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Friday, September 19, 2014
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Published: Saturday, 3/25/2006

Sloppy journalism

ON MARCH 8 the New York Times ran a lengthy profile of Donna Fenton. The story described how much difficulty she and other victims of Hurricane Katrina were having in getting assistance from government agencies.

On Thursday the Times issued this embarrassing correction after Ms. Fenton was arrested for grand larceny and welfare fraud:

"Prosecutors say she was not a Katrina victim, never lived in Biloxi, and had improperly received thousands of dollars in government aid.

"For its profile, the Times did not conduct adequate interviews or public record checks to verify Ms. Fenton's account Such questions would have uncovered a fraud conviction and raised serious questions about the truthfulness of her account."

This was the second correction for a front-page story in as many weeks for the Times, which on March 18 admitted that Ali Shalil Qaissi, featured in a lengthy profile the week before, was not, as he had claimed, the man in a famous photograph of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison.

"The Times should have been more persistent in seeking comment from the military," that correction said. "A more thorough examination of previous articles in the Times would have shown that in 2004 military investigators named another man as the one on the box, raising suspicions about Mr. Qaissi's claim."

On Thursday, the Associated Press reported an "unexpected" jump in home sales, and a "greater than forecast" drop in unemployment claims.

"Unexpected" by whom? Economic conditions are nearly the same now as they were at this point in Bill Clinton's second term.

The unemployment rate last month was 4.8 percent. In February, 1998, it was 4.6 percent. Gross domestic product grew 4.1 percent last year (even with Katrina), compared to 4.5 percent in 1997.

News coverage then emphasized good economic news (Nexis indicates there were 81 stories in 1997 that used the phrase "booming U.S. economy," versus just 13 last year). News coverage now emphasizes bad news.

This likely explains the substantial disparity between the percentage of Americans who think they're doing well economically and those who think the country is. (According to the Gallup Poll, 52 percent of Americans think their personal finances are excellent or good, but only 34 percent give that description to the economy as a whole.)

Gayle Taylor's complaint has nothing to do with Donna Fenton or the state of the economy. But it's rooted in the sloppy journalistic practices those stories reveal.

Ms. Taylor is the wife of an Army sergeant who just returned from Iraq. At a town meeting in Wheeling, W.Va., on Wednesday, she told the President:

"It seems that our major media networks don't want to portray the good. They just want to focus on another car bomb. They just want to focus on some more bloodshed "

Ms. Taylor's question was greeted by a standing ovation from nearly everyone in the packed hall.

ABC News received hundreds of e-mails after the town meeting. "The vast majority believed the media were biased in their Iraq coverage," ABC acknowledged.

The media "jump at the chance to report completely unsubstantiated claims by Iraqis of killings or theft or abuse that simply isn't credible when you know even the first thing about the American military," said "Buck Sargent," an infantry squad leader in Iraq, in an e-mail to radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt. "They give the ruthless killers the benefit of the doubt every time, just to spread more nonsense about us."

The news media have run many stories about Abu Ghraib, including the phony one in the New York Times March 11. But when's the last time you read a story about an American hero in Iraq? There have been many, but journalists never seem to make it the awards ceremonies.

A recent study by the Media Research Center of broadcast network news coverage of the trial of Saddam Hussein is indicative of imbalance.

ABC, CBS, and NBC have broadcast 90 minutes of air time of Saddam's trial (compared to 824 for the O.J. Simpson trial). Of that, just 11.5 minutes have been devoted to actual testimony and evidence. More air time was devoted to Saddam's complaint he was not receiving a fair trial, much more to his courtroom disruptions.

"The trial gives the world the opportunity to understand the scope and brutality of the Saddam regime," wrote Web logger Ed Morrissey. "Our media instead talk about Saddam's love of Cheetos, Ramsey Clark's complaints about Saddam's treatment, and the tyrant's utterly predictable and unremarkable political observations. No wonder we hold journalists in such low esteem."



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