Man Without Qualities

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Over The Top With The Mainstream Media

In critiquing New York Times editor Bill Keller's response to the controversy over Alessandra Stanley's claim that "Fox's Geraldo Rivera ... nudged an Air Force rescue worker out of the way New York Times" (Stanley's words) during his coverage of Hurricane Katrina, public editor Byron Calame puts his finger on a much larger problem with the mainstream media generally and the Times in particular:
I find it disturbing that any Times editor would come so close to implying - almost in a tit-for-tat sense - that Mr. Rivera's bad behavior essentially entitles the paper to rely on assumptions and refuse to correct an unsupported fact.
Contrast the New York Times rank tit-for-tat denialism with this remarkable - but still incomplete - example of intellectual honesty in the Los Angeles Times:
National Guard ... accounts about rescue efforts, water supplies and first aid all but disappeared amid the roar of a 24-hour rumor mill at New Orleans' main evacuation shelter. ..... The New Orleans Times-Picayune on Monday described inflated body counts, unverified "rapes," and unconfirmed sniper attacks as among examples of "scores of myths about the dome and Convention Center treated as fact by evacuees, the media and even some of New Orleans' top officials." .... Hyperbolic reporting spread through much of the media. ... The Los Angeles Times adopted a breathless tone ... in its lead news story, reporting that National Guard troops "took positions on rooftops, scanning for snipers and armed mobs as seething crowds of refugees milled below, desperate to flee. Gunfire crackled in the distance." The New York Times repeated some of the reports of violence and unrest, but the newspaper usually was more careful to note that the information could not be verified.
It is remarkable that the LA Times confesses to gross exaggeration in its and other media coverage, where the NY Times is yet to fess up - even though the LA Times article expressly points out that the New York paper carried many of the same, exaggerated reports and only "usually" qualified them as "unverified." But the LA Times confession falls far short in identifying the causes and nature of the exaggerations:

Journalists and officials who have reviewed the Katrina disaster blamed the inaccurate reporting in large measure on the breakdown of telephone service, which prevented dissemination of accurate reports to those most in need of the information. Race may have also played a factor. .... "I don't think you can overstate how big of a disaster New Orleans is," said Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, a Florida school for professional journalists. "But you can imprecisely state the nature of the disaster. … Then you draw attention away from the real story, the magnitude of the destruction, and you kind of undermine the media's credibility." .... New Orleans' top officials seemed to confirm the accounts. Nagin and Police Chief Eddie Compass appeared on "Oprah" ... Compass told of "the little babies getting raped" at the Superdome. And Nagin made his claim about hooligans raping and killing [at the Superdome and Convention Center].

Telephone service? Race? Imprecise statements? Please. These are not even arguably excuses or even plausible causal mechanisms. The argument being advanced by the LA Times here could be summarized this way:
"We heard all these lurid rumors, and we couldn't raise anyone on the telephone to verify them, so we just went ahead and ran them anyway. And, by the way, we here in the mainstream media are racists - always ready to report the worst about African-Americans - so that's another reason we ran all those horrible, unverified stories. Mayor Nagin and Police Chief Compass are racists, too - which is why they said those terrible things. And we were imprecise."
No. Just no. That's not what happened and that's not why the media was so hot to run those stories. What the LA Times omits is the glaringly obvious fact that these exaggerated stories were run, and the local Democratic officials' complaints made and spread, with an eye to left wing political advantage from the very beginning.

Nor does Ms. McBride's argument that you can't "overstate how big a disaster New Orleans is" square with reality. In fact, the most important aspects of that disaster - total loss of human life - were grossly overstated throughout the mainstream media reporting and also by local Democratic officials - again, acting on political motives.

Even former president Bill Clinton perceived and noted the obvious anti-Bush bias in the mainstream media reporting when he said the BBC coverage of the New Orleans disaster "was designed to be almost exclusively a hit on the federal response." What Mr. Clinton said of the BBC coverage (other than its accuracy) just as correctly describes the political motivation of the mainstream American media coverage in effecting their exaggerations. Mr. Clinton's observation that "there is nothing factually inaccurate" in the BBC coverage is, of course, wrong because it predated the revelations described in the LA Times article. I was in Canada during Hurricane Katrina and received a full dose of the BBC coverage, which lapped up the "rape, murder and chaos" stories as much as the LA Times did and more, as in this BBC rubbish: Adam Friend ... had been sheltering in the Superdome stadium in New Orleans. ... He had earlier sent a frantic text to his parents, describing how dead bodies were "all around him". And then there's this lurid BBC howler: Another woman stranded in New Orleans told TV reporters: "People are dying, they're dying. Babies are dying, there's an old lady over there dead in the chair. People are dying. We're starving out here." And, of course, the BBC was more than pleased to repeat uncritically such things as Mayor Nagin's claim that "thousands" had had died in New Orleans, without any questioning of hizzoner as to how or why he was using such numbers or how reliable such estimates might be. And the BBC went on and on in its timeline: [T]he Superdome stadium and the city's convention centre is cleared. Evacuees recount scenes of violence, including rapes and murders at the shelters.

Why did so much of the mainstream media feel entitled to run such exaggerations with the intent of hyping whatever criticism could be made of the federal administration? See Mr. Calame's comment above. See Mr. Clinton's comment above. And see the same comments in analyzing the grossly exaggerated mainstream media coverage of Abu Ghraib, Rove/Plame (is that still going on?) and so many other stories (and non-stories).

Rathergate represents a nadir in the tendency of the mainstream media to take what they assert as a deficiency in Mr. Bush as justification for basing THE BIG, LURID STORY on outrageous, unsupported "assumptions" in total disregard of established journalistic standards, including the reticence of most of their own consulted experts. Rand Simberg provides quite the tour of the terrifying, dank recesses of the mind of Mary Mapes, the still unrepentent chief perpetrator of the Rathergate fiasco. Among other things, Mapes, who attempted to derail the US presidential election with fabricated documents whose dubious provenance she (at best) willfully ignored, says she is stunned by the "vitriol" (her word) she and her co-defenestrant Dan Rather have provoked. To Mapes, Bush was (and is) a man who had done bad things, and that justified in Mapes mind disregarding journalistic standards to produce a story based on documents whose authenticity could not be established, and which were provided to her by people whose reliability she never established and she well knew to be virulently hostile to the president. Yet she is stunned that others object strongly to what she did. Mary Mapes is the fully born avatar of Byron Calame's demon.

Alessandra Stanley's presumptuous, undocumented "nudge" is trivial compared to what Ms. Mapes tried to pull off. They both soldier on unbowed, their states of mind, and the ethical and journalistic structure of their crimes, much the same.


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