COLUMN - Shameless paper in mindless fog

Thu Apr 18, 2013 7:16pm EDT

(Jack Shafer is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his own.)

By Jack Shafer

April 18 (Reuters) - If our culture allowed diseased newspapers to be quarantined, I'd have the New York Post kenneled right now.

I express that sentiment after reading the Post's Boston Marathon bombing coverage, in which it erroneously reported that 12 were dead, mistakenly stated that a Saudi national was "a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing" and, this morning identified two Boston Marathon bystanders in a Page One photo as "Bag Men."

Of course, every news outlet botches a breaking news story from time to time, and many have erred in their Boston reporting, as BuzzFeed, Chart Girl, Poynter, Salon and others have tabulated. But what distinguishes the New York Post from other stumbling outlets is the cavalier manner about its errors.

When other outlets make monumental mistakes, they may take their time printing corrections. They may avoid acknowledging their errors if they can get away with it. Or if they acknowledge their errors promptly - as CNN's John King did this week - they may blame "confusion" or "misinformation" rather than accept the blame directly. But by and large, the press takes its lumps.

The Post, in contrast, appears not to care whether it gets a memorable story right or wrong. It only hopes to produce a memorable story, damn the truth value.

This afternoon, Col Allan, Post editor-in-chief, demonstrated his paper's approach to news with a statement to Salon about the controversial "Bag Men" cover story. Putting the "m" in mendacious, Allan said:

"We stand by our story. The image was emailed to law enforcement agencies yesterday afternoon seeking information about these men, as our story reported. We did not identify them as suspects."

On one superficial level, Allan is absolutely correct. The Post didn't call the backpacked and duffel-carrying young fellows on its cover page "suspects." It did something more incendiary. It called them bag men, which is slang for criminals who perform deliveries and run errands for other criminals. In other words, the Post transferred the two young men from the category of innocent-until-proven-guilty "suspects" to criminal carriers, presumably of bombs.

Having no access to hidden surveillance cameras inside the Post newsroom, I can only guess how the Post coverage has come together. I'm fairly certain that no editor or reporter proposed that the paper exaggerate the body count or cast suspicions on innocent people. But I have no trouble believing that the editors were happy to inflate the photograph of the backpack-and-duffel duo into something sensational with a zippy headline.

Headline writing, especially headline writing at tabloids, is an art. Some of the best headlines to emerge from headline-writing sessions - the ones that pun, make a sly allusion or resonate on a couple of levels - are rejected because they're too crude, too arcane or just inaccurate.

Few publications write more entertaining headlines than the New York Post. Calling bag-carrying bystanders "Bag Men" lives in that tradition. You could regard that headline as inspired if you don't give a fig about accuracy or about libeling individuals. Evidence that the Post was up to mischief with its headline was detected by Gawker's Tom Scocca, who noted the tiny, caption-size type on the page that qualified the accusatory headline. It reads, "There is no direct evidence linking them to the crime, but authorities want to identify them." The Post essentially libels the two guys with big type and takes it back with the small.

The Post's recklessness - its urge to entertain and excite no matter what the validity of a headline or a story might be - places it outside the modern American newspaper tradition and firmly in the British tradition. England is where the Post's CEO, Rupert Murdoch, helped establish that tradition with his London tabloids The Sun and News of the World, the latter of which he folded in the summer of 2011 after its phone-hacking transgressions were revealed.

The Murdochian tabloid, to give it a more descriptive name, doesn't care if its readers don't believe what it publishes. In England, the Murdochian tabloids stir so much "BS" into print that the Tabloid Watch blog offers almost daily assessments of their fabrications, contradictions and lies. All the tabloid press expects from its readers is their continued patronage, so it doesn't matter if the readers discount what they read as half true or trumped up. And readers do discount what they read. In New York, Murdoch's Post has such a low reputation for accuracy that it scored the lowest credibility rating for newspapers in a 2004 Pace University poll.

Although Murdoch ran Murdochian tabloids in Chicago, San Antonio and Boston in addition to New York, his fun-over-facts formula has never really taken root in America, causing his U.S. tabloid portfolio to wither to just the Post long ago. And it's not like the Post has taken root in New York. It has survived for decades on Murdoch subsidies, which the New York Times recently put at an estimated $110 million a year.

Curiously, the Post's extreme, almost defiant inaccuracy has united America's armchair media critics like little else. It can hardly be denied that the racy Post has pointed the way for decades toward an info-entertainment hybrid that many have followed. This week, at least, in its stunning contempt for fact, it has defined the basement into which no media outlet that wants respect wishes to descend. (Jack Shafer)

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