Thursday, December 22, 2005

Bias Happens

The other day, I wrote about "media bias," which, I say, is real and continuous, but not usually the deliberate and nefarious act it's often assumed to be. It's rather a function of the journalistic need to keep to the self-defined "center" of a reality when writing about it -- the place where the bulk of the readers or viewers will be.

This is not so much a conscious function as an acquired unconscious activity in the minds of people who "do" news on a daily basis. That leaves them vulnerable to the trips and falls of anyone working out of the unconscious: assuming that your center is everyone else's, you'll often find that it isn't (especially when you're much more liberal than the mass of the nation); and certain stories and issues will be sharply polarized and have no bulky center to hold you up.

Here's an example of a news story -- a single incident -- shaped in different ways by three different media outlets. They didn't report it individually; it was passed down the line, and each new media that touched it altered it, downplaying some angles, pumping up others. What came out the other end of the media tube was much different than what went into it. And to a certain point of view -- mine, for example -- the final product looks awfully biased. But it is possible to interpret it as merely an innocent reflection of the editors' sense of what mattered to their audience.

On August 7, 2004, the Associated Press moved on its domestic (U.S.) wire a story titled Soldiers' Rescue Attempt in Iraq Rebuffed.

PORTLAND, Ore. - Oregon National Guard soldiers attempted to stop Iraqi jailers from abusing dozens of prisoners, but were ordered to return the prisoners to their abusers and leave, according to a published report.

A soldier spotted a man beating a prisoner June 29 in a courtyard near the Iraqi Interior Ministry, The Oregonian, which had a reporter with the Oregon guardsmen of the 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry, reported in Sunday's editions. Members of the unit later saw other prisoners who appeared to have been beaten, and items that could have been used to torture them.

And so forth. There are two kinds of AP stories: the ones generated by AP staffers and the ones sent in by affiliates. This was the second kind. The sole source of information was "The Oregonian." There's no AP byline on it, which means the AP didn't do any additional reporting on it. They just re-shaped the information from "The Oregonian."

This is how the AP gets a good many of its stories, sent in from member papers. We send them one or two on a typical night. The AP tightens them a bit, takes out some of the purely local references that will mean little to readers beyond our county line, and ships them out on the regional or national wire.

The ONG story also moved the stories in oversease versions. Here's how it came out in German:

Neue Vorwürfe zum Umgang mit Gefangenen im Irak

Portland/USA (AP) Bezüglich der Behandlung irakischer Gefangener haben US-Soldaten neue Vorwürfe gegen ihre eigenen Vorgesetzten erhoben. Ein am Sonntag veröffentlichter Bericht der amerikanischen Tageszeitung «The Oregon» legt nahe, dass die Misshandlung zahlreicher Häftlinge durch irakische Polizisten von US-Kommandeuren geduldet wurde. Die Zeitung beruft sich auf Soldaten der Nationalgarde von Oregon, die versucht hätten, den misshandelten Irakern zu helfen. Sie hätten jedoch Befehl erhalten, die Häftlinge mit ihren Peinigern allein zu lassen.

My translation of that is this:

New allegations on handling of prisoners in Iraq

Portland/USA (AP) Concerning the treatment of Iraqi prisoners, U.S. soldiers have made new allegations against their own supervisors. On Sunday a published report in the American daily paper "The Oregon" [sic] indicates that the abuse of numerous prisoners by Iraqi policemen was tolerated by U.S. commanders.

The newspaper's sources are soldiers of the Oregon National Guard, who had tried to help the abused Iraqis. They were instructed, however, to leave the prisoners alone with their tormentors.

The way the facts are stacked puts the emphasis on U.S. misconduct. The juxtaposition of "U.S. soldiers" and "treatment of Iraqi prisoners" conjures up echoes of Abu Ghraib, even though the circumstances here are utterly different: no abuse by U.S. troops, the Americans -- so far from being involved in torturing prisoners -- went out of their way to protect and aid prisoners being abused.

It seemed to me when I first read it that the lede on the U.S. story was a straight news lede, an accurate presentation of the relevant information in the story. The lede to the German version was highly spun; it seemed to want to tell a different story than what actually follows.

Soldiers on look-out saw a man beating a prisoner in the Justice Ministry courtyard. The battalion commander [Lt. Col. Daniel Hendrickson, who deserves credit] led a group of soldiers into the compound and separated the Iraqi guards from the prisoners, many of whom had obvious marks of abuse. "The Oregon soldiers freed the prisoners, gave them water and administered first aid." U.S. military police arrived and disarmed the Iraqi policemen.

After Hendrickson radioed for instructions, he was told to return the prisoners to the Iraqi authorities and leave the detention yard.

Neither Hendrickson, a Corvallis police officer, nor others interviewed by 'The Oregonian' would say who gave the order.

The story adds that "The U.S. Embassy in Iraq told The Oregonian that the United States raised questions about the June 29 'brutality' with Iraq's interior minister."

The incident occurred after sovereignty was transfered to the Iraqi government. The ability of the U.S. troops to intervene in a situation like that was much diminished. Their marching into the Iraqi prison becomes not a matter of military policing, but of sovereignty. But this date isn't mentioned until far down in either story, and the context is never explained.

Note, too, that the vague "were ordered to return the prisoners" of the back half of the U.S. lede becomes prison abuse that "was tolerated by U.S. commanders" in the German story.

When I first wrote about this, a Chomskyite troll who was lurking on my site announced that the German version of the story was the "correct" one, and the U.S. version was the one that was full of bias, because it didn't play up the American criminality. Pulling a proverb from the Book of Chomsky, he pronounced the German AP story "the truth," and the domestic AP reporting "another example of American press slanting thing to serve state power." Yet as in all cases of "whisper down the line," the further the story travels from its source, the less it resembles it.

If you trace the story back to the "Oregonian" version, you see that the soldiers interviewed were very explicit about what happened, but silent about who gave them the orders. They give the impression that this is being investigated, and that they are wise enough not to say too much. It stretches the facts beyond their honest limits to say, as the German version does, that the soldiers "made new allegations against their own supervisors."

The Associated Press has bureaus in more than 120 countries that not only funnel news back to America, they "tailor" the AP's news and photo reports "to reflect the specific regional interests" of different nations, according to the AP's Web site. The AP itself translates its news into French, Spanish, German and Dutch (translation into other languages generally is done at the agency level). This story, generated in the United States and then exported to Germany (where the AP supplies approximately 85 per cent of the daily newspaper copy), took on a whole new color.

But is this deliberate bias? Without getting into the heads of copy editors, I can't say. But I can picture a path that would arrive at the same result without there being axes to grind.

To recap: "The Oregonian" writes an account of Oregon National Guard soldiers who march into an Iraqi prison to stop Iraqi prison guards from abusing Iraqi prisoners. Then are told by their superiors that they should not be intervening in the situation because doing so violates Iraq's sovereignty. The story also tells that U.S. diplomatic authorities are handling the matter, and it reports that the U.S. soldiers said they saw no further examples of abuse thereafter, despite watching the prison closely.

The Associated Press wire service picks up "The Oregonian's" story and compresses it somewhat for its national wire. Then AP translates it into German and compresses it further for release by the German AP (a dominant source of international news in Germany).

The "Oregonian" story has 56 paragraphs. The U.S. AP version has 20 paragraphs. The German AP version, 5 paragraphs.

This is not, in itself, an act of bias. AP does this because it presumes local people are less interesting the further you get from local media. I suspect the AP deemed here that what the Oregon soldiers felt about what they saw, and what they did about it, were more relevant to their friends and neighbors than they were to the rest of America or the English-speaking world. To the AP, the focus was on the incident (though it had been reported before), not the soldiers.

In many cases this would be a valid journalistic judgement. But here, it allows the real Americans to drop from sight. All that's left are the abused Iraqis, the abstract, shadowy "American authorities" who sanctioned torture, and you practically have to read between the lines to learn that there were dozens or hundreds of Americans who intervened to stop the abuse of Iraqi prisoners before protocol, and the chain of command made them stop, and the chain of command had an arguably valid reson for doing so.

The story of the abuse itself was not new. Here is how the "Oregonian" describes it:

The June 29 confrontation between U.S. troops and Iraqi officials at the Interior Ministry has been mentioned in news accounts in the United States and Britain. But details about the prisoners' injuries, the actions of the Oregon Guard and the high-level American decision to leave the injured detainees in the hands of Iraqis has not been previously reported.

And by the time you get to read the German AP version of the story (source of 85 percent of German newspaper wire stories), "the actions of the Oregon Guard" all but have vanished, and you're left with abused Iraqis and callous U.S. authorities. It looks like another Abu Ghraib story, which is manifestly not what "The Oregonian" wrote.

Here's a sampling of what you wouldn't read in the German AP story about the Oregon National Guardsmen in the prison:

Guardsmen interviewed for this story said they've watched the detention facility closely since then, and that many of the prisoners were released soon after the raid on the detention facility. ... The soldiers said they have not seen any further prisoner abuse occur there. ... The country now has a minister of human rights. Government ministries have also assigned inspectors general to examine allegations of wrongdoing. ... The new Iraqi constitution bans "torture in all its forms, physical or mental," as well as "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment." ... The U.S. Embassy in Iraq disclosed that the United States raised questions about the "brutality" with Iraq's interior minister. ... In handing over power, U.S. officials gave Iraqis authority to run their own institutions -- even if they made mistakes. But officials understand that the United States will be held responsible when the new Iraqi authorities stumble.

As for the notion of media "serving state power," it's absurd in this case. The two wire service stories, one in German and one in English, are written by the same U.S.-based media conglomerate, the Associated Press. They're not the product of two different entities. How can the same entity, on the same day, be his example of a fearless truth-bearing Prometheus, and his example of craven media groveling under Bush's boot-heel?

Wouldn't it be more consistent to say that "big media" in Europe, such as the German AP bureau, behaves just like "big media" in America, and that in Germany the AP serves the prevailing state power in Berlin? State power in places like France and Germany is dedicated to the proposition that the U.S. effort in Iraq is dead wrong and a total failure. Political careers of the top men stand atop that platform. Chomskyites never seem willing to explain to me how one "speaks the truth" to the power of Chirac and Schroeder.

But it seems more likely to me the German AP story was simply a condensed translation of the U.S. AP story. It includes nothing from the original "Oregonian" story that was not in the AP story. And it adds phrases, shades of meaning, and outright errors ("The Oregon" as the name of the newspaper) that never were in the original. It has all the hallmarks of a secondary derivative, written with no reference to the source.

And in deciding what to include and what to omit, the nameless copy editors made decisions based on their perception of the reality that their readers lived in. That is, what mattered to those readers, and what those readers believed was going on in the world -- Chomsky's consensus.

In Oregon, the good deeds and noble motives of the local men, along with their names, matter. On a national level, they matter a bit less, and they are balanced with the overall worries about the Iraq project, and whether it will end in freedom and democracy there, as promised, or something not much better than Saddam and possibly worse.

In Germany, good guys from Oregon have no resonance at all; the overwhelming expectation of any story with an Iraq dateline is that it will satisfy the accepted wisdom: "Iraq is all about American behaving badly, and validating our own government's certainty that overthrowing Saddam was a mistake."

The ONG story in each of its three expressions is written with en eye to the consensus of the likely audience. Yet what goes begging in all this is the question of how much the media, in seeking to satisfy the consensus, actually shapes it.

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