November 9, 2002

Tough to foil the spin…

Jack Shafer says Attorney General John Ashcroft “dictated” the news to the “stenographers” at The New York Times and The Washington Post in a press conference last week about a terrorist sting involving drugs for arms. He questions whether or not it was proper to use the verb “foil” in the headlines, and the lead of the WP article, in regard to an illusion. Shafer cites a Los Angeles Times headline and story as a more accurate representation of events. These were sting operations and did not represent real opportunities for arms to be sent to Al Qaeda (to be sure, the stings appear to have nabbed dangerous criminals).

The verb “foil” represents spin–either by Ashcroft and/or the two newspapers. I have not been able to find a transcript of the press conference. So I do not know if Ashcroft used the term. I will assume for the sake of this analysis that he used language that suggests “foil” is an accurate description of the action in these situations. I think the language quoted in the three articles cited here demonstrates this is a fairly safe assumption. As Shafer correctly points out: Politicians should never hold a press conference without knowing what headline they wish to create.

Shafer is accusing the reporters and editors at the NYT and WP of accepting without question the administration’s spin. I think he makes an excellent, if limited, case. How does such stenography happen? And, to put a slightly snarky spin on it: How does it happen that the two newspapers most reviled as hopelessly biased in favor of liberals swallow Ashcroft’s spin? This situation is an excellent example of the status quo bias of journalism. It is also an excellent example of effective news framing by the administration.

Apparently, no evidence was given connecting the suspects to Al Qaeda. The WP article does not mention this. The NYT let readers know that a direct link remains in question. From the concluding paragraph of the NYT article:

The three men allegedly told the American undercover agents that they wanted to sell the Stingers to members of Al Qaeda, officials said. But the officials would not discuss whether there was any evidence suggesting that the man had direct links to Al Qaeda.

The LAT article is more comprehensive in that the reporter questioned the link and bothered to interview two (named) outside “terrorism experts”–one questioning the drug-terror link and the other supporting it.

Shafer’s case is limited, as I said above, because covering a press conference represents the first step in news coverage. While I can confidently claim that the LAT did a better job initially, this is a news situation that the WP and NYT will continue to develop. What we need to watch out for is how the status quo bias affects the coverage after the initial framing of the event.

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