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The Politics of 'Corrections'
Originally published in ConsortiumNews.com earlier yesterday, 25 March 2010
Perhaps nothing measures the imbalance of media and political power in the United States better than the decision-making by major news organizations about when to issue “corrections.”
The bottom line is this: When the American Right is offended, the “corrections” come fast and are sweeping, even in highly dubious situations. Sometimes heads roll.
But when the American Left feels aggrieved, the “corrections” are slow and grudging, often very narrow in scope and still misleading. Nobody is likely to get punished.
That reality was demonstrated again Tuesday when the New York Times “corrected” the context of a quote by former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich that had been cited in a Monday column by Paul Krugman. The liberal economist had referenced the Washington Post quoting Gingrich as saying President “Lyndon Johnson shattered the Democratic Party for 40 years.”
The Post – and then Krugman – paraphrased the context as a reference to Johnson pushing through the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which, in turn, gave rise to Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy, the Republican scheme to exploit white animosities over the end of racial segregation to break the Democratic grip on the South and bring those states into the Republican column.
Without doubt, that is what happened. Southern white voters – and many working-class northern whites – turned their backs on the Democrats and helped usher in four decades of Republican dominance in national elections. Ronald Reagan famously launched his general election campaign in 1980 with a speech advocating states' rights in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site of the murders of three civil rights workers.
There also can be little doubt that Gingrich was referring to Johnson’s civil rights legislation. But Gingrich didn’t appreciate the spotlight on his frank admission about the politics of race, so he began spinning a new context, insisting that his reference was to Johnson’s Great Society programs.
However, that claim made little sense. After all, the biggest accomplishment of the Great Society was Medicare, the popular health-care program for the elderly, which even the Republicans these days defend, most notably during the recent congressional health-care debate.
So, why would Gingrich claim that Johnson’s passage of Medicare and other social programs “shattered the Democratic Party for 40 years”?
The obvious answer is that Gingrich is obfuscating. He simply realized how offensive his comment sounded and wanted to revise his meaning – and the Times quickly went along with this cover-up by issuing a “correction.”
(Gingrich’s maneuver was similar to the preposterous explanation by Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas, who shouted out “baby killer” when Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Michigan, was speaking on the House floor Sunday night. Challenged about his outburst, Neugebauer insisted that he had said, “it’s a baby killer” in reference to the health-reform bill, not Stupak personally.)
The New York Times, sensitive to accusations about “liberal bias,” seems always ready to accommodate “correction” demands from the Right, no matter how incorrect they may be.
In another example, the right-wing Washington Times demanded – and got – a “correction” for describing it as a newspaper “decidedly opposed to Mr. Obama,” in the context of a New York Times article about Washington Times’ editorials that compared President Barack Obama’s health care plans to Nazi euthanasia policies.
The Washington Times insisted that its news columns were objective and independent from the editorial opinions – and thus wrested from the New York Times a “correction” stating “the article was referring to [the WT’s] opinion pages, not to its news pages.”
The truth, however, is that the Washington Times – founded and funded by right-wing Korean theocrat Sun Myung Moon – has had a long history of mixing political propaganda into its news columns, an approach that hasn’t stopped. Yet, the New York Times felt compelled to bend over backwards with a “correction.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “WTimes, Bushes Hail Rev. Moon.”]
By contrast, the New York Times feels free to resist legitimate demands for corrections of clear mistakes when the aggrieved parties are on the Left.
In the same correction box that allowed Gingrich to fix his racially charged remark, the Times finally consented to a limited “correction” on its false reporting about the right-wing “pimp” sting against ACORN, an organization that fought for the poor and powerless for four decades until it was forced to close down this week mostly because of the furor over the sting.
The Times, like virtually all other major U.S. news outlets, fell hard for the heavily edited undercover videos that purported to show two right-wing activists, posing as a pimp and prostitute, getting legal advice from low-level ACORN counselors.
For weeks, the Times had resisted demands from Brad Friedman of BradBlog.com and Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting to correct misleading and false reporting regarding the circumstances of the sting, such as the fact that the supposed “pimp” did not wear an outlandish “pimp costume,” as the Times reported and the viewers of the videos were led to believe.
Also, it turned out that the most outrageous accusation against the ACORN workers – that they went along with a scheme to use under-aged Salvadoran girls as prostitutes – was another false charge, since fuller transcripts revealed that the undercover activists were pretending to be protecting the girls from an abusive pimp.
On Sunday, New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt, who had previously chided his newspaper for not jumping on the ACORN “pimp” scandal faster, reversed himself and acknowledged that he and the newspaper had mishandled these two points.
Hoyt said right-wing media activist James O’Keefe “almost certainly did not go into the Acorn offices in the outlandish costume — fur coat, goggle-like sunglasses, walking stick and broad-brimmed hat — in which he appeared at the beginning and end of most of his videos.”
Also, after reviewing transcripts provided by a conservative organization, Hoyt accepted FAIR’s criticism that the Times' earlier reporting on the video gave the false impression that O’Keefe and his supposed girlfriend were going to exploit the under-aged girls as prostitutes.
FAIR said the fuller transcripts suggested that the ACORN staffers thought the couple was trying “to protect child prostitutes from an abusive pimp.” “That’s right,” Hoyt wrote.
However, Hoyt still insisted that the ACORN employees deserved criticism for not objecting to other apparent illegalities in O’Keefe’s fictitious schemes. In other words, Hoyt wasn’t ready to admit that he had joined the Times in a rush to judgment and thus helped smear and destroy ACORN.
On Tuesday, the Times’ “correction” was even less expansive, acknowledging only that “there is no indication that [O’Keefe] was wearing the costume while talking to Acorn workers.”
The correction also repeated another disputed claim, that O’Keefe had “posed” as a pimp at all. Citing the fuller transcripts, Brad Friedman noted that O’Keefe presented himself as “the fake prostitute’s law school boyfriend trying to help save her from a pimp who had stalked and threatened to kill her.”
So, despite the damage that the Times and other major news organizations had inflicted on ACORN, only the most grudging correction was issued -- and with no apology regarding the most devastating suggestion, that ACORN workers were complicit in a planned child-prostitution ring.
‘Lyin’ Al’ Gore
The tendency of the Times and other major U.S. newspapers to shun demands from the Left for corrections – while rushing to fix even dubious claims of error from the Right – has a long and troubling history.
Take, for instance, a similar case during the early days of Campaign 2000 when reporters for the Times and the Washington Post misquoted Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore as he talked about toxic waste clean-ups that he had championed.
Both the Times and the Post published the same misquote, reporting that Gore had claimed to have discovered the Love Canal toxic waste dump in upstate New York. “I was the one that started it all,” Gore was quoted as saying.
Gore’s alleged quote was quickly interpreted as a boastful “gaffe” because the Love Canal problem had been uncovered and addressed by others before Gore held congressional hearings on it.
The “quote” soon became fodder for political talkers and editorial writers to mock Gore as dishonest or even delusional. The controversy fed into the narrative of “Lyin’ Al” which election exit polls showed was a big factor in many voters casting ballots instead for George W. Bush.
The back-story, however, was that the Times and Post had misquoted Gore and then put his made-up words in the most negative context. When the error was pointed out to the two newspapers, editors dragged their heels on issuing corrections, even as the bogus quote reverberated across the United States.
The Love Canal quote controversy began on Nov. 30, 1999, when Gore was speaking to a group of high school students in Concord, New Hampshire. He was exhorting the students to reject cynicism and to recognize that individual citizens can effect important changes.
As an example, he cited a high school girl from Toone, Tennessee, a town that had experienced problems with toxic waste. She brought the issue to the attention of Gore's congressional office in the late 1970s.
"I called for a congressional investigation and a hearing," Gore told the students. "I looked around the country for other sites like that. I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal. Had the first hearing on that issue, and Toone, Tennessee -- that was the one that you didn't hear of. But that was the one that started it all."
After the hearings, Gore said, "we passed a major national law to clean up hazardous dump sites. And we had new efforts to stop the practices that ended up poisoning water around the country. We've still got work to do. But we made a huge difference. And it all happened because one high school student got involved."
The context of Gore's comment was clear. What sparked his interest in the toxic-waste issue was the situation in Toone -- "that was the one that you didn't hear of. But that was the one that started it all."
After learning about the Toone situation, Gore looked for other examples and "found" a similar case at Love Canal. He was not claiming to have been the first one to discover Love Canal, which already had been evacuated. He simply needed other case studies for the hearings.
Massaging a Quote
The next day, The Washington Post stripped Gore's comments of their context and gave them a negative twist. "Gore boasted about his efforts in Congress 20 years ago to publicize the dangers of toxic waste," the Post reported.
The New York Times ran a slightly less contentious story with the same false quote: "I was the one that started it all."
The Republican National Committee spotted Gore's alleged boast and was quick to fax around its own take. "Al Gore is simply unbelievable -- in the most literal sense of that term," declared Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson. "It's a pattern of phoniness -- and it would be funny if it weren't also a little scary."
The GOP doctored Gore's quote a bit more. After all, it would be grammatically incorrect to have said, "I was the one that started it all." So, the Republican handout fixed Gore's grammar to say, "I was the one who started it all."
In just one day, the quote had transformed from "that was the one that started it all" to "I was the one that started it all" to "I was the one who started it all."
Instead of taking the offensive against these misquotes, Gore tried to head off the controversy by clarifying his meaning and apologizing if anyone got the wrong impression. But the fun was just beginning.
The next morning, Post political writer Ceci Connolly highlighted Gore's boast and placed it in his alleged pattern of falsehoods.
National pundit shows and newspaper columnists picked up the story of Gore's new “exaggeration” and cited it as evidence of his dishonesty and delusions.
Yet, while the national media was excoriating Gore, the Concord students were learning more than they had expected about how media and politics work in modern America.
For days, the students pressed for a correction from the Washington Post and the New York Times. But the prestige papers balked, insisting that the error was insignificant.
Internet blogger Bob Somerby of “The Daily Howler” also was hectoring what he termed a "grumbling editor" at the Post to correct the error.
Finally, on Dec. 7, a week after Gore's comment, the Post published a partial correction, tucked away as the last item in a corrections box. But the Post still misled readers about what Gore actually said.
The Post correction read: "In fact, Gore said, 'That was the one that started it all,' referring to the congressional hearings on the subject that he called."
The revision fit with the Post's insistence that the two quotes meant pretty much the same thing, but again, the newspaper was distorting Gore's clear intent by attaching "that" to the wrong antecedent. From the full quote, it's obvious the "that" refers to the Toone toxic waste case, not to Gore's hearings.
Three days later, the New York Times followed suit with a correction of its own, but again without fully explaining Gore's position.
"They fixed how they misquoted him, but they didn't tell the whole story," commented Lindsey Roy, another Concord High junior.
Meanwhile, the two reporters involved showed no remorse for their mistake. "I really do think that the whole thing has been blown out of proportion," said Katharine Seelye of the Times. "It was one word."
The Post's Ceci Connolly even defended her inaccurate rendition of Gore's quote as something of a journalistic duty. "We have an obligation to our readers to alert them [that] this [Gore's false boasting] continues to be something of a habit," she said. [AP, Dec. 14, 1999]
There are many other examples – both big and small – of how the Times, the Post and other major newspapers react differently regarding corrections depending on whether the Right or the Left is making the complaint.
The mainstream media jumps when the Right is angry about a story. Corrections are filed and sometimes heads roll (think of the four CBS “60 Minutes – 2” producers who were fired for a substantially accurate story in 2004 about George W. Bush blowing off his National Guard duty).
Similarly, the New York Times bent over backward when Newt Gingrich claimed his words were misrepresented, even when they surely weren’t, or when the Washington Times wants people to think that its news columns aren’t influenced by the right-wing bias of its owner.
Conversely, even when there are clear cases of misreporting regarding Al Gore or ACORN or some other person or entity from the Left, the rules change. Editors and reporters come up with excuses, rather than make straight-forward and timely corrections.
And when corrections are finally issued – in the face of determined demands – they are narrowly worded and often still misleading.
The big newspapers clearly understand that in the United States, one side – the Right – is well-organized to inflict punishment on journalists, while the other side – the Left – has very limited means to even publicize its complaints. The Right has a giant messaging machine, and the Left doesn't.
As the examples of ACORN’s demise and Al Gore’s quote show, this political/media imbalance has real-life consequences.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
This article is republished in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.
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This story was published on March 26, 2010.