Several thousand people packed into the state fair building in West Allis, Wis., on Sept. 3 and gave President George W. Bush a jubilant welcome. Before launching into his campaign speech, however, President Bush told the crowd he had just learned that former president Bill Clinton had been taken to the hospital. "We need to remember him in our prayers." A sympathetic murmur went through the crowd, and then applause.
The Associated Press story about the event, though, reported that "Bush's audience of thousands in West Allis, Wis., booed. Bush did nothing to stop them." Many who were on the scene, including this columnist, quickly used the internet to point out the AP whopper. Once again, bloggers caught the mainstream media mangling the truth.
The AP killed the controversial two sentences in later editions of the story. But those who read the earlier stories and did not have access to alternative media watchdogs remained misinformed. And that's a lot of misinformation: About 1,700 American newspapers, 5,000 television and radio stations, and 8,500 publications in other countries are AP subscribers.
As a pillar of the world's news infrastructure, objectivity has been the AP's hallmark over the years. Uwe Siemon-Netto, who worked for the AP in the 1960s and is now an occasional WORLD contributor, recalls that "AP reporters were never to voice an opinion. The iron rule was to eschew any political bias."
Today, AP often offers slanted stories. One example: a Sept. 25 article by Jennifer Loven titled, "Bush Twists Kerry's Words on Iraq." The article began, "President Bush opened several new scathing lines of attack against Democrat John Kerry, charges that twisted his rival's words on Iraq and made Kerry seem supportive of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein."
The story, essentially a defense of Mr. Kerry's proposed policies for Iraq, went on to say that "Bush mischaracterized Kerry's criticism." Old AP style might quote a Kerry campaign spokesperson claiming President Bush had "twisted" Mr. Kerry's words, but in this article Ms. Loven offered the contrary opinion herself.
This is also what Tom Raum did in an Oct. 17 story on the endgame of both presidential campaigns: "Bush and his surrogates will continue to paint Kerry as indecisive, despite his self-assured debate performance." Mr. Raum, after praising Mr. Kerry, went further: "Republicans hope to both fire up their troops with such attacks and to continue to sow doubts about Kerry, perhaps in hopes of persuading fence-sitters to stay home rather than going to the polls and voting for the Democrat." The use of "perhaps" typically indicates that the reporter has no evidence.
Another cheap shot in an Oct. 7 story quoted President Bush: "'But you can't win a war if you don't believe in fighting,' he said of his challenger, five times a decorated Vietnam War veteran." The president's point was that those who do not believe in the war in Iraq are unlikely to see it through to victory. The reporter tacked Mr. Kerry's war record onto the sentence as if his service in Vietnam exempts him from criticism on how he would wage the Iraq war.
Other AP stories put words into their subjects' mouths. A Sept. 27 story by Laura Meckler was derived from a TV interview with Gen. John Abizaid, in which he echoed what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said about the coming election in Iraq: It won't be "a perfect election," he said, but it will still be "fully credible." But here is the AP version: "The top U.S. military commander for Iraq said Sunday that he expects flawed elections and much violence ahead of the voting scheduled for January."
AP at other times offered free publicity for Democratic fundraisers. One example: "There may be just a handful of presidential candidates on the ballot come Election Day, but until then, thousands of people will be running against President Bush-literally. The 'Run Against Bush' effort marks its national event on Saturday with an estimated 10,000 people running, walking, and cycling to protest Bush administration policies."
The AP claims that its reporters are subject to the Associated Press Managing Editors Statement of Ethical Principles, which emphasizes guarding against "inaccuracies, carelessness, bias, or distortion through emphasis, omission, or technological manipulation." Reporters are to "strive for impartial treatment of issues and dispassionate handling of controversial subjects. . . . Editorials and expressions of personal opinion by reporters and editors should be clearly labeled." Why doesn't the AP follow its own standards?