Friday, May 14, 2004

The lie that tells the truth

British tabloid The Daily Mirror has recently been on the receiving end of controversy for publishing phony photos of British troops engaged in barbarous acts. The Commissar has a revealing quote from their editor:

Mr Morgan said: "There is, of course, a much bigger issue here that we make no apology for highlighting - which is that the pictures accurately illustrated the reality about the appalling conduct of some British troops."

This is why journalists (on either side of the political aisle) don't feel bad about slanting and even fudging the news on occasion. They believe that this story, even if it is false, gives a true picture of what's happening. After all, if you know that something really does happen all the time in the real world, what's wrong with making up an illustrative anecdote to show it? It's the lie that tells the truth.

Of course, not many journalists just make up the news out of whole cloth (Jayson Blair of the New York Times and Jack Kelley of USA Today are notable exceptions).

Somewhat more frequently, journalists are gulled into publishing something false which agrees with them. Skeptical of claims which they disagree with, they sometimes fail to sufficiently research 'facts' that resonate with their beliefs. A recent example of this dynamic is the publication of phony pictures of American soldiers raping an Iraqi woman (taken in fact from a pornographic movie) by my very own hometown Boston Globe.

Far more commonly, news stories are given an ideological slant through the use of illustrative anecdotes and statistics provided by political activist groups. Since most reporters are left-leaning, most of these interest groups are left-leaning, but are not identified this way. In the mainstream media, as on most university campuses, Republicans are considered at one extreme of the political spectrum, Democrats are the center, and the other extreme belongs to Communists, anarchists, and other true radicals.

Check out what Kaus writes about the influence of liberal interest groups on the news here:

Another reason I hate stories with 'real people' in them: An Editor's Note reveals the dirty little secret about where the New York Times finds those ordinary citizens sprinkled throughout public policy pieces to complain in homespun fashion about the dire effect of this budget cut or that government initiative: they are handed to the Times on a platter by (liberal) advocacy groups. Gee, no wonder they act like trained seals!

(Lots more on this from Taranto.)

Of course, the most common method for getting illustrative quotes is to call someone up and talk to them until they say what you want them to. (If this is too much work for you, you can always "Clymerize" and call up an old journalist pal of yours who not only knows what you want said but how to deliver it as a sound bite. Bonus!)

The more I learn about how journalism works, the sleazier it sounds to me. Yuck.


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