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 Volume 1.15  This View’s Column May 20, 2002 


         
   
Announcing NPRPS

The National Press-Release Publication Service
   
         
         
   

Mainstream media — the broadcast TV networks, popular radio stations, the big newswire(s) and the big newspapers — seem to be turning into one gigantic press-release publication service. Especially for left-wing causes. This ought to be troubling to everybody.

Mainstream Media Bamboozled Again

Is it just my perception — or is the mainstream media, chiefly represented by ABC/CBS/NBC & AP/NYT/WP/LAT, really turning into just a gigantic press-release publication service? To which, for the most part, left-wing causes only should submit.

Here is a for-instance. In February, Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) issued a report saying that 25 percent of all alcohol consumed in the USA is consumed by underage drinkers. For a whole day, you could not go anywhere, listen to anything, look at anything, or read anything without having that statistic thrown at you. Hard.

Isn’t it, like, awful?

And it would be awful. Fortunately, it is false.

A New York Times article, Feb. 27, published the day after the false statistic was broadcast repeatedly to every living thing in the country, puts it thus:

After several news organizations reported a finding that under-age drinkers consumed a quarter of the nation’s alcohol, the widely respected antidrinking organization that issued the finding acknowledged that it had not applied the usual statistical techniques in deriving that number, which would then have been far smaller.

The organization “had not applied the usual statistical techniques”? Ah. What a felicitous turn of phrase. What delicate, diplomatic diction.

CASA lied. Plain and simple. And, for a while, it hoodwinked The New York Times and everybody else.

The actual percentage of underage consumption to be derived from the data is more like 11 percent. My degree is in Math, and I can guarantee you that nobody could come up with the statistic CASA came up with, using the data they had to work with, except by lying.

(By the way, the Center for Consumer Freedom, which represents a coalition of restaurant operators, claims that CASA has a habit of “factual distortion”. Another felicitous, diplomatic turn of phrase.)

Heck, an official practically admitted the deception was deliberate:

“It’s very unfortunate,” said Sue Foster, the center’s vice president and director of policy research. “We didn’t reweight the data. But we think the 11.4 percent number is way too low, since there’s so much underreporting.” (emphasis added)

Translation: We didn’t like the real numbers, so we tried to fool people. Unfortunately, we underestimated the intelligence of people who can read and work with numbers. It’s too bad our trick didn’t work.

But their trick did work. True, The New York Times was honest enough to report that the statistic was false, and that they themselves had featured the phoney stat in a previous article. But nowhere else in mainstream media did I see or hear even the slightest hint of a mention of a possibility that they had all been bamboozled.

Why? Well, if you were, say, just one little player in a Nationwide Press-Release Publication Service, you would just tell the public what you’re told to tell them, then forget about it — no?

Other Instances of NPRPS in Action

Science

The Center for Science in the Public Interest. I know you’ve heard of it. Who hasn’t? CSPI has attacked Chinese food, movie-theatre popcorn, Olestra, soda pop, fast food, and just about everything else, it seems, that Americans eat and drink. I know that. And you know that. What I want to know is: why do we know that? CSPI does not pay big bucks to have their reports published, and quoted, and cited everywhere: it doesn’t have to do that. All it has to do is say something like Food and drink are really bad for us: our only chance is to consume nothing but air and distilled water — and mainstream media dutifully announces it, no questions asked.

CSPI released a “Liquid Candy” report, October 21, 1998, on soda pop. One of its claims was that among 13-to-18-year-old boys who drink soda pop, average consumption is 3 1/3 cans per day. Actually, the average is 1 2/3 cans. The data had been collected for two-day periods, but had not been halved when reported as consumption per day.

Duh.

Though Consumer Freedom says that, like CASA, CSPI is “not above fudging the numbers to make its point”, my complaint is not that CSPI released faulty data. Well, not mostly. My complaint is that mainstream media is quite happy to act as a conduit for every CSPI utterance about any and every item of human consumption. As reported by STATS, for instance, the soda-pop report was dutifully mentioned in big newspapers around the country:

The CSPI claimed that 3 cans a day for a teenage boy poses a serious health risk. Unsurprisingly, the story was picked up: “Consumer group says teens in US drink too much soda,” (Wall Street Journal, 22nd October), “Soda curbs are urged in schools,” (Boston Globe, 22nd October.) But some reporters were skeptical of another killjoy report: “Teens may find it hard to swallow new warning,” (Chicago Tribune, 22nd October,) “Group takes hard stand against soft drinks,” (Buffalo News, 22nd October.) That approach was probably the better one to take.

Why? Big newspapers get hundreds — thousands? — of press releases every week. Why do activists groups like CSPI get attention so quickly? So readily. So credulously.

Food and drink aren’t the only objects of scare tactics by activists who find mainstream media an eager purveyor of its pronouncements. The environment, indeed, may very well be the winner in this category. Chicken Little, famed in story and song, apparently controls all the most vocal enviro-activist groups, and some of his barnyard avian relatives must work in mainstream media. When it comes to “projections” about the future of the environment, or pronouncements about its current state, the worse the projection or pronouncement, the more newsworthy it is.

The New York Times provides us with another instance. (Gee. The New York Times. Again. How about that?) On August 19, 2000, the Times ran an article entitled “Ages-Old Polar Icecap Is Melting, Scientists Find”, which began as follows:

The North Pole is melting. The thick ice that has for ages covered the Arctic Ocean at the pole has turned to water, recent visitors there reported yesterday. At least for the time being, an ice-free patch of ocean about a mile wide has opened at the very top of the world, something that has presumably never before been seen by humans and is more evidence that global warming may be real and already affecting climate. The last time scientists can be certain the pole was awash in water was more than 50 million years ago.

By now, you probably will not be surprised to learn that none of that is true: the North Pole is not melting, and open water at the North Pole is not at all uncommon during the summer.

The Time’s extraordinary, and extraordinarily wrong, claims were based on the eye-witness reports of two men, “Dr. James J. McCarthy, an oceanographer, director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University” and “Dr. Malcolm C. McKenna, a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History” . McCarthy and McKenna both reported to the Times that they had been at, or very near, the North Pole earlier that month, and each had encountered open water, or the thinnest of ice sheets, where in earlier years they had encountered ice many feet thick.

According to McCarthy, encountering a “melting” North Pole made a big impression on his fellow passengers:

Recalling the reaction of passengers when they saw an iceless North Pole, he said: “There was a sense of alarm. Global warming was real, and we were seeing its effects for the first time that far north.”

Fortunately, not only ice gets thick at the North Pole. The following week, the Times had to run a retraction, of sorts, entitled “Open Water at Pole Is Not Surprising, Experts Say”, August 29, 2000:

The ice covering most of the Arctic Ocean, several researchers said, is broken by long, wide cracks and gaping holes in many places, sometimes even at the pole, and especially in the summer. During a typical summer, 90 percent of the high Arctic region is covered with ice, with the remaining 10 percent open water. This has probably been true for centuries, they said, the result of motions in the ice sheet caused by winds and the force of ocean currents, as well as warming temperatures.

The original alarming proclamation had been trumpeted on page A-1, the front page, and was widely echoed throughout mainstream media. If you do a web search, you will find the article posted or quoted or cited at many websites now, without any indication that it was just about completely wrong. (Some sites do, of course, note the mistake; others have articles devoted to correcting it.) The correction received the same kind of attention in the rest of mainstream media as it did in the Times — which ran it on page D-3. And even the correction has been faulted for errors.

And we are not told if McCarthy’s fellow passengers expressed relief at finding out that their ill-advised expectations had allowed them to be needlessly alarmed, or if they felt they had been made to look the fool, if nowhere else but in the mirror.

Now, the alarmist McCarthy is not merely an oceanographer and a Big Brains Intellectual at Harvard, he is also “the co-leader of a group working for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is sponsored by the United Nations”. The IPCC is one of the world’s biggest coops of Chicken Littles. Unfortunately, mainstream media around the world is happy to announce their sky-is-falling scenarios whenever they come out — if not sooner. Witness a BBC article, October 28, 2000:

A draft report prepared for the world’s governments says that the Earth may heat up much more than current forecasts suggest. The report, by scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), says average global temperatures could rise twice as much as they thought earlier. Polar icecaps could melt, raising sea levels. It foresees a possible rise of 6C above 1990 levels. Five years ago, the IPCC was predicting a probable maximum increase of 3C.

Notice the weasel words: the planet “may” heat up more than thought before; temperatures “could” rise twice as much as thought before; polar ice caps “could” melt; and, IPCC foresees — foresees? — a “possible” rise in temperature much higher than 1990 levels.

But... but... need this really be said?... but, the planet might not heat up more than thought before, temperatures might not rise twice as much as thought before, polar ice caps might not melt, and temperatures might not rise so much above 1990 levels.

But the title of the article, without weasel words, is even worse:

Global warming ‘worse than feared’.

Yikes!

Well, maybe not. The same BBC ran an article, Feb. 25, on a recent report by a group of scientists that dissent from IPCC’s apocalyptic scenarios:

The report says the IPCC’s conclusions “have become politicised and fail to convey the underlying uncertainties that are important in policy considerations”. Its detailed criticisms of the IPCC include:

  • projections of climate change based on models and assumptions which “are not only unknown, but unknowable within ranges relevant for policy-making”
  • models which “do not adequately characterise clouds, water vapour, aerosols, ocean currents and solar effects”
  • a failure “to reproduce the difference in trends between the lower troposphere and surface temperatures over the past 20 years”.

The authors conclude: “The IPCC simulation of surface temperature appears to be little more than a fortuitous bit of curve-fitting rather than any genuine demonstration of human influence on global climate.”

“Little more than a fortuitous bit of curve-fitting”? Translation: they determined the outcome before they knew the data, and selected and coerced the data into supporting the desired outcome. (This, too, can be called lying.)

Mainstream media by and large, however, gives nobody any clue that IPCC’s report is hotly disputed by reputable scientists, or that mankind’s influence on global warming is similarly disputed, too, by professionals of stature. (Sorry, all I can do here, now, is give you a clue.) Scenarios less alarming, and more probable, than the IPCC’s extreme we-are-all-going-to-die by-being-burned-to-a-crisp or-by-drowning-in-rising-sea-levels scenario receive much less attention. Dissenting viewpoints, no matter how prestigious the scientific sources, receive even less attention. If any at all.

Yes, organizations and individuals continually offer criticisms and corrections — and, sometimes, thorough-going point-by-point rebuttals — of reports from groups like CSPI and IPCC. Steve Milloy does a great job of collecting and presenting them at the Junk Science website (and occasionally appears on television). But mainstream media isn’t the Nationwide Press-Release Publication Service for them. Why not?

Politics

The robot-like helpfulness provided by NPRPS in getting out “scientific” reports usually overlaps with its uncritical obeisance to left-wing politics. These days, this happens most often with the possibility of drilling for oil in ANWR, the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge. I just noticed today that Juan Gato posted a succinct sarcastic note on this, May 17:

CNN Headline news just did a brief bit on oil in Alaska, with a bit about ANWR. During the entire piece they ran video of caribou teeming across all those areas that wouldn’t be drilled in. Then they showed a pipeline for a couple seconds, and went back to the caribou. Nicely done!

Gato alludes to the facts of the case: drilling is proposed for a minuscule area in a barren wasteland where nothing lives — except, perhaps, the microscopic. No caribou. No snow bunnies or snowy owls or ptarmigans. No evergreen forests. No lovely meadows. Nothing living would be affected by drilling in ANWR.

How come it looks so much as if NPRPS has decided that the USA doesn’t need to know the truth about this?

The past week or so, however, has shown the usefulness of NPRPS in strictly political terms. The first case came and went in a flash: the second is still winding out.

Bigwig Democrats complained vociferously, May 14, about the Republican National Committee using a photo of President George W. Bush aboard Air Force One, September 11, 2001, as part of its fund-raising efforts. Former Vice-President Al Gore called it “disgraceful”. Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe called it “disgusting”.

Mainstream media was more than happy to report these declarations of outrage, feigned or not. They were all set to make America think the Bush administration had egg all over its face — until they realized the next day that nobody outside the D.C. beltway cared, unless it was to show that they cared by making sure they got a print of the photo, by making a donation to the RNC.

Talk about misreading the tea leaves. Or focus groups.

Forthwith, the whole subject was dropped — in favor of the next political brouhaha: the revelation, May 15, that George W. Bush had himself received a CIA intelligence briefing, August 6, 2001, in which it was mentioned that al-Qaeda might have plans to hijack planes. Somewhere. Sometime. For some unknown purpose.

For that, the White House has had to spend five days now, defending its actions last summer.

Mainstream media, at least television, spent considerable effort Thursday morning, May 16, trying to make Americans believe that the White House might have known about, and could have prevented, the attacks of September 11, 2001. As reported in Media Research Center’s Cyberalert Extra, May 16:

The ABC, CBS and CNN morning shows opened Thursday by treating the disclosure, that the CIA had told President Bush some vague information about how al Qaeda might be looking to hijack a plane, as if it were evidence of some sort of scandalous cover-up of how the Bush administration “knew” in advance of the terrorist attacks. Both ABC’s Charlie Gibson and NBC’s Katie Couric opened their shows by provocatively asking: “What did he know and when did he know it?” CNN’s Paula Zahn similarly wondered “what the President was told about a potential terrorist attack before 9/11, and when he was told it?”

But Democratic operatives, in government and in media, seem to have misread the tea leaves again. Friday, House minority leader Dick Gephardt was chiming in with Gibson and Couric, “What did he know and when did he know it?” (Shades, of course, of Nixon and Watergate.) By Sunday, though, Gephardt was already distancing himself from such talk, claiming that he had never meant to call into question whether the White House had done everything it could to prevent any attacks.

By then, don’t you know, it had become common knowledge that members of the House and Senate intelligence committees, including Democrats, received similar information in their own intelligence reports. And it had become indisputable that the previous, Democrat, administration had received similar — but more specific — warnings a long time ago; as mentioned in a National Review Online article by Mark Levin, May 20:

Last Friday [May 17], the Associated Press reported that a federal report was prepared for the then-Clinton administration in which warnings were made about a possible al Qaeda effort to hijack U.S. planes and crash them into buildings, including the CIA [building]. When President Clinton was asked about this last Friday, AP reported that Clinton said “he knew about the dangerous potential of Osama bin Laden but discounted reports that a 1999 analysis should have alerted his administration to a terrorist attack on the scale of the September 11 attacks.”

But agents of NPRPS had been practically tripping over themselves, eager to perform a service that may not have been formally requested. So reports today’s Cyberalert:

The media hullabaloo over how the August 6, 2001 presidential intelligence briefing contained a hijacking warning President Bush failed to heed, was “phony” and “bogus,” Newsweek Assistant Managing Editor Evan Thomas contended on Inside Washington. He suggested: “The media beast was so happy to have a scandal here, that we jumped up and down and waved our arms and got all excited about it.” NPR’s Nina Totenberg conceded journalists were ahead of Democrats in trying to create an aura of scandal: “Nobody in the political establishment said ‘what did they know and when did they know it?’ That was us in the media.”

Likewise, an article in today’s American Prowler:

According to a senior Democratic Senate aide, the word has been out for more than six weeks that “We have to get Bush,” says the source. “Daschle is absolutely desperate. Gephardt, I guess is absolutely desperate. Bush’s polling numbers weren’t moving down, he was bulletproof. Everyone was under orders to keep their eyes and ears open for anything we could use.”

It’s not clear whether [Senate majority leader Tom] Daschle was aware of the potentially explosive information prior to its being put in the hands of Washington reporters. "I’d be surprised if he did,” says a senior Democratic leadership aide. “It isn’t the kind of thing he’s want [sic] to really see or know about beforehand. But we know someone friendly to our side did the leaking. We knew if we could get something out there, the media wouldn’t try to put the leak into political perspective for the public, just the potential for a ‘Briefing-gate.’ And, as usual, the press did our job for us.”

That would be, specifically, the Nationwide Press-Release Publication Service.

And news reports today say that surveys (whatever they might be worth) indicate that the American public’s confidence in the president and White House has not been significantly affected. In a couple of days, therefore, this folderol will be as old hat as the scandalous-photo folderol: the egg was on some faces, but not those desired.

Why the Existence of NPRPS Matters

I am not a “conspiracy theorist”. I do not think that a group of people sits down somewhere each day and decides what Americans are going to see on TV or in the newspapers, or hear on the radio. But I do think that mainstream media in the USA is, or is becoming, virtually the Nationwide Press-Release Publication Service.

I am what you might call a “likemindedness theorist”.

I think that mainstream media comprises individuals, in editorial and writing positions, of whom the overwhelming majority have a similar worldview: secular, liberal, and elitist. They tend to think, for instance, that our environment is being destroyed, that profit-making corporations are wicked, and that more government is better government; that liberals are good and conservatives, evil; and, that journalists and bureaucrats know what is better for us than we do ourselves.

Moreover, they quite naturally think that those outside media who are likeminded — secular, liberal, elitist — are necessarily good, right, and true.

That is why mainstream media is, virtually, the Nationwide Press-Release Publication Service: the good ol’ boys and girls at CASA and CSPI and IPCC argue, one way or another, for more and more government control of our lives, even to what we can choose to eat and drink. Nobody at NPRPS thinks that anybody at CASA or CSPI or IPCC might be trying to flimflam an unsuspecting public. (I leave out of consideration, for now, the possibility that NPRPS might actually be in on the flimflammery.) So, nobody at NPRPS bothers to do a little independent research to check alleged facts coming from left-leaning groups: they all have the correct intentions, the correct aims, the correct opinions... the correct thoughts. Real corrections, when needed, are evoked by complaints from folks who really know the facts and speak up.

Need it be said how dangerous this is? To all of us? Especially when combined with the increasing neglect of necessary distinctions, discussed last time.

Americans at large are eagerly fed one-sided opinions from special interest groups — isn’t it strange, by the way, how mainstream media usually fails to characterize activist organizations as special interest groups, unless they are conservative in nature — and from Democrat political operatives, with little or no corrective information from other viewpoints. Until they’re called on it.

Americans at large are told what others are told to tell them, true or false. This is worse than being blindfolded: it is being fitted with blinders, thinking they are eye glasses.

ELC 2002

   


 Volume 1.15 This View’s Column May 20, 2002 





The View from the Core, and all original material, © E. L. Core 2002. All rights reserved.

Cor ad cor loquitur J. H. Newman — “Heart speaks to heart”