The Lapdog Press

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If
you ever wanted to see a prime example of our supine media, here
it is.

Stop now, read the article first, and mentally digest it before
you begin.

The
order that facts are presented in an article is important. Most
people don't read anything but a headline to decide if they want
to read an article. Even if they don't continue, the person stores
away the headline as a summary of the whole story, filling in
the blanks. When reading, very few people read past the opening
couple of paragraphs. That and those capricious editors are why
journalism schools teach the inverted pyramid approach to writing.
Important paragraphs at the start, less important at the bottom,
and write so the editor can cut the story at the end of any sentence.
Take a look at the headline, and see what it immediately suggests:

Passenger
Prompts Landing At Dulles

Man Approached Cockpit Despite Ban

Suppose
you didn't even read beyond the headline, since you were only
flipping through the paper. You might think, "Hey, they caught
some guy doing something fishy around the cockpit on a flight
to DC. I wonder what he was up to. Probably no good." The
headline mentions the man in a negative light twice. We are immediately
suspicious of this furtive character loitering around the cockpit.
He did it "Despite (the) Ban", just who does he think
he is! Now that we've set the stage with the headline, look at
who is quoted and in what order:

(Unnamed
Government) Authorities, an FBI spokesman, a US-Air Spokesman,
a passenger, several passengers, an Airport Authority Spokesman,
the FBI Spokesman (again), an Airport Authority Spokesman (again),
a US-Air Spokesman (again), the FAA (who confirmed nothing, twice),
Authorities (again, who?), the arrested man's mother.

So
the tally runs: Government 7, Industry 2, Passengers 2, and Adversarial
Citizen 1, Accused 0. Government spokesmen who were not even first
hand witnesses get over half of the quotes, including the first
two slots. Passengers on the plane get two, the man's mother gets
the last word, which is unlikely to be read, and is unrelated
anyway, and its not even mentioned if the "suspect"
was contacted.

The
second paragraph is a prime example of the "free press"
acting as little more than scribes for government press flaks.
Read this through, and we'll dissect it.

The
passenger, Raho N. Ortiz, 33, refused to follow a new federal
rule requiring passengers to remain seated in the last half-hour
of an approach to National, said Chris Murray, an FBI spokesman.

Refusal
denotes a willful decision made in spite of knowing the consequences
of an action. It presupposes that Mr. Ortiz knew this special
rule in advance, and decided to get up anyway. Isn't that a loaded
word to use considering the circumstances, and the description
offered by the passengers that Mr. Ortiz complied immediately
and kept apologizing? Maybe he was asleep; maybe he was wearing
headphones; maybe he was typing on his laptop and didn't hear
the announcement; maybe he was daydreaming while staring out the
window. Let's rewrite that sentence, change just the word "refused",
and see how it changes our perception of the story:

The
passenger, Raho N. Ortiz, 33, forgot to follow a new federal rule
requiring passengers to remain seated in the last half-hour of
an approach to National, said Chris Murray, an FBI spokesman.

Pretty
different take on the events, eh? Our would-be terrorist looks
more like a normal person, instead of a pencil-thin mustachioed
bad guy. Post writers who cared about reporting should challenge
an FBI spokesman instead of just quoting him. It'd be easy. "Can
you really say refused, since the guy claims he forgot?"
If the FBI wants to assign motive anyway, it's the reporter's
job to think clearly enough to realize spin, and leave it out
of the story. An unbiased, factual statement would not assign
motive. It would look like this:

The
passenger, Raho N. Ortiz, 33, left his seat in violation of a
new federal rule requiring passengers to remain seated in the
last half-hour of an approach to National.

Just
facts, no motives. Let's trash the entire second paragraph and
re-writing it as a quote biased from the passenger's point of
view:

The
passenger, Raho N. Ortiz, 33, was arrested for leaving his seat
to use the restroom. "I guess they announced the rule along
with all the other stuff about putting up your seatback and tray
table, but I wasn't really paying attention. I got up to use the
restroom, and these guys started waving guns and yelling at me
to get down, so I did."

When
asked about the felony charges, Mr. Ortiz replied. "I couldn't
believe that they would arrest me for forgetting about a new rule
that only applies to this one airport."

Suddenly
we see ourselves as the passenger. Just an ordinary person worried
about getting our luggage, and meeting our ride at the curb. Get
up to pee, and WHAM! handcuffed in the aisle.

What
about the other passengers. They are all eye witnesses, with no
probable bias one way or the other. Why only two quotes from them?
Only one of the passengers was directly quoted in the article,
and then only about Ortiz. This little snippet gives us an idea
what the situation on the plane might have been like:

Some
said they briefly thought that the plane was being hijacked and
panicked.

Were
they afraid that Mr. Ortiz was hijacking the plane, and thank
goodness for those sky marshals, or were they afraid that two
plainclothes guys with guns ordering everyone to put their hands
on the seat were the hijackers. Were they thankful that the sky
marshals acted to stop Mr. Ortiz, since he practically sprinted
to the front of the plane (he walked briskly according to the
non-witness US-Air spokesman, remember), or was everyone miffed
at an overreaction since a simple reminder from a flight attendant
would have sufficed? This technique is called bias by omission.
Passengers should constitute the majority of the interviewees,
since they are the best source of unbiased information about the
whole affair. The one passenger interviewed and quoted by name
gives exculpatory evidence in favor of Mr. Ortiz. The other passengers
don't come off too favorably for the sky marshals.

Those
questions, and negative comments from the other passengers might
put the government, the sky marshals, and the special new rule
in a bad light, however, and Washington Post reports don't
appear to be in the business of doing that.

Finally,
at the very end of the article, Mr. Ortiz's mother gets her turn.
Getting the last word might seem like a good thing, but it's a
curse in the newspaper world. Hardy anyone reads the entire article,
so putting the quote at the bottom is a sure way to kill anyone
reading it or recalling it. This technique is called bias by position.
Mrs. Ortiz is not exactly the best person to act as an advocate
for her son. Her one quote is a PC-laden preferred minority defense.
No mention is made of an attempt to contact Mr. Ortiz, although
the Post tells us they tried to call the EPA. Why? Was he unavailable
for comment at press time? That's hard to believe since he was
released by 8:30 pm, and no less than 5 people at the Post worked
on this story. Maybe a lawyer would have a cogent defense for
himself, or scathing remarks for the government, or nothing to
say at all about his employer, in which case "Mr. Ortiz (was
not available for / refused to) comment." would be nice.

Now
that we've asked all the relevant questions in our role as watchdog
press, instead of lapdog media, let's change the headline to something
more appropriate:

Sky
Marshals Order Landing At Dulles

Man Forgot Ban, Headed for Head

Changes
the entire character of the story, doesn't it. Our immediate bias
is against the government's overreaction to a bathroom visit,
and Mr. Ortiz seems more like a Walter Mitty daydreamer than a
foiled terrorist. The interesting sub-plot to this entire affair
centers around 3 other facts: first, Mr. Ortiz had a bit of pot
with him, second, he's a Navajo Indian, and third, he's an EPA
lawyer.

The
felony charges have been dropped, and thank goodness. One is left
to wonder however, if a non-lawyer, non-government official, non-preferred
minority with a bag of pot would have been let off as well. I
can imagine a situation where a white bricklayer with a bag of
pot gets the book thrown at him. The felony "not sitting
on approach to DC" charge stays, and felony "Interstate
Drug Trafficking", "Possession with Intent to Distribute"
and other drug related charges are heaped on to a misdemeanor
charge of owning a restricted vegetable.

Hopefully
this entire affair will cause Mr. Ortiz to rethink his career
at the tyrannical EPA, now that he's briefly tasted the warped
justice of the FAA from the wrong end of the barrel. If only the
same could be said for the Washington Post writers who
use loaded words, don't question authority, use bias of position
and omission as well as leading headlines to warp our perception
of the news. The media is no longer an honorable 4th
estate, asking the tough questions to keep the government's employees
and actions under scrutiny. They now act more like a wire service
for a legion of government spokespeople, giving us little more
than we would get out of a government run newspaper.

November
15, 2001

John Keller
[send
him mail]
owns a Technology
Consulting
and a Real
Estate
business in Atlanta, GA.

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