In the most interesting, provocative piece of mainstream journalism I've read for some time, the New York Times Magazine recently exposed the terrible damage being inflicted on elephants. Habitat destruction, poaching, culling and casual cruelty have wrecked many of the social networks that sustain these complex creatures – and psychologically scarred, socially alienated elephants are hitting back at the oppressor.
The author of the 7,600-word article, Charles Siebert, writes: "All across Africa, India and parts of Southeast Asia, from within and around whatever patches and corridors of their natural habitat remain, elephants have been striking out, destroying villages and crops, attacking and killing human beings." Such activity has become much more common in the last 15 years, but in the rare locations where elephants have been unmolested, the attacks are not occurring.
Some of the researchers looking at, for example, how adolescent male elephants raised by young single mothers turn violent, frankly acknowledge that it is hard to avoid anthropomorphism, or what we might call "projecting". The human parallels are striking. Siebert writes: "what we are now witnessing is nothing less than a precipitous collapse of elephant culture", and the elephant resistance often takes ugly, dissonant and futile forms.
Meanwhile, the New York Times carried only one much shorter article about the Lancet-published study that suggests an Iraqi death toll of around 655,000 human beings as a result of the US invasion. And rather than sympathetically considering the social and psychological consequences of such a rampage – amounting to the precipitous collapse of Iraqi culture – most of that article consisted of argument about the study's reliability.
The New York Times was scarcely alone in this. Most of the US political establishment and media were even more dismissive of the research. Precious few outlets used the number, or any more "credible" one, to pause for an act of contrition.
It wasn't just Americans who couldn't handle this reasonable effort at seeking truth. When a guest had the temerity to mention the 655,000 Iraqis on RTÉ Radio One's Drivetime, presenter Mary Wilson interrupted: "That figure is disputed." The verb "disputed" makes it sound like there is an alternative scientific approach offering a lower number. There is not. The Lancet study, using "cluster sampling" – the tried and tested way of doing such work, the source of cited death tolls from Congo to Kosovo – is the only scientific show in town. The "dispute" is largely from US officials and their media mouthpieces.
The slim Irish Times coverage, not flagged on page 1, wore its science on its sleeve, with the obscure words "excess death toll" in the headline and "epidemiologists" in the first sentence. But it also subtly cast doubt on the figures, with "survey claims" in the head.
Does the Irish Times report its own opinion-poll findings (based on sampling) with "Government more popular, survey claims"? Of course not – even though, as usual, most of the movements in parties' and politicians' poll numbers were within its survey's margin of error.
So, the Irish Times had little space to consider a credible measure of Iraq's catastrophe, lots of space to consider marginal data on Irish politics, and whole pages to consider its own move down the street.
Last Saturday's terrific tributes by Caroline Walsh and Hugh Oram to the D'Olier Street/Fleet Street buildings, and to their beloved ghosts, did point the way toward the significance of the move. (It is partly captured in the absurd ambition, reported by Walsh, that the new offices for a newspaper should be "paperless".) It's been a few years since the main national papers' journalists shared premises with their printing equipment; as of this week even the historic physical connection is broken.
In Tara Street, the Irish Times now occupies just another office – the (rented) home of a "trusted information brand" that happens to publish a newspaper, but may not always do so. This concerns more than technology: old-style page layout and a press on-site meant the feel of Fleet Street was profoundly influenced by a group of working-class people (mostly men, and in the Irish Times surprisingly Protestant even in recent years) with a powerful union consciousness and sense of tradition. It was part of another culture that has precipitously collapsed, and newspapers – in advance of their own severe cull in coming decades – are much the poorer for it.