Belmont Club

The Truth Shall Drive You Nuts

Two news stories, one which describes the secret history of Helen Thomas and the Reuters news agency‘s removal from its photos of a knife in the hand of a peace activist standing over a bloodstained IDF boarder on the humanitarian flotilla raises the question of what else is out there that we don’t know? How can we estimate whether this is simply an outlier?

Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post described his recollection of the Dame of the White House Press Corps, who recently made headlines when she called on Jews to ‘go home’ to Germany and Poland. “‘Frankly, I was shocked,’ said Rabbi David Nesenoff, who was at the White House for a Jewish heritage celebration”. But Kurtz was not. Her attitudes were an open secret among the press corps. It was just that no one took the trouble or felt it was right to write about her attitudes.

While the 89-year-old Thomas is renowned as a trailblazer who aggressively questioned 10 presidents — including President Obama, whom she pressed last month on Afghanistan — her hostility toward Israel has been no secret within the Beltway. Though she gave up her correspondent’s job a decade ago, she retained her front-row briefing-room seat, even as colleagues sometimes rolled their eyes at her obvious biases. …

Mark Rabin, a former freelance cameraman for CNN, said that in a 2002 conversation at the White House, Thomas said “thank God for Hezbollah” for driving Israel out of Lebanon, adding that “Israel is the cause for 99 percent of all this terrorism.”

CBS Correspondent Mark Knoller said “as a columnist she felt totally unbound from any of the normal policies of objectivity that every other reporter in the room felt compelled to abide by, and sometimes her questions were embarrassing to other reporters.”  Knoller makes a fair point. Columnists are not ethically bound to be objective and are employed to express an opinion. Anyone who actually listened to Thomas wanted to. But what about hard news agencies? Aren’t they supposed to report the objective truth? Reuters is under fire for removing relevant information from its “news” photos.

The British-based Reuters news agency has been stung for the second time by charges that it edited politically sensitive photos in a way that casts Israel in a bad light. But this time Reuters claims it wasn’t at fault.

The news agency reacted to questions raised by an American blogger who showed that Reuters’ photo service edited out knives and blood traces from pictures taken aboard the activist ship Mavi Marmara during a clash with Israeli commandos last week. Nine people were killed and scores were injured in the clash. …

In one photo, an Israeli commando is shown lying on the deck of the ship, surrounded by activists. The uncut photo released by IHH shows the hand of an unidentified activist holding a knife. But in the Reuters photo, the hand is visible but the knife has been edited out.

The blog “Little Green Footballs” challenged Reuters’ editing of the photo.

“That’s a very interesting way to crop the photo. Most people would consider that knife an important part of the context. There was a huge controversy over whether the activists were armed. Cropping out a knife, in a picture showing a soldier who’s apparently been stabbed, seems like a very odd editorial decision. Unless someone was trying to hide it,” the blog stated.

In a second photo the unedited print issued by IHH showed blood along the ship’s railing and a hand holding a knife as an Israeli soldier lies on the deck. Both the blood and the knife were missing in the photo that Reuters released.

Reuters on Tuesday denied it intended to alter the political meanings of the photographs.

“The images in question were made available in Istanbul, and following normal editorial practice were prepared for dissemination which included cropping at the edges,” the news agency said in a statement. “When we realized that a dagger was inadvertently cropped from the images, Reuters immediately moved the original set as well.”

Reuters has yet to respond to charges about the second photo.

Whoops. So sorry. Unlike the Thomas case, the Reuters omission really matters.  The so-called brutal Israeli descent on the peaceful activists has driven up international tension. By distorting the facts, Reuters risks not only inflaming the Middle East, risks not just increasing the chances of war, but an unjust one to boot.

But maybe Reuters just slipped up. After all, to err is human.  But to conspire is human too. How can we know whether the omissions of the press aren’t random noise but a superimposed signal? How can we know whether Reuters isn’t wittingly or unwittingly advancing a political agenda? Early in the 20th century, advertisers discovered they couldn’t trust the press. “At the turn of the 20th century, publishers were ungoverned. A practice of inflating circulation figures to win advertising dollars was common. With little recourse, advertisers were forced to buy advertising based on exaggerated circulation claims.” So in 1914 they created the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Faced with the commercial problem of verifying circulation stats, they resorted to auditing.

The methods circulation auditors employ are not very different from any other audit. Basically the watchdogs take a set of claims and hire independent inspectors to go and collect field samples. If the statistics of the sample vary markedly from the claims, a red flag is raised. So for example, a newspaper claiming a circulation in millions but whose publications can’t be found at newstands in any quantity would raise suspicions. Advertisers would stop buying ads in that newspaper and the market would punish the lie. Can the same principles be applied to the news? Can the press be relied upon to audit the press? Can rival sides of the ideological press be trusted to police the other? Or are we left with two separate news narratives neither of which can be regarded as ‘true’?

Open thread.

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