the Middle East, which, if you judge from the news coverage (or confirmation hearings or presidential debates) is the only place in the world that matters to anyone. The Post has been writing about the Syrian fighting for two years — and they still can’t get basic geography right?
Oh, and on top of that, the MSM’s complete unfamiliarity with elementary religious concepts is no doubt the reason the report refers to “Sunni religious extremists among the rebels, some of whom consider the Druze faith to be apostasy.” Uh, no. Apostasy is voluntary abandonment of a faith you once held. Few, probably none, of the Druze are apostates, because they were all raised in their centuries-old faith and did not renounce standard Islam. What the writer meant was the Sunni extremists consider the Druze to be heretics, i.e., people who hold unorthodox religious beliefs.
I had an editor once, at a small-town paper, who wrote the cutline (caption) for a story on the local synagogue’s chocolate fundraiser (you paid a fee and got to try treats made by a variety of local restaurants) and referred to “chocolate moose.” This was not supposed to be a play on words, like the quirky D.C. gift shop by that name, but was actually meant to refer to the dessert. When the error was explained to her (she got the job due to skills unrelated to grammar), she said they’d fix it during roll change (halfway through the press run, when the giant rolls of paper were replaced), and that no one would notice anyway.
As absurd as that was, it wasn’t completely unbelievable at a tiny local paper. But the Washington Post’s making comparable errors makes me wonder why I keep subscribing to it.