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Media critics now play ‘gotcha’ on the net

August 2, 2002

When The New York Times ran a front-page report on civilian casualties in Afghanistan (“Flaws in U.S. Air War Left Hundreds of Civilians Dead”), bloggers descended on the article like ants on a picnic.Bloggers, Web loggers who run commentary and stray thoughts on their own Internet sites, like to play “gotcha” with the established media. A favorite target is the Times, which has developed the habit of running front-page editorials posing as news reports. Hundreds of civilians dead? Don’t that many civilians perish in nearly every war? Stuart Buck at asked: “Has there ever been another war in history where civilian casualties were so few that journalists could track down virtually all of them individually?”On his site, The Politburo, blogger Michael Moynihan noted that the Times’ source for the toll of 812 dead was Marla Ruzicka, identified as a field worker in Afghanistan for Global Exchange, “an American organization.” What the Times didn’t say, Moynihan wrote, is that Global Exchange is a “far-left” group that opposes globalization and the U.S. military. Ruzicka, he said, is a fan of Fidel Castro’s Cuba and the winner of an award from “the Marxist group Refuse and Resist.”

Oddly, after deciding to run a shaky article on civilian deaths, the Times seemed to take it all back, reporting that the “extraordinary accuracy of American air strikes” has produced few of the disasters seen in previous wars. If that’s true, why run the article? The Times also featured a series of artistic photos of children wounded in the war, titled “A Legacy of Misery.” This is the way the Times expresses its resistance to the war — equating the liberation of Afghanistan with misery, pain and dead civilians.

The mighty Times may not have noticed that a lot of bloggers — some with small reputations, some with no reputations at all — now swarm over its news columns searching for errors and bias. The established media learned long ago how to marginalize critics and shrug off complaints of bias as the ravings of right-wing fanatics.

But the bloggers aren’t so easily dismissed. They don’t bluster. They deal in specifics and they work quickly, while the stories they target are fresh. They link to sources, to one another’s sites, and to the articles under attack, so readers can judge for themselves. The blogging revolution, says commentator Andrew Sullivan, the best-known blogger, “undermines media tyrants.”

On June 16, a startling front-page article in the Times reported that Alaska’s mean temperature rose 7 degrees over the past 30 years. Sullivan checked with Alaska weather authorities and wrote that the Times figures were greatly exaggerated. The Times published a correction, stating that Alaska temperatures rose 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit, not 7, over the past 30 years. But the Alaska Climate Research Center said the correction was incorrect. The Times correction of 5.4 degrees was still double the real temperature increase.

Sullivan argued that the Times had “cherry-picked” data for maximum effect, measuring the 30 years between 1966, one of the century’s four coldest years, and 1995, one of the hottest. A report from the Center for Global Change said Alaskan temperatures did not rise consistently over the 20th century — the pattern was back and forth: warming until 1940, cooling until the 1960s, then warming again.

Sullivan was also one of the bloggers who attacked the anti-Bush polling story run by the Times on July 18 under the headline “Poll Finds Concerns That Bush Is Overly Influenced by Business.” That story seemed like an attempt to turn a poll favorable to the president into a vague vote of no confidence. The story focused on a “surge” of Americans who think the country is on the wrong track.

But Sullivan noted that the poll found Bush’s approval rating remaining very high at 70 percent, while 68 percent agreed that the president “cares about the needs and problems of people like yourself” and 80 percent said Bush shares their moral values. A similar poll ran the previous day in The Washington Post under the headline “Poll Shows Bush’s Ratings Weathering Business Scandals.” That’s the straightforward way to report a poll.

Jack Shafer of Slate joined the Times-bashing bloggers, complaining about a July 1 story, “Bush Slashing Aid for EPA Cleanup at 33 Toxic Sites.” That story misrepresented a partisan squabble over whether cleanups of “orphaned sites” (whose owners have gone bankrupt) should be financed by tax revenues or a revival of the Superfund tax, phased out in 1995. Shafer wrote that funding has remained steady in recent years and the Bushies want a modest increase for 2003, so the headline could have been, “Bush Superfund Budget Grows Slightly.”

Keep an eye on bloggers. The main arena for media criticism is not going to be books, columns or panel discussions, and it certainly won’t be journalism schools. It will be the Internet.

From → Media

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