The Journal’s Bad Habit of Politically Motivated Headlines

October 12th, 2014 · 3 Comments · journalism

By Arthur Alpert

As I was musing the other day about my last post here, there came to mind, unbidden, a 1940s era radio show called “Can You Top This?” where comedians tried to out-funny each other.

No matter how long I monitor the Albuquerque Journal, I’ll never find anything to top the arrogance, self-indulgence and borderline psychosis exhibited by the Journal editor who wrote a headline for an opinion column that commented on (sneered at) the columnist’s argument.

I still find it hard to believe.

In retrospect, though, the weirdness of that anti-journalistic episode may obscure a crucial point, namely that the Journal habitually writes headlines to promote its political agenda.

Habitually. Oh, they’re not as outré or freakish as that sneer but they’re just as corrupting of journalism. Some cases in point follow.

In case A, the newspaper came out swinging for a candidate and a cause via the headlines (two of them) editors put over a local news story.

That was reporter Dan McKay’s Election 2014 piece on the race between Bernalillo County Commissioner Debbie O’Malley, a Democrat, and her GOP challenger, Simon Kubiak, on the front page of the Metro section Wednesday, Oct. 8.

Somebody decided the main headline should be “O’Malley, Kubiak disagree on taxes”.

The same somebody, I presume, decided the second deck should read “Republican challenger says residents of country are already paying enough”. (Note: This appeared in the print edition.)

A professional journalist would have written neither – for they add up to an intervention on Kubiak’s side.

As I have noted here before, editors conventionally write heads based on the reporter’s lead paragraph. That’s because the reporter has put the guts of the story up there or at least what will grab readers.

In this case, McKay’s lead was a grabber:

“Simon Kubiak expects to lose – and lose big – when Bernalillo County voters head to the polls next month.”

In his next two graphs, McKay had Kubiak explain his prediction and then, in the fourth graph, the reporter said Commissioner O’Malley “isn’t taking anything for granted.”

So an editor seeking to tell readers what the story dealt with could write something like “GOP’s Kubiak expects to lose race” and, below that, “O’Malley taking nothing for granted.”

That’s the very definition of a no-brainer, but let’s not be narrow. Headline writers need not always work off the lead. Writing a rubric that characterizes the whole story would be fine. So let’s consider McKay’s account.

After the news I just told you about, he supplied background on both candidates, including their previous electoral collisions and then contrasted their positions on issues including taxes (when, why or why not), funding for mental health programs, the virtue of being new to politics versus experience and, implicitly, the role of government.

Despite those riches, the headline writer chose not to write a head encompassing all or most of the story, zooming in instead on the topic of taxes.

Sorry, but it is impossible not to connect that decision with the Journal’s political agenda – opposition to taxes as the Devil’s work, particularly when the affluent or major corporations must pay them.

So the editor’s headline said the candidates disagree on taxes and, in the second deck, specified Kubiak’s stand.

Only Kubiak’s, not O’Malley’s.

Let’s concede that taxes always are a hot-button issue. Shall we excuse the headline writer on the grounds he or she was just trying to get maximum readership?

No, let’s not because that wouldn’t justify ignoring the news in the story – Kubiak’s prediction that he will lose big. And in narrowing the focus to taxes, the head misconstrues the sum of McKay’s piece.

Nor does it excuse the sub-head that broadcast Kubiak’s tax position while ignoring O’Malley’s.

But, you say, O’Malley’s position is too complex to fit into a nine or 10-word sub-head. Quite right. Which is why a journalist (as opposed to a politician with a press pass) would write either a head based on McKay’s lead or one reflecting his overall piece and not single out the tax issue.

Something like “O’Malley, Kubiak broadly at odds” would work. Followed, perhaps, by “Candidates debate county role, needs, taxes”.

In fact, the very next day, a headline writer wrote, “Dist. 1 candidates split on role of government” over James Monteleone’s Election 2014 story on that Congressional race, based on the reporter’s lead graph.

Doing proper journalism isn’t all that hard.

Sadly, the editors do not confine their politicized headlining to local news. Recently, for example, they pursued the Journal’s campaign to return the nation to a boots-on-the-ground war in the Mideast by way of a questionable headline at the very top of the front page.

Time out while I apologize for not posting yet on the subject of the Journal’s lust for a new war in Iraq, based I assume on the splendid results of the last adventure. That will come one of these days, but surely you’ve noticed the Journal’s failure to hold Charles Krauthammer accountable for being almost 100 percent wrong on the Mideast and his neo-conservative advocacy of warring on Iraq because al Qaeda (Saddam Hussein’s enemy) hit the World Trade Center.

That’s a curious failure, given that most Americans – Republicans Democrats and independents –consider the war on Iraq an awful blunder, but the Journal is loyal to Krauthammer.

What you may not have noticed is how little space the Journal finds in its news or opinion pages these days for the anti-interventionist views of the libertarian wing of the Republican Party.

Also, you may not be aware the Journal carries George Will’s cultish views on economics, but not his foreign policy views. Those are conservative; he’s wary of foreign military adventures.

As for those on the Democratic left who share Will’s caution, don’t’ hold your breath. The Journal rarely stops clobbering corporate Democrats for not being corporate enough long enough to notice that a few leftist Democrats question the rush to war.

So it’s in that context that I bring to your attention:

“Panetta: Ground troops possible in Iraq”.

That rubric ran over a story by the daily’s Washington reporter, Michael Coleman, Thursday, Sept. 18. And here’s Coleman’s lead:

“Leon Panetta, President Obama’s former defense secretary and CIA chief, said Wednesday that the United States faces “a long generational war against terrorism” and Congressional gridlock is among the greatest threats to national security.”

Hmm. I see no mention there of troops on the ground in that paragraph. It’s true Panetta dealt with that subject and Coleman quickly turns to it in paragraphs two, three and four.

But why ignore Coleman’s judgment on what mattered most in Panetta’s comments? Duh! Because the Journal is in the business of political advocacy and the editors use headlines as a tool to push the agenda. And it’s a way to work around Coleman (or McKay, in the previous example) without touching their copy.

At this point, I find it hard to confine myself to journalistic criticism. What I write next – assuming my brilliant and sensitive editor allows it – comes from a graybeard who realizes what younger Journal executives may not.

The subject is war, meaning death, the death of innocents, including our own trusting young soldiers. And sorry about this, but these deaths rarely achieve positive ends. Because I am older, I have seen the country chose to kill and be killed more than once, based on flimsy or falsified evidence and lousy thinking – including “expert” lousy thinking – and often in a wonderfully bipartisan manner.

Bipartisanship never has been a guarantee of wisdom. Heck, when politicos of both parties lean on corporate green the word “bipartisan” may not mean anything.

That the Journal loads the dice to favor the Haves and keep the middle and lower classes down is the fact, is anti-journalistic and is reprehensible. But surely editors must think twice and hold themselves to an even higher standard when they deal with war and death.

Recently, a public-spirited New Mexican asked me if I had seen change as a result of what we at ABQJournalWatch write. “No,” I said, “some reactions, but no real change.”

Faced with the prospect of more booted young Americans stepping on Mideast ground and, thereby, risking horrible injury and death, I pray that those atop of the Albuquerque Journal hierarchy think again about journalistic responsibility.

Confine management’s views to the editorials. Run news stories from several sources that inform readers of the complexity of Mideast politics as well as the costs, along with the promised rewards of further intervention. And foster an open debate with many views in the columns on the editorial page and the opposite page.

Doing proper journalism isn’t all that hard. If you have the will.

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3 Comments so far ↓

  • F. Chris Garcia

    Great column! We have come a l-o-n-g way from real journalism. The Journal is a prime example of how bad it has become.

  • Laurie Mellas

    Thank you, Arthur Alpert, for years of brilliant analysis of the pathological ignorance and arrogance of the Journal. As for not confining yourself to journalistic criticism, thank you for your brave stance to try to benefit the boys (and now girls) taken from us during senseless wars. It might feel like nobody’s listening, but some of us are barely hanging on, and the brash, brilliant, brave words of Arthur Alpert made our lives feel a little more sane. Thank you for your tireless work of behalf of those who ride or die on the side of decency and truth in journalism.

  • Julie Lundgren

    Journal headline 10/12/14..Railrunner kills Two
    More demonizing of the train.. ..
    Instead of SUV drives in front of train…
    Journal’s agenda is always front and center

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