2004-04-16 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular by Stuart W. Mirsky

Letter To The New York Times

In recent days, the much-vaunted Gray Lady of Journalism, the newspaper of record, the proud and revered New York Times has recognized that it has a credibility problem. Having been called to account for bias in certain venues and having endured the scandal of a staff reporter, Jayson Blair, who routinely made up the stories the Times printed under his by-line and of another reporter, Rick Bragg, having to resign when it became clear he was violating journalistic ethics by filing stories as his own that were written by an assistant who got no credit for them, the Times has had to face a barrage of criticism. In my own columns I’ve noted how the Times systematically, if sometimes quite subtly, misleads its readers in order to foster its own political agenda. It does this by the way its editors write their headlines, the way they present information in their stories, what they choose to highlight and what they downplay, etc. To a certain extent this can’t be helped, of course, since newspapers are written by people and people have points of view. However, when the efforts seem intended to deliberately mislead readers, the matter is of much graver concern.

After the recent scandals, the Times took a number of corrective steps. One of them was to hire a "public editor," writer Daniel Okrent (a self-professed liberal who believes he can, in fact, be fair even to non-liberals). Mr. Okrent’s job is to monitor reader complaints about alleged Times biases and follow up on them to determine, in a bi-weekly column he writes for the Sunday paper, whether there is any validity to such complaints and, if so, to call the paper’s editors to account.

I recently noted just such an instance (part of a long stream of similar past instances of course) and notified Mr. Okrent concerning this, via e-mail. What I noted this time was a front-page photo of Secretary of State Colin Powell and Iraqi Administrator Paul Bremer standing in apparent lonely isolation on a podium in an empty room. The caption of the piece suggested they had been left standing in such isolation by a walk-out of Arab journalists. However, I had previously seen cable footage of the actual walk-out that did not match the Times photo. I also noted some discrepancies in the photo itself. So I sent this information off to the public editor in the following e-mail: Dear Mr. Okrent, The photo of Powell and Bremer, standing before an empty room is presented, on the Saturday March 20th front page, with the following caption: Arab Journalists Walk Out on Powell. We are led to believe, from this photo, that poor Powell and Bremer were left standing in an empty room, to talk to themselves, in the wake of the Arab journalists’ exit.

In fact, I saw actual images of the walk-out on cable news and the scene was quite different. A large number of journalists did get up and leave the room, but they did not leave it empty. Other journalists remained and Powell spoke to them.

The photo selected by the Times editors, is evidently not one that actually reflects what REALLY happened but, rather, one that seems intended to suggest what Times editors want us to believe occurred... The conscious choice of this photo, in lieu of an actual photo of the full room after the walk-out, suggests an intent on the part of (Times) editors to mislead readers.

How can we tell the photo is misleading? Aside from the narrow field of vision which may be excluding other parties in the room, note the red ropes across the seats in the forefront of the picture. These are generally in place BEFORE a meeting is initiated BUT ARE REMOVED when meetings like this begin so that the participants can find their seats. The Arab journalists who exited were, in fact, already seated. They got up and left AFTER Powell entered and took his place on the podium. So it’s unlikely there would have been red ropes in place at that point. In fact, none were in evidence in the actual footage shown on the cable networks! If anything, this is a photo of another room or another moment in time. 

This is typical of the Times’ selection of photos in support of its stories. It is obviously a choice that has been made by the editors to SUGGEST that Powell and Bremer were left completely abandoned by the journalists in question... left looking foolish and alone, in fact, another abject FAILURE of this administration’s policies in Iraq.

The message sent by the photo is far worse than the message reflected in the images of the actual walk-out. It conjures up a sense of complete rejection of Powell, Bremer and the administration, and is clearly an attempt to convert something beyond what straight reporting (or an image) of the events would have conveyed.

The Times prides itself on being an honest broker of the news but too often it slants and misleads like this in order to buttress its own viewpoint, a viewpoint which is so obviously anti-Bush and anti-Republican as to be embarrassing to anyone purporting to be engaged in fair and objective journalism...

There is enough negative news concerning U.S. policy in Iraq (whether you support it or not) at this moment in history. There’s no need for the Times to stoop to running misleading images, headlines, etc., in its pages, though it seems to do this more or less routinely.

This only undermines the Times’ own credibility.

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