And a pretty good example of why news should be read, not skimmed.
The nation's 'newspaper of record' published "White House Role Was Wider Than It Said" as the subheadline (or deck) of a story about an election-year sound-and-fury exercise about CIA interrogation tapes made in 2002.
Here's what happened:
- In the spring of 2002, months after the 9/11 attack, CIA interrogated Abu Zubaydah. He was thought to be a top Al Qaeda logistics officer. They weren't polite to him. In fact, he was kept in a cold room and subjected to loud music, and yelled at. According to one of last year's anti-Bush books, Zubaydah turned out to have three distinct personalities, "a boy, a young man and a middle-aged alter ego." The same book says that this nut (nuts?) was (were?) in charge of arranging travel arrangements for wives and children of Al Qaeda men. He also apparently told "what people ate, or wore, or trifling things they said."
- After information of the tapes of the interrogation was no longer useful, they were destroyed. Aside from taking up space with outdated data, keeping the tapes put the agents involved at risk.
- Now, with a presidential election coming up, politicos and civil rights professionals are very interested in finding out who ordered the tapes destroyed. The buzz word now is "waterboarding," a sort of mock-drowning. It sounds frighteningly unpleasant at best: not the sort of thing I'd care to experience.
- The New York Times ran the CIA tapes news story.
"The accounts indicate that the involvement of White House officials in the discussions before the destruction of the tapes in November 2005 was more extensive than Bush administration officials have acknowledged."
The fourth paragraph reads, "It was previously reported that some administration officials had advised against destroying the tapes, but the emerging picture of White House involvement is more complex." (emphasis is mine)
That's right: it's complicated. More than five and a half years after the fact, not everyone involved can remember exactly what they said, and who they said it to. It may be a White House Cover Up, or what a reasonable person might expect from the memories of several human beings.
Some journalist's dream of getting credit for the next Watergate phenomenon may come true as a result of this CIA tapes matter. Eventually, there will be a major scandal that supports the beliefs of papers like The New York Times. It is possible that the destruction of interrogation tapes in 2002 will be that scandal.
On the other hand, it may not.
Whether or not the CIA tapes were destroyed as part of some sinister cover-up, or whether FBI agents' assertions that they were doing fine until the CIA showed up (The Seattle Times), isn't as important, I think, as what this shows about news coverage.
Back in the 19th century, newspapers had very definite editorial viewpoints, and were proud of the fact. The Fargo Argus, for example, was a staunch Republican newspaper: and said so on the front page banner. I enjoyed reading the colorful, unabashedly biased, news stories, back when I was a researcher for a regional historical society.
Somewhere in the 20th century, news organizations decided that they should be unbiased and objective. That's a nice ambition, but I doubt that any combination of human beings could have the omniscience it would take to know, and report, facts and their meaning accurately and completely.
At best, a news outlet might aspire to give a very wide range of viewpoints, and let the reader or viewer sort out the result.
Knowledge is power. Headlines, and subheadlines or decks, are intended to catch attention - and can be used to give impressions that just aren't so.
Referring to the imaginative subhead, Editor and Publisher quotes The New York Time's Washington, DC, chief, Dean Baquet. He said that the subheadline went a "little farther than the story," the facts were true.
And the lesson is - Don't assume that the headlines, or the subheadlines, are accurate. And remember, those "objective" news stories may not include all the relevant facts. While you're at it, be aware of how the facts are presented: some words and phrases are emotional triggers, like "cover-up," "conspiracy," and "torture" or "abuse."
Remember, a few years ago, when prisoners at Gitmo were being abused, by being forced to sit on grass?