April 14, 2003
When is it Journalistic Malfeasance for a Newspaper Not to Quote Bush Saying "Misfeance"?
A BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS
Ombudsmen (or women) for newspapers are supposed to be the liaison between a publication and its readership, looking into complaints and charges of ethical conflict. But the main challenge is that they work FOR the newspaper that they are supposed to investigate from time to time. So complaining to an ombudsmen is a bit like going to the head of human resources for your company and spouting off about the CEO's extramarital shenanigans. The most you can expect out of it is an obligatory sympathetic ear -- and that's as far as it is generally going to go.
Some ombudsmen appear to be trying to sincerely do a good job of balancing the newspaper's self-interest with the challenging inquiries of the readers. That appears to be the case of Don Wycliff of the Chicago Tribune, who comes off as a thoughtful journalist who respects the intelligence of the Tribune readership.
Wycliff is so earnest, at times, that he reveals more than he probably means to.
Take for example how Wycliff responded last summer to a reader who asked why the Tribune wrote a corrected version of some Bush comments:
We urge BuzzFlash readers to peruse the above excerpt from Wycliff's column once again. The Tribune, he claims, is in the business, on occasion, of writing words within quotation marks that convey what they think Bush meant instead of what he said. Uh, do you think they would have adopted the same policy for Clinton? Of course, that's an unnecessary question, because Clinton could speak English correctly.
The bottom line is that the Tribune, through its ombudsmen, declared a policy that it would interpret Bush's English for the reader and print the Tribune's interpretation. This is the kind of thing that Pravda did for Soviet leaders.
Speaking of Pravda, let's talk "official government photographs" here. In an November 21, 2002, column, Wycliff justified the future censoring of photographs of Bush on the front page of the Tribune. We'll let you follow this exchange in Wycliff's "public editor" column:
Okay, so BuzzFlash wants to get this straight. The photograph that the Tribune published was not taken by some photographer from the National Enquirer with one of those telephoto lenses, who happened to sneak a shot through an open White House window. Photographers only get shots of Bush when they are invited in for a brief photo session (photo-op). In short, Bush knew he was being photographed. Is the Tribune responsible for censoring photos that Bush knew were being taken of him because some Bush supporters don't like seeing him that way?
In short, because Bush looked different than the normally Karl Rove packaged image of the somber leader, the Tribune decides that it will, in the future, censor a photograph that records reality. To repeat, Bush supporters complained that the Tribune was out to get Bush because the Tribune published a photograph that Bush knew was being taken. Excuse us?
We find it hard to believe, once again, that the Tribune would have shown such concern over a candid photo of Clinton. Let's repeat Wycliff's description of the photo, "But instead of the usual sober, serious pose, Bush was caught giving a thumbs-up signal and wearing a broad grin, part of an overall facial expression like that of a preadolescent boy when the teacher has just sat down on a whoopee cushion." So the Tribune is declaring, in essence, it will only print photos "of the usual sober" expression if that's what it thinks the occasion warrants to make Bush appear "Presidential."
The reason we are bringing this up at this time is that Wycliff wrote a column on April 10, 2003, deploring a photographer for the Los Angeles Times who was rightfully fired for doctoring a photo of the Iraq War. In his April 10th column, Wycliff opined:
We couldn't agree with Mr. Wycliff more. But the Tribune ought to consider that golden rule about trust and credibility when it comes to photographs of Bush and quotations from the "great orator."
You can't have it both ways. You can't justify a policy of always making the King look and speak like you think he should speak and look -- and then feel smug about denouncing a doctored photo.
Isn't it just as bad to promise to censor real photos for political purposes as it is to doctor a photo? Isn't it as misleading to put words in a person's quotation that he didn't say?
Maybe the Chicago Tribune ombudsman can look into that.
A BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS
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A BuzzFlash Note: As far as newspapers go, the Chicago Tribune actually has a more balanced international and national news section than the Washington Post, which tends to suck up to the White House and has been almost unrelentingly pro-war in its news stories, editorials and op-eds. The Tribune has been pro-war in its editorials, but it has printed a diversity of articles on the war and home front political issues. It also seems to have higher news standards on what it will publish as fact than the Post, which runs all sorts of cheesy "on background" stories that advance the White House political agenda.
The Tribune has a relatively diverse and thoughtful op-ed page, for a Midwest Republican paper. Granted, it's editorials are generally pro-Republican (of the moderate Midwest variety, not the Texas Mafia brand), but as a media conglomerate, the Tribune also owns some of the most professional mainstream papers in the country, including the LA Times, Baltimore Sun and Newsday. We just bring this up because it shows you that even a generally professional conservative Republican paper (of the old school type) apparently compromises standard journalism practices to portray Bush in the best possible light.
The issue of changing Bush's "mispronunciations" is a significant one, because according to Mark Crispin Miller, in his book "The Bush Dyslexicon," Bush is often telling us something when he misuses language. Miller contends that Bush is either uncomfortable, unfamiliar or nervous about a subject when he strays from standard English. In short, the use of "misfeance" for "malfeasance" may suggest to us that he is lying and that he knows it. Miller argues that Bush's inappropriate word choice is sometimes, in essence, his own public version of a lie detector test.
A BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS
otherwise noted, all original