Defensive Reading: It's a Tough Job, But….

January 18th, 2011 · 3 Comments · Uncategorized

By Arthur Alpert

Gosh, I hate defensive reading.

I’ve been doing it, however, for more than two years, ever since discovering that the Associated Press allows its Washington Bureau reporters to editorialize.

As memory serves, it all began when I read an Albuquerque Journal story from AP Washington that exalted the Republican candidate for president, Sen. John McCain and put down his opponent, Sen. Barack Obama.

Thinking I’d misunderstood, I read it twice more, but inescapably, this was an editorial pretending to be news.

What a shock! Not only was the Journal flouting the spirit and rules of respectable journalism but the famously reliable AP was complicit.

AP had changed, though, I learned from some web surfing; new management had given Washington Bureau staffers carte blanche to add their personal wisdom to stories.

So I assumed a defensive posture. This enabled me to see, for example, that AP Washington stories on health care reform almost always pushed for its defeat.

It would be understatement to note that this AP coverage facilitated the Journal’s campaign – in its news columns, mind you – against health reform.

(Aside for journalism teachers – for a splendid educational exercise, why not assign students to put AP stories on health reform next to stories from McClatchy, the Tribune and Washington Post, compare and discuss them.)

But I’ve seen some AP Washington accounts that are on the up and up. This makes self-defense tougher; rather than disregard all AP Washington reports in the Journal, I must evaluate each one.

It gets more complicated still. Though certain AP bylines raise my antennae more than others, those I have tagged as editorialists sometimes defy expectations. For example, today (Monday, Dec. 17, A3) Charles Babington (of whom I am suspicious) offers what looks like a straight report headlined, “Reality Sets in for Tea Party.”

And then there are bylines I don’t recognize, like that of Andrew Miga, whose AP Washington report on passage of the aid package for 9/11 responders ran in the Journal Thursday, Dec. 23, on A 10.

On the strength of his account, Miga may be another opinion-monger cloaked in reportorial garb.

First, in a fairly lengthy account of the bill’s passage, he ignored the Republican opposition that necessitated last-minute heroics.

And when he noted ”the bill gained momentum with help from cable TV personalities,” Miga put it this way:

“Among the biggest supporters of the package were Fox News anchor Shepard Smith and comedian and activist Jon Stewart…etc, etc.”

Whoa! That was accurate but it wasn’t the truth. Here’s what happened:

Abandoning comedy, Jon Stewart devoted his Dec. 16 show to the issue. First, he noted that all the TV networks ignored it. Only at Fox, however, he said, did that neglect cohabit with on-air “talent” pounding away at the “horror” of building an Islamic center and mosque at a site near the 9/11 crime.

Stewart proceeded to interview several 9/11 first responders, all of them ill. Finally, he pressed guest Mike Huckabee (Fox News employee and GOP presidential hopeful) about Republican obstructionism.

The show hit a chord. The next day, Dec. 17, Fox’s Shepard Smith excoriated Republican Senators blocking the bill. He said he’d watched Stewart’s show the previous night and Stewart was “exactly right.” (Please note that it took me only minutes to Google the Shepard Smith info.)

Back to Miga now – by mentioning Fox News first, he deprives the unsuspecting reader of the truth – Stewart blew the whistle that roused Smith (and others) to pressure the GOP to pass the bill.

Of course, I don’t know Miga’s intentions. Perhaps he was merely careless in omitting GOP obstructionism and crediting Fox while minimizing Stewart’s role.

Nevertheless, his story and the Journal’s use of it reminds me to keep my dukes up on reading any Journal story originating from the Associated Press’s Washington Bureau.

This need for self-defense is sad, but what’s the alternative?

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3 Comments so far ↓

  • Britta Karlberg

    For a daily analysis of reporting, check Dean Baker at Beat the Press: When press reports reach the Duke City they are highly mutated, and the Journal is only part of the problem.

  • Morrie Blumberg

    It looks like the JOURNAL and the AP are learning bad habits from each other. Both of them should know better.

  • Arthur Alpert

    Thank you, Ms. Karlberg, for that link where I learned that AP did (this time) check out the specious GOP claim that health care reform was “job-killing” – and demolished it.
    So (this time) I apologize to AP Washington.
    Thanks, too, for reminding me (and everybody reading) of economist Dean Baker, whose views differ from the Albuquerque Journal’s and whose views (therefore?) never appear in the Journal.
    Arthur Alpert

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