It's a cliche of journalism that you never read about a plane that did not crash. We report on routine success far less often than we examine the things that go wrong, the accidents and law-breaking and crime.
But the things people don't hear can distort public opinion, sometimes to detrimental effect.
Four planes crashed five years ago this week. Many heart-warming "then and now" stories on 9/11's survivors appeared to commemorate the anniversary, but the analytical articles on the war on terror focused on failure. Our front page, for example, carried a Washington Post article headlined "Hunt for bin Laden goes cold" and an in-depth look at Vice President Dick Cheney's waning power.
There was no article on planes that have not crashed. Why not "No attack on U.S. soil since 9/11" or "Five-year war on terror breaks al-Qaida's back"? Those observations are part of The Atlantic Monthly's thoughtful September cover story titled, simply, "We Win."
The article's author is James Fallows, who was Jimmy Carter's chief speech-writer and editor of the left-leaning Washington Monthly before becoming national correspondent for The Atlantic, a publication known for its in-depth reporting and intellectual vigor. (The entire September issue is so excellent, in fact, that you should do whatever you can to get your hands on a copy.)
After interviewing 60 experts on terrorism, the military and business, Mr. Fallows comes to an upbeat conclusion that surprised him and will surprise most news consumers: America has largely achieved all reasonable objectives in the war on terror and could help itself tremendously by saying so.
Why would "Declaring Victory," as the inside title reads, be such a boost? Because it's a valid conclusion that would lessen our anxiety and thus lessen our inclination to over-react to terrorist provocation, the most threatening weapon in al-Qaida or any terrorist's arsenal.
Most of Mr. Fallows' broad array of experts supported the war in Iraq and agreed that the subsequent occupation has been "disastrously mismanaged." But if their well-researched assessment of the war on terror has the power, if widely accepted, to change America's actions and, thus, the world's destiny, wouldn't the same approach similarly affect other areas of conflict?
How much of this country's dispirited view of our military's efforts in Iraq, for instance, is due to too little information about the good they're accomplishing?
Story after story since late 2003 has focused on the failure of American troops to restore basic necessities such as "full" electrical power. But it matters very much whether those complaining about power shortages are Sunnis or Shiites.
Before Saddam was toppled, his 30 years of tyranny had devastated the country's infrastructure, according to Gen. Martin Dempsey of the 1st Armored Division, and Saddam distributed whatever supply was available primarily to members of his Baath Party (Sunni Muslims). Thus, people in the (Sunni) Mansour district had electricity round the clock, Gen. Dempsey said, while those in the Shiias' Sadr City had it perhaps three hours a day.
Because America's rebuilding effort has distributed utilities in an egalitarian manner, the Sunnis have experienced a dramatic loss. I have yet to find a news story that reports the religious affiliation of any now-under-supplied Iraqi it profiles.
A Christian Science Monitor article from February is typical, focusing on a Baghdad carpenter who might have to sell his shop because he doesn't get enough electricity to work or enough business to pay the rent.
You have to read far into the article to learn that Iraq was generating 4,500 megawatts before the US invasion and 3,995 megawatts in November, despite regular sabotage by insurgents. Supply wasn't meeting demand before the invasion. Demand has now risen to 7,000 megawatts because, as job opportunities and salaries increase, Iraqis are buying more electricity-using consumer goods. Is this primarily good news or bad?
I found Gen. Dempsey's information on Saddam's unequal allocation of utilities in the May 9 issue of National Review, in a cover story titled "We're Winning." The terrorists' insurgency has gained much strength in the year since its publication. If, as Mr. Fallows' more recently interviewed experts hope, the United States is not destined to leave Iraq in defeat, the public's patience with the occupation will have to be bolstered.
It would be nice to find reason for optimism, not through a political PR campaign, but via the responsible news coverage of the planes that didn't crash. We trust the military to report American deaths in Iraq. Why not trust it to report America's victories?
The truth is in the details that we're not hearing. Maybe that's where hope is, too.
Ruth Ann Dailey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1733.