From the Sinking of the Maine to the Ground Zero Mosque

The Media’s Debacles

By —— Bio and Archives--September 26, 2010

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In both the coverage of the Ground Zero Muslim Community Center and Mosque and the coverage of the great demonstration organized in Washington by Glenn Beck attracting in the neighborhood of half a million Americans, the mainstream media once again revealed their bias, blatant selectivity, self induced amnesia, and a rush to judgment to “shame” the audience into guilt over their assumed Islamophobia, the newest charge in the litany of grievances with which the public has been maligned focused on racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia in the past.


How do the media of today working with the most sophisticated electronic equipment compare with the past? How can they be worse when events today are portrayed in “real time?” Both the press and televised news have been guilty of many sins but in the past could always explain that they had to rush into print because “real time events” were so far away. In spite of all the great advances in the technology of communications, what unites irresponsible journalists for more than a hundred years has been selectivity of reporting and the “rush to judgment” in order to out-scoop rivals. Newspaper journalists could always excuse the need to meet deadlines with the explanation that it was not possible to wait and find confirmation in the field because they lacked the technical “eyes and ears” of information gathering that would allow them to check the validity of their sources. They knew however that the readers would expect follow-up reporting to verify and interpret events with careful research and analysis.

The viewers of today’s televised news are of a different order. They have been raised on appreciating visual images as “reality” with the fill-in provided by a reporter. Unlike the previous generations of newspaper readers, they do not dispose of the same leisure time to wade carefully through follow-up reporting. An examination of several historical examples will clarify the difference.

Without an analysis of the significance of an event, the news becomes an arena in which to compete for attention and the most outlandish, shocking, offensive or bizarre becomes “newsworthy”. Competition for sensational news is no less intense today than it was when the so-called “yellow press” in the United States, largely under the control of editor William Randolph Hearst, found Spain guilty for the disaster of the sinking of the U.S. battleship “Maine” in Havana harbor and provoked the Spanish-American War in 1898. It would be many years before the U.S. public was informed in an official report by Navy investigators that the likely cause of the explosion was a faulty boiler on the ship.

Hearst was also responsible for some of the worst misinformation ever disseminated by American newspapers due to his own prejudices and misperceptions of information his reporters knew would confirm his views. He went on record in 1936 with the most inaccurate prediction ever made regarding an American presidential election when he wrote that “The race will not be close at all. Landon will be overwhelmingly elected (and FDR defeated for a second term), and I’ll stake my reputation on it (sic!). This monumental error was due in part to poor techniques of poll-taking which relied on a very biased telephone sample - at a time when telephone ownership was quite heavily concentrated among the wealthier segment of the population but it also played into the hands of Hearst and his prejudices looking for evidence to back up his beliefs.

This should remind us that many reporters in the field, even today usually cover only one side in a conflict and are unduly influenced by their limited environment and vision of reality. Very few are knowledgeable in the local language and culture. They are rarely “eyewitnesses” to actual events (except staged demonstrations) and they report to us what their informants believe, “know” (or think they know) and these views are often presented as facts rather than opinions.

When the reporter is located in an area such as a Palestinian refugee camp or inside a city under bombardment, such as Baghdad and Belgrade were in recent conflicts, there are virtually no local neutral or “objective” sentiments that a reporter can expect to hear without an immediate threat of reprisal or charge of collaboration with the enemy. In brutal dictatorships and medieval theocracies, there is no “man in the street” ready, willing, able and unafraid to give a candid off-the-cuff opinion, yet reporters never make these circumstances explicit in their coverage of news.

More than a generation ago the passion to be the first to report the news led to the Chicago Tribune’s famous banner headline edition on Nov. 3, 1948 “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN; GOP Sweep Indicated in States.” President Truman delighted in posing with the newspaper and beaming a smile from ear to ear. The Chicago Tribune had itself accepted as gospel the issue of Newsweek the previous month that headlined FIFTY P0LITICAL EXPERTS UNANIMOUSLY PREDICT A DEWEY VICTORY (Oct. 11, 1948). Such a mistake, the public was later assured, was due in large part to the lack of modern computer technology. Thus, newspapers have often compounded their mistakes by relying on each other.

Why Television is even worse

The visual media of television is often even more distorted than newspaper reporting. The time deadline is even more compressed to “get out a story”. But it is not only the rush to judgment factor that leads to errors. Given a choice between two alternative news items, professional news managers of TV networks clearly prefer coverage of a type 1 event for which on-the-spot visual coverage exists. This is most often a noisy, provocative demonstration of a mob claiming to be aggrieved on account of some real, self-inflicted, or imaginary “injustice” usually involving the disruption of normal routines, and mayhem resulting in injuries and/or fatalities rather than a type 2 event - an unplanned happening requiring an “informative report” to explain the Who, What, Where, When, How and Why background. Reporters almost always have no advance warning of such an occurrence. This is less newsworthy for television than for a newspaper. Whereas readers may take the time to read about the reaction/response of all those not participating in the event/demonstration or even opposed to it, television news “producers” are often unwilling to let a commentator or anchorman verbally explain such details that are not accompanied by visual images.


Television consistently prefers a type 1 event even if the viewer is often aware of the magician-like “mirror image” of the presence of TV cameramen inadvertently filming each other as they scurry after a crowd. Probably the most repeatedly filmed event shown almost nightly across TV screens over the past several years is a mob burning American, British, and Israeli flags (for three months in 2006 burning Danish flags became the fashion and a major “newsworthy event”) and ripping apart dummies portraying the leaders of these countries or “trashing” some fast-food franchise as an idealized symbol of global capitalism. The only accompanying vocal commentary is almost always an attempt to embellish this form of voodoo magic with a brief explanation that the crowd is venting “grief, anguish and pain.”


The ever-present camera crew has often served to provide publicity to the sponsors of such events and demonstrations that their grievances are newsworthy. It is then a small step for the sponsors to attempt to inflict this pain and anguish by some atrocious act on the flesh and blood enemy instead of rags and dolls. Thus we have the most sophisticated mass communication technologies of the 21st century catering to primitive mob behavior animated by the belief that their actions produce the effect of “like produces like”, namely what happens to the flag, doll, shop window, or image will through sympathetic magic happen to the real thing - the countries and their leaders and the corporation headquarters.

Ideally, a responsible press, which has at least enough additional hours before its written coverage of the mob event demonstrations, should feel a responsibility to present a balanced view and assess whether or not the event was spontaneous or carefully planned and to what degree its staging has been solely or primarily to express sentiment or impress a viewing audience. Clearly, world opinion had grown tired of repeated dummy-targets and the shock value necessary to capture media attention had been deemed insufficient by fanatical and extremist groups. The grizzly events of the Yugoslav civil war, the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center, and bombers against civilian targets in Israel, Bali, Madrid and London are a clear indication that the “ante” for what constitutes a newsworthy event has been raised to new heights (or depths).

Equally reprehensible is the common technique today of allowing wild statements to be made without editorial comment even though hard evidence exists that clearly refutes them. Such statements have often gone unchallenged solely for the purpose of “balancing” a presentation of views. Typical was the media coverage of the major networks that gave “equal time”: to the absurd comments of the Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, jocularly called “Baghdad Bob” during the Iraq war in 2003. The Collected Quotations of “Baghdad Bob,” were cited on hundreds of media outlets often without any commentary attempting to verify his remarks.

A viewing audience unequipped with basic background information is likely to take at face value the absurd, shocking and grotesque if portrayed often enough and presented as “news”. Do those who run the media feel any such need or responsibility to inform the public that when a head of state such as Iran’s Ahmadinejad denies the Holocaust, it is no more newsworthy or informative than a screaming headline that declares “Iran’s leader Asserts the World is Flat”?

Selectivity and the Man Bites Dog Syndrome

The largely unreported “unseen” atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Red Guards in Mao’s China, the civil wars in Angola, Algeria, Lebanon or the mutual genocide in Rwanda-Burundi largely took place without the presence of television cameras. Among the major events covered or of interest to the general public in the United States and Europe was the eight year long war between Iran and Iraq. Few people today even recall that since the end of World War II, this was probably the bloodiest armed conflict with the greatest number of killed and maimed including tens of thousands of teenage boys sent to clear mines with their bodies. Most of the European and American press brought little coverage of these events. Even fewer reporters bothered to risk their lives to cover the carnage. It was basically un-newsworthy because it involved a scenario of “dog bites dog”.

Therefore, there was no UN debate or resolution, no appeal from the Pope, no demonstrations in the street. Such a devastating war in which Muslims killed Muslims has none of the shock appeal of a noisy demonstration, skirmish, or even stone throwing incident involving Muslims and Jews or Muslims and Christians. It is simply the old rule of journalism that “dog bites man” is not news”, “dog bites dog” even less so, whereas “man bites dog” makes headlines. The result is that there is a vicious circle reinforcing what is considered newsworthy.

The Rush to Judgment

We also saw how the American television networks found themselves guilty of mismanaging coverage of the U.S. Presidential election in 2000 hoping to “out-scoop” each other. The result was that the networks unduly influenced part of the electorate in the Florida “Panhandle” and on the West Coast, Alaska and Hawaii where voters, convinced the election had already been decided, stayed home instead of voting. Even more reprehensible was the media blitz with wild charges of a “massacre” and “thousands killed” in the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin as a result of an Israeli strike at the terrorist infrastructure in the camp. After more than a month of baseless charges, even U.N. sources, traditionally hostile to Israel, revised the numbers dramatically downward to match the reality.

Unfortunately, much of the press, which should be more patient and get the news right before commenting does not see a special responsibility to be a counterweight to the visual media. The role of the press has traditionally been to bring a more balanced interpretation and explanation of the significance of the “news” and put it in perspective but all too often it tries to compete with television and compounds the distorted image we frequently get.

The worst examples of this involve both the “rush to judgment” and the self-flagellating, masochistic penchant of many reporters and news teams to “sell” a story that uses dramatic visual images in which the “man bites dog” element can be exploited. Israel, for example, is the guilty party since this makes headlines whereas coverage of intra-Arab atrocities would hardly raise an eyebrow.

Anyone with any memory cells intact and subjected to the constant images flashed across television screens the world might well ponder whether indeed anything seen along the Israeli-Lebanese border in July and August 2006 remotely approached the mammoth carnage of 150,000 Lebanese dead during the Civil War that country endured lasting 16 years and 7 months, beginning on April 13, 1975 and ending on October 13, 1990, interrupted by brief pauses. The overwhelming majority of Lebanese fatalities and casualties in that already forgotten conflict were the result of inter-Arab sectarian strife totally apart from Israel’s involvement.

It simply is more newsworthy if man bites dog. A news item that “dog bites man” sells few newspapers. In other words, for the media, the U.S. or Israel or “The West” is presumed guilty until proven innocent in any conflict with Moslems, Arabs, or “The Third World”. Moreover, in these inter-Moslem conflicts, there is a complete absence of the plaintive tone of commentary that the unceasing violence and total disregard of human life by the aggrieved side is the result of their “despair”, calling upon a guilt mechanism designed to evoke empathy that many reporters bring to bear in the “man bites dog” scenario.

Is a Picture Worth 10,000 words?

Today, the old adage that “one picture is worth 10,000 words” is misleading. It may well be that 10 words are worth much more than a misleading picture or we may need more than 10,000 words to understand what we see and be aware of what we do not see or has been hidden from the camera or been manipulated. With today’s computer generated images, pictures can show anything the designer wants and make it look believable. It should be the responsibility of the press to bring light instead of heat to the news so we can distinguish between real events and stage-managed happenings.

Selectivity: A Horse of a Different Color

The “Freedom of the press” can only have value when it adheres to the highest ethical principles, is aware of its own limitations and does not seek to take shortcuts or “save time”. It has often been the time-saving factor that journalists have used as a shoddy excuse to rush a headline into print but over the past three decades, the selectivity of editors and the partisan editorializing on the front page of many American newspapers and weekly news magazines, notably Time and Newsweek have exceeded the worst excesses of Hearst and the days of yellow Journalism.

Leading the way has been The New York Times and the BBC. Once upon a time, these former “giants” of journalism were regarded (often incorrectly) as the standard of lesser mainstream media for their world wide coverage with journalists on the spot to report the news. Oh, How the Mighty Have Fallen! In my teenage years in New York City, all those who once had a major interest in foreign affairs or literary ambitions read The New York Times. Everyone else subscribed to The New York Post, voted Democratic (or were closet socialists and communists), knew no one who openly voted for the Republican Party and as part of the conventional wisdom worshipped FDR, Edward R. Murrow and The New York Times, a triumvirate that symbolized enlightened opinion and the legacy of World War II heroism, internationalism, anti-isolationism and anti-racism.

Since my graduate school days where I did research and came across The New York Times, their record seemed stained. To start with the most recent first. On May 11, 2003, The New York Times devoted four pages of its Sunday paper in an unparallel expose and self-admission that Jayson Blair, a former and mediocre Times reporter had made up stories and non-existent “confidential sources” faked datelines, and plagiarized on a massive scale. That such fraud and deception could continue for so long would have hardly been excusable if the guilty party had been a third rate daily newspaper in a middle-size or small town with a long history of corruption, graft and a tradition of sensationalist journalism.

The admission by management that Blair had been given special favorable treatment because he was Black led to the forced resignation of the executive editor, Howell Raines who had helped the paper win a record six Pulitzer Prizes for its coverage of the September 11th attacks. How could a third rate reporter bamboozle the “most revered name” in American journalism with a transparent scam ? The answer lies in the profound arrogance and blind narcissism that has seriously infected both The New York Times and the BBC The biggest journalistic scam in American history should have been a cause for reflection and the need to introduce methods for cross-checking and verifying news stories before they see the light of day.

In another regard, the Times editors had never adequately assessed the extent to which their liberal political views and the shyness of the owners’ Jewish identity had previously caused them to accept shallow and misleading coverage of important events. Foremost among these was the Great Famine in the Ukraine under Stalin in 1930-33, and the colossal dimensions of The Holocaust.

The deportation and starvation to death of millions of deported “kulaks” (the Soviet term for “wealthy farmers”) and ordinary peasants in the Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan ranks as a genocidal crime of roughly the same dimensions as The Holocaust. It, however was committed in the Soviet Union during “peacetime”. The New York times botched both these stories in a manner that is despicable, the first due to their commitment to liberalism which meant a policy to excuse, forgive or “understand” the Soviet Union, and the second while “unintentional” was the reluctance of the Sulzburgers to give undue prominence to Jewish suffering lest they be thought of as too provincial and biased in favor of Jewish causes.

Certainly, the Ukrainian famine tragedy ranked as the greatest crime and news story of the 1930s yet it became a non-event, due in large measure to the cooperation/collaboration of the Soviet government and “the most distinguished newspaper” in the West. European reporters including members of the communist press in western countries had no access to the affected regions but New York Times reporter Walter Duranty, stationed in Moscow since 1921, and acceptable to the Soviet authorities, was given special privileges to visit just those selected areas of the region where conditions were staged by actors on village-sets created for the occasion just as later the Nazis staged mock portrayals of concentration camps solely to impress visitors from the Swiss Red Cross.

What is even more disgusting is that Duranty actually knew the bitter truth of the famine but was blackmailed to continue to send false but glowing reports of overflowing granaries and plump, contented pigs and cows. Like the Blair fraud, none of the higher up editors attempted to query Duranty (A Pultizer Prize winner!), check his sources or suspect that he might have been subject to pressure because the “news” of “progress” in the Soviet Union confirmed their self-delusions about Stalin and the USSR.

In his New York Times articles Duranty repeatedly denied the existence of a Ukrainian famine in 1932‚Äì33. In an August 24, 1933 article, he claimed “any report of a famine is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda”, but admitted privately to William Strang (in the British Embassy in Moscow on September 26, 1933) that “it is quite possible that as many as ten million people may have died directly or indirectly from lack of food in the Soviet Union during the past year.”

Appeals by Ukrainian organizations to The New York Times to posthumously cancel Duranty’s Pulitzer Prize were rejected by The Times. The Ukrainian Congress Committee of America has been affronted and shocked by the decision of the Pulitzer Prize Board, and The Times not to withdraw Duranty’s award which shames all those who have been honored by this prestigious award. The newspaper which was careful to amend an asterisk next to the name of Roger Maris when he broke Babe Ruth’s homerun record doesn’t have another one left for Duranty.

The New York Times hired Mark Von Hagen of Columbia University to investigate the charges against Duranty and concluded that Duranty was a frequent voice of Soviet propaganda and that “For the sake of The New York Times’ honor, they should take the prize away”. The New York Times sent Von Hagen’s report to the Pulitzer Board and washed its hands of the affair by leaving it to the Board to take whatever action they considered appropriate.

Just as disturbing, although, perhaps more understandable, was the reluctance of the Sulzburger family, committed Reform Jews with ultra-liberal and assimilationist views, long known opponents of Zionism, to relate the true dimensions of the Holocaust and give them greater prominence. In this respect, many other newspapers and government agencies in America and Britain must also bear a responsibility. Even some Jewish community leaders were reluctant to plead too hard for measures such as bombing the extermination camps or allowing a special displaced persons quota for Jewish refugees for fear of being accused of favoring Jewish interests. The New York Times, precisely because of its Jewish ownership, large readership and many reporters and employees, did not want to be seen to take the lead in pleading any special or parochial Jewish cause. This remains largely true to this day with a few notable exceptions.

What is also almost comical however is that this same newspaper today pleads for special consideration on behalf of Muslims among America’s immigrant population who may be suspected of either being illegal immigrants or sympathetic to terrorism and Muslim extremism. So eager is the paper to avoid the taint of being accused of racism, that it bends over backwards to find extenuating circumstances to excuse extremist opinion among American Muslims or in any way holding them suspect of not being patriotic.

This is THE editorial line of The New York Times and it is stronger now than ever. For those who write most of the opinion pieces and those who eagerly seek confirmation of similar views, NOTHING IS SACRED, Nothing deserves to be regarded with devotion and/or patriotism. These are sentiments that are out of bounds and considered suspect. Is this part of the journalistic code of ethics? On September 2, 2007, N.R. Kleinfeld took issue with the continued call to Remember 9/11! His Front Page opinion piece entitled “As 9/11 Nears, a Debate Rises; How Much Tribute is Enough? “

Clearly it is already too much for the New York Times. The writer quotes Charlene Correia of Acushnet, Massachusetts who is identified only as a “nursing supervisor” without any explanation as to why her views deserve to be cited as representative for the entire country or if she is a relative of the victims or survivors. Mr. Kleinfeld assures us that “Few Americans give much thought anymore on Dec. 7 that Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941” (A date to live in infamy but not for Mr. Kleinfeld or The New York Times). This style of anecdotal journalism reminds me of the way our Junior High school teacher warned us (correctly) NOT to write an essay but it is apparently in favor with both Oprah and The New York Times.

For The New York Times, their audience is global and they seek to portray events from what they consider a “global perspective”. Their employees are recruited worldwide and are aware of the line their employers pursue. This means first and foremost NOT to appear as presenting an identifiable American identity. The same conclusion can be made “in spades” regarding the BBC! Anyone who still has a warm, glowing positive recollection of the BBC from World War II’s memories of the blitz and the noble RAF should remain locked in their time machine with the dial permanently set at 1939-45.

The latest reporting from the New York Times, Newsweek and Time have set new records for not wanting to report the news that doesn’t fit their editorial line. Glenn Beck’s Tribute to Honor in Washington D.C. that attracted in the neighborhood of half a million participants was resigned to a few inches on page 34 of the Times and the other liberal journals were hardly more accurate in their non-coverage. Their sanctimonious condemnation of all opponents of the Ground Zero Mosque was the icing on the cake of irresponsible journalism. The assorted thugs and slum landlords who were the central figures in acquiring the property on which to build the “Community Center/Mosque” with non-existent funds and their ties to a variety of Jihadi activists and 9/11 deniers has set a new low in contempt for the public and the honor of what was once a noble profession.


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Dr. Norman Berdichevsky -- Bio and Archives | Comments

Dr. Norman Berdichevsky nberdichevsky.com, Ph.D. - Geography, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1974, is an author, freelance writer, editor, researcher, lecturer, translator and teacher with sophisticated communications skills.

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