How the Journal Played the Torture Report Story

December 14th, 2014 · 2 Comments · journalism, Washington

By Arthur Alpert

We drown in facts even as we thirst for meaning.

Meaning is born of context. Reporters and essayists provide it within their pieces by using history, comparisons and other explanatory material.

(It’s not today’s subject but that required reportorial intervention is why “objectivity” doesn’t exist and why “just the facts, please” is a nonsensical request.)

Another kind of context is less obvious. It’s supplied by editors when, for example, they decide to to play a story on Page One, thereby signaling to the reader that it’s important. Page 42? Not that big a deal. They also send us messages with their decisions on size, adorning the piece with color and art, using a pull quote and, of course, headlining it.

This is where the Albuquerque Journal’s top decision makers strike. Blatantly, insistently, they impose a political agenda. Today’s case in point is their “news” coverage of the report on U.S. torture following 9/11.

Let’s start with a Ripley event. Believe it or not, on December 10, 2014, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the editors ran a sidebar on the front page!

A sidebar, the narrower piece that accompanies the main story, follows its big brother. Sometimes, they abut side-by-side. Sometimes the sidebar is below. Once in a while the main story runs up front and there’s a note alerting us to a sidebar on another page.

But – and it’s a big BUT – putting the sidebar (lesser, remember) on Page One and burying the basic account inside is, well, weird. Backward and – I was going to say – inane.

But no, not if we presume the editors are politicians. Now it makes great sense.

For by running the sidebar on the front page (noting that “details” are on A5), the Journal relegates the big, ugly story to A5.

Allow me to hover over that for a moment and restate it this way:

The Albuquerque Journal declined to run the CIA torture story on the front page.

Extraordinary? You bet. I haven’t done a search but I feel confident every real newspaper in the nation – no matter its politics – front-paged it. Heck, the conservative Washington Post ran four major stories on Page One.

And for a full appreciation of the Journal editors’ decision to keep the CIA torture story inside the paper, consider this:

That was Wednesday, Dec. 10. Two days later, Friday, Dec. 12, with CIA Director John Brennan’s rebuttal in hand, the editors put it on Page One.

Sometimes I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the Journal’s inability to conceal its sympathies.

But there’s more. For Brennan’s rebuttal, the Journal used an Associated Press story by one Ken Dilanian that reported what Brennan said and nothing more. Period. End. No context. By contrast the Washington Post account of Brennan’s defense by Ellen Nakashima enveloped the CIA chief’s assertions in context. At the NY Times, reporters Mark Mazzetti and Matt Apuzzo did the same.

OK, so much for hiding the CIA torture story inside; let’s describe the editors’ admirable resourcefulness.

You see, since the sidebar was Michael Coleman’s report on the New Mexico Congressional delegation’s reaction, the Journal was able to insinuate – Page One- that the big, ugly story is a partisan dustup.

What sleight of hand! Bravo! Only readers who reached the big, ugly story on page 5 and read down to paragraph six would learn that former GOP presidential candidate John McCain, victim of torture in Vietnam, “was out of step with some fellow Republicans in welcoming the report and endorsing its findings.”

And that was the sum of the Journal’s coverage of John McCain’s views. You can read his full statement at USA Today.com.

At this point, the editors had scored twice. They hid the big, ugly story inside and, secondly, they cast it as a partisan dispute.

Ah, but wait. Necessarily, Coleman’s piece was for the most part an uninformative “he said, she said.” That, hockey fans, makes three scores, an editorial (or political) hat trick!

OK, it’s time to add some context of my own to upgrade this little exercise in journalism.

First, the “he said, she said” is hardly an Albuquerque Journal monopoly. NPR’s “All Things Considered” perpetrated it Wednesday evening. It’s terribly common, probably because giving “both sides” a platform is a lot easier than pursuing journalism, which is, at bottom, a search for (lower-case) truth.

Secondly, the Journal’s Coleman deserves credit for adding one long graph on the torture techniques themselves to his sidebar and it’s not his fault that it didn’t make the front page; an editor was responsible for the graph landing in the page eight jump, likely for reasons of space.

There’s more to say about the Journal’s treatment of the CIA torture story, but let’s postpone it.

Suffice it to say, we have once again watched the Albuquerque Journal manipulate the “news” and violate the simplest rules of journalism to conform to a political agenda.

I haven’t defined that agenda here; you can derive it yourself. But don’t forget the Journal still features the column of unrepentant neo-con Charles Krauthammer.

Nor have I dealt with another issue posed by the Journal’s malpractice – the failure to plumb beneath the political to get at the “why” of misbehavior by individuals and states. No, I don’t expect newspapers to emulate the scientists, psychologists and spiritual pioneers who probe minds and souls, but reporting on them couldn’t hurt.

And it might quench some of that thirst for meaning.

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • Roland Penttila

    You state that the Journal has an inability to conceal their sympathies. As you well know, and it is the foundation of the ABQ Journal Watch, the Journal never conceals its sympathies. They wave it proudly in the sunlight for all their readers to see. To them, it is a badge of honor. The principles of true journalism are in the back room being water boarded.

  • JD ROBERTSON

    “I AM OF YOUR OPINION,” SAID SAMSON; “BUT IT IS ONE THING TO WRITE LIKE A POET AND ANOTHER THING TO WRITE LIKE AN HISTORIAN. THE POET CAN TELL OR SING OF THINGS, NOT AS THEY WERE BUT AS THEY OUGHT TO HAVE BEEN, WHEREAS THE HISTORIAN MUST DESCRIBE THEM, NOT AS THEY OUGHT TO HAVE BEEN BUT AS THEY WERE, WITHOUT EXAGERATING OR SURPESSING THE TRUTH IN ANY PARTICULAR.”

    MIGUEL De CERVANTES
    (DON QUIXOTE PART ii CHAPTER 3)

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