Unsourced and Misleading: Who wrote mystery paragraph inserted into wire service Obamacare story?

June 11th, 2015 · Fact Check, health care reform, journalism, Koch brothers, Uncategorized

By Arthur Alpert

Recently, I amused you (I hope) with a post on how the Albuquerque Journal has trained me, as Pavlov did his dogs, to rush to the computer whenever it publishes an Op Ed essay from a group named “Freedom” – something.

Salivating, I turn from breakfast to Google for my reward – the knowledge that the “Freedom” organization is a Koch brothers’ front. Never fails.

That the editors’ decision to hide the source of political opinion from readers amounts to journalistic malfeasance is almost too obvious to state, but the hypocrisy – given the Journal’s editorial passion for “transparency” – demands emphasis.

For when the mission is promoting the Kochs’ political agenda (or that of other plutocratic interests), the Journal makes authorship secret, rendering its own Op Ed page opaque.

(Re those “other plutocratic interests,” the Vets4Energy Op Ed column published Monday, May 25 was, in fact, an American Petroleum Institute political commercial – as the Journal dutifully failed to note.)

Today, however, I want to acquaint you with another Journal habit that sets my antennae a-tingle.

Something like what professional gamblers call a “tell,” it reveals what the editors are up to. A case in point presented itself just the other day and after researching it, I shook my head at how far Journal editors will go to spin the news. But allow me to tell the story and you judge.

The Journal published a wire report Wednesday, June 10, on A3. Its primary headline was “Obama again defends health law”. The second deck read, “High court could gut Affordable Care Act”.

There was no byline below, just “The Associated Press” and that’s what perked my interest. Over the years I’ve learned it signals that the editors have significantly cut the piece and often, not always, fiddled with it.

So as I began reading, I was wary.

And then came the fourth paragraph:

“However, millions of other Americans have lost their insurance coverage and had to purchase more expensive and less comprehensive plans after being misled by Obama and other Democrats, who falsely promised that under the Affordable Care Act, if they liked their insurance plans, they could keep them.”

This brought me up short. Not the content, not immediately, but the tone. This background graph seemed, though I couldn’t put my finger on it, un-journalistic. Even a tad political? And for an author-less article, the language was strong.

So I decided to search for the original.

AP’s Jim Kuhnhenn wrote it, it turns out, with contributions from Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Alan Fram.

The Journal cut the piece by several paragraphs. What was dropped included a reference to a Washington Post-ABC poll that found, one, that a majority of Americans continue to oppose the law and two, that “55 percent of those surveyed don’t want the Supreme Court to block any subsidies.”

Still, the Journal’s news hole is not infinite and, frankly, I was not up for a close examination of what the editors cut. That fourth graph continued to gnaw at me.

But I couldn’t find it in Kuhnhenn’s original account. Why? Because it wasn’t there. He didn’t write it.

But how could that be? How could a paragraph find its way into a wire service story? And where did it come from? If Kuhnhenn didn’t write it, who did? I had no idea and no clue as to how to find out.

Puzzled, I decided, meanwhile, to check the accuracy of the graph. Did “millions” lose their insurance thanks to Obamacare?

My query brought up 974,000 results. The first was FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, which analyzed the claim April 11, 2014 (when the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity was using it in TV ads) and found:

“Critics of the law now say millions lost their health insurance. But that’s misleading. Those individual market plans were discontinued, but policyholders weren’t denied coverage. And the question is, how many millions of insured Americans had plans canceled, and how does that compare with the millions of uninsured Americans who gained coverage under the law.

“There is evidence that far more have gained coverage than had their policies canceled.”

The second citation was from Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler, who parsed House Speaker John Boehner’s claim that Obamacare resulted in a “net loss” of people with health insurance on March 17, 2014, and awarded the Speaker four “Pinocchios” – a big lie.

There were also citations that backed “the millions lost” assertion in the Journal’s mystery paragraph; the first was from the N.Y. Post, owned by Rupert Murdoch.

Both FactCheck.org and the WaPo fact checker agreed that President Obama’s promise they could keep their own plans if they so wished was not accurate.

Enough. The remaining 973,997 citations will go unread, not just because I haven’t the time but also because the accuracy of the mystery graph is largely beside the point.

The point is that Albuquerque Journal editors grafted onto the Associated Press news account a paragraph – source unknown – that incorporated a political argument. (It is interesting if slightly tangential that the Journal has made that political argument exactly against Obamacare in its “news” and opinion columns for years.)

To be fair, the active political intervention I’ve just recounted is rare; the Journal habitually biases the news via passive techniques like omitting or burying what doesn’t fit its agenda and not covering stories that might cast unfavorable light on its political favorites. Rare, yes, but still egregious because – wait, I promised to let you do the judging.

And I will, after this reminder. Sixty-one years ago last Tuesday, on June 9, 1954, Army counsel Joseph N. Welch confronted Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy during the Senate-Army Hearings over McCarthy’s attack on a member of Welch’s law firm, Frederick G. Fisher and said:

“Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

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The Principal Issue

June 1st, 2015 · journalism

By Arthur Alpert

When grocery shopping, I particularly enjoy the bottled juices aisle. It’s the creativity of the labels, their brilliant use of words, graphics and numbers to persuade consumers to buy colored water under the impression it is juice. I am impressed, as well, with the major corporations behind those profitable deceptions.

And then I shrug. Commercial values do not preclude lying to make a buck, so all one can do is smile and remember Roman wisdom – caveat emptor.

We expect higher ethical standards from a newspaper, of course; though a profit-seeking business, it’s supposed to deliver content fairly. Sadly, nurturing such expectations of the Albuquerque Journal would be naive.

Where to start? Well, back on May 18 I noted the Journal’s dedication to clobbering Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic candidate for president, while sparing most Republican hopefuls any attention at all, except for some adverse criticism of Jeb Bush and two friendly stories on Ted Cruz. So let’s pick up with Mrs. Clinton.

Friday, May 22, the editors ran an AP news account on A2 headlined, “Friend figures in Clinton’s Benghazi emails”.

As the Journal’s web site will confirm, the editors have found the Benghazi story impossible to resist, rarely passing on opportunities to remind readers that Mrs. Clinton ran the State Department when terrorists rampaged there.

However, a House Intelligence Committee led by Republicans told a radically different story last November. The Journal ran an Associated Press account Nov. 22, 2014:

“A two-year investigation by the Republican-controlled House Intelligence Committee has found that the CIA and the military acted properly in responding to the 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, and asserted no wrongdoing by Obama administration appointees.”

That was reporter Ken Dilianian’s lead. Here’s his second graph:

“Debunking a series of persistent allegations hinting at dark conspiracies, the investigation of the politically charged incident determined that there was no intelligence failure, no delay in sending a CIA rescue team, no missed opportunity for a military rescue, and no evidence the CIA was covertly shipping arms from Libya to Syria.”

He recapitulated what led to the inquiry under the leadership of Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., noted this was the seventh investigation to reach similar conclusions and continued:

“In the aftermath of the attacks, Republicans criticized the Obama administration and its then-secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is expected to run for president in 2016.”

Again, the Journal did publish that story. I don’t remember where it ran but a commenter on the Journal site complained that it should have been on Page One.

But here’s the point – the Journal continues to publish opinion pieces indicting Clinton on Benghazi that fail to mention that Republican House Intelligence Committee report.

I would like to avoid the conclusion that the Journal is out to defeat Hillary Clinton and will use its opinion and “news” pages to do so, but it’s impossible.

Oh, one final note on the May 22 AP story. The second deck of the headline read, ““Man gave her advise about Libyan affairs”.

Those italics are mine, of course.

If the Journal wanted my advice, I would advise adding an editor familiar with our language.

OK, I apologize for that. It’s unkind to ridicule illiterates. But what if it’s more than illiteracy?

Consider that one day earlier, a Journal editorial on PNM told us ”when some of the principles pulled out of the complex deal, etc., etc.” And followed up with “Now PNM and the new principles want the PRC…”

Somebody doesn’t know how to spell “principal.”

If it were simple ignorance, I would forgive but what’s happening here – the principal issue – is not so easily explained. Anybody can make a mistake, that’s why we have editors. So how come an editor didn’t catch those errors?

My educated guess is that Journal editors are distracted from basic duties – overseeing spelling, grammar and usage – by their (unprincipled) determination to politicize the news.

Me, I prefer the bottled juice folks whose lying labels are spelled properly.

Incidentally, the Journal’s animus toward Hillary Clinton – in its news and opinion pages, remember – is just part of a larger subject, how it’s covering the Presidential campaign. Fecklessly, is the brief answer, which judgment I plan to justify in a future post.

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No Denying of Access for Climate Change Deniers

May 22nd, 2015 · climate change, energy policy, environment, journalism

By Denise Tessier

It’s been nearly two years since the Los Angeles Times stopped running letters from climate change deniers, and a few other media outlets have since taken a stand against disseminating misinformation about the science of climate change.

The Albuquerque Journal is not among them.

Once again this past week the Journal ran a guest column advocating skepticism of the existence of climate change.

The May 16 piece by William E. Keller, identified by the Journal as a “Santa Fe Resident,” was written as rebuttal to a letter to the editor that had run a month earlier.

It is possible that Keller submitted his rebuttal in letter form as well, but whatever its intended format, it was run by the Journal as a column. In doing so, Journal editors gave it much more prominent space – on the Journal’s Op-Ed page, at the top right-hand corner – than was given to the letter, which was all of five paragraphs in a page full of letters that ran April 14.

Having cornered Op-Ed page real estate, Keller’s column also got a two-part headline to top it off. “Data support skepticism on climate” was the main headline, followed in smaller type by the sub-head “Hard evidence has debunked some hypotheses that have been part of the party line.”

In his piece, Keller called the previous month’s letter from Charles Caldwell of Albuquerque “a misguided polemic against skeptics” and he put those who are not skeptics on a par with Kermit the Frog (“It’s not easy being green”). From Keller’s column:

Kermit could also have said “it’s not easy being skeptic.” While skepticism is an essential element for science, Caldwell reviles skeptics who don’t agree with him, brazenly exhorting the Journal to “stop wasting ink on denial letters.”…

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The Journal Is Not What Mr. Dooley Had in Mind

May 18th, 2015 · journalism

By Arthur Alpert

I’ve always known some journalists believed the purpose of a newspaper was “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” but not until a few days ago did I learn the source of the quote.

Finley Peter Dunne, the 1890s-era humorist, wrote it in the voice of Martin Dooley, his famous bartender/political commentator, as Dooley’s granddaughter told the NY Times Book Review May 10.

Mind you, few publishers agreed. In the early 1900s most newspapers reflected their owners’ class interests, notwithstanding Teddy Roosevelt’s muckrakers. Then about midway through the 20th century, publishers adopted a kind of professionalism. Out with the most sensational and fictional (bye-bye, “Front Page”) and in with relative sobriety, accuracy and “objectivity.”

This professionalism was tilted toward the status quo, relying heavily on Establishment sources, “balance” and little questioning of the powerful. Nothing surprising there; a newspaper, like life, is hierarchical and owners, not reporters, call the shots.

At this mid-century point I got into the business, captivated by the joy of getting paid to learn how the world worked, innocent of the history.

Since then, beginning with the collapse (after Richard Nixon) of the liberal consensus that had prevailed since the Great Depression, we’ve experienced challenges to that professional model.

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Carrying Water for the Right. . .and Other Blunders

May 3rd, 2015 · campaign finance reform, climate change, environment, foreign policy, inequality, journalism

By Denise Tessier

Ideas for ABQJournalWatch posts have far surpassed my time to write of late, and rather than let them get too moldy to use (as has often been the case in the past), the following are brief riffs on (fairly) recent Albuquerque Journal eyebrow raisers.

It’s OK for Susana but Not the Dems

We weren’t the only ones to notice when the Journal pounced on Attorney General Hector Balderas and Auditor Tim Keller in an April 29 editorial that criticized the two for sending email donation requests to fellow Democrats in advance of next year’s elections. Joe Monahan’s newmexicoblogspot of April 30 noted that the two Democrats had been “singled out for an editorial bashing”.

The editorial said Balderas and Keller “should take the high ground” and refrain from “scrounging for donations”, saying the two men are “supposed to be governed by rule of law and protect the taxpayers’ bottom line” and therefore “should be above partisan politics.”

The editorial questioned whether either man plans “to treat New Mexicans of all political stripes equitably and fairly” in their official duties, considering their letters ask for donations to not only defeat Republicans but help fellow Democrats.

Funny thing is, the Journal didn’t concern itself enough to editorialize when Gov. Susana Martinez sent out email solicitations for donations when announcing her formation of Susana PAC! a few years ago.

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‘New’ Media Making Newsworthy In-Roads

May 1st, 2015 · environment, journalism

By Denise Tessier

For the second time in as many days, this morning’s Albuquerque Journal carried a front-page story that had been covered first by other New Mexico media.

In “DA Fears for her safety after charging APD officers,” the Journal directly quoted District Attorney Kari Brandenburg’s comments that had been published in last week’s ABQ Free Press:

I fear for my safety because other Albuquerque Police Department officers have told me that I should. I don’t think they’re going to kill me, but I have been told to fear for my safety.

The previous day, the Journal reported on plans for construction of a 32-acre “interim” commercial nuclear waste storage site for southeastern New Mexico, five days after the Santa Fe New Mexican advanced the story (the subject of yesterday’s ABQJournalWatch post.)

The district attorney’s comments, made during what ABQ Free Press reporter Dennis Domrzalski had called a “wide-ranging interview,” were important enough to warrant a story and follow-up by other media, including the Journal. And the Journal noted in its story that Brandenburg has declined to talk to anyone else:

Brandenburg, through a spokeswoman, declined to discuss the issue with the Journal and has not done interviews with local television stations on the subject.

This is not to chide the Journal (again) for calling itself “New Mexico’s Leading News Source”. Nor is it to remake the point that “scooping” the competition – so important decades ago, when local TV was a rival rather than a partner and the daily Albuquerque Tribune was robust – is not so important to the Journal these days.

In fact, the Journal story about Brandenburg’s comments contained new information: that the U.S. Attorney’s Office was ready to make a referral to the FBI to investigate any threats, but Brandenburg told them not to pursue the matter, and that Albuquerque Police Department officials first learned about the DA’s fears from the ABQ Free Press interview; it received no request from the DA’s office to investigate.

What is noteworthy here is that ABQ Free Press has “made the news” in this way.

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Nukes, Jobs and Money

April 30th, 2015 · environment, journalism, role of government

By Denise Tessier

Interim site for nuke fuel proposed for southern NM” –the top Page 1 story in this morning’s Albuquerque Journal – informed readers that an international company is proposing to turn 32 acres in southeastern New Mexico (about 12 miles from WIPP, the already-existing permanent nuclear defense waste disposal facility) into a site for high-level commercial nuclear waste.

Such a facility, with a proposed 100-year service life, does not yet exist in the United States.

It’s a big story, but the Journal’s account of it failed to include some pretty interesting information about the project, information that appeared five days earlier in the Santa Fe New Mexican.

One has to go to Patrick Malone’s story in the New Mexican – “New Mexico leaders push for high-level nuclear waste” – to read this:

The state took a crucial step this month toward accepting such waste, which other Western states have shunned, when Gov. Susana Martinez quietly signaled to the Obama administration that New Mexico would welcome it.

. . .backers of the plan have waged a largely silent, high-dollar campaign to influence decision-makers at the state and federal levels to support the idea.

Since 2012, the city of Carlsbad has spent about $260,000 on lobbyists to try to persuade members of Congress to consider the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance’s parcel as a waste storage site, according to analysis of lobbyist records by the Center for Responsive Politics.

The New Mexican also reported a little background on the international company proposing to build the plant – Holtec International Inc. – which didn’t appear in the Journal story.

According to the New Mexican, Holtec was “stripped” of its status as an approved government contractor “over a bribery scandal that led to felony charges and criminal conviction of a (Tennessee Valley Authority) nuclear plant manager who authorized cask purchases from Holtec. A Holtec spokeswoman declined to discuss the situation.”

The governor’s support of the project did appear in the Journal story, but none of the rest did.

Actually, the Journal published on April 26 an Associated Press report of the governor’s letter of support – but the story was just a few lines long, was posted only online and it quoted the Malone’s story, which had run in the New Mexican the day before.

The contrast between the New Mexican’s enterprise piece – Malone had obtained a copy of Martinez’s letter – and the Journal’s reportage is quite striking.

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The Journal-Koch Brothers Relationship: How tight is it?

April 29th, 2015 · campaign finance reform, journalism, Koch brothers, Uncategorized

By Arthur Alpert

I have become Pavlov’s dog and I don’t like it.

You may remember how Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) conditioned a dog to salivate at the ring of a bell. Well, editors at the Albuquerque Journal (Pavlov) have trained me (pooch) to rush from the breakfast table to the iMac. There’s no bell; what makes me move is the sight of a Journal Op Ed from an outfit called “freedom” something.

Though I haven’t finished that second mug of coffee, I gotta get to Google!

Last time it happened was Wednesday, April 15. The article was by one Andy Koenig, identified as Senior Policy adviser, Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce. My conditioning kicked in and seconds later, I was exploring the Web.

My reward was learning that, yes, Freedom Partners is a Koch brothers’ organization, specifically a nonprofit 501(c)(6) organization in Arlington, Va., whose purpose is to promote “the benefits of free markets and a free society.”

Since the Journal failed to so identify Freedom Partners, allow me to sketch its role in the Koch political network. This has the virtue of exploring a category of news the Journal ignores.

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Questionable Balance

April 14th, 2015 · journalism

By Arthur Alpert

As a sophisticated consumer of journalism, you know the dangers involved when news people or institutions seek balance. Most obviously, it implies there are two sides to a story. If only the world were that simple.

And then there’s the problem of deciding what you want to balance. Years ago, when I did TV news, we joked about producing a documentary on air pollution that would be objective and balanced. We’d devote the first half to how dirty air harms living things, then use the second to show it cleaning the lungs.

You also have noticed how infrequently the Albuquerque Journal attempts balance; generally, it ignores (or covers minimally) state efforts to limit voting, the vast growth of income and wealth inequality, how the tax system aids and abets that, climate change, corporate welfare, big (and anonymous) money in politics and demonization of the poor.

And that’s just in the news columns.

So when the Journal does seek balance, I pay attention, alert for a journalistic lesson.

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Joining the ‘Best Of’ Bandwagon

April 6th, 2015 · campaign finance reform

By Denise Tessier

A year ago, if the Weekly Alibi had called its annual reader’s poll story “The Only Survey That Matters,” it would have come across as just so much Alibi tongue-in-cheek hubris.

But with the staid Albuquerque Journal now in its second year with its own reader’s survey awards, this month’s Alibi Best of Burque 2015 cover headline – “The Only Survey That Matters” — takes on a different hue.

Yes, the Alibi has been doing the survey like, forever, and so the Journal’s decision last year to launch its own contest did come off as a bit copycat – like grandpa trying to prove he can be cool, too.

Readers following declining-sales-of-newspapers stats would have surmised correctly, however, that the Journal launch was yet another attempt at attracting more readers (maybe younger ones?) and, more importantly, at attracting more advertisers.

The Journal’s Reader’s Choice Awards is the latest in a list of measures the paper has taken in recent years in an effort to offset the collapse of the classified pages. [Read more →]

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