Sunday, January 30, 2005

Partisan News Media II

Here's a particularly egregious example from the Tennessean. A week before election day in 1992, the paper ran a picture of Republican legislator, Beth Halteman, on the front page above the fold. In a tight head shot, she had her mouth stretched wide-open as if she were screaming at the top of her lungs. Next to the photo was a headline with the word "Abortion" prominently included (I can't remember the precise headline, but it made clear that Halteman's position on abortion was unacceptable). The clear message to anyone walking past a paper box or picking up their paper over breakfast was that this woman was a wild, screaming bitch over the issue of abortion.

The story itself was difficult to figure out. The gist of it jumped back in the middle of the paper. Apparently, some special interest group that no one had ever heard of had sent out a press release criticizing Halteman. [They were probably two people with a fax machine who were working closely with the Democratic candidate and the Tennessean reporter.] While her opponent's position on abortion was straight down the line with Planned Parenthood -- abortion on demand at any time, Halteman's was actually to the left of most Republicans in that she didn't favor repeal of Roe v. Wade. The story, however, was so disjointed that readers could make little sense of it.

The Halteman campaign was really puzzled. Coverage of legislative races never makes the front page. Abortion hadn't even been an issue in the campaign. Who was this special interest group that no one had ever heard of? Why did their press release on this race merit a front page headline and picture? And where did they get that picture?

They had been warned to expect something, but they hadn't expected this. The Tennessean reporter covering the race had been seen by a local politician soliciting campaign contributions for the Democratic candidate. The prior coverage had been slanted the way they had come to expect from the paper.

Halteman won the election despite the embarassing photo and headline. The paper was flooded with calls complaining that the picture wasn't fair to her. The Tennessean's Reader Advocate devoted his column to the story and the picture. In essence, he reported that the photo editor was asked to provide a picture for the story and Halteman's file happened to contain two shots -- the typical head shot provided by the government and the shot which was used by the paper. The choice of the screaming head shot was justified on the basis of being more interesting. There was no effort to try to explain why an obscure race for a house seat in the legislature demanded front page treatment above the fold.

Not surprisingly, the explanation provided by the Reader Advocate failed to tell the truth. After all, this is a newspaper. It turned out that the picture came from an election night celebration four years earlier when Halteman was first elected. A photographer had snapped a photo of Beth and several dozen supporters at the moment they let out a huge cheer upon hearing one of the TV stations project that she had won. That huge group celebration photo had run deep inside the paper as part of the election coverage.

Once you see the photo of the group celebrating, what had really happened is obvious. Someone had noticed that the photo of the celebration showed a Republican politician with her mouth open in mid-cheer. They greatly enlarged the photo and cropped out everything, but her head. All that was left was the face of a woman who looked like she was screaming at the top of her lungs. To get it on the front page, all they needed was to create a special interest group to draft a press release and the approval of all the editors who make the decisions on what deserves front page coverage.

It took the approval of a whole lot of senior people on the paper to run that picture on the front page. People who knew the press release was a sham and knew where the picture really came from. What I have been curious about was the Reader Advocate. Was he in on the lie when he wrote the story? Or was he just a fool that the others in the paper knew would swallow a lie.

Corrupt or incompetent? The question seems to come up all the time about the news media.


Blogger Jo said...

If it wasn't for Fox News,, and other place on the interent, my head would explode. I only turn on ABC when my local news is on.

How do we get our news back from the liberals and make them impartial? I don't have the answer. But me thinks before the internet and Fox, we were all being spoon fed the socialist liberal veiws for eons.

12:19 PM, January 30, 2005  
Blogger Acres said...

Back in my day at (ahem) "J" school, I don't remember being taught that abortion was the best thing, gays were uber cool, etc. But, being the liberal school it was, ideas like that really took a hold onto you ~ without you knowing it. I remember being wildly idealistic with ambitions of being the next Woodward or Bernstein.

I first became exposed to alternate explanations of things when I'd attend local meetings for city council, county board, school board, and I'd read the newspaper with a totally different accounting of what I'd witnessed. A few times, I almost had to play back my tape of the event to show my news director that I wasn't sleeping. Newspaper reporters would show up to a meeting with a preconceived story idea, then write their story with the appropriate slant.

How do we get our objective news back? Easy. Blogs and whatever else technology evolves giving us the facts.

Not meaning to sound like a blog apologist, but MSM reporters are dawning on the fact that they're going to be held accountable for their slanted writing more than ever. And that's good. But, there needs to be more people making more noise. Things like Rathergate, I think, are going to be more frequent until the MSM learns more people are watching for their bias.

11:20 PM, January 30, 2005  
Blogger HisSister said...

"MSM reporters are dawning on the fact that they're going to be held accountable for their slanted writing more than ever. "

I don't think it's about reporters who don't get it as much as it's about editors and publishers who aren't getting it. As long as the brass at CBS can consider Katie Curic as a possible replacment to Dan Rather it's a pretty sure bet they're not even close to enlightenment.

5:59 PM, January 31, 2005  

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