Thursday, March 22, 2007

I've written before that media bias manifests itself in a number of ways, one of which is the emphasis the editors and writers place on different elements of the story. In choosing what parts of a story to include in the headline, which parts of the story to lead with and which parts of the story to bury, the reporter and editors can leave readers, especially those who only scan the headlines and the first handful of paragraphs, with an impression that is, at best, an incomplete picture...

An example is today's Washington Post article Prosecutor Says Bush Appointees Interferred With Tobacco Case, in which the "leader of the Justice Department team that prosecuted a landmark lawsuit against tobacco companies said yesterday that Bush administration political appointees repeatedly ordered her to take steps that weakened the government's racketeering case".

Pretty harsh accusation, right? Especially coming while the kerfuffle over Bush's firing of a relative handful of US Attorneys has turned into a full-blown partisan battle, this allegation would seem to support - if not outright confirm - allegations that the Bush Administration interferred with prosecutions in order to benefit their ideological allies and/or political contributors.

But if a reader bothered to read on to the 8th paragraph (after the fold), one would learn that these allegations were investigated by the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility which concluded that there was no political meddling in the case.

And if one continued to read even further, this time to the 13th paragraph, one would learn that decision by these so-called meddlers to scale back the scope of the charges against the tobacco companies was validated by the trial judge.

So.... given the facts, the Washington Post story could have been written along the lines of DOJ Watchdog Says Allegations of Interference Unsupported". The Post could have included in its headline the fact that this prosecutor's charges were looked into over 8 months ago and were determined to have no substance. The Post could have included that information in the 4 1/2 paragraphs of the story that appeared on Page 1. The Post could have simply passed on this story as the allegations were, as lawyers would put it, 'already asked and answered'.

But, no, the Washington Post decided to give it front page treatment. They decided to give the unsubstantiated allegations of a disgruntled and former employee emphasis over the (supposedly) non-partisan conclusions of the DOJ's internal review group.

I wonder why...