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History in the Making

As I walked to the convenience store to buy a newspaper one Sunday in late January, it occurred to me that the lead story in all the papers would be the Iraqi elections, which had begun the previous day.

And I made a prediction. To myself. I only wish someone had been there to attest to this. Because I was right.

The prediction I made was that the Albany Times Union headline would have the word “historic” in it. And it did. I don’t recall the exact wording—I didn’t know I’d be writing about it, and I didn’t buy the TU that day—but I’m sure it was some simple variant of “Iraqis hold historic election.” My main point is that I was sure they’d use the word “historic,” and they did.

How is that significant? First, I should point out that other newspapers I saw that day—The New York Times, The Boston Globe, the Washington Post, the Daily Gazette and The Berkshire Eagle—did not use the word “historic” in their headlines. They were all rather newsy and straightforward about it, typically alluding to the dichotomy between the urge for democracy and the shadow of violence: The Times, for example, ran with “Rocket Strikes U.S. Embassy as Iraqis Prepare to Vote.”

Why did the TU use a word the others did not—and why was that predictable?

During the long run-up to the U.S. war on Iraq, when the Bush administration was looking for justification for the long-planned invasion in the form of weapons of mass destruction (all the while strategically repeating lies about Saddam Hussein’s ties to Al Qaeda and 9/11), astute observers might have noticed that the Times Union’s coverage was generally favorable to the administration, and that the headlines, in particular, seemed to border on cheerleading. Anytime a discovery was made of a possible weapons cache, the TU’s headlines were big and hopeful; whenever the administration issued a strong statement, the TU, more than most papers around here, seemed to consciously back up the bluster. Again, I didn’t think to save any of those papers at the time—they, and the fish, are long gone—but if Rex Smith wants to give me a tour of the archives to try to prove his editorial department would never, never allow bias to infect a headline choice, I’d be happy to take that tour with him (and perhaps later he’d invite me onto The Media Project to discuss our findings).

How did I guess the TU would use the word “historic” that day? Because I suspected the editors would lunge at an opportunity to try to cast a positive glow on the unprovoked war and its relentlessly bloody aftermath. Besides the general sense of grandeur imparted by “historic,” the headline overall suggested it was morning in Iraq, that the country was on the threshold of a glorious new era of freedom that would not have been possible without United States intervention, that the ends have finally justified the means. Never mind that Iraq then, as now, was still mired in factional turmoil with no end in sight, or that the American and Iraqi casualties continued to mount daily—it was time to feel good about Iraq and the accomplishment of our mission there.

Most mainstream daily newspapers in this country (apart from a few flamboyantly partisan papers like the New York Post) still try to advance the notion that they present a purely objective record of the events of the day (as opposed to, say, “alternative newsweeklies” such as this one, whose editors typically say that they aim to be fair and truthful while admittedly leaning a little left of center, and who steadfastly argue that objectivity is a myth). The TU’s Smith is fairly typical in this regard, admitting no bias whatsoever. In fact, as a regular on WAMC’s The Media Project, he frequently counters suggestions of slanted coverage by insisting that choices are made objectively, almost innocently by editors trying their best to do a very demanding job. “If people saw how things actually worked in a newsroom,” he typically begins, they’d realize, for example, that Hearst executives aren’t standing over reporters and editors making sure they spin the Iraq war in a positive light or downplay the voting irregularities in the presidential election.

The TU is an interesting paper to study regarding objectivity, in part because it’s not such a bad paper, most days. There are good reporters doing a lot of solid work, and unlike, say, the New York Post, there is no clear bias that informs nearly everything in the paper. But coverage can be slanted in a number of subtle ways, and most people don’t even notice. In the TU’s case, the cheerleading headlines are perhaps the most obvious example of subjectivity. Here’s another recent one that caught my eye, from Bush’s recent trip to Europe: “Bush offers vision of peace” (Feb. 22). Again, no other paper’s headlines I saw portrayed Bush as quite so saintly, and why should they? For one thing, the speech was little more than a PR stunt: Bush was trying to position himself as the peace-and-democracy prince in front of European leaders who had mostly opposed his war on Iraq. For another thing, given that Bush’s record so far is one of war and aggression—I would even say avoiding peace at all cost—why make him appear to be the opposite of what he has proven, so far, to be? It’s a rather blatant example of the Orwellian doublespeak the Bush administration has perfected like none before it, and isn’t objective fact any more than any number of complaints of the disenfranchised that the TU would never print without verification by an official source.

(For what it’s worth, I think most dailies give far too much ink to what politicians of any stripe say in controlled, one-sided PR fests like inauguration speeches.)

And speaking of what newspapers never (or seldom) print, simply ignoring stories is one of the most subtle and sinister methods of daily-newspaper bias, one practiced as much by industry giants like The New York Times as by smaller papers. The list is endless—and we try to do our part each year by publishing Project Censored’s top undercovered news stories of the year—but I will mention a few that have been on my radar in recent years: unexplained discrepancies in the Bush administration’s knowledge of threats and stymied intelligence leading up to 9/11; the large-scale worldwide opposition during the run-up to the Iraq war, including scathing antiwar statements by the pope that I never saw printed in the TU or the Times; and this year’s election irregularities in Ohio, including the apparent illegality of the recount and the ongoing effort to uncover the truth. As we speak, the legal effort by the Green Party presidential candidates to uncover answers is very much still active, and Kenneth Blackwell—a man who must have a lot to hide—is behaving ever more bizarrely in his attempt to avoid having to say anything at all under oath. I’d like the mainstream media to look more closely at this story—who knows, they might uncover something truly historic.

—Stephen Leon

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