I like to point out parts of stories in which the reporter tries to manipulate the reader. It's usually easy to find a trick or two, but last Sunday, the Republic's Michelle Ye Hee Lee wrote a story that provides a full blown clinic on media manipulation.
Check out this story about secret meetings between the Maricopa County Air Quality Director and the industry folks who are writing regulations behind the scenes.
The department's director, William Wiley, holds private monthly meetings to discuss policy changes with a group he calls the Clean Air Council, composed entirely of local stakeholders such as members of private industry and local cities.
Can you spot the trick? I call it "Mr. Smith Showers Nude!"
When you read a breathless article citing secret sources who confirm that Mr. Smith indeed showers in the nude, it sounds really bad. Of course, if you think about it...everyone showers in the nude. So let's go back to the paragraph about Bill Wiley...he hosts meetings to discuss policies with stake holders. Is that a problem? That's the essence of government. I meet with government officials all day. When I was in government, I met with stakeholders all day. The conference rooms at all levels of government have to be reserved by appointment because they are filled with stakeholders and policy makers all day long. The reporter has taken something that is common, legal and normal and made it sound evil.
The second trick is what I call the "Self Debunking story."
The Wiley group is controversial because the meetings are private, which, of course, implies that they are "secret"...which in turn implies that they generate bad results. The reporter then gives us a bunch of background on the open meeting law and eventually we find out that the open meeting law doesn't apply to state agencies. So the meetings are legal. But here's the real trick...if you read the full story, you will realize that the meetings aren't even private! The meetings are open to all stakeholders--including cities and the American Lung Association as well as to other employees (whose "exclusion" is the premise of the article.) In addition to being open, the meetings are formal...they have agendas, regular meeting times and a large list of invitees.
The entire premise of the story...that an agency Director is having secret, closed door meetings with industry advocates is false and you can tell it's false by simply reading the entire story.
The next trick is called "hide the source". The reporter is supposed to have written the story based on complaints by "employees within the agency." Yet none of these employees are named or quoted and if you read closely, it looks like the origin of the story is actually a two month old press release from State Representative Daniel Patterson. Here's the key line...
In June, Patterson's group sent a release to news outlets accusing the Air Quality Department of "clubby, closed-door dealing on matters affecting public health and quality of life."
So here's what really happened. Last June, Patterson sent the press release that's quoted above. The reporter was intrigued by these closed door meetings with industry bad guys and decided to go with it. She put a lot of time into the story, researched the open meeting law, got a lot of good quotes and then realized...that the meetings are actually open. D'oh.
By then she had so much time invested in the now debunked story that she couldn't just drop it, so she sexed it up a bit and ran with it anyway. Here's a great example of sexing it up; notice that the employees aren't "complaining", they are "blowing the whistle". Whistleblowing is not an expression, it's a legal term that describes a situation in which employees report illegal activities to regulatory or law enforcement officials and in turn receive special statutory protection.
Her use of the term "blow the whistle" is an effort to create the impression that Mr. Wiley has done something illegal, without actually saying that he has done something illegal. After all, she can't actually say that he's done something illegal because the rest of her story points out that everything he's done is legal, and in fact, the one thing he's supposed to have done--held closed-door meetings with stakeholders--he hasn't done at all.
The next trick is the one I call "moral equivalence." Tell me what you think of this quote.
"Whether it's legal or not doesn't really matter," said Cuillier, chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists' Freedom of Information Committee. "Do we want to protect corporations from feeling uncomfortable, or do we want to err on the side of making sure the public knows what's going on? Personally, I am on the side of the public."
That quote would be pretty funny if it was from a guy picked at random in the automotive section of your local Wal-Mart. The fact that the quote is from a journalism professor is absurd. My gosh, this guy actually teaches journalists and he said "Whether it's legal or not doesn't matter." Do you know why he said that? Because he actually believes it. Journalists really believe that their opinion on what's right and wrong is the same as the LAW about what's right or wrong. So it doesn't actually matter if it's illegal, this professor thinks it's wrong, so naturally, that's the same thing.
Notice of course that his quote--in addition to being quite insane--is completely wrong because the meetings are OPEN.
Finally let's step back and look at the rank hypocrisy. On the day this story ran, the Arizona Republic endorsed Wes Gullet for Phoenix Mayor. Funny, I must have missed the notice for the meeting where that decision was made. After all, that's a very important decision. I presume that there were a lot of meetings with stakeholders and candidates. Shockingly, those meetings were all held BEHIND CLOSED DOORS! These critical meetings were secret, private affairs in which the public was excluded while the crucial desision makers at the Republic met behind closed doors with candidates and then met privately among themselves to make this crucial decision. There was no notice, no agenda, no open doors, no minutes, no record, no public access. Then the editorial was written...anonymously. So the process may be secret, but at least there's no accountability.
But you say "Greg, the Republic is a private corporation it doesn't have to comply with the open meeting law. It doesn't have to follow the Freedom of Information act. It doesn't have to be transparent and open."
To that I reply.
"Whether it's legal or not doesn't really matter," "Do we want to protect corporations from feeling uncomfortable, or do we want to err on the side of making sure the public knows what's going on? Personally, I am on the side of the public."