Extra! November 2012
Don’t Look to NYT to ‘Litigate’ the Facts
Margaret Sullivan, the new New York Times public editor (9/16/12), used the topic of “voter fraud” to illustrate the concept of “false balance”―when two sides are treated as equivalent even when one side has reality on its side. Despite Republican efforts to pass laws to prevent voting by the ineligible, research finds next to no examples of this problem―but coverage often treats the absence of fraudulent voting as a partisan assertion (Extra!, 10/12).
While Sullivan rightly observed that “journalists need to make every effort to get beyond the spin and help readers know what to believe,” her colleagues didn’t agree. National editor Sam Sifton told her: “There’s a lot of reasonable disagreement on both sides…. It’s not our job to litigate it in the paper…. We need to state what each side says.”
Reporter Ethan Bronner concurred: While it’s true there’s “no known evidence of in-person voter fraud,” he said, “I don’t think that’s the core issue here.” So what is? “Both sides have become very angry and very suspicious about the other…. The purpose of this story was to step back and look at both sides.”
The Root of False Balance
After searching in vain for fact-based arguments in Paul Ryan’s convention speech, Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein (8/30/12) expressed frustration that “the Romney campaign isn’t adhering to the minimum standards required for a real policy conversation”:
I don’t like that conclusion. It doesn’t look “fair” when you say that. We’ve been conditioned to want to give both sides relatively equal praise and blame, and the fact of the matter is, I would like to give both sides relatively equal praise and blame. I’d personally feel better if our coverage didn’t look so lopsided. But first the campaigns have to be relatively equal. So far in this campaign, you can look fair, or you can be fair, but you can’t be both.
And ask yourself: If you’re a for-profit media outlet, which do you prefer, the appearance of fairness or the inner peace that comes with knowing you’ve done the right thing?
In 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, Mitt Romney was a pro-war college student, exempt from the draft, and he didn’t volunteer to fight in a conflict that killed 16,000 U.S. soldiers that year. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t at personal risk, according to CNN’s Gloria Borger (8/26/12)―as a Mormon missionary in France:
BORGER: In 1968, France was a dangerous place to be for a 21-year-old American. But Mitt Romney was right in the middle of it.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There were protests and there were blockades and there were marches all over the country.
BORGER: The streets of France were in chaos.
MIKE BUSH (FORMER MISSIONARY): There was no train service, there were no buses, no newspapers. The electricity would go off from time to time. There were no letters from home. The money at the time came via check. That was our lifeline, was getting those letters from home.
No checks from home? Da Nang must have seemed like paradise compared to that French hell.
Obama’s Afghan ‘Surge’ Yet to Subside
Corporate media had a consistent take on the latest troop withdrawal from Afghanistan: “Obama’s Surge in Afghanistan Ends,” was USA Today’s headline (9/21/12); the same day’s Washington Post had “Final Surge Troops Leave Afghanistan.”
The headlines aren’t really true, though. When Barack Obama took office, the U.S. had about 34,000 troops in Afghanistan. He announced that 20,000 additional troops were to be sent in February 2009, and then ordered another 33,000 deployed in December 2009. Other, smaller increases brought the total above 100,000.
The “surge” the headlines referred to were the 33,000 sent in December 2009. But as the USA Today article noted, there are still 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan―roughly double the number that were in the country when Obama took office.
WaPo’s ‘Strategic Partnership’ With Big Oil
Industry critics were missing from the Washington Post’s two-page spread (9/11/12) devoted to the election-year debate on energy policy―perhaps because the oil industry, undisclosed to Post readers, was sponsoring the discussion.
The feature mostly consisted of short comments from forums held at both the Republican and Democratic conventions. Those discussions were sponsored, the paper noted, by the Post and the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank. But the Post failed to credit one other sponsor: Vote4Energy.org, a project of the American Petroleum Institute, the main lobbying group of the oil and gas industries.
So if you’re wondering why the Post’s feature failed to include bonafide critics of the energy giants―voices that might speak out against fracking, strongly advocate for renewable energy or warn about climate change―that would seem to be the answer. At the forum held at the Republican convention, Emily Akhtarzandi―the Post’s “strategic partnership executive”―credited the American Petroleum Institute in her opening remarks, saying the group “saw value in making today’s conversation possible.” Indeed they would; arranging a “debate” that excludes your critics from participating is very valuable. Especially when it’s spread across two pages of the biggest newspaper in the nation’s capital.
Public TV Celebrates Labor Day
To mark Labor Day (9/3/12), the PBS NewsHour brought on three labor leaders to discuss, not how unions could be revitalized or how workers’ rights could be protected, but what host Judy Woodruff called the “larger argument”: Why don’t union workers make less money?
“In these tight economic times, the public has the right to expect employees of organized labor to take the same cuts that the private sector has taken,” Woodruff explained. “The public often looks at union members and says, wait a minute. Why can’t they–especially public service employees–why can’t they accept some of the same cuts that private sector workers have had to.”
Her assumption that what struggling workers need is for other workers to struggle harder went unexplained.