The front page of the New York Times on May 4, 1970, reporting the killing of four students at Kent State by members of the Ohio National Guard.
Accusations of media bias are nothing new. Both sides of the political spectrum complain that mainstream journalists misrepresent them. Occupy Wall Street is no exception. The right says the media’s “liberal bias” makes its coverage too sympathetic; the left says the media undermines and underreports the protests.
Let’s look at the lede from the New York Times’ top national story on Thursday, “Cities Begin Cracking Down on ‘Occupy’ Protests.”
OAKLAND, Calif. — After weeks of cautiously accepting the teeming round-the-clock protests spawned by Occupy Wall Street, several cities have come to the end of their patience and others appear to be not far behind.
This is an excellent example of how journalists, in an effort to appear neutral, can dilute their reporting to the point of incoherence. Cities cannot “come to the end of their patience” because they’re not people. Mayors and local officials can come to the end of their patience. So can cops. But cities?
43% of Americans agree with the views of Occupy Wall Street, as reported by the latest CBS/New York Times poll. In Oakland, a progressive city, that percentage is likely higher. But the lede above suggests that a significant majority of Oakland residents are losing patience with the protest.
This fake-neutral language pervades the article. The protests “resulted” in a “life-threatening injury,” “violence broke out.” Throughout are passive constructions, missing subjects. It reminds one of the purposely vague answers people give on exams they didn’t study for.
The article’s biggest flaw is that it buries its most newsworthy fact. The “life-threatening injury” mentioned above was suffered by Scott Olsen, an Iraq war veteran. He doesn’t appear until the 24th paragraph:
In Oakland, where one protester — Scott Olsen, an Iraq war veteran — was in critical condition at a local hospital after being struck in the head with a projectile during the chaotic street battle on Tuesday, city officials defended their actions, saying that the police used tear gas after being pelted with rocks.
Apart from being some pretty gruesome prose, this paragraph is misleading. It doesn’t quote testimony from protesters who claim that a police projectile hit Olsen, or refer to video that appears to show that the police attacked first. Instead, the reader is left to assume that Olsen was the victim of “a chaotic street battle.” How the chaos began, and who its instigators were, isn’t discussed.
It’s worth noting that forty-one years ago, the New York Times held its reporters to a higher standard. In their front page coverage of the Kent State killings in 1970, the journalist provides a remarkably evenhanded account. After giving the National Guard’s side of the story—“the guardsmen had been forced to shoot after a sniper opened fire against the troops”—the article continues:
This reporter, who was with the group of students, did not see any indication of sniper fire, nor was the sound of any gunfire audible before the Guard volley. Students, conceding that rocks had been thrown, heatedly denied that there was any sniper.
In other words: it’s a journalist’s responsibility to verify official claims, not merely to repeat them. Imagine a reporter contradicting the Oakland police department’s version of events with his own testimony, and the testimony of the people he took the time to interview.
As Walter Lippmann put it, “There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and shame the devil.”