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Bias is one thing; lying another
by Bryan Zepp Jamieson
Zepp's Commentaries
March 29, 2004

The Sacramento Bee has an ombudsman, a fellow who is independent of the chain of authority at the paper, who does not answer to the bosses, and whose job it is to address the concerns and questions of the general public from inside the newspaper. A number of newspapers have such a position, and they are considered positive elements in keeping newspapers honest and responsive to their readers.

In the Bee's case, the ombudsman, a former New York Times staffer named Tony Marcano, has been the ombudsman for the past year. After a somewhat self-conscious start (it is an unusual job for a reporter to switch to reporting to the public about the newspaper itself), he's settled into the position, and is getting favorable response from the readership.

He recently tackled the subject of the "credibility crisis" in journalism. The public, for a wide variety of reasons, don't trust the media any more, and at least some of that blame lies with the media itself.

The most prevalent complaint is that it has "lost touch with the people" although in a population as diverse as America's it's pretty hard to imagine just where "the people" want to be touched.

Marcano was addressing the Bee's journalistic stance specifically, but American journalism in general is in disgraceful shape these days.

Journalism cannot be perfect. I hold the Sacramento Bee in high regard, but feel they downplay stories that I feel are important, and overplay stories that are, in my estimation, trivial. I shake my head sadly over some of the comics they choose to run, and eye the opinion section with jealous regard for adequate representation of my views. In short, I'm a typical Bee reader; I like and respect the newspaper, and watch it like a hawk, ready to yell if it doesn't behave the way I think it should.

I don't bother much with network television news. It isn't going to tell you much. Cable is even worse. Faux news sued (successfully) for the right to lie to its viewers, which pretty much tells you all you need to know about Faux. (Some folks may find it odd to discover that I agreed with the judge in the case, but I find a television station arguing that it has the right to lie to its audience faintly better than the notion that the government should decide if a station is lying or not -- and punish accordingly.) Radio, outside of NPR, is a complete disgrace, of course.

But CNN (for example) is watchable simply because I know where their biases lie, and I know I'm only going to get part of the story. Anyone who depends solely on CNN for their news isn't getting much news.

There isn't a journalistic outlet in the world that has ALL the news. They pick and choose what you see and hear, and none, taken alone, is reliable. As long as there is a wide variety of independent voices, you can get more complete views of current events.

Nor is any news outlet perfect. I regard the London Guardian as the world's finest newspaper, but they have a real problem with the late Doctor Atkins and his diet regimen, and have run stories with headlines about the dangers of Atkins' -- headlines that usually aren't supported by the stories they cover. Most recently, they somewhat gleefully reported that Atkins weighed 18 stone (about 250 pounds) at the time of his death, a weight that would be considered morbidly obese. What the story didn't mention is that when the Doctor was admitted to the hospital a week earlier with severe brain trauma following a fall, his weight was a much more reasonable 192. With his brain nearly dead, his heart wasn't functioning properly -- in fact, he was in chronic cardiac failure -- and his fluid levels built up immensely. The Guardian apparently felt no need to consider such an obvious point in order to take a potshot at the late doctor.

But that's minor, and can be forgiven. I tend to be forgiving of such foibles. All journalistic outlets have biases, all have shortcomings. As long as there are many different voices, you can work things out. (One reason I consider such as Michael Powell, chairman of the FCC, and outfits like Faux and Clear Channel are menaces to America is because they want to greatly reduce the variety of voices on the air).

But there is an example of a great newspaper committing the unforgivable: deliberately lying to me about something important.

The newspaper in question was the New York Times, and the lie was the way in which the newspaper presented the results of the NORC survey of the 2000 Florida vote.

The survey was supposed to be released in late September, 2001, but 9/11 happened, and they decided to hold off for four months before releasing it. It didn't seem the time to remind people of why Putsch and not Gore was president.

When it was released, quite a few journalistic outlets gave it little or no attention, believing that it made no difference anyway. Others that carried the story stated that the results were inconclusive. That is a reasonable appraisal, since most of the hypothetical standards applied to the recount had Gore winning with between 60 and 171 votes out of over five million cast. You can't be certain in a count that close, and while NORC addressed the issue of over-votes on the butterfly ballots (which went three to one Gore over Putsch, a difference of 46,000 votes), they would not have been legal ballots and wouldn't be counted any way. However, NORC did NOT address the tens of thousands of Floridians who were illegally disenfranchised by the phony "felons list" that Kathleen Harris, Jeb Bush and Database Technologies whipped up. On that list were some 50,000 people who, it turned out, had never been convicted of felonies. Some had the same names as convicted felons. Some had the same first initial and last name. Some had different names but moved into the same house a felon once occupied. At least one was convicted of his felony in 2005. Most -- 80% -- were Democrats. The study also couldn't count the ballots -- some 20% of the total cast -- that were mysteriously and quite illegally destroyed in the months following Bush vs. Gore.

So how did the New York Times address this? They decided to lie to their readers. They ran the story on page one under the headline, "Study of Disputed Florida Ballots Finds Justices Did Not Cast the Deciding Vote."

Well, they did, and the study indicates that they did. In fact, so does the news story. You had to read down about 800 words to find it, but they show the different criteria used. In every case, they showed Gore winning, if only by the very thinnest of margins. Only one scenario led to a Bush win, and that was the one in which only the four counties that Gore contested had recounts. The Florida Supreme Court struck that idea down as being a little TOO selective.

That was the only circumstance under which Putsch would have won legally.

Yes, the Supremes DID decide the Florida vote, and the NORC survey suggests they did so wrongly.

Headline writers make mistakes. Recently, a Guardian headline read, "Kansas board to allow evolution to be taught." Kansas is a strange place, but it isn't THAT strange. Although it's working on it. I read the news article, and discovered that Kansas had decided to allow the silly nonsense once known as Creationism and now called "Intelligent Design" to be taught.

But the strange antics of hinterlanders thousands of miles away make such a mistake forgivable and understandable.

The New York Times headline went beyond the realm of being just a mistake. Someone in the paper decided the American people couldn't handle the truth, and set it up so a casual reader would come away with the entirely wrong impression.

I expect journalists to make mistakes, and editors to set inexplicable priorities. I also know that my criticisms are subjective, and as often as not, the problem lies with me and not the paper. I can consider bias -- my own and the sources -- and allow for it.

But a paper that is accurate and honest 99.999% of the time, but lies to me on a critical .0001% of stories is useless, and worse than useless. Gleeful right wingers on the net still post that misleading headline to "show" that Putsch won legitimately, and as far as I know, the Times has never tried to correct the error. If it was an error, which I doubt.

Perhaps they need an ombudsman.

I can watch Faux and allow for them being Rupert clones who WANT to lie to me. Only a fool thinks Rush informs; he's there to amuse and provoke. Jon Stewart is the funniest man in America, but he is a comedian and not a journalist.

But if a paper declares itself to be the avatar of journalism, and strives mightily for true fairness and honesty in reporting, and then tells a small lie on a big story and never corrects it, that's not something to forgive. I simply do not trust the NY Times. It's not the contempt I have for the Murdoch, Scaife and Moon organs. But it's there: don't trust the Times. When the chips are down, they will lie to you.

That's far more dangerous than the comically blatant propaganda of O'Reilly or Hannity.

Posted: March 31, 2004


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