New York City’s Mayor Bill De Blasio has had it with the New York Post. On Thursday, the mayor described the tabloid as a “right-wing rag” and pointedly refused to take a question from one of it reporters. Later, in an interview, the mayor said he felt the Post needed to be “called out” for its “consistent bias”:
We cannot confuse an honest effort at objective reporting, which is what the vast majority of the press corps is doing, with a propaganda apparatus.”
The Post reacted in its typical fashion, with a front-page photo-shopped image of the mayor sitting in a baby chair wailing and flailing his arms.
Perhaps less predictably, The New York Times was also upset with the mayor over the incident. It scolded him for his “extreme reaction” to a reporter who was asking a legitimate question. I don’t follow the mayor’s press relations, so I can’t say whether the Times editorial is right or wrong in its complaint that the mayor is often overly petulant in his dealings with journalists who don’t see things his way. But the mayor has a point about the Post. It’s a point that the Times, in its sensitivity to anything that suggests official intolerance of press freedom, is reluctant to acknowledge.
The New York Post is, indeed, a propaganda apparatus disguised as a newspaper. To call the Post “biased” is a vast understatement. We all have our biases, of course. Bias in the news media is reflected in various usually subtle ways, including the choice of material deemed newsworthy, the provision or failure to provide context to the events reported, and the judgment as to what sources of information are reliable and what are not. Media bias can be quite effective in conveying a preferred understanding of the news to readers (or viewers). But, as the mayor indicated, most media outlets don’t actively, consciously try to deceive. The Post is exceptional. I don’t normally read the Post, but pretty much by chance I’ve had two occasions to observe its arts of deception.
The most recent occasion was an ostensibly damaging article on the Clinton Foundation that was cited in a Facebook post. I decided to look up the article and I did just enough background research to see the article’s thorough-going dishonesty. The article points out that the charity watchdog group Charity Navigator (CN) declined to rate the Clinton Foundation, quoting CN that the Foundation’s ‘atypical business model . . . doesn’t meet our criteria.” The clear implication is that there is something fishy about the foundation—it doesn’t even meet Charity Navigator’s criteria! But the reporter, Isabel Vincent, doesn’t tell her readers that Charity Navigator explicitly warns that a non-rating should not be interpreted as having a negative import. Nor does she tell us how the foundation’s business model didn’t meet CN’s criteria. The simple fact is that the Clinton Foundation does operate differently from most foundations. Rather than select good causes to donate money to, the Clinton Foundation mostly employs its own staff to carry on its good works. CN’s criteria didn’t attempt to evaluate that kind of activity. But there is another leading charity watchdog organization, Charity Watch, that does, and it praises the Clinton Foundation, giving it an A rating. Needless to say, Vincent doesn’t mention Charity Watch. Instead, she cites irrelevant statistics showing that the Clinton Foundation only gives away a small portion of its revenues, pretending that this suggests that the money must go to some covert, unworthy end.
There’s more, but rather than go on about the Vincent article, I’ll turn to the other Post demonstration of the art of deceiving without actually lying. It was 15 years ago, and I didn’t clip the article, but my memory serves pretty well. In the period following the 9/11 attacks, probably October or maybe November 2001, I happened on a copy of the Post with a prominently placed article entitled something like “New Terror Plots Reported,” describing a number of reports of plots to bomb various New York facilities. The headline struck my curiosity, since I had read nothing about these plots in the morning’s Times, nor in the noon-time news broadcast I had just seen, so I read on. After about 4 paragraphs, a short paragraph informed readers that the FBI had investigated all these reports and found them baseless. The article then resumed its description of the reports. A bit confused, I had to re-read that short paragraph to make sure that I had understood correctly, since after all, it seemed to be saying “Nothing you read in the rest of this article should be taken seriously.” But I had gotten it right. So, what was the idea? Clearly, the Post’s editors wanted people to think that more terror horrors remained a live and imminent possibility. A lot of people don’t read beyond the headlines, or if they do, not past the first or second paragraph, so that objective was accomplished by means of an article that described in excruciating detail reports of plots while burying the information that these reports were unfounded. Why? That’s not hard to say: the 9/11 attacks had been a political boon for George W. Bush, whose ratings had been falling sharply, but then shot through the roof as the commander in chief took on the role of valiant defender of our country post 9/11. Ever since, the Republicans and the right have repeatedly sought to heighten fears of terrorism in the expectation that they would benefit politically (cf Trump, Donald). The Post was an early trend-setter.
It’s pretty clear that in both of these cases the deception had to have been deliberate, not just an unconscious working out of bias. Since I almost never read the Post, it seems remarkable that I could so readily discover such blatant dishonesty on two of the very rare occasions that I read one of its articles. So, forgive me for guessing that this kind of thing may happen a lot at the Post.
Mayor De Blasio is right, then, for blasting the Post as a right-wing propaganda apparatus, and the Times is wrong for not acknowledging he’s right. Maybe he should have answered that journalist’s question– even propaganda mills can serve genuine news-gathering functions—but, who knows, maybe that journalist had been the author of an article like Vincent’s. In that case, De Blasio had every right to say, in effect, “Screw you!”
The incident recalls an attempt by the Obama administration, early in the president’s first term, to stigmatize Fox News as something other than a normal news organization. Fox’s fellow news media arose in uproar, and the administration backed down. That, to my mind, was unfortunate. Fox in truth is not a normal news organization: it is an ideologically driven organ of the American right-wing movement; it was and has remained dedicated to the political destruction of the Obama presidency. Since Fox was waging ideological warfare, didn’t Obama have a right to fight back? The Post is Fox’s sister organization in Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing media empire. De Blasio has every right to fight back.
I’ve learned that subsequent to the Post article about the Clinton Foundation, Charity Navigator apparently revised its evaluation methodology, enabling it to rate the Clinton Foundation. The Foundation received CN’s highest (4-star) rating.