Most people really don’t understand how journalism works in America.
I do, because I have been an active professional in the industry for more than 35 years – as a reporter, editor, top news executive at daily newspapers, publisher, radio talk-show host, an instructor of journalism at a major university and the founder of the first independent news source on the Internet. In short, I have done everything one can do in the world of American journalism.
That’s why I thought it might be time for a lesson in how mass communication in America has transformed into mass deception.
On March 4, the Associated Press, the largest news-gathering organization in the world, distributed a propaganda screed thinly veiled as a news story by AP staff writer Jacques Billeaud about Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s investigation of Barack Obama’s eligibility to serve as president. You can read the entire story here, just one of more than 100 outlets that carried the piece with virtually no editing.
Here is an excerpt of that report:
“America’s self-proclaimed toughest sheriff finds himself entangled these days in his own thorny legal troubles: a federal grand jury probe over alleged abuse of power, Justice Department accusations of racial profiling and revelations that his department didn’t adequately investigate hundreds of Arizona sex-crime cases.
“Rather than seek cover, though, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is seeking to grab the spotlight in the same unorthodox fashion that has helped boost his career as a nationally known lawman.
“Arpaio on Thursday unveiled preliminary results of an investigation, conducted by members of his volunteer cold-case posse, into the authenticity of President Barack Obama’s birth certificate, a controversy that has been widely debunked but which remains alive in the eyes of some conservatives.
“At a news conference, Arpaio said the probe revealed that there was probable cause to believe Obama’s long-form birth certificate released by the White House in April is a computer-generated forgery. He also said the selective service card completed by Obama in 1980 in Hawaii also was most likely a forgery.”
If one of my journalism students back at UCLA had turned in copy like this, I would have flunked him. Yet this report, written by one man, became the semi-official script of what happened at a historic press conference in which America’s most well-known sheriff challenged the authenticity and validity and honesty of the man sitting in the White House.
The report suggests Arpaio’s motive for “grabbing the spotlight” with evidence that is “widely debunked” but only alive in the mind of “some conservatives” is defensive – an effort to battle legal scrutiny from the U.S. Justice Department. In fact, that’s the focus of the lead paragraph in a report in which the sheriff is making some of the most serious accusations in the history of American politics.
This account was ripped and read by untold radio newscasters and television anchors across the country. It was reprinted in newspapers across the country and the world. It formed the talking points for hundreds of talk shows on radio and television. And it was all written by one man – a virtual unknown in the world of American journalism, but someone who obviously went to the press conference with little idea of objectively looking at the evidence collected in a six-month law-enforcement investigation.
It could all be dismissed with a phrase – “widely debunked.”
Here’s Exhibit B in our study of the art of bias – a report from the Los Angeles Times, written by a veteran newswoman, Carol Williams:
“Undeterred by documentary evidence and repeated judicial rejection, a group of conspiracy theorists who say President Obama was born in Africa have sued the California secretary of state to demand that she verify the eligibility of all presidential candidates before putting them on the November ballot.
“Minor party politicians and voters aligned with the so-called birthers filed the lawsuit in Sacramento County Superior Court, noting that their action was on the advice of a federal appeals court ruling last year that they bring their suspicions about Obama’s eligibility to a court’s attention during an election, not after it.”
Rarely have I read so many loaded phrases in two paragraphs. Is there any doubt about where this news writer stands on the issue at hand? Might it have been appropriate to assign someone without such virulent pre-conceived notions? Did any editors review this story before publication? Were they asleep at the switch?
Those involved are characterized as “conspiracy theorists.”
They say Obama was born in Africa.
They are “undeterred by documentary evidence.”
They are “minor party politicians.”
They are “birthers.”
This kind of “reporting” has created a chilling effect on political expression in America.
Americans can only come to one conclusion when they are bombarded with this stuff day after day, week after week, month after month without any attempt to examine the actual facts and evidence on the table: The nation’s press is controlled. The only “conspiracy” here is the conspiracy of silence and gratuitous, ad hominem attacks and unfairness.
Yet, here’s to the American people who, according to every public opinion survey, don’t accept the propaganda barrage – no matter how relentless, no matter how comprehensive, no matter how unjust.