Tuesday :: Apr 5, 2005

How the Liberal Media Myth is Created - Part 9


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), public opinion polls on media bias (Part 7), and obvious, unintentional errors in news reports (Part 8). This part covers attempts to invent or hint at liberal media bias using [the critic's] ignorance

Ryan (a journalist) at Dead Parrot Society has chronicled a good example of this type of myth-creation in this post. Before we look at the details, it's instructive to first read Ryan's general comment below, because it illustrates the mind-numbing stupidity (and lack of credibility) of some of the prominent "liberal media" "critics" on the Right:

For the curious, the rule is pretty simple: If we don't run graphic images, it's because we're afraid they'd show people the barbaric nature of the terrorists we face, thereby causing the public to support the war [See: beheading videos]. If we do run graphic images, it's because we want to spread the terrorists' message, and we hope they'll sicken people, thereby causing them to be against the war [See: Fallujah, Haifa Street]. Hey, nobody ever said it was hard to be a media critic.

Ryan's (polite) post on the fake outrage on the Right over the Haifa Street execution photos, also provides a window into the downright egregious behavior of some of the right-wing bloggers on this occasion:

But the accusatory nature of the Haifa Street commentary has fed on itself for a while now, to the point where we're demanding a "full explanation," [eRiposte: This is a link to Roger L. Simon] or even talking about the AP's "role in the murders." [eRiposte: This is a link to a post from the ignorance-loving, extremist, crackpot blog, Power Line] This is because a photographer:

Another blogger ... [eRiposte: Again, Power Line, as Ryan notes in an update] -- talked of the photographer being merely "yards away" from the killings. Do these writers really believe their characterizations of how the stringer got his shots? I can't imagine they do, not in a day where a telephoto lens and a professional crop bring you right into a photo's face. Here, compare these two versions of the same picture, both carried on Yahoo's feed of news photos.

[eRiposte: Photos not shown here, please see Ryan's post]

In all likelihood, even the photo on the left was cropped in from full frame; very few news photos aren't cropped at least somewhat to tighten in on the important part of the image. But you can see how easy it is to take a photo from distance and bring the viewer right in close. So we know the Baghdad photographer wasn't standing right up on top of the insurgents, and common sense says the photographer wasn't standing fearlessly in the middle of the street, either. Even if you were one of the terrorists themselves, you wouldn't do that. Ever tried to get a sense of what's going on around you when you're looking through a camera lens? Want to do that with bullets and grenades flying around?

So where was the photographer most likely standing when he got these shots? Hey, you know that Glenn Reynolds, he's a camera buff, so why not ask him: If you were a professional photographer carrying professional equipment optimized for shooting pictures in a war zone (where you might not want to be right up close to the action), how far away could you have been and still gotten these shots? Actually, you don't have to ask Glenn, because I just spoke with a news photographer on our staff (for readers who don't know, I'm an online producer for a newspaper in Washington state). Judging by the perspective and clarity on the image above, he estimates that the photographer in Baghdad was using a 300-millimeter lens from about a block away. "From a very safe distance," he said.

Let me repeat that: From a city block away. This is part of why you think the AP might have done something wrong? (Hey, remember how awesome it was when a blogger found someone in the field to speak to the authenticity of the CBS memos? You'd think someone might have thought of this on the Haifa Street photos.)

And most certainly the photographer was not casually standing out in Haifa Street for a long period of time, as these bloggers imply. The series of three photos show the events of no more than a few moments. Maybe 10-12 seconds, if one of the terrorists tooks his time moving from the first victim to the second. More likely it was 5 or 6 seconds. And the journalist was likely a block away, allowing plenty of opportunity for cover.

Speaking of odds, plenty of bloggers also find it hard to imagine that a photographer would have just happened to be in the right place at the right time to capture the Haifa Street incident:

After all, Baghdad is a city of over five million people. The odds are, indeed, extremely long--rather like my happening on a gang killing with my camera ready in Los Angeles.
[I]t was surely the longest of odds that would have brought an Associated Press cameraman to the site of a surprise attack on two Iraqi electoral workers.

Really? The longest of odds? Let's think about this: You're a stringer for the Associated Press. You don't get a salary; you get paid per shot. Therefore, you don't wander aimlessly, or just go about your normal day-to-day business. Of course not. You go to wherever you're most likely to witness a newsworthy event. For at least some of the many photographers currently working in Baghdad, that would probably be what one of the afore-linked bloggers described as Iraq's most dangerous road: Haifa Street. Now factor in the possibility that the AP may have been told some sort of news event would occur there (despite pronouncements declaring that AP was "tipped off," at this point we don't have anything more than speculation on the part of Salon's AP source; make of it what you will). So, all in all, what do you think the odds are that some stringer might have been on Haifa Street that day? Not bad, if you ask me. I'd be surprised if there were only one photographer there, actually.

Or think about it this way: What are the odds that a photographer would have been in just the right spot to capture a shot of Dwight Clark catching Joe Montana's pass to win the 1982 NFC championship game? Pretty darn good, actually. News photographers make their living by anticipating where to be to capture the best image. Obviously the stakes are higher when you're shooting war photos instead of wide receivers, but the underlying concept is the same. Pick your spot, get there, and see what develops. Sometimes you get skunked, sometimes you get a powerful (and possibly sickening) photograph. (Not that war is anything like a sporting event. I'm only illustrating the fact that we don't always find it wildly implausible that a trained photographer finds himself in the right place to take a split-second photo.)

Or think about it in another, less cheery way: Even if it's totally random, given the number of insurgent attacks going on, what are the odds that at some point a photographer is going to happen to be there right when one occurs? On any given day, maybe not great. But over months, it's going to happen. If Roger Simon wants to make a more accurate analogy, he might wonder how likely he'd be to see a gang killing if day after day after day after day he went to the toughest part of town, during a period of intense street fighting, with a camera, looking specifically for gang violence. Hmm. I wonder if a crime novelist could imagine that possibility.

...

Update: Found the source of that "yards away" quote; it was a separate Power Line post.

The photographer was obviously within a few yards of the scene of the murder, which raises obvious questions ...

No, no, no, no. The photographer was not obviously that close. It looks like this belief -- which is almost certainly a misconception; as noted above, a professional photographer estimates the shot was taken from a block away -- is the main meat behind these allegations against AP.

Hopefully this gets cleared up, but I'm not holding my breath. The AP deserves criticism like any media agency, but it certainly doesn't deserve a demonization campaign based on suspicions supported by little more than misconception.

Ryan posted a follow-up here since some right-wing blogs were continuing to perpetuate myths on the above incident. Also see this post with additional comments (added 4/16/05).

Lawyers, Guns and Money points out another invention arising from ignorance, from the master of them all:

Prof. InstaHack thinks this point is so clever it's worth repeating twice:

"...why are they "death squads?" I thought that people who did this sort of thing were called "insurgents," in the interest of neutrality, unless one chose to compare them to the Minutemen? Or is that only when they're on the other side?"

Yes, I'm afraid a tenured law professor can't understand why terrorists working on behalf of the state wouldn't be called "insurgents." Jeebus. There's spurious claims of media bias, and then there's just not understanding what words mean.

Kevin Drum commented at Political Animal on another aspect of Instapundit's "punditry":

Instapundit, for example, has written a seemingly endless stream of contemptuous posts about the media over the past year, but when I click the links and read the stories in question, there's usually nothing there except trivia: a tendentious reading of one word in a headline, unhappiness that a favored group wasn't quoted, etc. There's just no there there.

Today he offers up an almost self-parodic example.
...
Glenn's complaint? The contras were Nicaraguan, not Salvadoran! The editors at Newsweek are idiots!

This is like something a triumphant fourth-grader would say, and it's unfortunately typical of blogosphere media criticism. In fact, the Reagan administration believed from the beginning that Nicaragua was supporting the Salvadoran rebels, and this was one of their reasons for opposing the Sandinistas in the first place. What's more, contra-resupply efforts were based at Ilopango air base in El Salvador, a fact that became public after Eugene Hasenfus' flight from Ilopango was shot down in 1986. The government denied that it was involved, of course, but Hasenfus and Ilopango — which was a center of U.S. support for both the Salvadoran government and the Nicaraguan contras — were nonetheless the early sparks that set the Iran-Contra investigation in motion in the first place.

El Salvador was a key part of Reagan's obsession with Central America and was also a key part of the Iran-Contra investigation. The editors at Newsweek, many of whom were probably covering this story when it happened, are undoubtedly well aware of this. Would-be media critics ought to be aware of it too.

The Poor Man delivered a "stronger" response to Instapundit's brilliance and I'm just reproducing the conclusion of his post [* = my edits]:

... "Buh-d'oy! El Salvador had nothing to do with US policy in Nicaragua - they're, like, different countries, you anti-American racists!" This is coming from a guy who supports fighting the "global Islamofascist movement" of al-Qaeda by invading Iraq. Pretty rich stuff. The only question now is: how f****** clueless do you have to be to take this guy seriously?

[The Poor Man also posted an update based on Instapundit's response, here.]

Another recent example relates to the Terri Schiavo case, where some right-wing bloggers revved up their infamous fake outrage in combination with ignorance (on the meanings of phrases like "push polls" and "life support"), to claim bias on the part of ABC - see Mystery Pollster for details.

Just for fun, let me conclude this installment with the most unbelievably stupid post I have come across so far (that hints at media bias), via Jesse at Pandagon, who appropriately comments on the post as follows:

Heh...heh, heh...

BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Here is a part of the post in question at the blog Trying to Grok:

When my students and I study media bias, this might be a perfect article to discuss:

A majority of American registered voters now say conditions in Iraq did not merit war, but most are reluctant to abandon efforts there, according to a new Los Angeles Times poll.

[...]

...And what was the margin of error, by the way?

The poll, which was conducted from Saturday to Tuesday, surveyed 1,230 registered voters nationwide. It had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.

The U.S. population is estimated at close to 300 million right now, and we're supposed to get worked up over what 1,230 people who are registered voters have to say? Hell, I only just registered yesterday, so I would've been ineligible. And if the margin of error is plus or minus 3%, and 53% of these 1,230 people thought war was not necessary, then perhaps only 615 people in the whole USA said this.

615 people. How on earth is this supposed to be representative of the voice of America?

Some of the (appropriate) entertaining responses in comments to the above post (and yes, I should give credit to the blogger for allowing comments):

You teach? I'm amazed. This is one of the most clueless posts I have ever read on a blog. And that is saying something.

More evidence that any idiot can set up a web log--and more than a few idiots have.
Posted by: raj at June 13, 2004 04:23 PM

...

Since people who tick you off "incite" you to do more research, perhaps you should include a semester or two of introductory statistics in your research. Because anyone who has taken stats knows full well that if the poll was done correctly, ie, consisted of a random sample, then 1230 registered voters can, in fact, represent the opinion of ALL registered voters within a stated margin of error.

(And chances are that this poll was done correctly, simply because people who, unlike you, really know what they're talking about when it comes to statistics would be all over them in a moment.)

Furthermore, you should NEVER do research to "strengthen" your opinion because that's not genuine research, merely building your self-esteem.

Research should only be done to learn the truth about an issue, which may or may not jibe with your opinion.

And when you learn that you are wrong and/or ignorant, you need to admit it clearly. Otherwise, you have no business teaching anyone anything.
Posted by: tristero at June 13, 2004 04:57 PM

...

hohoho
"we're supposed to get worked up over what 1,230 people"
Silly liberals

That high-falutin LA times didn't fool you, huh Sarah?
It's a good thing you read the fine print.

Think of how long this scam has been going on.

Look! More media bias! From Fox News even. "The sample is 900 registered voters." Is nothing sacred?
Posted by: Ned at June 13, 2004 05:03 PM.

NOTE to Readers: If you are aware of more ignorance-based "liberal media" claims, please mention them in the comments. As we all know, the supply never dwindles.

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