Complex issues, one-sided stories

Media excel at presenting one side of a debate

by David Kopel

Aug. 18, 2002, Rocky Mountain News

"If you don't want a man unhappy politically, don't give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one." So advises Capt. Beatty in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. And so are written some recent one-sided stories on multifaceted issues.

For example, The Denver Post's Aug. 4 article on "campaign reform" ("Campaign reform may see ballot") presented only a single point of view, quoting two advocates of the ballot initiative and no opponents - such as persons who argue that limiting political speech (or the spending to support political speech) interferes with the public's right to criticize government officials.

Indeed, the Post implicitly announced that the speech/spending restrictions were a good idea by labeling them as "reform."

Over the course of the upcoming election season, contrast how often the politically correct restriction on speech (controls on election contributions) is labeled as "reform" with how often the politically incorrect restriction on speech (controls on "bilingual" education in public schools) is labeled as "reform."

Another one-side-only story was "Need for bilingual teachers soars," a New York Times story by Yilu Zhao that ran on the front page of the Post (Aug. 5). In 24 paragraphs promoting the need for hundreds of thousands of bilingual teachers, the Times offered no perspective from an education analyst who could remind readers that in previous decades (e.g., the gigantic immigration wave of the late 19th and early 20th centuries), American public schools have assimilated huge numbers of immigrants who did not speak English, and the schools did so without using bilingual faculty.

In the Aug. 6 Rocky Mountain News, The Boston Globe's John Donnelly offered seven paragraphs extolling the idea that African nations stop paying their debts, and instead use the money for social programs to benefit their people. Not a dissenting word was heard. A more balanced story would have included the viewpoint of a development expert who could have explained that all today's debts come from money that African governments borrowed for the express purpose of helping their people, but much of the money was stolen and misused by the very same governments which now want to repudiate the debt, allegedly to help their people.

Boulder is, once again, under the national media's unkind scrutiny. The September issue of The Atlantic uses Boulder as its case in point to berate parents who don't subject their children to each and every government-recommended vaccine. Reserving particular ire for families at the Shining Mountain Waldorf School, The Atlantic presents vaccination skeptics as fools, and insists that febrile seizures caused by vaccinations "rarely, if ever, lead to permanent brain damage."

In contrast, the Boulder Weekly (Aug. 8) offered more balance, presenting articulate skeptics and advocates of vaccination.

The most powerful material came from the mother of a child who went into massive seizures immediately after receiving a diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus shot, and was rendered permanently and very severely retarded. Perhaps if The Atlantic had interviewed that mother, the snide "if ever" might have been omitted.

"Ex-travel agent arrested" was the headline of a recent Post story detailing my recent arrest for failing to pay more than 200 parking tickets. All right, not really. I always pay my parking tickets on time.

But if I were arrested, the fact that I was a travel agent more than 20 years ago wouldn't be important enough to put in the headline, would it?

Yet on Aug. 9, the front page of the Post's Denver and the West section headlined "Ex-priest admits raping 2 brothers." The rapes took place during the last five years, while, as the article explained, the rapist had been an Episcopal priest 40 years ago "for a short time." To put this 40-year-old fact in the headline was sensationalistic and unfair.

One doesn't often find the News and the Post editorial pages saying the same thing on the same day, but that's what happened on Aug. 9. Both papers published editorials explaining that the current media hysteria (recently joined by President Bush) over abductions of children was vastly overblown. As the papers explained, the number of abductions is very, very low, and has been declining.

That the News and the Post both chose to correct false perceptions created by the sloppy and hysterical work of other journalists does not, of course, mean that the News and the Post don't care about kidnapping. They just understand that if the people are going to make intelligent decisions about public policy, then people need to understand the truth.

So readers, please remember that when media critics (me included) denounce phony statistics or misleading stories on teen suicide, compulsive gambling, obesity, or violence against particular groups, we're not really in favor of suicide, compulsive gambling, obesity or criminal violence. We just believe that no cause, no matter how worthy, should be supported with slanted journalism.

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