Recently in Journalism Category

Reckless Disregard of the Truth

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Newspaper editorials are statements of opinion, but those opinions are often supported by assertions of fact.  As the saying goes, everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts.

On this blog we have often called out the New York Times editorial page for its particularly loose association with the truth.  See, e.g., this post from 2013.  NYT editorials regularly make factual assertions that seem to be pulled out of advocates' talking points.  If they do any fact-checking at all on their editorials before they print them, they are doing it exceptionally poorly.

Now Derek Hawkins reports in the WaPo that Sarah Palin has sued the NYT over false assertions of fact in an editorial.
Far too often, people run to the courts claiming that some action of the executive or legislative branch is unconstitutional when their basis is really nothing more than strong disagreement with the merits of the decision.  It is refreshing to see a recognition of the important difference in this editorial in the WaPo.

Much as we find Mr. Trump's travel ban offensive, imprudent and unwise; much as we believe it inflicts real harm not just on America's foreign policy objectives but also on families, communities and institutions in the United States, it's fair to wonder whether it really amounts to an attack on Islam and an affront to the Constitution.
That's a step in the right direction, but understated.  There is no need to wonder.  The order is well within the President's legal and constitutional authority, as I have explained previously on this blog.  Of course the Post is entitled to its opinion on the wisdom of the policy, which I won't get into here.  We should give credit where it is due for seeing the difference between "offensive" and "unconstitutional," a difference too seldom recognized.

Willingham Prosecutor Cleared

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The anti-death-penalty crowd very earnestly desires a case of a demonstrably innocent person actually executed, and if they can't find a real one they will just invent one.  Employing the Lenin Principle, if they can simply repeat enough times that Cameron Todd Willingham was innocent of burning to death his baby daughters, he will become innocent.  The original New Yorker article on the case was a shameless piece of propaganda, as demonstrated in this post.  After the first year, it seemed like we were making some progress on balanced coverage, as noted in this post, but as time went on the only people interested in the case were those with an anti-death-penalty agenda, and that has become the overwhelmingly dominant narrative.

In their quest, they went after the original prosecutor in the case for a claimed Brady disclosure violation.  Interestingly, in Texas you can take a bar discipline case to a local jury, so that is what former prosecutor (and now judge) John Jackson did.

Regrettably, the only coverage on the decision I can find is by the Marshall Project, an advocacy group masquerading as journalists.  So we have to take the story with a heaping tablespoon of salt.  The WaPo is printing this report instead of devoting actual journalism resources to it.  Update:  Michael Kormos has this article on the verdict in the Corsicana Daily Sun, the local paper for the venue.  Regrettably, the article has no information on the trial or the evidence presented that convinced the jury the charges were groundless.
Fox 16 News in Arkansas has this 12-minute video with its reporter Donna Terrell, a witness to last night's execution of Kenneth Williams.  Five minutes in, she says Williams' chest was going up and down, though her description is less dramatic than that of another media witness.  This lasted about four minutes, she says.  She does not say that anything she observed indicated pain.  She saw no grimacing or clenched fist, but what she saw was not the peaceful "going to sleep" that she expected.

I wonder how the witnesses are briefed on what to expect.  Movements do happen.  This article by Dr. Patty Khuly (DVM, presumably) on PetMD, regarding animal euthanasia, says:

Movement after death (such as an intake of breath) is not considered a sign of pain or incomplete euthanasia. It is common. In fact, some postmortem movement is typical. It happens because of electrical impulses remaining in the peripheral nerves of the body after brain waves have ceased.
The anti-DP crowd is wasting no time exploiting public misunderstanding, and I have no doubt they will be aided by the less objective, less professional elements of the press.  Some reporters are just in love with the term "botched execution."  Truly, deeply, passionately.  So they will jump at the chance to call any execution "botched" on the thinnest evidence.  Applying the Lenin Principle, if an execution is called "botched" often enough in the media, then it becomes "botched" in the public mind.  No factual basis required.

Lying By Cherry-Picking

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There are many ways to misuse numbers to intentionally create a false impression in the mind of the reader.  Such deception is morally no different than lying, in my view, even if one carefully avoids saying anything false.  Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution has pointed out an exceptionally egregious example from the New York Times.

The headline of the Times article is "Amid 'Trump Effect' Fear, 40% of Colleges See Dip in Foreign Applicants."  The article states:

Nearly 40 percent of colleges are reporting overall declines in applications from international students, according to a survey of 250 college and universities, released this week by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
The actual finding of the survey is "39% of responding institutions reported a decline in international applications, 35% reported an increase, and 26% reported no change in applicant numbers."  That is a complete nothingburger, but cherry-picking the first number creates a very wrong impression.

Cowen is too generous in the title of the post:  "This one is a real blooper and I cannot let it pass by."  The word "blooper" implies an innocent mistake or accident.  This looks like intentional deception to me, and that appearance is reinforced by the fact that the misleading story and atrocious headline are still on the NYT website three days after this has been all over the internet.  Additional commentary comes from James Freeman at the WSJ and Eugene Volokh at the Volokh Conspiracy.

We see similar cherry-picking in arguments about criminal justice, but this is such a clear and obvious example of the deceptive tactic that I thought it worth noting here.

Amplifying Molehills Into Mountains

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This story reminds me of an old REO Speedwagon song:

But I know the neighborhood
And talk is cheap when the story is good
And the tales grow taller on down the line
Ian Millhiser, the Justice Editor at ThinkProgress, informs us:

President Trump "is considering a proposal to mobilize as many as 100,000 National Guard troops to round up unauthorized immigrants, including millions living nowhere near the Mexico border," according to the Associated Press.
But AP did not say that.  Notice the placement of the opening quotation mark.

Ms. Saunders Goes to Washington

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Debra Saunders has long been the resident person of sense (singular) on the opinion pages of the San Francisco Chronicle.  I have called her the SF Chrontrarian, and we have quoted her columns many times on this blog.

Debra is moving to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and she is going to Washington as that paper's White House correspondent.  We at CJLF congratulate her and wish her well in the new gig, though we will miss her in California.

The Most Common Source of Fake News

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By CJLF Intern Dillon Harrington

Chances are that at some point over the last few weeks you have heard talk of fake news and how it was used as a tool for the Republican Party this election cycle. Claims of Russian hackers and illegitimate elections fill headlines across the nation, but this raises the question, why is it that claims of fake news emerge only now when the information no longer serves the liberal narrative?

What about when the "hands up don't shoot" headline synonymous with the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson inspired hundreds of thousands of people to take up the mantle of the Black Lives Matter movement, touting the misguided belief that African American citizens were under constant threat of murder and abuse at the hands of the police? When the Grand Jury decided that the shooting was a lawful one, and that based on the evidence in the case, the story that Michael Brown was shot with his hands in the air in surrender was a falsehood, the left was silent. The entirety of the BLM movement which has incited fear and hate that has often erupted into violence, was based on this bit of fiction and yet we hear no dissenting opinions from the left.

Marcos Breton has this column in the Sacramento Bee.

After 30 years as a journalist in California, I've come to believe that my industry can unintentionally distort the public's understanding of the death penalty.
But he doesn't mean the usual kind of media bias.

No, I'm referring to distortion by omission in many media accounts of death penalty cases. As journalists, we often won't describe the most gruesome details because they can violate the rules of decent public discourse.

We are mindful of subscribers reading the paper at their breakfast tables or online at their computers at work. So it's unlikely we're going to tell you the excruciating ways in which some people on California's death row tortured their victims. It's unlikely we're going to tell you exactly how they derived emotional or sexual satisfaction from playing god over defenseless children who begged for mercy before being killed.

Newspaper editorials contain both opinions and factual assertions supporting those opinions.  Editorial writers, like everyone else, are entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts, as the saying goes.  Professionalism requires that the facts in an editorial be checked as carefully as those in a news story.

Last week the Los Angeles Times failed this standard and published an editorial that blatantly misrepresented the opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court in Calderon v. Thompson, 523 U.S. 538 (1998).  In so doing, the Times defamed the Court and, even worse, misled its readers on a vitally important public issue they will be voting on shortly.

Did anyone at the Times actually read the opinion before publishing this editorial, or did they just regurgitate the propaganda fed to them by the anti-death-penalty lobby?  It is difficult to believe they read it.

Confirmation Bias

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It's only human.  If we hear a piece of information that fits with the way we think things are, we are more likely to accept it without scrutiny.  If we hear something that is contrary to our world-view, we are more likely to subject it to scrutiny.

James Taranto at the WSJ and Jonah Bennett at the Daily Caller report on how easy it was to "troll" journalists with a fake story merely by providing a supposed connection between Donald Trump and white supremacists.  Bennett quotes one of the hoaxers:

"Basically, I interspersed various nuggets of truth and exaggerated a lot of things, and sometimes outright lied -- in the interest of making a journalist believe that online Trump supporters are largely a group of meme-jihadis who use a cartoon frog to push Nazi propaganda. Because this was funny to me," Swift told TheDCNF.

"The idea that every major Trump supporter online is secretly a neo-Nazi, for one. I mean, it's just not true. But it's the kind of thing that a journalist will readily believe."

This is why it is so important to have a diversity of viewpoints in both journalism and academia and why it is so dangerous and harmful that both of these professions have a badly skewed distribution.   Claims need to scrutinized whichever side of the aisle they serve, and we would have more thorough and complete scrutiny if we had a better balance of viewpoints.

New Study Shows ...

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The Onion reports:

Highlighting the gaping security holes that continue to persist 15 years after the attacks, an encouraging report released Thursday by radical extremist think tank the Caliphate Institute determined that the United States is no safer than it was before 9/11. "Despite efforts to expand digital surveillance and coordinate information-sharing among intelligence agencies, we discovered that the ability of the U.S. government to assess and eliminate potential terrorist threats has not substantively improved since September 11, 2001, which came as a shocking and welcome finding," said Selim Amir, chairman of the fundamentalist K Street research institute, which is staffed by prominent jihadist thinkers, visiting Sharia law scholars, and retired senior members of al-Qaeda.
The Onion is, of course, a satire publication.  The kernel of truth beneath the satire is how studies by organizations with agendas are so often uncritically reported as if they were done by neutral seekers of truth and as if they are the definitive word on the subject.
Ed O'Keefe, Jose A. DelReal and John Wagner have this article in the WaPo, with a lead paragraph that is typical of what is all over the net:

Democrats prepared to use their convention Wednesday night to raise fresh doubts about Donald Trump's fitness to serve as commander in chief, as the Republican presidential candidate called on Russia to hack into Hillary Clinton's email server to find "missing" messages and release them to the public.
But did he really say that?  His actual statement is in the next two paragraphs:

"Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press," Trump said during a news conference at his South Florida resort on Wednesday.

"They probably have them. I'd like to have them released. It gives me no pause, if they have them, they have them," Trump added later when asked if his comments were inappropriate. "If Russia or China or any other country has those emails, I mean, to be honest with you, I'd love to see them."
As I read that, he is expressing a belief that they already have the emails, having hacked Mrs. Clinton's home-brewed server a long time ago, and he is saying he hopes they release them.  That is a very different thing.

How could he possibly call on Russia to hack into a server that was taken off line and wiped a long time ago?  That doesn't make any sense.

NYT v. RBG

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I felt a great disturbance in the Force.

The New York Times has an editorial (not an op-ed or a column, the newspaper's main editorial representing its position as an institution), headlined Donald Trump Is Right About Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  Wow.  Who would have thought we would read the words "Donald Trump is right"  in a New York Times editorial about anything, but especially about one of the Left's favorite jurists.

Mr. Trump's hands, of course, are far from clean on the matter of judicial independence. It was just weeks ago that he was lambasting Gonzalo Curiel, the United States District Court judge overseeing a case against Trump University, saying that as a "Mexican," the Indiana-born judge could not be impartial.

All of which makes it only more baffling that Justice Ginsburg would choose to descend toward his level and call her own commitment to impartiality into question. Washington is more than partisan enough without the spectacle of a Supreme Court justice flinging herself into the mosh pit.
Disturbance number two:  Your humble blogger agrees with an NYT editorial.  I can't remember the last time that happened.  Another previously reliable contrarian indicator goes awry.

No Remorse for Doctored Video

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Erik Wemple, who covers media issues for the WaPo, has this post on the doctored video in Katie Couric's documentary on gun rights, which Bill noted Tuesday.   Wemple notes that while Couric has apologized, director Stephanie Soechtig continues to insist she did nothing wrong.

For the record, the edit in question misportrayed an exchange between Couric and members of the Virginia Citizens Defense League. In response to a question about background checks, VCDL members are depicted in stunned silence for about eight seconds. An audiotape recorded by VCDL President Philip Van Cleave showed that Couric's inquiry fetched an immediate and quite reasonable response.
After quoting Soechtig's absurd responses in an interview, Wemple concludes, "Arrogance and disregard for people are horrible traits in someone who purports to explore one of the country's most divisive issues."

Unfortunately, Soechtig's attitude is all too common in too many people purporting to explore divisive issues.  For too many, it is perfectly okay to distort and deceive as long as you are doing it in support of the Politically Correct position.

Note that this deception has only received the attention it has because Van Cleave made his own independent recording, catching Soechtig red-handed.  If it had merely been his word as to what happened, and not this recorded proof, she probably would have gotten away with it.

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