Thursday, August 25, 2005

Nut Graphs

Last night, while copy-editing our wire news pages before they were sent to press, I came across the Associated Press' latest nut graph on Cindy Sheehan.

[N.B.: Nut graph has nothing to do with sanity. It's the few sentences that sum up the background of an ongoing story, and which are printed somewhere down in the text of each new article in an evolving coverage. Sometimes a reporter just keeps it as a "save" file and pastes it into every story he or she writes on that topic.]

I know it's a nut graph, because it turns up again today:

Sheehan and other grieving families met with Bush about two months after her son died last year, before reports of faulty prewar intelligence surfaced and caused her to become a vocal opponent of the war.

It actually surprised me that AP would make the point that the woman whose news value is based on her demand to be talked to by the president has already been talked to by the president. It's true, of course, but it's an inconvenient fact, and I'm surprised AP didn't take the opportunity to overlook it. That's how sad it's gotten.

But the whole context of that graph looked wrong. I didn't have the facts at my fingertips, however, and we were on deadline, so I let it go. I meant to look it up further today. But I didn't have to look far. The right-wing site Powerline had got there first. The AP's graph is wrong on exactly the two points I suspected it was:

As anyone who has followed this story knows, this claim is utterly false. Sheehan has always been a "vocal opponent of the war;" her opposition had nothing to do with "reports of faulty prewar intelligence." By her own account, as we noted here, Sheehan was bitterly opposed to the war before her son Casey re-enlisted in August 2003:

I begged Casey not to go. I told him I would take him to Canada. I told him I would run over him with a car, anything to get him not to go to that immoral war. *** The U.N. weapon inspectors were saying there were no weapons of mass destruction. So I believed all along that this invasion was unnecessary and that there was some other agenda behind it besides keeping America safe.

So, far from having been turned into a "vocal opponent" some time after her son's death, Ms. Sheehan already considered the war "immoral" before he re-enlisted in 2003, and she never did believe the intelligence about WMDs.

Moreover, Brown's chronology makes little sense. The fact that substantial stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction had not been found in Iraq was well known long before Casey Sheehan's death in April 2004. The Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation into prewar intelligence on Iraq was commissioned in June 2003, which was not only before Casey's death, it preceded his re-enlistment. On October 3, 2003, David Kay's Iraq Survey Group released its initial report, which said that no WMDs had been found. So Angela Brown's assertion that Sheehan became a "vocal opponent" of the war only after her son died, as a result of revelations about "faulty prewar intelligence," seems intended to mislead readers by whitewashing the history of Sheehan's virulent anti-administration past.

Liberals and even centrists tend to jump all over Powerline when it reaches too far, or slips into some rhetorical excess. But this is why we need such sites. Someone has to watch the watchdogs. And so far, that's broken down into a partisan job. There are left-side media watchdogs and right-side ones. To do this on a day-to-day basis, you have to have some sort of pit bull mentality to grab onto the media's calf and not let go of it. But that sort of motivation doesn't well up from a moderate, truth-for-its-own-sake mentality.

So we'll see what happens if I'm given the page with the Sheehan story to read tonight. Do I speak up? Do I point out that the AP is wrong? Do I draw the surly stares of fellow copy editors and risk being smacked down as a right wing nutjob chickenhawk? Do I betray the fact that I am familiar with online sites that question Cindy Sheehan's motives and, worse, question the media's?

This is not an idle question. The matter of my continued employment here is not many steps removed from the matter of making sure the Associated Press story we run is accurate. The strange part is, that I have to worry about my job only if I do my job.