Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

22 January 2018

NYT Buries Global Women’s March, Fox-Like

[For selected photos of creative signs from the Oakland, CA, branch of the Women’s March, click here. For links to popular recent posts, click here.]

Last Saturday’s “Women’s March” was not as big as last year’s, which was reportedly the biggest coordinated nationwide demonstration in US history, and the third biggest in recent global history. But this year’s March was enormous nevertheless. Early estimates suggested nationwide attendance by hundreds of thousands, and maybe a million or more in some 250 cities around the globe.

Nowhere near all the marchers were women. My fiancée and I attended the part of the March in Oakland, California. She thought there were about 30% men; I thought it was closer to 50%. The marchers we saw included a large proportion of families. Attendees were multicultural and multi-racial, a true cross-section of America.

But you wouldn’t know any of this from reading the New York Times, let alone its subtly misleading headlines. The Times’ Sunday edition had no front-page retrospective on the Saturday March at all. The front page had only a single photo, obviously taken from a helicopter, revealing no identifiable features other than buses stranded in the crowd. The verbal reporting, buried on pages 16 and (under “News Analysis”) 18, was misleading in important respects.

As a news reader, there are four things you want to know about any protest march, especially a nationwide one. First, how big was it really? Second, who attended: what types of people, and how diverse were they? Third, what was the tone, and was there any violence or lawbreaking? Finally, what was the purpose of the protest, according to the marchers themselves?

Getting this basic information right and in perspective is hardly rocket science. But the Times reports on last Saturday’s global Women’s March earned a passing grade on only the last point out of four, its purposes.

The most important thing about any protest is its size. In Oakland alone, I could see, with my ex-physicist’s quantitative eye, a crowd of 25,000 to 30,000 people from where I was standing. Police estimates were 40,000 to 50,000, again in Oakland alone. Los Angeles’ mayor estimated half a million in that city alone. Yet the Sunday NYT’s main news report, buried on page 16, reported only “thousands” of attendees.

On the type of marchers, the Times again earned a failing grade. The headline of its main news story on page 16 read: “United Against Trump, Women Take to the Streets.” (emphasis added.)

The body of the story consisted of random quotations from individual marchers, with no particular organization or theme. The headline was misleading in two respects and disrespectful in one. The March was far from all about Trump: sexual predation, women’s empowerment, racism, and women running for office were all major themes. Those marching were also far from all women: in Oakland men and youth were at least as big a fraction of the marchers as Trump supporters are of voters polled. As for respect, would anyone describe MLK’s march on Washington in 1963 (the locus of his “I have a dream” speech) as “taking to the streets”?

A rabble “takes to the streets.” Large groups of peaceful citizens “march,” “demonstrate” or “protest.”

Surely the headline writers on the New York Times, which has the greatest literary pretension of any of our four national newspapers, know the difference in tone, shading, and dismissiveness. Surely the subtle bias was no accident, else someone should be fired. Don’t close to a million people worldwide, marching peacefully and purposefully, deserve some respect?

The Times also utterly missed the tenor and spirit of the March. Maybe the less than handful of reporters it sent to cover it helicoptered in for a brief visit and wrote most of their stories from the Internet or advance written materials prepared by the March’s organizers, perhaps only in New York. It certainly seemed that way.

In all the reporting I have read, the March was utterly devoid of violence and lawbreaking worldwide. There were no reports even of discord. In Oakland the mood was determined but at times joyous, even festive, with large numbers of families and dogs. The Times reported none of this.

The Times only passing grade is on the March’s purposes. In fact, there were at least four: (1) protesting Trump’s presidency, including its misogyny, bigotry and racism; (2) highlighting and protesting sexual predation and harassment, including Trump’s own; (3) empowering women, especially female youth; and (4) encouraging women not just to register and vote, but to step up and run for office. Every one of these purposes was on display in the many original hand-made signs in the Oakland March, some of which appear in photos below.

The Times’ burial of the March was evident not just in the sloppiness (or absence) of its reporting and the main news headline. The placement of the main news story on page 16 played a part. It appeared opposite a full-page, full-color ad for Club Med. The story itself was a mere fifteen column inches, framed on top and bottom by color photos of the March. In both the facing Club Med ad and the photos, the colors pink (in prominently displayed “pussy” hats) and red (in US flags) showed matching highlights.

If color coordination of the two facing pages were the test, the Times reporting on the March would have earned an A+. But the resulting visual impression was one of lightness and frivolity. In fact, as I was looking for a serious story—any serious story—on this global march, I nearly bypassed the main news report for this reason. (The Times “News Analysis” on page 18 provided better and deeper reporting, not so much of the March itself as of the aims and divisions among the organizers and participants. But even this piece failed on precise numerical statistics; it also seems to have been prepared mostly from written materials available beforehand.)

Among many hand-written signs from Oakland that caught my eye was one that read “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.” Perhaps the Times didn’t really intend to bury the March. But if not, it certainly was negligent. And the misleading and dismissive headline, coupled with the orders-of-magnitude underestimation of crowd size, contains the seeds of malevolence.

Among the most memorable James Bond quotations is this: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.”

The tarring of six likely 2020 Democratic presidential candidates as “hard left,” without any specifics or differentiation among them, may have been happenstance. The subtle marginalization of what was likely the second-greatest nationwide protest-march in American history may have been mere coincidence, or just lazy reporting. But a nationwide march by women, even if it had been attended by women alone, is nothing to marginalize: women are more than half the electorate.

Therefore all Times readers—especially foreign and progressive ones—must stay vigilant in looking for that decisive third time: another clear sign that the Times is doubling Fox as an instrument of right-wing bias and a propaganda tool of our business ruling class.

There will be differences, of course. Fox is about as subtle as a kick in the solar plexus. The Times will be necessarily more subtle, as befits some of the brightest and most experienced reporters, headline writers and editors in all of “print” journalism. With multimedia ever creeping into “print,” we can also expect more subtle visual bias and shading, like the color coordination with the facing Club Med ad.

So the watchword for Times readers, especially foreign and progressive ones, is vigilance and caveat emptor (let the buyer beware). The old generation of Sulzbergers is gone, and the new one may be in the process of being co-opted by our oligarchic business ruling class. Only more time will tell, but damning evidence is piling up.

Note to Readers.

Some may wonder how I follow the Times’ coverage while refusing to subscribe. The short answer is that my fiancée, born and raised in New York long ago, subscribes to the print edition, which we both read when we are at her home in Berkeley. But I also use four free features of the Times: (1) its daily e-mail headline newsletter, (2) its daily opinion-page e-mail newsletter, by David Leonhardt, (3) (more occasionally) its online front-page, which tracks its print edition and has links to inside stories; and (4) the limited free monthly stories it offers on line to nonsubscribers.

As I have analyzed in depth, these four free features (and their counterparts in competing online newspapers) make an important contribution to free online journalism and so to our American Fourth Estate. In part for his obvious quantitative economic training, I find David Leonhardt to be the best all-round journalistic generalist in America today.

So I’m not oblivious to the Times’ contributions to journalism generally, and especially to the difficult transition of “print” journalism to the Internet and modern multi-media. Perhaps some of the examples of sloppiness and poor journalism of which I complain are artifacts of the Times’ rapid and sometimes chaotic push to expand its circulation and range of media in order to survive in the Internet age.

But Fox also originally sought, also successfully, to expand its circulation. It did so by appealing to the average worker’s “gut” prejudice, instant judgment, and loudmouth style—in other words, to the worst in us.

Becoming human history’s most effective and most dangerous propaganda machine may have been entirely coincidental, James Bond’s “happenstance.” But it happened to Fox.

It’s impossible to imagine the presidency of Dubya, let alone Trump, without Fox. It’s hard to conceive of the present rise of both corporate and political dysfunction in America, let alone the present surge of misogyny, racism and bigotry, without Fox. Whatever the mix of mere venal commerciality, sensationalism, and malign intent, Fox has done irreparable damage to us as a nation—our politics, our ability to compromise and seek practical solutions, our science, our collective belief in truth and expertise, and our basic honesty and competence, which once were unquestioned and now are doubtful.

If the Times follows Fox down that road, we are done. Our democracy will be finished, and our growing oligarchy will entrench. Our global leadership in politics and trade, let alone science, will disappear. Our standard of living will follow—and perhaps our very survival as a nation-state. After all, corporate oligarchy was a big factor in the Fall of Rome, and there are centrifugal trends among us even now.

So if I accentuate the negative, it’s not because I don’t appreciate the Times’ efforts to maintain good journalism and expand it in the Internet Age. I just see growing political bias, both subtle and not-so-subtle, creeping into that journalism, along with sloppiness and poor quality.

That’s all similar to what led me to cancel my thirty-year subscription to the Wall Street Journal, after having given Rupert Murdoch’s subversion a two-year try. The problem, as I’ve explained, was not just bias, but basic journalism: headlines that didn’t match the leads, leads that didn’t match the stories, and most-important facts appearing in the final paragraph, which contradicted both the headline and the lead. Nearly always the sloppiness listed toward the right, as did the Times’ recent dismissive reporting on likely 2020 Democratic presidential candidates and on the second global Women’s March.

So just consider me a canary in the coal mine. But above all, be prepared to look beyond the Times to the Post and to regional and foreign sources for real, unbiased news. Just as we no longer have three straight-shooting TV networks with solid professionals at the helm, we are going to have to “surf channels” to find good “print” journalism on line. Caveat lector! (Let the reader beware!)

Selection of Creative Signs from Women’s March 2018 in Oakland, California

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