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Media Mangle

A “Blood Libel” Against The N&O

Raleigh newspaper shows restraint, Durham newspaper doesn’t

Sep. 23rd, 2003
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RALEIGH — Triangle residents might be surprised to learn that The News & Observer of Raleigh, longtime stalwart of North Carolina's liberal journalistic establishment, is biased in favor of the Bush administration and its reckless foreign policy.

That has been the contention of a number of left-wing and anti-war activists in the region, who apparently believe that the N&O failed to provide all sides of the story leading up to the war in Iraq. To the casual reader, the charge is nonsensical. The coverage of the debate about Iraq, before and now after the war, has been extensive in most newspapers in North Carolina and across the country, with the N&O no exception. Plenty of viewpoints, pro and con, were aired in its pages and continue to be. But the leftist critics, unsatisfied with any journalistic decision other than running the likes of Robert Fisk's propaganda and Noam Chomsky's paranoid ravings every day, will have none of it.

Things came to a head earlier this year at a meeting of a community panel that the newspaper had convened. Stephen Dear, longtime activist against the death penalty and a well-known gadfly around town, was a member of the panel. He decided to read a statement savaging the N&O's supposedly right-wing bias. You can read the statement, the response from the newspaper's staffers, and other assorted commentary about this at the web site of the Independent Weekly, a Durham-based alternative paper that has disgracefully given the “controversy” top billing in its Sept. 17-23 issue.

Why do I call this disgraceful? Not because a reader had deigned to question a newspaper's journalistic judgment. That's fair game, of course. I do it all the time, too. No, the problem here is that Dear didn't limit himself to making a fact-based claim. In fact, his claims showed no evidence of having been based on a serious content analysis of the N&O's coverage of the war, such analysis requiring a great deal of research and the selection of a long-enough period of time to reflect the paper's full breadth of coverage. Instead, he picked out a couple of anecdotal examples and then proceeded to level some truly scurrilous and represensible charges.

For example, Dear ridiculed the fact that the newspaper's Jay Price, embedded with the troops, was depicted wearing a combat helmet "as if playing a toy soldier." Actually, Jay (a former roommate of mine who did an excellent job in a dangerous assignment) was required to wear a helmet, as were all of the journalists involved.

Dear called the N&O's reporting "something out of Dr. Strangelove," failing to explaing this strange and unfunny reference. He then said that "for its role in the war on Iraq, the N&O already has the blood of Iraqi children on its hands."

This is an appaling thing to say, as well as a sickeningly uninformed one (it was the fascist, Baathist thugs who had the blood of children on their hands, quite literally, and who would still be in power in Iraq, killing and imprisoning thousands of young children and raping their mothers in front of them, if American, British, and Australian troops hadn't liberated the country). You don't have to have favored the war — and I suspect that more N&O editorial staffers opposed it than supported it — to find this kind of charge way beyond the pale.

The response from the N&O's Melanie Sill was diplomatic, to say the least. She challenged his use of "insulting" language but did not choose to pursue a time-consuming, point-by-point refutation. What got Dear and the folks at the Independent so upset was the internal email response from reporter Lorenzo Perez, who summarized the conversation for his N&O colleagues in a useful way but who also sought to make light of the Dear statement with a few choice turns-of-phrase. Frankly, the only honorable alternative would have been to belt Dear one, so under the circumstances I think Perez made the right, and peaceful, choice.

But by all means, follow the link, read the exchange, and draw your own conclusion.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.