Friday, 2 May 2008

Lawyers to the Rear [Updated]

As I finished a long biography of Izzy Stone, the iconic creator of I.F. Stone’s Weekly and permanent gadfly of the Washington journalistic establishment, I realized modern reporting has developed a tic at which the late Izzy would have taken deadly aim. It’s the habit of allowing lawyers for the powerful to place their spin on events whenever they’re accused of wrongdoing.

This practice is the crime-blotter parallel to letting the White House flakmeisters determine how a political story will be shaped or to permitting the Pentagon to lead reporters around by the nose on war coverage. What all these situations share is that they involve news organs’ kowtowing to the powerful while pretending they have no choice in the matter.

Last night the TV channels here all led with the story of a congressman from Staten Island who was picked up on a DUI. Like metronomes set to tick-tock in unison, every station dutifully featured the statement from the guy’s lawyer and even copied it onto the screen behind the announcer just in case we didn’t get the full impact: ‘As a parent, I know that taking even one drink of alcohol before getting behind the wheel of a car is wrong.’

Of course the legislator didn’t say any such thing, but the expert team who wrote it for him successfully managed to leave viewers with two impressions, one irrelevant and the other false: (1) that the guy has created one or more babies and (2) he was only ‘technically’ drunk since a single drink can put you over the legal limit.

Note that the statement says nothing about how many drinks he actually consumed before turning on his ignition, only a pious phrase about how he thinks people should behave. He could have chugged an entire bottle of Jack Daniels, but his handlers hint that he’s merely been caught in the strict web of police breathalyzers and perhaps over-vigilant rules.

The ‘as a parent’ line serves only to obfuscate and play on the family-guy trope as if that should absolve him of something.

Why do news organs think they have to trot out this pap just because some powerful guy’s lawyer provides it? It would be perfectly legitimate to receive the handout and report simply that the accused’s representatives neither confirm nor deny the charge and provided no further details. When the news is about some down-and-out bad guy, their appointed lawyers rarely get this deferential treatment although the habit is now so ingrained that sometimes even they get to join in the manipulative chorus.

This routine is an example of the journalism-as-messenger-service mentality and the tiresome pursuit of a phony ‘balance’ that properly belongs in a courtroom where everyone gets equal time in front of the judge or jury. News reporters have no responsibility to neutralize a story in this way just because the principals can hire a combination attorney/PR agent.

It’s a lot more serious when editors simply splash political or war-news spin as is onto their front pages or prime-time news shows rather than take the time and trouble to parse it and cut through the diversionary baubles. That’s the way our system gets the news vehicles to conform, and it’s as effective in its way as the more heavy-handed methods of dictatorships.

So for the record: Congressman Vito Fossella got popped for drunken driving in a D.C. suburb, and we don’t know whether he had one drink or fifteen although if it were the lower number, why wouldn’t he say so? Both Fossella and the cops are mum. The rest is distraction.

[Update:] Vito's blood alcohol content upon arrest turned out to be .17 or double the legal limit in Virginia. According to the Blood Alcohol Content Calculator, that means if he weighs 180 pounds, Fossella probably consumed no less than four stiff ones in the hour previous to setting off in his WMD. So much for the lawyerly spin. His constituents can now consider whether this guy should be in the business of writing laws for the rest of us.

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