Dec 1 2007


Bananas Journalism

In reporting that Chiquita Brands “admitted it had paid $1.7 million to a Columbian paramilitary unit . . . over a six-year period,” USA Today’s David Lynch (10/30/07) framed the story with this lead: “At first, the allegations in a federal courtroom sounded like the sort of thing conspiracy-minded college freshmen dream up during late-night bull sessions. A major U.S. corporation stood accused of routinely funneling large sums of money to a vicious right-wing Latin American militia that the United States government officially had branded a terrorist organization.” Actually, that sounds like something that college freshmen might learn in Intro to Latin American History; Chiquita, formerly known as United Fruit, is notorious for its involvement in right-wing Latin American politics, most infamously instigating the U.S.-backed overthrow of Guatemala’s Arbenz government in 1954. Chiquita’s anti-democratic activities inspired the term “banana republic,” which Lynch may recall—if not from political science class, then perhaps from the shopping mall.

Trivia Gets ‘Fact’-Checked . . .

Calling Democratic hopeful Barack Obama’s credibility into question, the New York Times (10/30/07) scrutinized his 25-year-old memories of the short time he spent in New York. The examples of supposed inconsistencies range from weak to nonsensical; after noting that Obama recalls college as “an intense period of study. . . . I was like a monk,” Janny Scott reported that while Obama says “he was somewhat involved with the Black Student Organization and anti-apartheid activities,” student leaders don’t remember him. Wait, they can’t recall the self-described monk? No way. Cross-checking Obama’s claim that he worked at a “consulting house to multinational corporations,” Scott wrote: “It was a small newsletter-publishing and research firm . . . that helped companies with foreign operations (they could be called multinationals) understand overseas markets.” In other words, a consulting house for multinationals. It wouldn’t be surprising if individuals’ memories of events a quarter century ago differed. What is surprising is that the differences the Times was able to find were so petty—and that the paper would still choose to publish a lengthy article based on them.

. . . While Policy Claims Get Heat-Checked

The Associated Press ran a post-debate story headlined “Republicans Attack Spending, Each Other” (10/9/07), whose main point was a sharp exchange in which presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani asserted that “spending fell in New York while he was mayor and rose in Massachusetts while [competing candidate Mitt] Romney was governor”:

“The point is that you’ve got to control taxes. I did it, he didn’t. . . . I led, he lagged.” “It’s baloney,” retorted Romney. “I did not increase taxes in Massachusetts. I lowered taxes.” The exchange was among the most heated of the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, reflecting a quickening pace as the 2008 caucuses and primaries draw close.

OK, it reflected a “quickening pace”—but who was right? While the story gave no clue, a couple minutes of googling turned up an earlier piece from AP itself (8/28/07) that pointed out that state fees went up by some $500 million in Romney’s first year in office, while he closed $140 million in what he called “loopholes.” Meanwhile, as the New York Times (8/25/07) has reported, New York City spending rose faster than the rate of inflation during Giuliani’s administration. Both candidates could have used a fact-checker rather than a drama critic.

Talent on Loan From Gotti

“There was a cover story on me coming out of one of the big news magazines, and it was going to totally mischaracterize me and what I do and how I do it. And we found out who was writing it, and made a couple phone calls to the person writing it. And we said, ‘You know what? We’re going to find out where your kids go to school. We’re going to find out who you knocked up in high school. We’re going to find out what drugs you used. We’re going to find out where you go to drink. . . . We’re gonna find out how you paid for your house. . . . And we’re going to say that, you know what? You are no different than Al Goldstein. You both masturbate. . . .’ And the guy started screaming on the phone, just went—’You can’t do that.’ We said, ‘Watch us.’ And it changed the tone of the story by about 60 percent, I would say, from what it was going to be.”

—Rush Limbaugh (10/15/07)

Baby Doomers

When the first baby boomer filed for Social Security on October 15, ABC News and the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank led the pack in media scaremongering. On ABC’s World News With Charles Gibson (10/15/07), the anchor declared it a “day of reckoning”; correspondent David Wright called it “the raindrop that’s about to become a tsunami,” warning that “about the time the last of the baby boomers retires, the system will go bankrupt.” Milbank (10/16/07) went further, claiming that baby boomers “will begin to bankrupt the nation.” Actually, the baby boomers’ retirement will not pose a major problem for Social Security, which has built up a massive trust fund specifically to deal with the demographic bulge (Extra!,1-2/05). Former Fed chair Alan Greenspan acknowledged that Social Security was “not a big crisis” on NBC’s Meet the Press (10/23/07); though media usually take his word as a kind of gospel, in this case his observation seemed to go unheard.