Monday :: Apr 4, 2005

How the Liberal Media Myth is Created - Part 8

by eriposte

This is a continuation of a series on how the "liberal media" myth is created. Previous installments covered myth-creation using "tone" of media coverage (Part 1), "catch-phrases" like 'right-wing extremist' v. 'left-wing extremist' (Part 2), "newspaper headlines" (Part 3), "topics" covered (Part 4), "think-tank" citations (Part 5), journalist ideology or voting preferences (Part 6) and public opinion polls on media bias (Part 7). This part covers attempts to invent liberal media bias using obvious, unintentional errors in news reports

Ryan (a journalist) at Dead Parrot Society illustrates this with a good example - and I hope Ryan does not mind my reproducing his entire post here because it is an important one:

No question about it, this is an embarrassing correction to have to make:

Thursday's New York Times misidentified GOP Senate candidate Pete Coors as a Ku Klux Klan member who murdered a black sharecropper. ...

The Times story concerned a federal court decision upholding Louisiana resident Ernest Avants' 2003 conviction in the slaying.

The story indicated the accompanying photo was of Avants. But the picture actually was of Coors on the day the Golden beer baron announced he was running in Colorado's open Senate race.

The Coors campaign handled the error well; the spokeswoman even cracked a few jokes like, "It could have been worse. Pete could have been identified as John Kerry." They clearly -- and correctly -- recognized this as nothing more than a stupid mistake. But it's not enough, of course, in many corners of the blogosphere to point and laugh. It's important to assign darker motives.

Glenn Reynolds almost fought the urge, simply pronouncing it "lame." But then comes the pointer to Ryne McLaren, who muses: "Funny how the media seldom makes these sorts of mistakes with Democrats."

Two things: Unless there's something I'm not aware of, the media doesn't make this type of mistake about Republicans very often, either. As in, practically never. And anecdotally, the worst photo caption mistake I've ever seen -- wherein a typo gave a woman's name a hilariously sexual connotation -- happened to a liberal. Stupid mistakes don't care about your politics. I'll explain how goofs like this do happen in just a second.

But first we have The Corner, where the allegations of motive are more explicit: "PETE COORS IS NOT IN THE KKK, But the New York Times looks at him and thinks of one, a murderer at that..." [eRiposte: Note that this is from the unsurprisingly egregious and stunningly uninformed KJL - Kathryn Jean Lopez at NRO; but, given we're talking about NRO, that's not saying much]

Then Tim at My Stupid Dog says the error "illustrates the irrational hatred the "Gray Lady" seems to hold against the entire Republican party." [eRiposte: To his credit, Tim also stated: "That's one hell of a bad joke [by Coors' spokeswoman]. Apparently in the Colorado GOP, it's more acceptable to be a murderous, race-baiting moron than a Democrat. Here's hoping that once Wilson extracts her foot from her mouth, she'll have the decency to apologize, then resign."]

Naarski goes even further overboard: "Instead of telling the truth about racism in the Democratic party (read: former KKK member Senator Robert Byrd), the NYT runs a FALSE story about Coors, Republican candidate for the Senate being a KKK member."

No more examples necessary here, but if you're so inclined, you can check the story's Technorati cosmos. There's plenty of blame to go around. But to be sure, there's also an extremely simple explanation for the NYT's slip-up here. If it's bias, I'll pay Instapundit's hosting charges next month.

First off, here's the briefs column where the bad photo ran. This Colorado Springs Gazette item verifies that it was a mug shot. (Update: Cool, here's a scan of the NYT story in print. Notice that there's not even a name underneath the mug shot.)

Now, if you've ever used page-layout software -- something like Quark Xpress, for example -- you know that to bring a photo onto a page, you first draw a frame on the page, and then you "call in" the photo by browsing to the image wherever it lives on your server. (The New York Times uses a front-end publishing system called CCI, which my paper is installing right now. So I'm not guessing at the process here.) Photo file names aren't always as informative as you might think, and it's easy to see how an editor might click on the wrong one. (Update: Just chatted via MSN with one of our CCI experts. He tells me that photo names coming off the wire are fairly uninformative. They're usually just named something like "APX0057" -- nothing necessarily linked to the content of the photo. So unless you're vigilant, it's not that hard to snag the wrong picture.) There's a second possibility, as well -- CCI allows you to pre-assign photos to story locations, so if a Pete Coors item had orginally been slotted for that briefs column, the photo would naturally have been assigned as well. Then if the text was swapped out later, the photo might have accidentally been left behind.

Regardless, once a wrong photo is on the page, you'd never know it unless someone happens to recognize the person in the picture. In this case, there are pretty good odds that a copy editor wouldn't know what Pete Coors or Ernest Avants looks like. (For that matter, not many bloggers either.) So the mistake, embarrassing as it is, gets into print.

Calling in the wrong photo while putting together a news page is easy; I know because I've done it. Thankfully my error was just a landscape shot. But doing this is the page layout equivalent of a typo -- 99% of the time it's just an obvious WTF mistake. But once in a while the stars align and that typo bites you hard. (The caption error I mentioned above happened because a copy editor typed an 'X' instead of a 'Z'.) That there's a simple explanation for an error like this doesn't make it any less embarrassing, or less worthy of a correction, but it does point out how silly it is to always question motive for everything.

To put it in online terms, pulling in the wrong mug shot is the blogging equivalent of pasting the wrong URL in your href tag. And I hate to say it yet again, but every time bloggers pick on something like this -- a simple mistake -- as an example of bias, they devalue their criticism when they're pointing out something that's actually egregious. [eRiposte emphasis]

Ryan's post is illuminating and all media critics (Left/Right/Center) should keep this in mind. In our attempts to critique the media, we may risk stepping overboard if we insist on reading something sinister into every error made by the media. Granted, the incident above was so obviously an inadvertent error that it was extraordinarily dumb to pick on it to suggest or hint any kind of media bias. But not every inadvertent error may be as obvious. Moral of the story? Feel free to point out errors, but be more careful about assigning motives to silly errors that have an obvious, alternate explanation.

Note to readers: If you are aware of other similar examples please mention it in the comments.

P.S. Ryan has done some good work at Dead Parrot Society on the topic of the media. I expect to feature some more of his work in future posts.

eriposte :: 7:24 AM :: Comments (4) :: Spotlight :: Digg It!