Skip to comments.PAINFUL BIAS
Posted on 11/16/2004 4:20:28 PM PST by CHARLITE
Forged documents. Questionable sources. A journalist out to prove her case, not the truth. A prestigious national media outlet desperate to save its reputation. In the wake of the CBS network's stunning display of media bias, questions emerge: how widespread is this phenomenon in the media and what is the effect? What recourse is available to the targets of media bias?
The Media Research Center (web site) has studied the problem of media bias for years. Brent Bozell, chairman of the MRC once wrote, "With the political preferences of the press no longer secret, members of the media argued while personally liberal, they are professionally neutral. They argued their opinions do not matter because as professional journalists, they report what they observe without letting their opinions affect their judgment. But being a journalist is not like being a surveillance camera at an ATM, faithfully recording every scene for future playback. Journalists make subjective decisions every minute of their professional lives. They choose what to cover and what not to cover, which sources are credible and which are not, which quotes to use in a story and which to toss out."
Media bias is not exclusive to national broadcast outlets. In fact, the problem may be worse at local outlets. For example, when there is only one newspaper in a city, there are no free market forces to keep bias in check. There are a myriad of examples of omission, misquotes, statistical inaccuracies and rampant usage of adjectives to tilt the scales toward a predetermined conclusion. In many cases, it is virtually impossible to discern the difference between a "hard news" story and an opinion piece.
Part of the blame for this phenomenon can directly be linked to the failure of journalism schools to actually teach the fundamentals of journalism. Instead, they focus on "communications theory." Budding journalists then start their careers at mid-level markets where they learn to ply their trade surrounded by like minded individuals. By the time they make their way to the larger media outlets, the die is cast and their bias remains unquestioned.
Recourse for those who are the victim of media bias is limited. Corrections seem to be printed in the smallest type font available and placed in the least read part of the newspaper. Letters to the editor require the victim to repeat the charge to correct it and letters to the editor are not as widely read as a front page splash. Newspaper ombudsmen are supposed to be the ultimate "fact check" for a newspaper and serve the readers of their publication. But it should be noted that their paychecks do come from the newspaper so if a victim of media bias is looking for total vindication, he might be sadly disappointed.
Bias has a very real effect be it on elections, individuals, court cases and even companies. One case of extraordinary bias can be found in the nine month saga over a series of articles run in the Orlando Sentinel on the pain prescription OxyContin. The 19-article series ran during a five day period, complete with jazzy layouts, photos and insert boxes for maximum impact.
It was written by Doris Bloodsworth, who described herself as a "mom with a word processor" who had "always wanted to be a reporter." She got her chance at the Orlando Sentinel with disastrous results.
The series ran in October, 2003, not long after conservative radio icon Rush Limbaugh admitted his addiction to OxyContin and was targeted by prosecutors in Florida. Coincidence? Or did this "mom with a word processor" suddenly develop an interest in OxyContin of her own accord?
The first article, entitled "Pain Pill Leaves Death Trail" - no bias in that headline - details anecdotal stories of the wide swath of destruction left by the evil OxyContin. Bloodsworth points to over 573 deaths caused by OxyContin statewide in Florida.
Trouble is, though, that oxycodone, the primary ingredient in OxyContin and more than 40 other prescription pain medicines, only caused one-fourth of those deaths. The rest of the incidents resulted from a combination of oxycodone and other drugs, many of them illegal substances such as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana. Others were clearly multiple drug abusers of commonly prescribed medications such as Xanax and Vicodin.
One of the anecdotal pain patients that Bloodsworth followed intensely through a detox program was David Rokisky, a 36 year old ex police officer who claimed addiction after he took OxyContin when it was allegedly prescribed for minor back pain in October 2002. Unfortunately, Bloodsworth did not do her homework on the central character in her series.
David Rokisky was not a hapless victim of the pharmaceutical industry looking to hook him on evil pain killers. Rokisky, in fact, had been criminally convicted on a drug conspiracy charge for cocaine trafficking in December 1999 and had numerous other legal troubles including a forgery conviction, domestic violence issues, property disputes in a divorce and allegations of drug usage. Not exactly the model citizen depicted by the Bloodsworth series.
After attempts by Purdue Pharmaceuticals to have the story corrected, the ombudsman at the Orlando Sentinel, Manning Pynn, wrote his column on October 26, 2003, praising the "meticulous reporting" of the Doris Bloodsworth series, focusing on the "high premium [Bloodworth] placed on the truth" and telling the Horatio Alger-like tale of Bloodsworth's dream of becoming a reporter.
But the story was not corrected.
In February, 2004, Ombudsman Manning Pynn recognized some of the myriad of errors reported in the Bloodsworth series and begrudgingly wrote a column, not on correcting the record, but on what changes the newsroom would implement so that this would not happen again. It took the Sentinel until August 2004 to acknowledge that the entire series grossly overstated OxyContin deaths and was "far off the mark."
What was the fallout from this five day series focusing on the evils of OxyContin? A congressman called for a House oversight committee hearing to "examine the growing problem of OxyContin abuse." Florida Congressman John Mica's press release even cites the erroneous statistics used in the Bloodsworth series as reason for his concern.
Governor Jeb Bush's Office of Drug Control jumped into the fray by organizing a multi-agency task force to "combat the rising problem of the staggering number of deaths caused by prescription drug abuse." According to the December 13, 2003 article on the formation of this new panel, "The task force was inspired in part by investigative reports...in the Orlando Sentinel."
The Florida governor and the Florida Speaker of the House also pushed legislation to implement a prescription tracking system that could "cut drug related deaths in half." Governor Bush said that the series in the Orlando Sentinel "exposed a problem that is too widespread and deadly to ignore."
Excerpts from the erroneous series even made its way into a GAO report (GAO-04-110) citing the same bogus numbers of deaths caused by OxyContin.
When an article or series is published, it does not do so in a vacuum. It is cited, passed around and distributed far beyond the pages in print. Lies told once are scattered to the winds and it is nearly impossible to get the truth out once a myth is born of the lies.
Stories like this seem harmless enough. But for millions of pain patients across the United States, drugs like OxyContin provide relief. If used properly, the pain prescriptions available on the market are safe, effective, and allow patients to lead some semblance of a life.
Doris Bloodsworth, the "reporter" who wrote the Sentinel series had a clear agenda and a purpose for making OxyContin a bogeyman. Clearly, this is a "reporter" who has never suffered from chronic pain. Her words had impact, though, despite their provable lack of veracity - they launched investigations, congressional hearings and even found their way into a government report.
So where does a company like this go to get its reputation back?
The ombudsman at the Sentinel did his job......finally. And only after the facts became overwhelming.
But not every victim of media bias is a company with the ability to spend hours, weeks and months trying to undo the damage the press is capable of. If the CBS Memogate incident showed Americans nothing else, it proved how far reporters are willing to go to make pre-conceived conclusions the gospel truth. It also served as an alarm bell to those Americans who have been peacefully slumbering, not wanting to believe or not aware at all of the damage that the press can do.
Any story from the main stream press, whether national or local, should be viewed with a jaundiced eye. We should all become ombudsmen to the media and never fail to point out their errors and bias, no matter how miniscule. The shockwaves from unchecked bias are far more dangerous than the hassle of challenging a key point or two with a media outlet.
Just ask someone in chronic pain sometime about what would happen to them if they didn't have their prescription pain medication. A "wanna be" reporter, left unchecked, could have done great damage to an entire population of chronic pain sufferers.
Kay Daly is president of the Coalition for a Fair Judiciary and a recipient of the prestigious Ronald Reagan Award from American Conservative Union. She has over fifteen years of experience in corporate, political, grassroots and crisis communications, marketing and policy research, and issues management. She is a published columnist having appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Times, Investors Business Daily, National Review Online, Worldnetdaily.com, Opeds.com, Townhall.com, and many others.
blogs are not news
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BINGO! Journalism students are taught to try and "change the world" as opposed to reporting the facts.
Brent Bozwell of MRC has written a book about media bias that my sister says is excellent.
Also how long has this been going on (Hint: It started with Nixon's battle with the media.)
What do you mean by "blogs are not news?"
Hopefully he was being sarcastic.
Journalism is politics; the First Amendment says that nobody can prevent that. Story selection - what is emphasized, what is reported, what is not mentioned - expresses the perspective of the journalist. The perspective of the journalist is not "bias"; under the First Amendment everyone is entitled to have and to express their own perspective.
However there is in fact "bias in the media." The actual bias in journalism is the fatuous claim that journalism is "objective." Journalism as an institution imposes that claim on any who would claim to be a reporter; dispute the claim of the objectivity of journalism and the whole institution will sneer at you. Get a journalist on a live interview program and pin him down on the "objectivity" of CBS reporting TANG forgeries as fact, and watch him sweat - he has no choice but to defend the indefensible. For to admit that any journalist is not objective is to call down the condemnation of the whole of journalism on your head.
That being the case, the proper stance of the conservative toward journalism is - suspicion. Journalists are properly presumed to be hucksters in thrall to standards whose actual purpose is to make their employers' business profitable.