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Fred Reed: Sing of Toilet Seats: Journalism Explained

 

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Sing of Toilet Seats: Journalism Explained

by Fred Reed

 

May 26, 2008

I want my money back.

I recently bought The Complex, by Nick Turse. It purports to deal with the militarization of American society, its economy, education, and so on. I can think of no more important topic. The militarization is happening. Huge sums go for weapons we don’t need to fight enemies we don’t have. Much of this waste is hidden in plain sight: What the press ignores doesn’t exist. The militarization now segues into the establishment of a full-blown national-security state, with further huge sums going to Homeland Security et al. The subject is ripe for a grown-up book.

But no. The Complex reads like a compendium of Google searches intended for a high-school newspaper. I spent thirty years covering the military and constantly saw the same appalling ignorance of weaponry, tactics, technology, history, the same missing of the important to concentrate on absurdities, the borderline dishonesty, the almost willful journalistic incompetence. Turse is par.

The $640 toilet seat. Oh god. There it was, page 83. It rose from the page like the stench from some fetid bog. Practically forever I had to hear about that seat from crusading twelve-year-olds at the Washington Post. It has probably given me PTSD.

You’ve heard this? The Navy was supposed to have bought a toilet seat for $640 for one of its aircraft. Cartoons by editorial idiots showed the Secretary of Defense with a toilet seat hanging around his neck. You could get one at Home Depot for $9, was the implication, yet the Navy paid $640. Bad old Navy.

The airplane in question was a PC3 Orion, a Lockheed Electra modified for long flights over the ocean in search of submarines. Such a plane needs a toiler for the substantial crew operating the avionics. You don’t put a heavy porcelain toilet in an airplane, perhaps in a wooden shack with a moon on the door. Do the toilets on airliners look like the ones in your home? The “toilet seat” in question was a complex injection-molded device with the plumbing in it, constituting most of the toilet. It was not remotely what one thinks of as a toilet seat. Yet Turse, like almost all of the reporters at the time, wants you to think it was. It makes a better story.

I remember that someone went to various makers of complex plastic things and asked for bids. They came in close to what the Navy paid.

On and on goes this drivel. Turse speaks also of the $7600 “coffee maker” bought by the Air Force. One thinks of course of the glass-and-plastic thing on the kitchen counter. Seven thousand green ones for that? Bad old Air Force.

Actually it was a massive stainless-steel appliance to make coffee for people aboard a C-5, a very large transport aircraft. Short of getting the specs and hiring an aircraft engineer and an industrial cost estimator, I have no way of knowing what it should have cost—probably $7600—but the thing bore no faint resemblance to what one thinks of as a coffee maker. But then, Turse bears no faint resemblance to what one thinks of as a reporter. Conservation of symmetry.

As a reporter myself I tracked down dozens of these horror stories, and they were almost always nonsense. There was the $17 (or was it $27?) bolt the Navy bought. The implication in the press invariably was that it should have cost twelve cents in your local hardware store. The actuality:

The Navy had an attack plane, the A3, which, like probably all aircraft, used some nonstandard parts. One of these was a bolt for the nose gear. When the Navy, or an airline, buys a plane, it assumes a certain useful life. After all, aircraft don’t last forever. In this case it may have been twenty years. The Navy bought sufficient bolts to last that period.

Then Congress slepped the bird. (A verb from Service Life Extension Program.) The A3 would remain in service for a few more years, three I think. The Navy had run out of bolts and needed a few more.

Now, if you need, say, 29 unusual bolts, you have two ways of buying them. You can order 10,000, in which case mass production will keep the cost to $1.20 each, but then you pay 10,000 times $1.20. (Aircraft quality bolts cost more than the ones you have in your washing machine. Probably a good idea.) Or you can have a machine shop make them more or less by hand as a special order. They then cost $17 each times 29. The latter is far cheaper, but the price per bolt is much higher. This happened. Much too difficult for reporters, and it would never occur to them to ask.

I made the foregoing numbers up, and this many years later won’t swear by the details, but they illustrate the principle. This, for my thirty years in the trade, was the level of reporting. No research, no understanding, and no thought of asking the military for its side.

Why does this happen? Logically, either Turse knows his stories are phony—i.e., he’s lying—or he doesn’t know his subject and didn’t bother to find out. I scent the latter. Never suspect mendacity, I say, when overwrought bafflement is a plausible explanation. Reporters are easily fooled, intellectually lazy, and combative. It’s a dangerous combination.

The usual result is that they become wildly partisan and attack rather than cover. Turse fits the pattern. He has a whole chapter on the “lavish” life of the military, which lives “high on the hog.” What? The military doesn’t live high on the hog. I’ve been on more military bases than Turse has IQ points—this means, I’ll guess, at least thirty bases. In fact I spent my high school years on a base (Dahlgren Naval Proving Ground, as it was then called.) Comfortable middle class, except when in the field.

Has this thunderstorm of righteousness ever spent a week in a tank in the Korean winter, when ice is hard as steel and frigid wind howls by like something that wants to bite? It didn’t strike me as very high on the hog, but perhaps the Army has a low hog.

Maybe I’m boring the reader. Sorry. But I weary of child reporters aflame with indignant confusion. When there is so much that could be written of the Pentagon’s domestic imperialism, so many good questions to be asked, and instead I get the fable of the toilet seat, it annoys me. I want my money back.

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