Monday Morning Lessons in News Media Bias, Incompetence, and Manipulation of Public Opinion

Side profile of a journalist typing on a typewriter

It took all of 15 minutes this morning to see the incompetence and bias of the new media in action regarding two politically charged events currently unfolding:

1. The Washington Post: The Rick Perry Indictment

On page A3 of the Washington Post front section, this report by Post reporter Sean Sullivan was sub-headlined like this:

Texas governor denies any impropriety in feud with district attorney

This characterizes the precipitating incident, Gov. Perry’s insistence that a drunk, corrupt, law-breaking prosecutor— whose license to practice law was suspended because she demonstrated a lack of fitness to practice law—resign, and step down as the head of the Public Integrity Unit as a feud. If it’s a feud, it is a personal and political vendetta, meaning that Perry used the power of his office to punish an elected official for reasons unrelated to the objective public good. Describing the basis for the criminal charges against Perry this way biases readers toward the assumption that Perry was justly indicted, a bias that the Post’s mostly liberal-progressive readers will eagerly accept regarding a conservative Republican governor. It is a false and misleading framing of the story. Since no prosecutor who disgraces her office as Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg should remain in office, any place, anywhere, under any circumstances, Perry’s efforts to remove her were completely justified and necessary whatever his personal feelings about her were. Placing “feud” front and center completely distorts the issues to Perry’s detriment. (Sullivan’s report itself did not mention any feud, and is fair and objective. Indeed, for any fair reader paying attention and intellectually capable of connecting all the dots, it bolster’s Perry by quoting the partisan critic who initiated the complaint that resulted in the indictment, Craig McDonald, the director of Texans for Public Justice, attempting to  justify the indictment by saying,

“It was about him using the veto to as a coercion tactic to get [Lehmberg] to do something she didn’t want to do.”

And what she didn’t want to do was something she had an ethical obligation as a district attorney to do, and harmed the people and government of Texas as well as the rule of law by not doing: resigning, because her continued presence at the head of the Public Integrity Unit makes a mockery of the system and undermines public trust. Thanks to the biases of the Post’s headline writers and editors, however, this is a story about a personal vendetta, a feud.

2. CNN: The Ferguson Ethics Train Wreck

CNN manages to board almost every ethics train wreck before all the good seats are taken, and the Mike Brown shooting and subsequent protests are a prime example. I was close to screaming at Carol Costello, CNN’s smug morning propagandist, for allowing a panel of black journalists to justify the demonstrations and riots as “not being about this incident alone,” but about a black community in Ferguson that has been routinely abused for decades, without Costello asking the obvious, and I would argue, mandatory questions:

  • Are you saying that the police officer involved should be immediately charged and prosecuted, regardless of the facts of this incident, as penance for police misconduct generally?
  • Are you saying that “justice for Mike Brown” really doesn’t mean justice for Mike Brown, but that he is now a symbol of the the phenomenon of oppression of the black community generally, just as Trayvon Martin was made the symbol of racial profiling?
  • Are you admitting that since Brown is now an abstract symbol, what really happened isn’t the issue any more?

The honest answer to all those questions is yes, I believe.

That, however, was not the episode that most intrigued me. CNN co-anchor Michaela Pereira interviewed Piaget Crenshaw, a 19 year-old woman who allegedly witnessed much of the fatal Wilson-Brown confrontation from the rooftop of her residence, and had spoken to reporters previously. Pereira introduced her as a witness who saw the entire incident and would describe what happened. This is an incompetent and misleading introduction to any eye-witness to any event, and I expect a trained journalist to know that. Eye-witness testimony is notoriously unreliable, and becomes more unreliable over time. Pereira was allegedly watching something unfold without any context; she could not hear what was being said, and she was understandably upset by what she saw. She has since been influenced by what she heard and read. Her testimony is valuable and relevant, but it is not the final word on what occurred, nor is it dispositive, definitive or authoritative. Yet Pereira presented it as such. It is not “what happened,” but what one witness thinks she saw.

Crenshaw appeared to be sincere, credible, and candid. She also included in her account this morning many editorial comments that would never be admissible as testimony and should have been discouraged by any competent interviewer. For example, as her phone video, taken shortly after the shooting, was being shown, she said that officer Wilson was pacing as if he were stunned and confused about what had occurred and “what he had done.” That might be true or not, but Crenshaw is not qualified to make those assumptions. Similarly, she speculated on Brown’s reasons for breaking away from the officer at the police cruiser, why he was running, and why he stopped. She doesn’t know any of that, and it is not an appropriate part of the answers to “what did you see?” or “what happened?,” but rather to the question, “Tell us your impressions as you watched this unfold. ” That is a completely legitimate inquiry for a reporter to make, but that was not what Pereira asked. When Crenshaw veered into her impressions and suppositions,  the distinction between those and what she observed only should have been made explicit, again, if the interviewer was competent and interested in fair reporting.

Complex, emotion-charged and controversial news stories require skill, professionalism, objectivity and nuance on the part of journalists, and the failure to apply these qualities to reporting affects the events themselves by distorting public perception and obstructing public understanding. It seems beyond rebuttal that American journalism just isn’t up to the job.


Source: CNN,  Washington Post


13 thoughts on “Monday Morning Lessons in News Media Bias, Incompetence, and Manipulation of Public Opinion

  1. They’re up to the job Jack. Unfortunately, the job they’re up to is selling advertising by grabbing eye balls. It seems the bigger the news outlet, the greater the chance of this. But have faith. Many can think for themselves, and others seem to have a relatively short attention span….

      • What? I remain optimistic that somehow, that police officer who shot the young man will be abducted, delivered to the streets of Ferguson (or some other convenient street), and put to death by a righteously angry mob. If only that would happen post haste – presto! Justice for Mike Brown.

        (But of course, too much justice too soon would disserve certain rackets.)

        And about that Texas business: Who else but a lawyer who has fully experienced the very things that a Public Integrity Unit must concern itself with is more fit to remain on duty, free from gubernatorial intimidation?

  2. Is it asking too much that, if Ms. Lehmberg can’t be responsible enough to resign and her cronies can’t be responsible enough to fire her or force her to resign that she at least be placed on suspension of some kind until this matter has been fully resolved? At the very least, could she be put in charge of something less irony-ridden than the “Public Integrity Unit?”

    • I think that we have reached the point that it doesn’t even occur to the press and the political parties that anyone could be fired from such a position for anything other than partisan reasons. It suggests that the thought of someone being fired for not doing their job or for acting in such a way that undermines the public trust is a concept that they cannot comprehend. With 20 high ranking administrative employees (at last count) playing the ‘the dog ate my e-mail’ to avoid scrutiny of their government work, why is this surprising?

      • “Public trust” – BAH! Lehmberg’s persecution is unwarranted in light of the fact that it is fundamentally NOT an obligation of any public employee to be accountable to the public – at least, not accountable to ALL the public. Lehmberg’s case is a landmark one for promoting the extension of judicial immunity beyond the judiciary to all public employees (except for such employees who are indicted by Travis County grand juries).

        Oops – sarcasm font failed to show, again.

  3. Using the terms “competent and interested in fair reporting” and “CNN” in the same story is an oxymoron. I originally said “sentence” and then realized that, in fact, nobody had.

  4. Why is it that every time I hear that CNN has cleaned up its act, something like the Ferguson incident follows hot on its heels? Apparently, the reporters haven’t quite gotten the word yet that they’re now supposed to act professionally. Certainly, the Travis County DA’s office has never been exposed to the concept.

  5. It is safe to say that Craig MacDonald is an ethics dunce. I mean, his defense of the indictment now does not promote “public justice”.

      • I will assume without conceding that Texans for Public Justice sincerely believed that there was credible evidence that Rick Perry made some indefensible off-the-record demands (e.g., dropping an investigation of his political allies, sexual favors from an underage girl) in addition to his public demand for Rosemary Lehmberg to resign.

        Why then, did they not drop the issue of the indictment once it became clear the indictment only alleges Perry of demanding Lehmberg’s resignation in exchange for signing the bill funding the Public Integrity Unit- or even better, denouncing the indictment as a threat to public justice?

  6. “He’s had to deal with race explicitly in a few excruciating circumstances, like the 2009 “beer summit” with the black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, a friend of Obama’s, and James Crowley, the police sergeant responsible for Gates’s arrest. (Obama’s response to the incident was telling: He positioned himself not as an ally of Gates but as a mediator between the two, as equally capable of relating to the white man’s perspective as the black man’s.)”

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