Monday, November 30, 2015

That "liberal media" canard

How the scoops mentality trumps ideology

That "liberal media" canard

The New York Times admitted over the weekend that an article last month on Guantanamo Bay detainees contained inaccurate statistics. (Mark Lennihan/AP file photo)
The New York Times admitted over the weekend that an article last month on Guantanamo Bay detainees contained inaccurate statistics. (Mark Lennihan/AP file photo)



Conservatives typically view The New York Times as "ground zero" of the so-called "liberal media" - a cartoon characterization, given what happened during the run-up to the Iraq war, and again in the wake of the '03 American invasion, when the paper aided and abetted the Bush war team by running a series of bogus WMD stories on page one. The Times' credulous reliance on con man Ahmed Chalabi (a Dick Cheney buddy) was ultimately so embarrassing that the paper finally had to come clean by writing an expose about itself (albeit, long after the damage was done).

That sorry episode came to mind on May 21 of this year, when The Times led page one with a story that trumpeted a leak from the Pentagon; apparently, the paper had purportedly learned that prisoners released from Guantanamo and transferred abroad were flocking back to terrorism in alarming numbers. According to the Times headline that day, "1 in 7 Detainees Rejoined Jihad," or, as the first paragraph in the story put it, 1 in 7 released detainees "returned to terrorism or militant activity."

That translated into a 14.3 percent recidivism rate, and the timing of the story couldn't have been worse for the Obama administration. That very day, Obama delivered his speech defending the closing of Guantanamo - with Dick Cheney delivering the opposite message to a conservative think tank audience. Cheney, naturally, jumped all over the Times story; citing the headline statistic about recidivist terrorists, he worked a fresh line into his speech: "One in seven cut a straight path back to their prior line of work." Once again, The Times was essentially giving aid and comfort to the Bush administration - specifically, to the guy who really ran it.

And once again, the story was flat wrong.

This past weekend - more than two weeks after the print story ran - The Times finally took steps to clean up the mess. On Saturday, it ran a lengthy "editor's note" which admitted that the "1 in 7" statistic was way off base. Actually, said The Times, it would have been far more accurate to report "that about one in 20 former Guantanamo prisoners described in the Pentagon report were now said to be engaging in terrorism."

Well, that's very different. One in 20 translates to a 5 percent recidivism rate - a far cry from 14.3 percent. (And as for that 5 percent figure, here's a bit of perspective: According to the Justice Department's own figures, the recidivism rate for American prisoners - as measured by the rate of rearrests within three years of release - is typically in excess of 60 percent.)

Then, yesterday, Times ombudsman Clark Hoyt lowered the boom in his Sunday column: "The article...was seriously flawed and greatly overplayed." The editors accepted the Pentagon's statistical spin "and failed to push back skeptically. The lapse is especially unfortunate at The Times, given its history in covering the run-up to the Iraq war." (Ouch.)

Hoyt laid it out succinctly: The Times failed to distinguish between those ex-prisoners whose recidivism had supposedly been "confirmed," and the larger group of former prisoners who were merely "suspected" of having gone to the dark side. When the Times story was originally being prepared, editors didn't know that the Pentagon had set up two different categories. Apparently the Pentagon leakers didn't tell The Times that the "suspected" cases were based on unverified and single-source tips - "a standard The Times would not accept for its own reporting," according to Hoyt. The Times didn't learn those crucial details until much later, after the full Pentagon report was released.

Nor, in its original story, did The Times take into account the very real possibility that some of those who had purportedly "rejoined jihad" were actually innocent people who got radicalized during their incarceration at Guantanamo...and then joined up for the first time once they were freed abroad. The Times itself has written such stories in the past.

Bottom line: The Times took a leak from the Pentagon, wrote it wrong, and Dick Cheney happily gave it his seal of approval.

If The Times was supposedly intent on advancing a "liberal agenda," wouldn't it have killed the story rather than trumpet a 14 percent recidivism rate that undercut Obama's case for prison closure? But of course it wouldn't do that. The paper thought it had a scoop. Mainstream reporters think in terms of scoops, not ideology (which also helps to explain why the paper fell for Ahmed Chalabi).

So much, yet again, for the "liberal media" canard.


The latest iteration of the "liberal media" canard is the claim (common among thought-challenged conservatives) that newspapers are dying because readers are sick of paying for the "liberal media."

Then how do conservatives explain what happened in Philadelphia last week? The Bulletin - arguably the region's strongest conservative voice - ceased print publication and threw its people out of work. If papers are dying supposedly because of a "liberal" ideology, then how come a paper featuring the likes of Pat Buchanan, Chuck Norris, and Oliver North has ceased to exist?

Could it be that market forces and technology matter a whole lot more than ideology? Those who peddle the "liberal media" canard might want to ponder that.


Meanwhile, let's say a few good words about Fox News (seriously).

Lest you didn't notice, Saturday marked the 65th anniversary of D-Day - arguably the most pivotal event in our democracy, considering what the consequences of failure could have been. A viewing of Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers would have been appropriate, but I'll put my money on this Fox News interview of Arthur Seltzer, an 84-year-old D-Day vet now living in a suburb of Philadelphia. The video is worth watching in its entirety. What we owe this guy, and millions of others, cannot be put into words. So I won't even try.


Inquirer National Political Columnist
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About this blog

Cited by the Columbia Journalism Review as one of the nation's top political reporters, and lauded by the ABC News political website as "one of the finest political journalists of his generation," Dick Polman is a national political columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer. He is on the full-time faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, as "writer in residence." Dick has been a frequent guest on C-Span, MSNBC, CNN, NPR and the BBC. He covered the 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004 presidential campaigns.


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