Case of the Disappearing Sentence

August 8th, 2011 · No Comments · Uncategorized

By Arthur Alpert

Hello, again.

After a four-month hiatus, I am walking the Albuquerque Journal beat again.

In that time, I read the paper daily and, Lord knows, management deserves a hand for consistency. I found instances of journalistic malfeasance in the service of political agenda almost daily, as well as some illiteracy.

And as my stomach turned, I couldn’t go to the computer and release my anger and …well, that’s one reason I’m writing again.

There was a brighter side – since I wasn’t burrowing into the nitty-gritty, the arc of the Journal’s narratives emerged bolder and sharper. And I smiled at the deviltry behind the narratives.

As the debt ceiling/deficit story swelled, for example, the editors deliberately minimized the split within the Republican Party (traditional conservatives v. Tea Party). Give ‘em a standing ovation for the effort – downplaying differences, promoting both elements in the coalition and offending neither. Admiring their agility, I flashed on the Big Top bareback riders of yesteryear, circling the ring perched on two steeds and making it look easy.

Oh, and meanwhile the Journal found other narratives about the economy undeserving of print, except in letters to the Editor.

And then there was the Journal’s excellent hold-up of the Rail Runner. If I understand correctly, the train’s crime consists of benefiting not just business but the larger community, too. And at the increasingly laissez-faire Journal, spending tax money on the general welfare is taboo.

But so what? Yes, the ownership’s political convictions determine the editors’ news judgments – via decisions on what to publish and what not, what to cover or ignore, where and how to display stories and how to headline them.

And yes, that’s outrageous. But why flog the proverbial dead horse? The case is made. My colleagues and I spent more than a year documenting it here. It’s time to move on.

So, thinking about this personal restart, I’ve resolved to raise my game. This time around, I will accept the Journal’s partisanship – it is what it is, as professional athletes say. Instead, I should concentrate on its narratives – political, social and cultural.

And identify the other narratives – those the Journal finds unfit to print.

Also, thinking about that Rail Runner raid cited above, I’d like to home in on how cleverly Journal bosses use excellent, non-partisan journalists in the service of the paper’s political agenda. Soon, I promise.

I want to explore the Journal’s curiosity (or lack of it). And its misuse of language. I should write more fully and respectfully, too, about all the really good journalists who manage to hunker down or rise above it all.

Finally, following the lead of a superior journalism critic, Jay Rosen (pressthink.org), I want to state my positions up front.

Maybe next time, because we have breaking news, sort of.

This past Saturday, the big national story was S&P downgrading the U.S. credit rating. Hearing the news on radio, I sought out the N.Y. Times account online, scouring it for some evaluation of S&P.

This company, after all, enabled Wall Street’s takedown of the economy three years ago and – if we ever put big chunks of the system on trial – it would be arraigned as co-conspirator.

The Times devoted a paragraph to S&P’s credibility, though it was way down, in paragraph 15.

Next, I read the Washington Post account. Just a single sentence, five graphs above the end of a 25-paragraph story:

“Credit-rating companies’ reputations were sullied during the financial crisis.”

Talk about understatement!

Finally, I read the Albuquerque Journal. It chose to publish the Washington Post story. Verbatim. Well, almost verbatim. There was one sentence missing.

Yeah, you guessed it.

How come that sentence disappeared?

Lack of space? No, the editor would have cut from the bottom.

Inadvertence? Possible, but if that’s so you must believe the Journal accidentally dropped the only sentence in the long account that might stir memories of the credit ratings agencies’ role in the crash of 2008. Heck, it could inspire readers to wonder, “Hmmm. Is S&P playing politics? What kind of politics?”

Me, I figure the Journal’s political commissars carefully, deliberately wielded a scalpel to excise the offending sentence.

Instructively, the Journal’s follow-up stories Sunday and Monday also contain nothing questioning S&P. But stay alert – the Journal may reverse course tomorrow, given George Will’s anti-S&P stance.

So what can we learn from all of the above?

First, I make mistakes. My little list of how the Journal’s news judgments follow its political agenda (paragraph eight, above) was incomplete.

Please add, “the editing of stories.”

Secondly, I’m a recidivist. How quickly I forgot the narratives, succumbing to the temptation of giving you chapter-and-verse on Journal management’s contra-journalism.

Sorry about that. I’ll try again to raise my game next time.

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