Newspapaer Follies

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There are many ways a newspaper can slant the news: what it chooses to print, what it puts on page one, the position of alternative arguments within an article, etc. Such tilting allows a paper to promote partisan positions beyond its editorial page, or appeal to a core constituency – notions of “fair and balanced coverage” or “all the news that’s fit to print” be damned. I live in San Francisco. Still, I subscribed to The New York Times for years, till I noted its falling standards and switched to the San Francisco Chronicle, aka the San Francisco Comical. It is not a great newspaper, but at half the cost I got to read about the murders in Oakland, which I found more interesting than similar news from the Bronx. The rest of the coverage I judged about equal.

But on Jan. 19, I picked up a copy of The Times from the trash pile at my local coffee house – out of curiosity and perhaps the attraction of saving a dollar. An interesting front-page article, “A New Clobal Oil Quandary: Costly Fuel Means Costly Calories,” caught my attention. The article decried the plight of the third-world poor facing higher prices for vegetable oils, particularly palm oil, because of rising European demand for biofuels that can be made from the same stock.

The piece had a curious comment prominently positioned on page one, which read: “And all this is happening even as global climate change may be starting to make it harder to grow food in some of the places best equipped to do so, like Australia.” I read on to find out more, but I found nothing further on the subject of global warming. In a rather long article filled with facts and declaratory statements, the comment stood by itself, an affront to basic rules of journalism: it is the only comment in the article qualified by the word “may,” reducing it to a mere speculation and an unsupported one at that; it is the only comment on page one not followed up in the body of the article; in an article devoted to a discussion of market demand, it is the only reference to supply; it deals with food in general, not edible oils; there is no support for the idea that Australia is suitable for growing palm oil (which it is not).

In short, the comment on global warming was only a gratuitous airing of the paper’s editorial opinion, strategically salted on page one. With an arsenal of ways to slant the news more subtIy, I would at least have expected The Times to adhere to basic standards of journalism.

But there’s worse. The Times failed to tell the full story – what caused the increase in the demand for biofuels? The answer is obvious. The demand resulted from an attempt by European governments to replace fossil fuels and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The irony is that The Times tried to blame global warming, when the real culprit was misguided global warming activism. How did it miss that? Was The Times perhaps blinded by its ideological position?

A few weeks ago, the San Francisco Comical ran an article on a similar phenomenon, an increase in the price of corn because of the diversion of foodstock to ethanol, another biofuel, and the effect the increase was having on the poor of Mexico. At least the Chronicle didn’t blame global warming, although it’s committed to the campaign as much as The Times. But it also failed to identify the root cause of the price increase – U.S. government policies supporting ethanol production. This is unfortunate. No matter where one stands on global warming, the effectiveness of putative solutions, their costs and consequences, is important.

Unfortunately, if I want news coverage like that, I’ll have to look elsewhere. The Comical just isn’t up to it. Nevertheless, I stand by my decision to switch my readership. The next time I see a copy of The Times in the trash I’ll just leave it where it belongs.

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