05 July 2008

Mr. David Cay Johnston, I Got Yer Response Right HERE!

(read the comments here for the reason behind this post)

1) Some disciplined King-Harbor workers still on the job (the title doesn't match, but it's the same story)
This article focuses on the recent discovery that many health care workers at King-Harbor who had been disciplined, and the folks that run county health services strongly implied that these 'bad apples' would be tossed aside, were still on the job or working elsewhere within the county system. The reporting of the story is mostly straight, but there are a few sins of omission. In my opinion those omissions are reflective of a 'progressive' and 'pro-labor' approach to the problems at King-Harbor.

First, they missed the real story to this story, and the fact that they missed the juicier part of the story, in my opinion, is attributable either to incompetence, or bias. Computer records detailing disciplinary hearings of employees at a troubled facility vanish into thin air making it far harder to track these employees and verify if the promised measures had taken place is a major story, yet that's not the focus of this article. Here's the salient bit
But a Times review of personnel data and disciplinary appeals shows that at least 22 employees with significant disciplinary histories at King either still work at what remains of the facility -- several outpatient clinics -- or have been reassigned to other county hospitals. Exactly how many problem employees from King are on the job remains a mystery.

After receiving an information request from The Times, county officials said they discovered that a computer glitch had destroyed electronic records used to track where disciplined King workers were sent after the hospital's closure.

The loss of the records system is particularly startling in light of the hospital's troubled history. The facility's medical lapses have been blamed, in part, on its failure to keep accurate records on workers' job performance. The result was that some problem employees had personnel files that looked spotless.

Some members of the Board of Supervisors expressed dismay at The Times' findings, saying they showed that the board had failed to make good on its pledge a year ago. "It frankly sticks in my craw that we have not been able to deal with the people who personified the culture that caused King to close," Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said. "We have not fulfilled our promise to clean things up."

Seems to me the first question should be, 'Was the loss of this data intentional?' How could you not pose that question? When you analyze something like this, the thought running around your head should be, 'who has something to gain?, who has something to lose?'. Maybe the reporters did attempt a follow up to how the data disappeared, who was ultimately responsible, and who any likely suspects are if it was an intentional act. Maybe the reporters wanted to comment on how suspicious this data loss appears and the editors tore it out of their original draft. If it had been a CEO who had conveniently discarded possibly damning data, would that not have been pursued a bit more vigorously?

Also, when they went to speak with others about these workers, I find it interesting that John F. Schunhoff, the county's interim director of health services, is paraphrased while SEIU local 721 president Annelle Grajeda is quoted directly. That isn't absolute proof of bias one way or another, but it does suggest a better relationship with Grajeda, and they do print her insinuations about management and the Supervisors without challenge.

Sometimes a little muckraking is called for, instead this article is bland, what's happened within the county health services is appalling, yet rather than really attacking this story, the LA Times just sort of nibbles around the edges of it. Conclusion, this story isn't biased so much as useless, I'd prefer biased.

2)Secret tapes of former Orange County sheriff contain racist and coarse language
When a story fits all the paper's favorite stereotypes about law enforcement officials and Orange County residents, then there's no reason to do anything but just report the story straight as can be. No bias, put possibly (probably) some glee in getting to cover this.

3)McCain again shuffles top campaign aides
The LA Times covers changes in McCain's staff hierarchy, nobody was fired, nobody was really even demoted, just a few responsibilities shifted, yet quite a few column inches were created, anyway. First off the record quote,
"There's a lot of unease," said one Republican strategist who is an occasional advisor to the McCain campaign. "There's the age factor, the past-versus-the-future thing. He's conservative by most measures and people generally like him. But when it comes down to getting excited about the candidate, it just isn't there."

If there's one thing I hate, it's unsourced, unnamed quotes. Said one LAT staffer to me, "I hate working here, it's no fun anymore, it's nothing but old timers waiting for a buyout, incompetents hoping nobody notices they can't do their job, and ideologues hoping to sneak in as much crap as possible before the whole ship goes down in flames". What, you question whether or not someone from the LAT said this to me? (yeah, you probably should, and I also question who this unnamed strategist is, or even if they exist)

Next paragraph has an interesting inclusion
The campaign changes were revealed while McCain, 71, was in the middle of a three-day excursion to Colombia and Mexico to highlight his views on free trade, a trip that fed perceptions that the senator is operating as his own campaign chief, to his detriment

What's McCain's age doing in this sentence? Might it be part of some larger effort to paint McCain as old and out of touch at every opportunity? Also, the sentence itself doesn't follow from the previous sentence, doesn't contribute much of anything, and draws a conclusion that isn't supported by any facts. How does this trip 'feed perceptions' that the Senator is operating as his own campaign chief? I'd like to know, I don't see it, but maybe I'm missing something.

Another questionable sentence follows a bit down in the article
Many in the party feel that having a former lobbyist in the campaign's top spot undermines McCain's reformer image and message that he is the best candidate to change Washington.

Funny, I really don't recall too many within the GOP speaking ill of lobbyist and lobbying (our Governator being a notable exception). "Many in the party" is another one of those phrases like, "one Republican strategist" that raises all sorts of alarm bells, especially when the assertion being made doesn't really match with where most of the party is. Lobbying gets a bad name, they're an easy target, but it's mostly been the DEMs squawking about undue influence. Conclusion, another case where there are some odd choices, but mostly fair reporting, and lots of bad writing. As I said in my original post, it's not the bias that's so bad (but it's still there), it's the fact that what they serve is such thin gruel, to go along with the predictable framing and mindset.

That article is in sharp contrast to the July 5th article on Sen. Obama's decision to wrap himself up in Old Glory and offer up a more "nuanced" definition of patriotism (Obama doesn't use the word, but the article does, and that in of itself says plenty, doesn't it?). No unnamed sources, no 'Democratic strategist', instead many quotes directly from Sen. Obama, along with some framing quotes like this one
Ann Shea, 47, an attorney who lives in Butte, said the nation faces hardships that trump patriotism.

"The issue is, we're paying almost five bucks a gallon in gas, we're in a war we shouldn't be in, and the current administration, which is the one McCain will carry on, is just lying to the American people to get what they want," she said. "Obama's not about that."

So in an article on McCain, nothing really about Obama, but in an article about Obama, let's not forget to take a jab at McCain, sounds like a plan.

Here's the concluding few paragraphs of the piece
This week, Obama visited North Dakota, Montana, Colorado and Missouri, emphasizing family values and patriotism. His campaign understands that he needs to look reassuring and familiar -- like a patriot.

Montana's Democratic governor, Brian Schweitzer, said in an interview Friday that Obama struggled in his early life in ways that Montanans can appreciate. Schweitzer said it was unfair to paint Obama, with his Harvard Law degree and Ivy League pedigree, as elite.

He "grew up being raised by a single mother and grandparents when she didn't have enough resources," the governor said. "This is what happens in politics. You cannot in any way measure Barack Obama's life and call him elite."

Obama likes to say that words matter. But he knows that pictures matter too.

On this Fourth of July, Obama was not merely talking like a patriot. As he watched the parade -- and as a battery of cameras recorded his reactions -- he clutched in his hand a tiny American flag.

Yeah, no bias at all, nope none to be seen. First, get the folksy Democratic Governor of Montana to remind folks that Obama is just folks, but top it off with the reporter somehow knowing in his heart of hearts that The Obama is "not merely talking like a patriot". The reporter could mean that Obama now realizes that he must play the stupid flag waving game and 'look' the part as well as 'talk' the part, or he could mean that deep down Obama really appreciates the 'tiny American flag' he clutches (but not clings, please, no clinging) in his hand and has been as much of a patriot as anyone, he just has trouble expressing it.

In my opinion, the McCain article seems much more accusatory and questioning of the information given, while the Obama article reads like a press release from the Obama campaign (although the campaign might not have dared to release a press release that was quite so glowing and fawning as the actual 'news' article that escaped onto the pages of the LAT).

I'm getting bored of this now, mainly because the LAT A & B sections are very boring to read (not that C & D are all that much better written, but at least they're shorter, usually).

As far as picking three more articles, no way Jose, I concede, I'm wrong, you're right Mr. Johnston, since I couldn't prove that EVERY article contains hints of bias and agenda journalism I guess that proves what?

  • That I have a habit of overstatement, even if my original point generally remains perfectly valid (nope that's probably not what you were looking for).

  • That those layers of editors at the LAT suck the life out of every article (nope, that's probably not where you wanted me to go, either).

  • That neither of us proved anything to the other with this exercise, you'll still think that the LAT, NYT, WaPo and the like are beyond reproach, and that bloggers are just nuts with keyboards, while I'll continue to think that there are way too many fuzzy headed liberals running around these institutions who regurgitate a whole host of outmoded received wisdom and that, along with an outmoded business plan will lead to the near total demise, as its currently configured, of the print news industry within the next decade.

  • You've made your point Mr. Johnston, I was wrong, you were right to question the absolute nature of my statement (have I mentioned I have a tendency towards overstatement?), but just because you disproved (with my willing participation) that there is an absolute tendency for bias to infect every aspect of every article doesn't mean that my larger point about bias infecting the decision making process, the tone, the writing style, and even who they hire and fire has also been refuted (bias doesn't have to be manifest in every case to be ever present, it's there, it's not always expressed, but it's always there, and it would take some radical changes in staffing and philosophy for things to be different at Spring St.).

    It's not like Im the only one who's had thoughts along these lines based on the latest round of firings and buyouts at various papers, Glenn Reynolds has a go at the LAT here, and Ed Driscoll kicks them while they're down as well. On top of that, a few weeks ago Matt Welch commented on other proglems at the LAT, and while he doesn't speak about bias, he does speak about a company with a sickly corporate culture.

    1 comment:

    davidcay said...

    Thank you for that thoughtful post.

    On the third article, the campaign trail piece, it surely does show how the current conventions of campaign coverage result in stories long on superficial nonsense and overly broad, overarching assertions, like the concluding paragraphs that you quote. Worse, those paragraphs are not well crafted for the reader.

    Editors are unlikely to change these conventions if all they hear are broadsides alleging bias. Better to hone the critique and ask why specific items of significance are not the focus of coverage.

    On the second story, it is, as you agree, a perfectly straight account.

    No need to sully that with your own stereotyping biases, especially since the LAT clips are rich with stories that shoot down any claim that law enforcement or Orange County residents are treated as monolithic in the paper.

    On the King hospital story, I am glad that you acknowledge there is nothing that supports your post about inserting editorializing into the article.

    As for your omissions critique, I think you are grasping at straws.

    There is zero evidence that the reporters lacked diligence or that they did not (and are not) pursuing the points you make about what you think should have been the focus.

    Your assertions about bias or incompetence also lack any factual basis from the report itself.

    Even accepting your point, arguendo, your line about "pro labor" is bizarre given it is rank-and-file workers, not managers, whose personnel records are being examined. Here you are just projecting your own biased assumptions.

    The article addresses the actual issues you say the reporters missed, but not in a definitive way. The facts in the article make it clear that no definitive answer was available. That does not mean the search has ended. Indeed, your own post suggests that you believe the LATimes is continuing to pursue the issues.

    The story, on its face, makes it reasonable to assume the reporters are continuing to look into the "glitch" to determine whether it is real or fabricated and its broader meaning.

    There is zero evidence that the reporters lacked diligence in trying to find out how and why these records disappeared.

    Your musing about a question you think they did not ask is without basis, as you do not know what was asked. (As framed, your question is both inartful and tendentious, but I'll trust here that you were just using shorthand. The art of framing questions to elicit revealing answers, a subtle skill, was not the point of my challenge.)

    Given the stakes at King (some people died, some received awful care and the taxpayers were shortchanged), watchdogging personnel actions (and the loss of records) is not just legitimate, it is public service.

    Since I doubt you want a newspaper that just prints the official version of events (too many other cities have that kind of newspaper), the King story in particular seems worthy of praise and encouragement to continue digging. But with a diminished staff, it will be less likely that reporters will spend the time needed to do that digging.

    The reporters also took care to let the workers they named get their side across in a nuanced and revealing way. That runs counter to your broad, original post assertion.

    The King article, in particular, seems to be a model of thorough, evenhanded and aggressive reporting, limited only by the space the reporters were given.

    On your point about hyperbole, the problem with broad sweeping assertions, as in your original posts is that they discredit broadly, ignoring serious and straightforward work like that the three articles examined here (even given the flaws in the campaign piece).

    That is not to take away from the value in criticizing journalists, which I have done in print for decades and donate money to support. But you know about babies and bathwater...

    BTW, I picked the three articles without reading them, just from the headlines.

    I hope our exchange will encourage you to be sharper in your critiques so they encourage better reporting, not gloating.

    I also hope you post your words, and anyone else's, with the original site so the record is easily searchable.