Monday, May 31, 2004

You Don't Work the Ref When a Bad Call Goes Your Way

You've probably read about a minor tempest working its way around the Internet, where the warbloggers are claiming that the media is exaggerating problems in Iraq and ignoring the good news, and that people may turn against the media and First Amendment because the media will be responsible for our "defeat" by not supporting the war sufficiently. We have the mightiest military in the world, but it's no match for CNN, or something.

The right-wingers are trumpeting a picture of a New York Times newspaper vending machine with "LIES" spray painted on it. But how do they know that the spray painter was someone who supports the war who's upset by what they think is The Times' bias against it? What if it was painted by someone who opposed the war who is convinced that the WMD stories gave the Bush administration crucial cover in the march to war? The word "LIES" could mean either opinion, why theirs--other than because they say so?

Newspaper version available here (for about 30 days).

East Valley Tribune, May 30, 2004

We got more proof last week that the “media bias” debate is simply each ideological side trying to “work the ref.” The New York Times published an “editor’s note” reviewing its overly credulous, and overstated, pre-war reporting of claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. The Times admitted it overemphasized evidence of a threat, and undervalued skeptical analysis and contrary reports.

Key stories about Iraqi weapons -- the aluminum tubes, the chemical weapons facilities, the terrorist training camps, the Iraqi “Dr. Germ” -- can’t be verified. In the note, The Times essentially apologized for its reporting, which helped provide a major, and inaccurate, justification for war.

Liberals probably read about The Times note, but conservatives might have missed it, which is strange indeed. Conservatives have made Times-bashing part of a daily unbalanced ideological diet. Any error, no matter how minor, in the nation’s leading newspaper is proof of liberal bias and moral rot.

When reporter Jayson Blair invented stories and plagiarized others and his editors didn’t catch him fast enough, conservatives said that wasn’t just one reporter failing. It was an institutional failure, and not only showed that The Times was corrupt -- but so were affirmative action and all liberals. The top two editors resigned; right-wingers chortled gleefully.

All that bloviating over Blair must have exhausted the right-wingers, because a couple weeks later, when reporter Jack Kelley of USA Today was unmasked as a bigger liar, there wasn’t nearly as much outrage. Kelley caught a break; it’s not that was he older, whiter, and more Christian than Blair, but rather his misdeeds were discovered second, and our collective attention span couldn’t handle it.

So conservatives have had it in for The Times for years. But when the newspaper gets Iraqi WMD wrong, and admits that its reporters and editors let its readers down, people who have built entire careers screaming about bias and error have absolutely nothing to say. To these critics, any mistakes The Times made in running dozen of stories helpful to the Bush administration’s desire to topple Saddam Hussein weren’t evidence of bias or institutional error. Conservatives can easily forgive mistakes -- when they’re useful mistakes.

Similarly, one boring staple of Arizona Democratic politics is counterproductive griping about ideological bias in the local newspapers (pointless, because it’s not like voters read anymore). But when critics, on both sides, talk about “bias,” what they really mean is “articles that we don’t like.” Conservatives enjoyed The Times articles that said Iraq had WMD, so the fact that the articles weren’t true isn’t evidence of bias. You don’t “work the ref” when a bad call goes in your favor.

If there’s bias in most of the media, it isn’t ideological; it’s a bias toward power, toward accepting the official view and not taking as seriously view of those lacking power or money. That’s how The Times got the Wen Ho Lee and Iraqi WMD stories so wrong -- reporters got exclusive “inside” information from key sources, and never evaluated whether the sources might be wrong, or, more perniciously, were using the reporters for the sources’ own ends.

Reporters are paid to “get” stories, and the usual “get” is reporting (preferably exclusively) what someone in power thinks. Arizona Republicans used to enjoy those stories, because most everyone in power was a Republican. But now an active Democratic governor can create news that Republicans just don’t like nearly as much. So GOP partisans also claim “bias,” because they’re seeing stories they don’t like.

Conservatives didn’t bash The Times over its WMD stories. Sure, those stories were wrong -- institutionally wrong. But those stories agreed with conservatives’ own biases, so they couldn’t be biased.

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