Columns » John Brummett

Newspaper Bias 101

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Press bias has nothing to do with a column like this, which, it should be obvious by now, grants transparent latitude for the writer to express personal opinions.

Readers are invited to behold these opinions, and, if they choose to bother with them, to consider them on their merits, to embrace, reject, applaud or ridicule them, or, better still, style their own gradations.

Real press bias comes on the front page under the haughty, holier-than-thou guise of objectivity, and with pretense of detachment from any opinions expressed in editorials or columns. It's executed by what the newsroom editors choose to put on that front page, and where, and with what size headline.

The big war news the other day, at least as conventionally reflected around the country, had to do with congressional revelations about Blackwater USA. That's the private security firm with a contract with the State Department paying more than a billion of your taxpayer dollars since 2001, primarily to protect diplomats.

The firm is alleged to have employed persons committing murders and other crimes in Baghdad. It is alleged to have paid Iraqi victims for silence or otherwise to have conspired with the State Department to cover up incidents. It is alleged to have scurried perpetrators — such as the drunken employee who allegedly shot and killed an Iraqi vice president's bodyguard — out of the country.

The New York Times and The Washington Post splashed this news all over the front page. But they're liberal, you say. Bill Clinton would disagree, but, if you say so, OK. So am I, some days.

But that cuts both ways.

What I'm more interested in for this purpose is how the conservative, Republican, pro-war daily newspaper in Little Rock downplayed that Blackwater business.

On the morning after these revelations, the Little Rock paper's front page contained a small square of type crammed into the middle of the page, with room only for about 20 lines before a jump inside. It carried this moderately sized headline: “Military says buildup stemmed Iraq violence.” In smaller type, in what is called the subhead or deck, there was this: “Report ties Blackwater to 195 shootings.”

The “lead,” or first paragraph, which supposedly packed the substance and punch, reported that violent incidents were down in Iraq and that the American military attributed the reduction to new strategies and the “surge.”

Only in the second paragraph, beginning with “meanwhile,” was the Blackwater matter reported.

Obviously the newspaper's editors made a deliberate decision to combine two disparate war-related articles into one and to put the merged piece's positive war news in the main headline and first paragraph while subjugating the negative news into the subhead and second paragraph.

I find that to be bad news judgment. Well, I find it to be more than that. I find it to be cheating readers. I call it bias.

We already knew violent incidents were reduced. We already knew the military was saying the “surge” had borne benefits. In fact, we spent the first part of September obsessing on a general's congressional testimony advancing that very point.

The real news of the day, then, or so it seemed to me and most of the mainstream national press, was that an incredibly enriched private American security firm stood accused of drive-by shootings of Iraqis and of cover-ups, and that our own State Department may have complicity.

We can argue about which development was bigger news. What we can't argue is that bias was at work.

My bias is admitted, transparent and hereby submitted for your careful consideration. The other, more insidious, is passed off as objective and detached.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to read widely and skeptically and to think for yourself. And to consider the content of packages, not so much the wrapping.

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