Thursday :: Sep 29, 2005

Q&A with Stevens Creek Elementary School (CA) parents - Part III

by eriposte

This is the third part of a multi-part Q&A with three parents who belong to the group We The Parents (WTP). The background on the lawsuit in question is here, Part I of the Q&A is here and Part II is here. In this part the parents offer their views on the mainstream media and blogs. I urge *all* progressive bloggers to persue through their comments because they offer important insights that shed light on the future success of blogs.

As stated in the previous parts, please note that:
(a) All the views offered by these parents are their own personal views and DO NOT represent the views of the We The Parents organization.
(b) The responses by the parents were sent independently of each other (i.e., I present their responses clubbed together for convenience, but they were not submitted at the same time).
(c) The responses are reproduced as-is except for minor edits for punctuation/typos/URLs. Alongside some of the responses, I have added my own commentary (enclosed in [...]).
(d) I have rearranged the order of some questions because I had to break up the Q&A into multiple parts (owing to length considerations) and I wanted to keep related questions close to each other. This does not affect the parents responses in any way since the responses are independent of the ordering of the questions.

Q&A - Part III

Q7 [Eriposte at The Left Coaster (TLC)]: Do you believe that the mainstream media's (MSM) coverage of the lawsuit and the brouhaha precipitated by ADF's and Williams' claims was accurate and balanced?

Dick Crouch: No. Four or five weeks after the lawsuit was filed, some more balanced reports appeared (e.g. LA Times, San Jose Mercury News) casting doubt on the ADF's ludicrous assertion that the school had banned the Declaration of Independence. But it took a long time. And even as these reports were appearing, many other newspapers around the country were repeating the original Reuters article, which was taken almost entirely from the ADF press release about the lawsuit.
The ADF are hardly going to be balanced reporters on their own lawsuits. But a well organized, funded and connected media machine like the ADF are always going to provide better copy than a school district scrambling to figure out what has just been dropped on them. You'd hope that the media might take this into account, and dig a bit deeper when preparing an initial story, but apparently in vain.
And even now, when the case has been withdrawn, you have to look hard at the few reports there have been to realize that this is what has happened. They talk of a "settlement" that has left both sides happy. For heaven's sake! Three of the four complaints in the lawsuit were thrown out by the judge in the discovery phase, and the fourth was pulled for lack of evidence. Other than CUSD paying its legal costs and agreeing to a gagging order where it can only say that it is satisfied with the outcome of the lawsuit, the only thing CUSD was required to do was restate it's existing policy on religion in the classroom. [More on this "settlement" nonsense in a previous post - Eriposte.]

John Bartas: LOL! Before I got involved in this, I thought the press was overall a pretty good institution. It's now clear to me that the MSM's lack of diligence was really a root cause of this whole mess. I used to think Reuters was a valid news agency, but they started this by reprinting parts of the ADF's absurd "declaration banned" press release verbatim, without qualification. A simple phone call would have unmasked the hoax and nipped it in the bud, but Reuters didn't bother. I'll never believe a Reuters story without independent verification again. Nobody should.
Then there's Fox news. They reported these lies as fact, and more than once. Sean Hannity was especially amazing. Even after Stephen Williams, his honored guest, corrected him by saying on the air that the Declaration Banned story was "a bit of a stretch", Hannity kept repeating it - after being told point blank by Williams himself that it was not true! Watch the tape at [Link here - Eriposte]. After Williams correction, Hannity was clearly deliberately lying. What makes someone do something like that? He was defaming a Patriotic Christian school principal, smearing a patriotic community, and as a result brought fear and threats to 600 school children. And he knew he was doing it! What makes a human being act like that? It can't be the paycheck; no one is that venal. What was going on in his head? To those of us who had to pick up the pieces, it is truly sickening.
Initially the newspapers were a problem too. Local columnist Scott Herhold wrote a column chastising the school. I'd been reading him for a few years and know he was not some nut job Fox extremist, so one of the parents contacted him, asking if he knew all the facts. He admitted that he didn't, but said it was not his fault since the CUSD (school district) should have sent him a press release with their side of it. It didn't seem to occur to him to make a single phone call to find out the truth [See my comments on this below - Eriposte]. Nat Hentoff and Joanne Jacobs (whom I once respected) were just as bad. No one spoon-feed them corrections to the ADF lie, and so they got it wrong.

Nathalie Schuler: Not at the onset. That's why we got 3000 letters! They simply bought the ADF press release wholesale and ran with it which we always found irresponsible and called them on it. Surprisingly for us, most were willing to help us get our story across and we were able to build a beautiful rapport with most of them after they heard us.
That was part of our stated mission and we knew that since the district couldn't do PR on this and this was a battle of PR, we had to take up that sword and fight that battle. I believe we were very successful in turning around the public's perception through our work with the media and we are thankful to all those reporters who worked with us on that.
We still find reprehensible the actions of some who decided to capitalize on this case, such as the Declaration Foundation and Alan Keyes, who put up a petition online asking people to write to the school complaining. Even after Dr. Ferrier of the Foundation was contacted and told the full story, they pulled the petition, changed it slightly to request letters be sent to the Secretary of Education in California instead, and continued to repeat the falsehood that the Declaration could not be taught!!! Senator Abel Maldonado quickly jumped on the bandwagon and co-authored a bill "requiring" that the Declaration be taught, even after we contacted him explaining that California law already "requires" that the documents be taught. I guess truth matters little to those who would benefit from political storms whether they are real or fabricated. We have yet to see an apology from ADF for their harm to the school and the children, or from the Declaration Foundation or Mr. Maldonado for repeating and using the lies after being told they were LIES.

[Eriposte comments: These are interesting observations (although not much of this is new to progressive bloggers and readers) - so let me add some comments.

(a) Mr. Bartas' comment that "Before I got involved in this, I thought the press was overall a pretty good institution" is important to note because it reveals the way in which progressives can try to reach out to ordinary citizens and demonstrate to them why the mainstream media in this country is screwed up beyond belief, why it tilts far more to the Right than to the Left and why, therefore, it needs to be reformed. In other words, if you focus on how the media covers stories involving and impacting "ordinary" Americans, you can use the disconnect between their actual experiences and the media reporting on those experiences to make them see the light on the media. Also, the more we keep highlighting situations involving day-to-day Americans, where the media's reporting tilts to the Right, the more success we will have in making people rethink the fiction of "liberal media".

(b) Mr. Bartas' observations about Scott Herhold et al. are also important to note. I wrote to Herhold myself after his fact-free (and fiction laced) column pointing out the facts and he never acknowledged my email, let alone publish an apology for his thoughtless column. His behavior was an epitome of what the Press Corpse in this country has been reduced to -- that they keep expecting "both sides" to fax in the facts (figuratively speaking) rather than doing their job of real fact-checking. This is a natural consequence of the decades'-old movement started, and heavily funded, by Far Right conservatives in the U.S. to force the media away from covering facts to presenting (usually false) opinions as facts in order to appear "balanced". Although unrelated to this case, this irresponsible and depraved nature of big chunks of modern "journalism" has been revealed time and again, and epitomized inadvertently by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius (emphasis mine):

In a sense, the media were victims of their own professionalism. Because there was little criticism of the [Iraq] war from prominent Democrats and foreign policy analysts, journalistic rules meant we shouldn’t create a debate on our own.

Bob Somerby took Ignatius to task for this egregious op-ed gangrene passed of as an excuse for the media's descent into propaganda organs of the Republican administration; of course, even so-called journalists like Bob Woodward participate mightily in this Communist-era travesty.

Mr. Bartas' one-line conclusion is such an apt description of how much of today's mainstream media (MSM) works: "No one spoon-feed them corrections to the ADF lie, and so they got it wrong." I will add, though, that in some cases, even when they were spoon-fed with the facts of this case, they never bothered to publish it - like the San Jose Mercury News reporter I wrote to (among others).

(c) I think Ms. Schuler is being overly gracious to the media on this issue. For instance, the parents generally focused on the most blatant lie of ADF ("Declaration of Independence was banned...") being transmitted uncritically in the media without fact-checking. While the media did a poor job on that, in my coverage I've pointed out how the issue went much deeper. For example, many of the alleged "historical" exhibits that the teacher was passing out were downright bogus or dubious and did not belong in a history class (let alone any class other than say, fiction studies). I wrote to multiple media outlets and not one of them covered that aspect, among others. So, objectively speaking, the media coverage on this issue stank to the very end, with brief flashes of interest shown on covering facts, as opposed to opinions; even the latter happened largely due to the pressure applied by the parents.]

TLC, Q8: Did this episode change your views about the mainstream media in this country? Why (or why not)?

Crouch: It's one thing to take press reports with a grain of salt, especially when you compare different versions of the same story coming from various newspapers and countries. But it doesn't leave you prepared for the utter disconnect when you read reports on a story you actually know something about.
But much to my surprise, the local media went up in my estimation (local newspapers that is). I'd never really bothered to read the Cupertino Courier before, and it's hardly mass circulation. But it, along with some of the other local press, consistently gave the best and most balanced reporting. From them, you could actually find out what was happening.

Bartas: Perhaps the most surprising thing I learned about the media is how easy they are to manipulate. I mentioned above how Reuters just reprinted an inaccurate press release as news. and columnists formed opinions without even trying to learn the facts. As the Parents group got organized we learned to take advantage of this ourselves - I saw things I had written block copied into newspaper articles.
I still get the newspaper, but not so much to learn about actual events as to see what stories are being fed to the public today. I still don't watch TV - it's shallow and even less accurate than the papers. Blogs vary widely - some are great, some are packed with falsehoods. I don't trust any one source anymore.

Schuler: That's hard to answer. I think most of us were surprised by how gullible the mainstream media was regarding this issue and how unblinkingly they published the ADF's line without a thought of confirming or denying the report with a school official. But after working with some of them, we found them to be caring and thorough individuals who are on the most part balanced in their reporting, even when the balance was not always in our favor.

[Eriposte comments:
(a) Again, as I said in my comments under Q7, this is an important lesson for those who are keen to reform the American media. Mr. Crouch's statement is key: "It's one thing to take press reports with a grain of salt, especially when you compare different versions of the same story coming from various newspapers and countries. But it doesn't leave you prepared for the utter disconnect when you read reports on a story you actually know something about." I've been saying for some time now that if you want people to understand that they live in a real-life "Matrix" filled with a daily diet of (often false) propaganda, rather than facts, there is no better way to achieve that than by highlighting media coverage involving day-to-day Americans that negatively impacts those individuals because of inaccuracies, giving them a voice, and building a grassroots-driven critical mass to reform the media. (The problem facing progressives is to show Americans at large how dysfunctional and inaccurate the media is - and how much of a propaganda organ it has become to Conservative power. In Fascist or Communist dictatorships, most citizens are at least aware that their Press is a propaganda organ and can discount what they hear. The dangerous thing in the U.S. is that people actually believe they have a completely free and inquiring press even though it is neither free nor inquiring on most important issues. The fact that the Fourth Estate has long been compromised and is more often than not a mouthpiece to Conservative power is something that needs to be instilled in the minds of all Americans so that they can force the Press to do the job it is really supposed to do.)

(b) I respectfully disagree with Ms. Schuler's view that the reporting in the mainstream media is mostly "balanced", because the media, down to the very end, failed to cover most of the facts in this lawsuit/case that would have shown the case and the plaintiffs in poor light. Additionally, the Right tradionally interprets "balance" as having to do with presenting the opinions of both sides involved in a given story - consistent with the decades-long goal of the Far Right to force the media to shift to covering (false) opinions over straight facts. With a focus on opinions, facts almost always become secondary. This is intentional because Far Right conservatives realized that they simply cannot win on the facts - so they falsely charged the media with "liberal bias" to turn it into an opinion provider. Progressives, on the other hand, want the media to focus on accuracy and facts, as opposed to contrived or manufactured "balance" (the kind of "balance" that, for instance, prompted C-SPAN to invite an anti-semitic, racist, holocaust denier to present his "opposing view" on a program relating to a holocaust book).
The primary goal of the media should be accuracy - not balance. Balance may be required to ensure accuracy in some cases, but the end goal cannot be balance for the sake of balance, at the cost of accuracy. (I have discussed this further in my critique of the Groseclose-Milyo paper). It is because of the thoughtless, robotic focus on "balance" that the media in the U.S. became an easy propaganda tool for groups that know how to manipulate it.

(c) Mr. Crouch's observation that the local media seemed to provide better reporting is not entirely surprising because the more local the media outlet, the more the reporting tends to provide weight to the locals in the area who are affected by events, and less the likelihood of the local media outlet being owned and pressured by a big media conglomerate (which is more usually than not, a proxy for the Republican party). This is one of the main reasons why progressives/liberals in this country have been fighting against the corporate-conservative campaign to allow massive media consolidation. (Mr. Bartas highlights this in his comments below in response to Q9). That said, the coverage of the Cupertino Courier wasn't all that great either - it was just a little better in comparison to the pathetic coverage of the state/national media. For example, the Courier's closing article on the lawsuit was very poorly worded and made it appear like the teacher actual prevailed in some form in the settlement - even though the reality was the opposite. Here's the wording:

"All along I have been seeking a settlement, that was my hope and intention," [the teacher Stephen Williams] said. "I have kept an open policy and am glad we were able to meet and reach a mutually agreeable settlement."

If Williams' ideally of a "mutually agreeable settlement" was for the school to DO NOTHING DIFFERENT (which is exactly what the school did), then why file the lawsuit and drag the school through the mud?! ]

TLC, Q9: Did this episode indicate to you that the mainstream media in this country requires some kind of reform? If yes, what are your thoughts on what needs to be done, OR, what you would be willing to do to help bring about such reform?

Crouch: -

Bartas: One thing I became painfully aware of is that a few organizations control most of the MSM in the country. There is a huge "Christian" media empire controlled by James Dobson, who is also an ADF backer. These outlets dutifully reported the ADFs lies as fact, and many didn't even respond to our requests for correction. Likewise Rupert Murdoch's huge media empire, which includes Fox news, had a political ax to grind and expressed no interest in reporting the truth. There's also Sinclair Broadcasting, Clearchannel, and even Disney all promoting the same narrow political agenda.
I don't think biased media will ever go away, but I'd like to see it less centralized. No person or corporation should be allowed to own an interest in more than one newspaper, radio channel, or TV station. Dobson, Sinclair and Murdoch should have to promote their opinions though good writing and solid thinking, not by buying up media outlets.
Our founding fathers knew that a free press was vital to democracy (and lets face it, a reporter working for Fox is not free to do anything but quit) but I don't expect to see laws restoring free press anytime soon. These multi-billion dollar companies have contributed heavily to political parties, and in many cases are quite useful to the political parties. Imagine how much harder it would be for a presidential candidate to control his image on thousands of independent TV stations, as opposed to just the few I mentioned above! No, politicians have a vested interest in this system, and will not change it anytime soon. Any change will have to some from public outrage, and the outrage is just not there yet.

Schuler: I think anyone who has a story to tell would be well advised to procure the services of a PR person. Otherwise, your chances of getting your point across in the media are low.
I think there are existing laws that cover libel and slander, and those should take care of it. However, people and institutions sometimes don't want to spend the resources in going after someone for libel or slander and that's why they get away with murder.
I believe in freedom of expression and the press and so I would be hard pressed (pardon the pun) to say that more laws need to be passed to restrict the press in any way. Ethics should prevail more, but that needs to be taught in Journalism school and pushed by editors at the papers. The more the public questions them, the more they will realize they have to do a better job of thoroughly investigating before publishing. That's what we did.

[Eriposte comments: As readers of this blog know, I started a series on the media, where I was going to eventually address media reform. Owing to other developments, I had to take my focus off that for a while. Hopefully I will get back to the topic in the near future. In the meantime, bloggers need to keep the focus on the media's misbehaviors and misinformation (and so do activists of all kinds - and politicians, especially Democrats). New sites like Presstitutes are a welcome addition to the blogosphere.]

TLC, Q10: Did you find the coverage of this issue on blogs useful? If so, do you think it was less or more useful than the mainstream media coverage?

Crouch: Do you mean the Drudge report or eRiposte? You have to make a judgment about who you're going to trust, usually on a fairly slim basis. And whatever the faults of the mainstream media, there's a lot less editorial control and balance in the blogosphere. I think it's a tribute to eRiposte that both liberal and conservative parents found it valuable (though some of the conservatives did grumble about the ideological slant). But eRiposte was pretty unusual in this respect. You get a wider range of opinions by looking at blogs, but sometimes what you're missing is naked facts, and it's really hard to know who to trust. The inclination is just to go along with your own partisan inclinations. Time is usually too short to really read around.
In some ways, it's like the difference between representative and populist (Athenian) democracy. Populist democracy (blogs) sounds great in principal -- everybody involved, everyone having their say. But in practice few have the time for this, and it becomes the preserve of the idle rich and/or the driven. Representative democracy (MSM) is more boring -- an appointed elite makes the decisions / uncovers the news. To the extent that the appointed elite don't become corrupted by the idle rich or the driven, this works well and gives everyone else the time to get on with the rest of their lives. In a democracy, elections are supposed to prevent this kind of
corruption. It's not clear what the analog is in the mainstream media, unless it's a populist drive to audience/market share.

Bartas: The blogs (including discussion boards like Free Republic and Daily Kos) were all over the map. Some of the very first threats came to the school via The Drudge Report. Drudge repeated the ADF lies and posted the school phone number & address, blatently inviting harrasment and threats to the school & children. Mr Drudge should take note that inciting someone to violence can make him an accessory to the crime. Someday justice will put that scum bag in a jail cell.
And, yes, I'm mad at him. I have no tolerance for threats where my kids are concerned..
On the other hand, some bloggers, like eRiposte and "I Speak Of Dreams" had dug up the truth and posted it before I even knew there was a problem. Initially they were very helpful in helping me understand why the police were guarding my children. Later, as we got organized, they helped us get the message out.

Schuler: I think, from what I have seen in blogs, that most of them preach to their respective choirs. The people who read a particular blog have a particular bias that agrees with the blogs' bias whether it's to the right or to the left. Having said that, it was an effective way to reach some audiences that we couldn't reach otherwise and to make our point to supporters and detractors alike. Some blogs were very supportive and others were particularly nasty, but I believe our "blogger agent" was at least able to turn some people to look at the facts of the matter and then make up their minds. In that respect, it was a much more direct way of effecting change than waiting for a reporter from the mainstream media.

[Eriposte comments: I hope progressive bloggers pay a lot of attention to this section because this is key to being able to build influence among the American public at large. Let's review some of the parents' comments in some detail.

(a) Mr. Crouch sort of hits the nail on the head with this:

You get a wider range of opinions by looking at blogs, but sometimes what you're missing is naked facts, and it's really hard to know who to trust. The inclination is just to go along with your own partisan inclinations. Time is usually too short to really read around.

Even though I have long been a blogger, I can fully understand Mr. Crouch's sentiments. People have limited time and if they are looking for alternative news sources than the mainstream media and turn to blogs, they are likely to be as confused or annoyed unless they are looking for blogs with a particular partisan or ideological perspective. The problem is that fact-checking mechanisms with blogs are often no better than that in the mainstream media (of course the existence of comments sections - especially in the progressive blogs, helps a bit). Moreover, with more blogs in the universe than media outlets it is also harder for individuals to figure out which blogs are more credible and which aren't. This issue is not going to get resolved unless there is an independent group or two that rates blogs for accuracy, rather than popularity or inbound links (since, as the conservative Instapundit has shown repeatedly, one does not have to be accurate to be popular). In the absence of that, progressive bloggers would be well advised to make even greater efforts at ensuring accuracy of postings and take every opportunity to correct mistakes on important issues. The goal ultimately is to build credibility (on facts) with the majority of Americans (progressives, independents and at least moderate conservatives, if not all conservatives). More on this below.

(b) Ms. Schuler points out the other aspect of blogs:

The people who read a particular blog have a particular bias that agrees with the blogs' bias whether it's to the right or to the left.

Again, combined with Mr. Crouch's comments, progressive bloggers ought to recognize this as a point of concern. Just as the Far Right took over large chunks of radio, TV and the print media to completely shift the focus of media away from facts to opinions ("he said, she said" or "bias") with the objective truths submerged, there is a concerted effort by the Far Right to turn the blogosphere into the same thing (for example, see the long and continuing history of compulsive lying by Time's "Blog of the Year" (2004) - Powerline, using the guise of stating "opinions"). Now, I am not claiming that lefty blogs don't make mistakes or don't publish inaccurate claims, but any objective fact-checker that researches the blogosphere will find that inaccuracies occur far more on right-leaning blogs than on left-leaning blogs (mirroring what happens on radio, TV and print media). The effect is to create the same dynamic on the internet that exists in other media -- namely, confuse readers as much as possible with opinions and fake facts to make it very difficult for an average reader to get the real facts on a story. This has to be corrected. One of the ways to do it would be to set a fact-check blog or website that focuses on the accuracy of the top blogs in the blogosphere. In other words, if progressives want the media to move away from being a producer of opinions, we also need to create the means to shift the debate in the blogosphere away from mere opinions towards facts.]

TLC, Q11: Based on your experiences during this episode, are you more inclined to read blogs?

Crouch: Somewhat, see above.

Bartas: Yes! The better ones have more accurate data that the MSM, and are much more timely. Even the sleaze mongers like Drudge are useful, as they often provide a foretaste of what spin the right wing media empires will use.

Schuler: Yes. But I try to read different ones to get a balanced view.

[Eriposte comments: I cannot emphasize enough that all progressive bloggers should try to do what they can in their community or state and demonstrate the value of their blog to their community. This is the best means of building grassroots-credibility and a local following - which when replicated nationwide will lead to the formation of a national, independent network of alternative media that can be linked through blog aggregators or national blogs.]

To be continued...
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