Why the NEA got a bum rap…

By now we’re all familiar with the controversy created by an article in the Washington Times (19 Aug. 2002) about NEA-proposed lesson plans for the 9/11 anniversary. The reporter, Ellen Sorokin, said that the NEA (qtd. from Spinsanity) “is suggesting to teachers that they be careful…not to ‘suggest any group is responsible’ for the terrorist hijackings that killed more than 3,000 people.” This statement and others seemed to indicate that the teachers’ union was advocating a blame-America-first posture–a posture that many right-wing pundits assign to any left-wing criticism of President Bush, the war against terrorism, or the detention of American citizens without due process.

Spinsanity analyzed the original article, compared it to the public record, and found errors that editor Brendan Nyhan considers evidence of bias and spin by the Washington Times. For the most part, Nyhan offers a cogent analysis of the reporting and the subsequent effect of that reporting. I believe he demonstrates beyond a doubt that the reporting was at least inaccurate in regard to what the lesson plans suggest teachers do. He says that

“the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, has been widely denounced for supposedly calling on educators not to blame the Sept. 11 attacks on al-Qaida. But this is a manufactured falsehood created by a kind of assembly line for political myths. The story is familiar: A distorted claim is fed into the echo chamber, where it is increasingly twisted as it is repeated over and over until it becomes conventional wisdom.”

Nyhan’s manufacturing metaphor argues that the distortion of the NEA position is intentional, i.e. Sorokin and The Washington Times intended to distort the facts for a political purpose. The “assembly line” portion of the metaphor argues that pundits took the raw material of Sorokin’s intentional distortion and created a political myth.

I concur with the assembly line metaphor, but I suggest that the manufacturing metaphor and its argument may be false. Note I said may be. Intention is a terribly difficult state of mind to prove, or disprove, even from textual evidence. In my own research, I have been studying the intersection between speech act theory and rhetoric to find a route to intentionality in persuasion. I can assure you it is quite difficult to do.

Let me suggest an alternate reason why Sorokin’s article inaccurately suggests NEA intention: incompetence.

While acts of intentional bias (right, left, and everything in between) surely occur in the press, I believe it is inaccurate to assign such an intention to the Washington Times in this case. Even at newspapers owned by polemics, the journalistic ethic of fairness and accuracy run strong in the veins of reporters. That does not mean that editors don’t assign reporters to dubious stories based on favorite targets (the NEA is a favorite target). That does not mean that reporters never distort the news for political reasons. It means that such intentional acts by reporters are rare. The key word is intentional. Distortions happen all the time because of (among other things) the structural biases of journalism, unique local political conditions, and incompetence.

In order to believe that this is a manufactured distortion for political purposes, one must believe that the Washington Times would knowingly report falsehoods on page one despite the ease with which such falsehoods may be detected. As Nyhan demonstrates, these falsehoods have been detected and are being reported by reputable newspapers. My contention might seem like a tautology, but it’s not. The key phrase is knowingly report. Did Sorokin knowingly report a falsehood? Then, did editors knowingly allow that falsehood to stand? Was all of this orchestrated for the purpose of harming the reputation of the NEA?

I do not have documented proof of Sorokin’s incompetence, which I suspect was caused by mis-reading the source material (I would argue the close-reading ability of Americans in general is going straight to hell these days). So I offer incompetence as an alternative–something to consider before we begin suggesting that a newspaper–even one owned by a religious conservative and targeted to conservatives–would manufacture a myth for political gain.

Now, Nyhan quite accurately demonstrates what happens when lazy or polemic pundits get ahold of an incompetently reported story. And his analysis of political myth-making is right on–a great civics lesson!

While I am no longer a journalist, I have certainly been guilty of incompetent reporting on this blog–or, rather, the blogging equivalent of reporting. I have mis-read source material. I have jumped to conclusions. I have selected quotes to effect my own purposes. And while it is not necessary for me to maintain a journalist’s ethics here, I do try to maintain a set of personal ethics, the foundation of which comes from the disparate worlds of journalism and academia. I have my opinions, such as they are, but I also try to be fair.

Pundits working in the so-called mainstream media, however, are rarely fair. They have agendas and political motives. They are biased and properly so. But they are also journalists, and that identity requires them to report, i.e. to gather the facts, to know the facts. The pundits who jumped on the NEA based on a false story are guilty of laziness and forgetting that they still have a duty to report. Such laziness and dereliction of duty is harmful to our republic.