You've probably pictured it in your head before. Perhaps it's a scene similar to the one in the film “Network” when television executive Arthur Jenson tells anchorman Howard “I'm-mad-as-hell” Beale, “You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and you will atone!” Perhaps it's the cliched old vision of a smoke-filled editorial office, several stories above the common people below, where overstuffed fat cats sit around a long mahogany table, puff cigars and decide what the great unwashed beast will read on the inside pages the next day.
When we think of news gatekeepers it's easy to conjure up these types of images — the powerful making decisions for the herd. It's easy to think like this because, in general, people believe the “media” are biased against their point of view, whatever it might be. It's hard to prove bias actually exists without long-term, methodical research, but it is true that major media outlets, from the major networks to the “prestige papers” like the New York Times, and even on down to local papers like the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, do have a certain amount of influence. (Even though the Internet is helping to break up the monopoly major news outlets once enjoyed.)
The hope, though, is that a paper's editorial position on a certain subject doesn't bleed into hard-news content, that editors do not use their position of power to exert undue influence over the people who consume their product. But in practice, that's not always the case.
Take a Dec. 8 article from the front page of the Democrat-Gazette on the Environmental Protection Agency's ruling that greenhouse gases are harmful to public health and the environment. The text of the page-one story came from Associated Press reporters Dina Cappiello and Charles J. Hanley and the D-G's own Alison Sider. There's nothing new about a paper editng AP stories to fit the news hole. But what was peculiar about this particular account was how it differed from other AP stories on the web.
The first paragraph of the D-G story reads, “The EPA took a step toward regulating greenhouses [sic] gases, declaring on Monday that climate-changing pollution threatens the public health and the environment.”
Seems straightforward enough. However, an AP account found on Yahoo News says the EPA took that step by “concluding” climate change threatens public health.
This might not seem like a big change, but if you care about words and what they mean, it's a huge difference. One can declare something simply by saying it. A conclusion is drawn from a set of facts.
There were other minor differences, but one paragraph stood out. The 10th paragraph of the Democrat-Gazette story reads, “The EPA signaled last April that it was inclined to view purportedly [italics mine] heat-trapping pollution as a threat to public health and welfare and began to take public comments for formal rulemaking.”
Notice two key differences from another AP account.
“The EPA signaled last April that it was inclined to view heat-trapping pollution as a threat to public health and welfare and began to take public comments under a formal rulemaking. The action marked a reversal from the Bush administration, which had refused before leaving office to issue the finding, despite a conclusion by EPA scientists that it was warranted.”
Again, small changes — one by commission, the other by omission — but it begs the question: Why? Why insert “purportedly,” when the vast majority of climatologists agree on the causes of climate change? Why eliminate a sentence that mentions the Bush administration's failure to act?
There's also a bigger question here of how far a local outlet can go in editing AP stories for publication. Paul Colford, director of media relations for AP, said he could not comment on any particular story, but in general, “an AP member has some latitude in presenting AP copy, barring any major difference from what moved on the wire.”
Neither the D-G executive editor, Griffin Smith, nor deputy editor, Frank Fellone, could be reached for comment.
Now, these are just a couple of small, yet telling, changes in what was a fairly long story. But it makes you wonder what else ends up on the cutting-room floor.