Volume , Number 0
There are no articles.Commentary
There are no articles.Culture
There are no articles.Features
The Cost of Living
Henry A. Giroux
Alex n. Dajkovic
There are no articles.
NOTE: Z Magazine subscribers and sustainers have access to all Z Magazine articles here and in the archive. The latest Z Magazine articles available to everyone are listed in the Free Articles box at the top of the table of contents, and are starred in the list below. Questions? e-mail Z Magazine Online.
Errors, Lies, & "Corrections"
Edward S. Herman
New York Times reporters have had a strong propensity to swallow chemical industry propaganda: most dramatically with Keith Schneider's proposition that exposure to dioxin is no more threatening than “spending a week sun-bathing” (originally said to be the view of “scientists,” but eventually admitted to be Schneider's own creation); and Gina Kolata's error laden review and Nicholas Wade's angry repudiation of the book Our Stolen Future—“creating an environmental scare without evidence,” Wade told the authors, without having read the book (see Mark Dowie, “What's Wrong with the New York Times's Science Reporting,” Nation, July 6, 1998). “Junk science” for the Times is not the science produced by industry or its hired hands to protect its right to sell, it is the science of environmentalists and tort lawyers; the paper's use of the phrase replicates the views of industry. The Times has never yet reported the sensational disclosure that both Monsanto's and BASF's studies showing the harmlessness of dioxin, which were actually used by the EPA in fixing tolerances, were based on fraud. It has never reviewed or cited the powerful book by Dan Fagin and Marianne Lavelle on Toxic Deception: How the Chemical Industry Manipulates Science, Bends the Law, and Endangers Your Health (Birch Lane, 1996), and I will be surprised if it ever reviews Joe Thornton's recent Pandora's Poison: Chlorine, Health, and a New Environmental Strategy (MIT Press, 2000) as this impressive work calls for radical constraints on the chemical industry.
“Scares”: Phony and Real
Times reporters regularly get on industry bandwagons that allege unwarranted “scares,” but they are extremely reluctant to explore evidence of the ill-effects of chemicals or of regulatory weakness and capture that ought to be scary. For example, when the EPA discovered in the late 1980s that Monsanto had failed to deliver several hundred internal studies of possible ill-effects of chemicals, contrary to law, and a follow-up moratorium on penalties resulted in the industry coughing up 11,000 internal studies that should have been submitted to the regulators, the Times never even reported this development, with its huge implications for the workability of existing procedures for testing and protecting the public from any adverse effects of chemicalization of the environment.
The Alar case, in which a February 1989 “60 Minutes” program had featured a cancer threat from the use of the chemical Alar on apples, resulting in a sharp drop of apple sales, was quickly denounced by industry and its spokespersons as an unwarranted “scare.” This scare became institutionalized at the Times, although three months after the CBS program the EPA did ban Alar as a carcinogenic threat, and the seriousness of this threat was confirmed by the National Academy of Sciences in 1992. Nevertheless, Jane Brody cited Alar as the main case in point in her “Health Scares That Aren't So Scary” (August 18, 1998), stating that the EPA had never condemned Alar, and using as her information authority the American Council on Health, an industry-funded propaganda agency that Brody identified only as “based in New York.” I wrote a letter to the publisher, noting that Brody's statement that the EPA had not condemned Alar was false, and that her identification of the American Council on Health was inadequate. The Times published a “Correction” on the Brody piece on September 5, 1998, admitting the two misrepresentations.
More Alar Propaganda
But lo and behold, on August 18, 2000, along comes Times columnist John Tierney, in his “The Apple And the Sins of Journalists,” with an even more egregious set of misrepresentations than Brody on Alar and related issues. Tierney refers to the American Council on Health as “a consumer education group in New York,” actually going one better than Brody, who located it in New York without giving it a misleading positive designation. Tierney denies any health problems associated with pesticides on the grounds that the “cancer epidemic never arrived,” with death rates from cancer down 19 percent. Tierney doesn't recognize any possible ill effects from pesticides except in the form of cancer, although chemical damage to immune systems and reproduction have come into increasing prominence (and are featured in Our Stolen Future). Tierney confuses death rates and incidence; the latter has risen markedly, the former has almost surely declined because of earlier detection and improved medical treatment.
Tierney says that “Scientists denounced the CBS report [on Alar] as inaccurate (there were more potent carcinogens than Alar), alarmist, and possibly carcinogenic itself because the ensuing panic caused people to eat less fruit.” While Tierney cites one scientist who questioned the Alar threat, like Kolata he chooses his experts carefully, and he fails to mention the EPA finding of carcinogenicity or the National Academy of Sciences confirmation of the cancer threat from Alar. The parenthetical that there are “more potent” carcinogens than Alar is idiotic as a basis for denial of a threat, and the carcinogenic threat of not eating fruit is little more than a joke.
I sent another letter to the publisher pointing out that Tierney was repeating claims that had been acknowledged to be false or misleading in an earlier “Correction,” but which the paper's reporters and commentators seem to be reluctant to abandon. Tierney's misrepresentations, however, were not subject to a “Correction,” although his description of the American Council on Health as a “consumer education group” was more misleading than Brody's and his deceptions on Alar and its threats were equally serious. Furthermore, his statements on pesticides and cancer, and cancer and other medical risks, which went beyond Brody's, were misleading and silly.
Perhaps it would have been too embarrassing to have a Correction referring to errors that had been made and corrected previously in the paper. That would suggest not only careless editing but a widely internalized bias that the paper has a hard time keeping under control.
An article some years back by Edwin Diamond, A. Biddle Duke, and Isabelle Anacker, “Can We Expect TV News To Correct Its Mistakes?”, in TV Guide (December 5, 1987), stressed the unwillingness of TV networks to correct errors, and pointed out that newspapers had developed standard practices for doing this through correction boxes, letters to the editor, etc. The authors cited a Gannett Center research report that on average, large newspapers publish “a correction every other day.” But they failed to note the possibility that the papers might correct a few trivial and obvious errors but fail to correct more subtle and important ones. Even more important, “error” may not encompass serious bias in selection of news and sources and in mode of presentation (placement, tone, structure of material within the articles, etc.)
A far more important media shortcoming than an error in dating or misquotation would be the failure to report essential information, such as the Monsanto and BASF dioxin study frauds mentioned earlier, the collusion of the EPA and paper industry in fixing dioxin limits in the late 1980s, and the revelation that the chemical industry had not submitted 11,000 relevant internal studies on chemical effects to the EPA.
As another illustration, after serving up apologetics for the U.S.S. Vincennes' shooting down of an Iranian airliner in 1988 that killed 290 civilians, the Times failed to disclose to its readers the contents of the report by Commander David Carlson in the U.S. Naval Institute's Proceedings (September 1989), which offered strong evidence that the apolo- getics for the shootdown were false and that the action was carried out by an irresponsible Rambo commander. The Times then failed to report President George Bush's award of a Legion of Merit in 1990 for “exceptionally meritorious conduct” to this commander of the Vincennes. The Times also failed to report on the Appendix B insertion in the Rambouillet agreement of a proviso for NATO occupation of all Yugoslavia, which made war inevitable, and the paper has never mentioned that an official admitted that this was done precisely because Serbia needed to be bombed.
Apart from these (and countless other) lies of omission, there are scads of direct lies that have remained uncorrected. For years Times reporters have spoken of an Indonesian invasion of East Timor in the midst of a civil war in 1975, when in fact the civil war was over well before the invasion. This is an uncorrectible institutional lie that fits well the 25-year Times apologetics for the invasion-occupation. Z