- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 16, 2004

A joke has President Bush and the pope sailing down the Potomac on the presidential yacht. The wind blows the pontiff’s cap off and it falls into the water. Mr. Bush orders the yacht stopped, gets off and walks across the water to retrieve the pope’s cap.

The next day’s headline in the New York Times is: “Bush can’t swim.”

It is hard to know whether media bias is getting worse or the mainstream media are just getting caught more often because of alternative sources of news like Fox News, talk radio and a growing number of Internet sites. Twenty years ago, CBS News and Dan Rather might have been able to continue bluffing their way out of the forged-documents scandal because the other members of the big-three broadcast networks were unlikely to press the issue. The biggest mistake of Mr. Rather and CBS News was in not realizing it is not 20 years ago any more.

According to the Drudge Report, an official of ABC News recently sent out a memo saying “Bush attacks on Kerry involve distortions and taking things out of context in a way that goes beyond what Kerry has done” and that ABC News needs to “help voters evaluate what the candidates are saying” in the public interest. Apparently none of that “We report, you decide” stuff for ABC News.

There is always a temptation for the media to go beyond the role of reporting to the dicey role of spinning — and to do that, not just in opinion columns, but in what are presented as news reports. Page One of the New York Times is perhaps the most blatant example of editorials disguised as news reports, but by no means the only one.

A gimmick used increasingly to avoid even discussing some arguments on public issues is to focus on the emotions — or presumed emotions — of those making the arguments rather than on the arguments themselves.

This gimmick was widely used in news reports of Georgia Democratic Sen. Zell Miller’s devastating recitation of all the anti-military votes of Sen. John Kerry over the years. Whether Mr. Miller’s facts were accurate or his conclusions logical were either not addressed or buried under discussions of his anger.

A recent New York Times review of the book about John Kerry in Vietnam — “Unfit for Command” by John O’Neill — simply ignores or arbitrarily dismisses the book’s charges while calling Mr. O’Neill “curdled with hatred for Kerry” and having “a fixation on attacking Kerry.”

Much mainstream media have likewise ignored or dismissed this book, without ever letting the readers or viewers know the facts for or against its serious charges. Twenty years ago, that would have been enough to bury it.

But, again, it is not 20 years ago any more. The Internet, talk radio and Fox News made enough people aware of this book that the big three broadcast networks and the New York Times could no longer continue indefinitely acting as if it didn’t exist. Not without losing more of their own credibility.

This is not to say mainstream media bias has been completely neutralized. Many people still depend on CBS, ABC and NBC for their news and still regard the New York Times as the paper with high journalistic standards it once was.

The same media gimmick of turning questions of fact into questions of emotion is still used to avoid inconvenient arguments by focusing on the person making charges instead of the substance of the charges.

Thus critics of the public schools are accused of “bashing” teachers. Criticisms of Dan Rather are explained away by the fact conservatives have long been “hostile” to him. It may well be true many Jews have been bitter against Adolf Hitler. But does that prove the Holocaust never happened?

Emotions neither prove nor disprove facts. There was a time when any rational adult understood this. But years of dumbed-down education and emphasis on how people “feel” have left too many people unable to see through this media gimmick.

But, then, that can be dismissed as “bashing” the schools.

Correction: In my Sept. 27 column, I said 20 percent of the meat sold in Nairobi, Kenya, was bush meat poached from a nature preserve owned by Wildlife Works of Sausalito and that this group was the source of that estimate. That was incorrect. The estimate was not from Wildlife Works, and the 20 percent estimate applied to bush meat from various parks, preserves or other sources in Kenya combined.

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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