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August 30, 2005

NY Times Skews the News… Again


by Dr. Teresa Whitehurst

"By the charter that my job was given when it was set up, I have the guaranteed right to go not just to the executive editor with any misgivings I have, but directly to the publisher. On one occasion, when I thought that there was too much opinion seeping into the news pages, I went to both of them simultaneously. But that's the only time I've felt it necessary to involve the publisher."
- Allan M. Siegal, "standards editor" of the New York Times, Aug. 28, 2005 (emphasis added)

"By framing a tragedy with which we could all have sympathized as a divisive political issue instead, this story is but one example of opinion-shaping 'news' stories that aren't identified as editorials but serve the same purpose, only more effectively: controlling public opinion by making one 'side' look better than the other."
- "'Good' Military Families vs. 'Bad' Military Families," Feb. 4, 2005 Antiwar.com

The New York Times, sheltered by its legendary but mythical "liberal" reputation, has become increasingly bold and transparent in its defense of President Bush and his policies, both foreign and domestic. This support is not found, of course, on the labeled editorial pages (which can be discounted as mere opinion), but on the attention-grabbing front page and in other news sections.

Artfully skewed "news" pieces pay lip service to balance, fairness, and objectivity by mentioning or even quoting the opposition, but the writers' loyalty is clear: These "factual" pieces unabashedly devote far more direct quotes, positive editorial descriptions, and emotionally appealing photos to Bush supporters than to those who oppose him or his policies.

Without embarrassment or shame, Times writers devote the pivotal open and close (the first and last paragraphs are the most persuasive parts of any article) to pro-Bush quotations, sentiment, statistics, etc. This "opinion news" is nowhere more blatant than in the Times' treatment of Americans who oppose the Iraq war. And it is nowhere more clever than when used to discredit antiwar Americans who are members of a long-revered group that can only be attacked with kid gloves: the family members of slain soldiers.

In a shameless repeat performance of the piece I analyzed earlier this year, the New York Times has gone for the jugular of the antiwar movement by portraying its strongest spokespersons – military family members who oppose Bush and are calling for troops to be withdrawn from Iraq – as weak, misguided, confused, mentally unbalanced, and unpatriotic.

The title of the copycat article, eerily reminiscent of the previous article's title ("GI Families United in Grief, but Split by the War," Jan. 2, 2005) is "In War Debate, Parents of Fallen Are United Only in Grief." Clearly, the Times has an agenda to pursue: To overshadow the shared sorrow and rage experienced by parents of slain soldiers across America with simplistic pro-Bush vs. anti-Bush opinions – opinions that divide onlookers, thereby undercutting public support for people like Cindy Sheehan, and for all parents who don't support the war that killed their children.

For anyone who doubts that the Times has devolved into a house organ of the Bush administration and the Pentagon, the following facts and figures about this new "aren't those antiwar parents just awful?" article will be eye-opening.

WORD COUNT: The article is composed of 1,628 words. Of these, only 327 words were devoted to the antiwar/anti-Bush side (primarily in direct quotes, many of which portray the speaker as seeking therapy, confused, or looking for answers), while 1,301 words were devoted to the pro-war/pro-Bush side (in both direct quotes and positively worded descriptions of Bush/war supporters).

PHOTOS: Two photos accompanied the supposedly "balanced" article, both of which were Bush/war supporters. Notably, in one of the photos, a woman who uncannily resembles Cindy Sheehan is kneeling in front of a white cross, mirroring the photo of Sheehan at Camp Casey that millions of Americans have already seen. Thus the pro-war camp, the reader is to assume, has its own Cindy Sheehans – a sure sign that somebody at the New Bush Times is getting terribly nervous about her persuasive appeal.

DIRECT QUOTES: The article quoted seven pro-Bush/pro-war family members (some of them repeatedly), but only four who oppose Bush and the war.

OPENING AND CLOSING PARAGRAPHS: Everyone in the news business knows that readers skim articles from top to bottom. Writers are taught to place the most important info toward the top, with the less-essential details toward the end in a textual "pyramid," focusing primarily on the title and the first few paragraphs. However, the final wrap-up paragraph is also important because many readers skip to the last few sentences for "the conclusion." Psychological research has demonstrated that the first and last paragraphs are the most persuasive and memorable, even among those who read the entire piece.

The midsection of the article is the most ignored or skimmed over, so that's where views contrary to the writer's opinion and/or the newspaper's agenda are often found. After we read a list or an article, we remember the beginning and the ending best: these are called the primacy and recency effects, respectively. In this article, the opening is solidly pro-Bush/pro-war:

"David Clemons seethes when he sees Cindy Sheehan on television, standing among small white crosses in an antiwar encampment named for her dead son. To Mr. Clemons, her protest is a crushing insult to his own son, who was also killed while fighting in Iraq."

The ending of the article is likewise pro-Bush and pro-war, and by ending with this quotation, the Times makes its position clear:

"'You have to support the war,' Mrs. Marsh said, 'because you're an American.'"

Inflaming Public Anger Toward Antiwar Americans

Even worse, by quoting veiled threats and unsubstantiated claims against Cindy Sheehan and others who oppose Bush and the war, the Times is aiding and abetting the hateful propaganda of right-wing extremists. It is poor journalism and irresponsible institutional behavior to fan the flames of potentially violent hatred against antiwar protesters.

This approach was taken in the first article blasting antiwar military families, as well. Strikingly, no antiwar posters were quoted, thus their messages was not shared with Times readers around the world. But the vilest pro-war claims are repeated verbatim:

"Hundreds of protesters on both sides descended on Crawford yesterday for what became the most openly hostile exchange between the two sides since Ms. Sheehan arrived in early August. The pro-war rally was as much an anti-Sheehan rally with demonstrators carrying signs that said 'Bin Laden says keep up the good work Cindy' and 'You are aiding terrorism.'"

Should major newspapers quote only the propaganda and slogans of one side in any public debate or protest? To place the shoe on the other foot for a moment, we must ask ourselves if the Times would ever quote – particularly without caveat or comment – posters claiming that Bush supporters aid terrorists, or are unwitting accomplices to Osama bin Laden?

"Too much opinion seeping into the news pages"? Indeed. If the New York Times "standards editor" takes his job seriously, he will start asking instead if truly balanced news might ever begin seeping into the front page. That would be a start.


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Dr. Teresa Whitehurst is a clinical psychologist, author of Jesus on Parenting(2004) and coauthor of The Nonviolent Christian Parent (2004). She offers parenting workshops, holds discussion groups on Nonviolent Christianity, and writes the column, "Democracy, Faith and Values: Because You Shouldn’t Have to Choose Just One." Visit her website.

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