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Getting It Right on Election Coverage

By Ben L. Kaufman · November 16th, 2008 · On Second Thought

Credulity does not suit journalists or our audiences. We’ve moved from believing something because “I read it in the paper” to “I heard it on the radio” to “I saw it on the Internet.”

It’s never so dangerous as when a comment or story is credible. It makes sense. It’s the kind of thing that What’s His Name would say.

Long before the Internet, people were inventing or repeating quotes and attributing them to famous people to add authority to their arguments. Think Chief Seattle. Mark Twain. Abe Lincoln. Winston Churchill. Now add Barack Obama.

This bandwagon attribution phenomenon trapped The Enquirer when an editorial writer drafted its McCain endorsement. He attributed a seemingly damning direct quote to Obama that Obama didn’t say. The writer also failed to attribute the words to Wall Street Journal reporters who wrote the paraphrase of what they believed was Obama’s policy.

I know the election’s over, but the risk to all of us who find congenial material on the Internet won’t go away.

The Enquirer quoted Obama as saying, “A strong government hand is needed to assure that wealth is distributed more equitably.” The whole Journal sentence has been buzzing around the Internet for months. It said, “Globalization and technology and automation all weaken the position of workers,” he (Obama) said, and a strong government hand is needed to assure that wealth is distributed more equitably (emphasis added). No one challenges the accuracy of the direct quote in the first half of the sentence. The second half of the sentence was not in quotes.

It must have been an “Oh, shit,” moment at the Enquirer’s Opinion Page when readers attacked the politically charged false quote and missing attribution. Having failed to cite The Journal, The Enquirer opened itself to accusations of plagiarism.

I’ve worked with those writers. Forget motive. Forget plagiarism. They hate to make mistakes as much as anyone in the trade, and I can’t imagine any of them knowingly plagiarizing. It’s the Original Sin among writers.

Similarly, I can’t imagine them faking a quote or knowingly using a phony quote. They’re better than that.

I’ve had editors insert fabricated information and quotes in my work in the mad idea they were improving my stories. I also know of big shot reporters, columnists and correspondents who create sources and fake quotes. But not on The Enquirer’s Opinion staff.

Rather, I’d bet that the phony Obama quote was so ubiquitous on the Internet that there was no apparent reason to doubt its veracity. That reflects credulity and sloth, but it’s not evil.

The correction — longest in my memory if you ignore the groveling apologies to Chiquita 10 years ago — ran within days of the endorsement and before the election. It was displayed prominently under the Opinion Page cartoon and said:

Correcting ‘quote’ in our endorsement

“A large number of readers have graciously pointed out an error of attribution in Sunday’s presidential endorsement. We’d like to set the record straight on that point.

“A quote in the editorial that was attributed to Sen. Barack Obama – ‘A strong government hand is needed to assure that wealth is distributed more equitably’ – was in fact not uttered by the Democratic presidential candidate. Instead, that phrase was part of an article written by two Wall Street Journal reporters, paraphrasing Obama’s comments in a June interview with the candidate on economic policy. Unfortunately, a number of bloggers and columnists subsequently picked up the phrase, erroneously attributing the quote directly to Obama. As did we.

“In putting together Sunday’s endorsement, we failed to double check with the original Wall Street Journal article to verify the quote. If we had, we would have attributed those words directly to the newspaper, not to the candidate. It was an unintentional but substantial error that we regret. We take all such errors very seriously, and strive for accuracy of information in opinion pieces as well as news articles.

“This incident illustrates, but does not excuse us from, one of the perils of the online information age. Statements and facts can easily be lifted out of context, altered, repeated and circulated ‘virally’ throughout the Web, to the point where inaccurate information can sometimes become accepted as true. One of the valuable tools for ferreting out such inaccuracies is the Snopes site, www.snopes.com, which does have an entry devoted to the quote in question.

“This correction does not in any way alter our endorsement in favor of Sen. John McCain, nor does it diminish our reasoning for not endorsing Obama. The endorsement did not hinge on that quote; it was used to illustrate our still-valid observation that Obama would tend to favor the use of government to, as he actually did say, ‘spread the wealth,’ and was just one of several policy points we cited in favoring McCain.”

I love that phrase “graciously pointed out.” Sort of like, “and pigs fly.”


Curmudgeon Notes

The Enquirer continues to send millions of dollars to Gannett but must cut another 10 percent from its local staff or staff budget.

This follows mid-year buyouts that drew more than a dozen veterans from the newsroom. Only USA Today is exempt from the newest Gannett cuts. And the holiday retirements or dismissals won’t be the end of cost-cutting as advertising revenue continues to drain away.

Eventually papers reach the point where staff reductions no longer provide mandated savings and readers respond to a cheapened product with “why bother?” So what’s next? In the  short term, I’m looking for shrinking the page size again to reduce newsprint costs and elimination of the Monday edition on paper.

The Enquirer added another smart hire to its depleted local reporting staff: Dave Holthaus, former Cincinnati Post business editor. He’ll share Business Editor Carolyn Pione’s Sunday column with her and Cliff Peale, whose portfolio includes the business of medicine as well higher education.

• Cincinnatibeacon.com has video of Henry Heimlich’s confirmation that he’s continuing/resuming ethically and medically dubious malariotherapy experiments overseas. As he’s described it, this approach infects HIV/AIDS patients with malaria to cure HIV/AIDS. Justin Jeffre made the video, his latest for Cincinnatibeacon.com. Heimlich pursues his research through Heimlich Institute at Cincinnati’s Deaconess Hospital/Institute. Previous malariotherapy was attempted in East Africa and China, according to Heimlich.

• Another good local blog is dormant. First it was Newsache. Now bellwhetherdaily.blogspot.com hasn’t had an entry for weeks. It was a retirement project of Bill Sloat, the Cincinnati reporter for The Cleveland Plain Dealer, and focused on Ohio politics.

Pulse, the former Downtowner weekly, is ending its free print edition and going online only. Newsprint cost is part of the decision.

U.S. News & World Report, whose guides to everything are overvalued by insecure status seekers, is ending its biweekly print run and going online, but it will continue to publish print guides. It long was the weakest of the three major American news magazines.

Christian Science Monitor, once one of America’s great papers, is ending its national daily print edition and will appear only online. The 100-year-old church daily has been delivered largely by mail. Now it will offer a daily subscription at CSMonitor.com. This works only if subscribers stick with the daily Monitor when it moves online in April. The paper — heavily subsidized by the church — will maintain its Washington and foreign bureaus but predicts staff cuts in Boston, where it’s published. It’s the first national daily to make the move to abandon print for the Internet, but then we have few national dailies.

• After Blackwell/Brunner contretemps, will the news media call for a change to make Ohio’s chief elections officer a neutral career civil servant? Maybe it could be someone appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate with reconfirmation vote every six years. Absent any reasoned expectation of diminished partisanship among elected Ohio secretaries of state, it’s time to remove the vital task of supervising elections as far as possible from partisan politics.

• And in the same vein, where are the anguished, angry editorials about the systemic disenfranchisement of so many active duty military? Too many get absentee ballots too late to return them before deadlines. If it’s local issues holding up printing and mailing at zillions of local boards of elections, how about a common separate presidential ballot that can go out as soon as candidates are nominated? There’s something sick about a country that worries endlessly about minority rights but accepts a system that denies this right to eligible active duty members of the Armed Forces, especially those in combat zones.

• If you missed Gore Vidal’s election night “commentary” on BBC America, you missed an exchange that exceeded SNL at its looniest.

• BBC America did something I’ve never seen before: It distorted the red/blue state map to show the relative strength of states’ electoral votes. It was helpful, demonstrating the power of Northeastern states. Also clever (in the American sense, as in compliment, not in the English sense of a putdown, as in, “too clever by half.”)

• A couple weeks ago, I cited nonpartisan Pew research that said Obama was getting more good press than bad and McCain the opposite. Now John F. Harris and Jim VanderHei at nonpartisan Politico.com offer an explanation of that phenomenon in “Why McCain is getting hosed in the press.” The irony, of course, is the infatuation with McCain in 2000 when he first ran for the nomination and again in the early 2008 campaign.

• Sometimes wingnuts go too far in their unrelenting attempts to discredit the news media as a common source of useful information. The McCain-Palin campaign attacked two California dailies for refusing to reveal tapes of Obama remarks … after The Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle ran detailed stories on those remarks.

• Let’s bury the journalistic cliché (and falsity) of the assertion that the GOP can’t win the presidency without winning Ohio. It’s coincidence, not causal. Or as your broker tells you, past performance is no guarantee….

• It’s going to be dismal in the TV counting rooms without campaign advertising. That quadrennial fillip was especially welcome in this sagging economy.

•  Out.com reports with unconcealed pride on the “good number” of gay men in the campaign press corps. Out.com says New York Times chief political correspondent, Adam Nagourney, is gay, as is his predecessor, Rick Berke. Likewise The Times’ lead Obama reporter, Jeff Zeleny, and its lead Hillary reporter, Patrick Healy. Out.com’s gay roster includes Michael Finnegan of The Los Angeles Times, Newsweek political reporter Jonathan Darman, CNN producers Mike Roselli and Chris Welch and producers from CBS’s The Early Show, ABC’s Nightline and Logo, the LGBT network from MTV Networks. Out.com also offers insight into tensions among gay reporters writing about candidates’ stands on gays in the military, gay adoption, gay marriage, etc.

• For a smart look at the newspaper industry, read Newsosaur.blogspot.com on “musing (and occasional urgent warnings) of a veteran media executive who fears news-gathering companies are stumbling to extinction.” Among his points: Still-fat profits industrywide won’t last, publishers are running out of quick fixes to maintain profits, readers are everless patient with obviously diminished content and none of this would be happening if publishers had invested in ideas and Internet technology rather than going to the trough of fat profits every three months.

• For vivid combat reporting, read Nick Meo’s Sunday Telegraph story about the day he was “killed in action” when the American unit with which he was traveling was ambushed in Afghanistan’s bloody Helmand Province. Then, for the truly bizarre, read his next dispatch about the vitriolic response from readers who regretted his survival.

• Larry Beaupre, the Enquirer editor who was a casualty of the Chiquita fiasco, is in the news again. Now he’s managing editor of the Scranton, Pa., Times-Tribune, which is suing rival Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, saying it copied and printed more than 50 obituaries written by his staff. A Times-Tribune story quotes Beaupre as saying, “I’ve never seen such a vast and blatant example of plagiarism in my 40 years of journalism. They just took our work and presented it to their readers as if it were their own.” The Times Leader says it did nothing wrong because it took them from Legacy.com, where the Times-Tribune posted them.

• Forget news of African horror de jour. There’s no “crisis” in grossly misnamed Democratic Republic of the Congo. It’s that huge chunk of land defined by Europeans in the 1880s and looted for generations by Belgians and others. Any definition of “crisis” requires a turning point, a moment leading to decisive change. Not in Congo. It’s not likely to get worse because humans generally lack the imagination to go beyond what they’ve already done. It’s not likely to get better because deadly chaos serves so many mutually hostile interests.

So forget news stories about “crisis” or “crises.” Think misery on Holocaust or Armenian genocide scale for generations. Editors with any memory know they’ve run that story many times. It’s like “Italian government falls.” To reignite anything but pro forma interest, it probably will take a new threat to white missionaries and aid workers or a bayonet charge by British troopers sent to save the day.

• Years ago, jaded editors were aroused by the rescue of 1,600 whites from embattled Stanleyville. It was great stuff in those early independence days in sub-Sahara Africa with fading imperial overtones: Brave Belgian paratroopers and mainly South African mercenaries battling through savages to rescue besieged missionaries. Think Lucknow, think Khartoum, think Maiwand, think Shanghai. Meanwhile, a subtext to contemporary Congo news is the continuing failure of 17,000 UN forces to protect civilians.

• A personal note: I knew mercenaries involved at Stanleyville (Kisangani) and the civil wars that pitted secessionist Katanga and Kivu provinces against the new central government half a continent away in Leopoldville (Kinshasa). I was working in Zambia on the southern Katanga border; mercenaries recruited and drank in our town’s bierstuble. Driving home from Katanga’s capital Elisabethville (Lubumbashi) on day, I picked up a hitchhiking mercenary. He’d been discharged after his mother told his commanding officer, Mike Hoare, that her son was 15. The kid liked the life, the camaraderie and the adventure.

I was grateful to have someone riding shotgun; that road could be dangerous. We crossed into Zambia, and I left him on the road home to South Africa. He offered to pay for gas and took a British 5 pound note from his duffle packed hard with currency. He mumbled something about a blowing a bank in Stanleyville.


CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: letters@citybeat.com


 
 
 
 

 

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