Thursday, July 3, 2008

Man Bites Dog

Findlay, Ohio - I’m visiting my parents this week at their house in Findlay (a city in northwest Ohio). Coincidentally, on Monday, my sister sent me a link to an article about Findlay in the Washington Post (I've included the link below). To me it displays another example of the mainstream media’s disconnect with Americans who hold traditional values. Articles like this seem to follow a common pattern:

  1. Make a story out of a non-story.
    The article is about rumors of presidential candidate Barak Obama’s religion in the conservative city of Findlay, Ohio. In the article the reporter notes that one out of every ten Americans believes that Sen. Obama (falsely) is a Muslim. If I do my math correctly, that means that 90% of Americans believe (correctly) that Sen. Obama claims to be a Christian. So I ask, where is the story? What purpose does it serve to analyze the confused views of ten percent of Americans?
  2. Make the candidate (or cause) that you support appear to be a victim.
    While focusing exclusively on rumors about Sen. Obama, the article makes no reference to rumors about Sen. McCain (in Findlay or any other location). I have no doubt that the reporter could have asked interviewees what rumors they have heard about him and received a response.
  3. Make an idea that you oppose be the cause of a problem.
    It is interesting that after reporting on the rumors, the reporter then identifies the cause of the rumors, which in essence he says is: conservatism. There could have been numerous causes or theories that could have been offered as to why rumors start and continue to be communicated (including the retirees having more time on their hands to talk, or from a Christian perspective, human sinfulness), but instead the reporter chose tradition. "They always want things the way they were," is how he quoted the city’s mayor. (To me, the mayor's quote seems to be used completely out of context.) To attribute tradition, or a desire not to see things change, as the cause for rumors being spread seems unfounded. So, if I follow the reporter's logic, I would not hear rumors about candidates in less conservative or traditional places?
  4. Include unflattering characteristics of those you are writing about (including things that have little or nothing to do with the story).
    Many times contemporary reporters will do this by writing about a person’s appearance or their speech. In this article, in addition to using the term "Rust Belt town" to describe the city, the reporter added the extraneous details of the price of the individual’s home and their celebration of Memorial Day. Although I chuckled when I read the description of the "gigantic plastic unicorn perched on the front porch draped in an American flag", I found it difficult to see how those details contributed to a story about gossip and rumors about a candidate’s faith in a Presidential election.
  5. Make sweeping generalizations.
    The reporter noted ominously, "On College Street, nobody wanted anything to change" and "Only one man on College Street remains open-minded". Humorously, Findlay’s local paper noted that at one end of College Street (as the name suggests) is in fact the local college. The houses on College Street near the University of Findlay contain dozens of college students. Were these young people included in the reporter’s description of those who don’t want "anything to change" or those who failed to be "open-minded" about rumors surrounding Sen. Obama’s religion? Did he interview all of these residents on College Street in order to come to his conclusion? Did he interview some of them? Any of them? I doubt it.
  6. Provide no perspective on the issue.
    Reading this piece one could easily come to the conclusion that Findlay’s residents are unique in sharing rumors about political candidates and likely even racist in their view of Sen. Obama. The unfortunate fact is that rumors and slander have been consistent throughout America’s Presidential elections (from John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush).
  7. Quote no moral authorities on the issue.
    The Washington Post article is about a rumor regarding a candidate’s religion. If one is writing an article about religious perspectives in a city, wouldn’t it be helpful to hear from those who are religious leaders? What does a Findlay pastor think about gossip and rumors? How do they guide their flock to listen to the truth?
  8. Pretend to be objective.
    Notice the last several lines of the article: "He will listen to their story, weighing facts against fiction. For a few minutes, he might even believe them. Then he’ll close the door and go inside, back to his life. Back to his grocery story, back to his son’s auto shop, back to the gossip on College Street. Back to the rumors again."

    First of all, a reporter writing a vivid account about a future event seems ludicrous. When I read those words I wondered:

    -What if they don’t come to his door?
    -What if he’s not home?
    -What if he learns more information between now and then?

    Journalists are trained to write about what happened (in the past) and if necessary, include quotes from others about predictions of future events. (I would think that would be covered in Journalism 101). Fiction should not be included in a newspaper article.

    Secondly, the words smack of fatalism...the despair that things will never change. Interestingly, it was because of this very thing...the nihilism and supposed "detached reflection" in the Press that Christian writer Soren Kierkegaard wrote warnings about their work many years ago. Kierkegaard (who lived from 1813-1855) humorously suggested that the motto of the Press should be: "Here men are demoralized in the shortest possible time on the largest possible scale, at the cheapest possible price." He believed that only "the religious sphere of existence" could combat the nihilism that was found in the Press (and brought about by the Enlightenment).

Since the publication of the Washington Post article about the rumors in Findlay (which was also released on MSNBC’s website and distributed to 669 news organizations in 56 countries), the Courier, Findlay’s local paper, has been filled with letters to the editor from people around the country, some saying how Findlay residents should be "ashamed" of themselves, while others denounce the reporting.

On Tuesday the Courier ran a long article with their own interviews of three of the individuals who were quoted at length in the Washington Post piece. All three said that they were misquoted.

Link to the Washington Post story:

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