Experts and Analysts
January 28, 2001
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One of the ways that newspapers deliver their opinions to readers in the guise of neutral news articles is to launder those opinions by putting them in the mouths of ostensibly neutral experts. This is one of those journalistic conventions that in principle is relatively harmless and may sometimes even be desirable. Problems arise, though, when the newspaper's selection of experts is so narrowly circumscribed that the readers end up getting a misleading account. The New York Times makes this error today in two front-page stories.
The first example runs under the headline "Bush's Transition Largely a Success, All Sides Suggest." It's the sort of headline that could cause jaws to drop among readers who had been convinced that the Times is out to get George W. Bush. It may be, however, that the Times' problem is not with Mr. Bush but with conservative policies. The Times says it relied on "independent academicians and analysts as well as politicians in both parties" for its judgment of Mr. Bush's supposed "success." Those analysts name Mr. Bush's selection of John Ashcroft as attorney general and Mr. Bush's order ending federal funding of groups promoting abortions abroad as the president's few "missteps."
Entirely absent from the Times article is any comment from a conservative critic of Mr. Bush, who might not view the Ashcroft appointment or the abortion order as missteps. Such a critic might, however, be upset that Mr. Bush has failed to abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Such a critic might be upset that that Mr. Bush's education plan would mandate new counting of racial and other victim groups. The plan says, "In keeping with current law, states will be required to report student assessment results to parents. In order to hold schools accountable for improving the performance of all students, these results must also be reported to the public disaggregated by race, gender, English language proficiency, disability and socio-economic status." Such a critic might be upset that Mr. Bush is sending signals that he is willing to give up on school vouchers. Such a critic might also be disappointed that Mr. Bush has not yet moved the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. In other words, the reference in the Times headline to "all sides suggest" isn't really accurate. The headline could say, "all sides within the liberal to moderate herd that the Times runs with."
The second example of the Times' reliance on a narrowly selected group of experts comes in another front-page story, about missile defense and China. The Times article says, "Without some accommodation, experts and Chinese officials warn, the American shield could poison relations, set off a dangerous arms race across Asia and even raise the chances of a war." The article paraphrases one "arms expert" as saying "A serious concern. . .is that if the American shield develops without a dialogue, then hard-liners on each side who describe 'worst-case' threats will be strengthened, promoting tensions and a race between offensive and defensive weapons."
In this article, the Times' selection of "experts" includes not one who is unconcerned about poisoning relations with the Chinese Communist regime, which is, after all, a brutal dictatorship. Such an expert might point out that "tensions" between America and the Chinese Communists might actually be desirable, and that if the tensions are increased enough the forces of freedom might actually triumph. Of course, an American who made such a comment, in the view of the Times, wouldn't be an "expert" but a "hard-liner," morally equivalent, in the view of the Times China "experts," to the Chinese Communist hard-liners.
Anti-Competitive: Today's New York Times Book Review carries a review of a novel about Israel and Palestine under the British mandate. The reviewer writes, "Life is not a contest and neither is art. All writers deserve prizes, if only for trying." To get a sense of how silly this statement is, imagine if the Times applied it to something it actually cared about. Say, journalism. Can you imagine the newspaper writing in its annual news article about the Pulitzer Prizes or in the ads the New York Times runs congratulating its winners: "Life is not a contest and neither is newspaper journalism. All journalists deserve prizes, if only for trying."
This world-view leads directly to another judgment in the same review. The Times reviewer quotes a character in the novel assessing Jerusalem in the late 1990s: "If Mrs. Linz had her way, she'd evacuate all the inhabitants of the Old City, blow up everything -- the Wailing Wall, the churches, the Dome of the Rock -- and build something useful, like a hospital." The Times reviewer praises this as "inspired iconoclasm."
Cosmetics Heir: A news article in the metro section of today's New York Times identifies Nelson Warfield as "a public relations agent whose corporate clients include Ronald S. Lauder, the cosmetics heir." The Times could have identified Mr. Lauder as a businessman in his own right, as a former candidate for mayor of New York, as a leader of the Museum of Modern Art, as the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Again, a useful test is whether the Times would treat itself this way. Can you imagine the newspaper referring to its own publisher as, "Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the newspaper heir"?
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