The Lapdog Press

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