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Opinion: Knee-jerk journos get a scolding

By CATHERINE SEIPP

LOS ANGELES, June 25 (UPI) -- It's hard to argue with the idea that mainstream media leans to the left.

I still remember a survey that found 89 percent of Washington, D.C. bureau chiefs and reporters voted for Bill Clinton in 1992. While half of these journalists volunteered that they were registered Democrats, just 4 percent identified as Republicans.

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On the other hand, sometimes the accusations seem a little unfair. Blogger and media pundit Andrew Sullivan recently accused Jim Romensko, who runs the virtual media watercooler Medianews.org, of being "a hard-line liberal who routinely refuses to link to any conservative media criticism."

But when I was writing for Mediaweek's online site, Romenesko linked my column so regularly it was often the first thing people mentioned when they met me. And I don't think anyone would say that my constant criticism of the Los Angeles Times and other PC media entities came from a left-of-center viewpoint.

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In any case, the Times they are a-changing - and that means the Los Angeles Times as well as the New York Times, which has been the main focus of media damage control in the wake of the Jayson Blair and Rick Bragg scandals.

When John Carroll became editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Times three years ago, the first thing writers noticed was they could no longer use off-color words, even in direct quotes.

Since I used to occasionally spend idle mornings counting how many times the word "crap" appeared in the features section, I found that something of a relief. I don't really want to see "crap" in my family newspaper - except for the actual articles of course.

But last month Los Angeles Times editor-in-chief John Carroll ratcheted everything up a notch when he sent out a (quickly leaked) in-house memo scolding reporter Scott Gold - and news and copy editors - about a story Gold had written about a new Texas abortion law.

"I'm concerned about the perception - and the occasional reality - that the Times is a liberal, 'politically correct' newspaper," Carroll informed his staff. "Generally speaking, this is an inaccurate view, but occasionally we prove our critics right."

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Carroll was annoyed by a front-page story about a new Texas law forcing doctors to counsel patients that abortions may increase the risk of breast cancer.

Gold described the required abortion counseling as "so-called 'counseling'" and noted that one of the bill's sponsors "has a professional background in property management."

Carroll pointed out that "seldom will you read a cheaper shot than this" and asked why the Times didn't mention "leglislators on the other side who are similarly bereft of scientific credentials."

He added that although Gold's story made "a strong case that the link between abortion and breast cancer is widely discounted among researchers ... I wondered as I read it whether somewhere there might exist some credible scientist who believes in it."

For the record, I am not now, nor have I ever been, against legalized abortion. But if Gold had done his job explaining WHY anti-abortion groups think that there might be some scientific evidence linking abortion to breast cancer, Carroll - and Times readers - wouldn't have been left to merely wonder.

All Gold offered, in the 13th graph, was a two-sentence observation that began: "Researchers aren't sure what causes breast cancer, but some believe that hormonal changes associated with the final stages of pregnancy can help protect a woman ..."

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Note that "researchers aren't sure" shrugged-shoulders evasion, with its implication that even the pointy-headed experts don't know, so why should the Times even try to explain scientific thinking to the public?

But actually, researchers are pretty sure that greater hormonal exposure over a lifetime - including a later first pregnancy and fewer children (in other words, the contemporary middle-class American woman's typical pattern) - IS associated with an increased risk in non-hereditary breast cancer, which is most breast cancer.

This isn't exactly classified information; it's common knowledge if you've done any reading at all on the subject, and I just double-checked it with the New England Journal of Medicine.

Gold could have done the same, and then explained that although the mechanics of abortion don't cause increased breast cancer risk, full-term pregnancies probably offer protection.

The logic behind the Texas abortion law would then have been cooly revealed for what it is - a stretch - and thoughtful readers may have even ended up pondering the uncomfortable probability that a celibate nun is more likely to get breast cancer than a welfare mom who's had five children and three abortions.

But a story like that can't be written if a reporter happily assumes his own position is so self-evidently on the side of the angels that he can afford to spend time throwing around phrases like "so-called 'counseling'" rather than doing research.

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Unfortunately, this still describes too many reporters.

Nevertheless, the Times' longstanding leftist orthodoxy has improved noticably under Carroll, even though the improvement actually began well before Carroll's arrival in 2000, with the departure of former editor Shelby Coffey III in 1997.

Like Howell Raines, who recently resigned as top editor of the New York Times in the wake of the Jayson Blair/Rick Bragg scandals, Coffey grew up rich, white and liberal in the pre-civil rights South, and expected his staff to atone for his background of guilty privilege.

When a paper's top editor is a self-styled Atticus Finch, watch out.

Who can forget the infamous Times Style Guidelines of the mid-'90s, which made the paper a national laughingstock under Coffey with its risible combination of earnestly PC taboos combined with bloated middle-management.

My favorite Style Guideline: "Pendejo ... translates literally as pubic hair, but it is a vulgar term that means fool ... should be used only in quotes approved by the editor, managing editor, associate editor or the senior editor."

As I remember thinking at the time: God, if you have to go through all that just to use a vulgar word for fool that also means pubic hair, why bother?

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But even more recently the Times has had a habit of PC glitches.

I still remember an astonishingly sob-sistery front-page Christmas Day, 2001 story by Mideast correspondent Tracy Wilkinson.

The hed: "Arafat Forced to Miss Mass in Bethlehem." The lede: "In a centuries-old tradition, worshipers congregated here Monday where Jesus is believed to have been born and ushered in a joyless Christmas made all the more somber by Israel's refusal to permit the participation of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat ..."

Did the Times actually mean that a Christian holiday was "joyless" because a Muslim terrorist wasn't there to help celebrate? Apparently so. I imagined the L.A. Times retelling of "Little Women" for Palestinians:

"Christmas won't be Christmas without President Arafat," grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

"It's so dreadful to be Palestinian!" sighed Meg, looking down at her old chador.

"I don't think it's fair for the Israelis to have plenty of pretty things, and then they restrict our movements just because we like to to make pretty explosions," added little Amy, with an injured sniff.

"We've still got Hamas and Hezbollah and each other," said Beth contendedly, from her corner.

And so on. What explains much of this is journalists' need to pat themselves on the back as friends of the oppressed. But that doesn't make it any less sickening.

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Reading about Carroll's memo, I thought about my days growing up in conservative, practically all-white Los Alamitos, a hicksville suburb in Orange County, Calif.

On one elementary school field trip we visited the old-timey chapel at Knott's Berry Farm, which was sort of like Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln at Disneyland, except Jesus was onscreen instead of animatronic.

The recorded narration reverently described Our Savior's blond hair and blue eyes, and when it got to the part about the blue eyes they lit up.

No one ever needed to explain the word "kitsch" to me after that.

In high-school history class the teacher mentioned that Jesus spoke Aramaic. This shocked one girl so much she started to cry, insisting tearfully that "Jesus spoke ENGLISH!"

If you explained you didn't celebrate Christmas because you weren't Christian, people often looked at you uncomprehendingly - as they did if you said you wanted to live somewhere else one day, or if you described a book they hadn't heard of, which was practically any book.

So I spent my formative years in a constant state of irritation, which was good practice for my life today.

Because here in Medialand, people often look at you uncomprehendingly if you explain that not everyone in America agrees with the received media wisdom about topics like affirmative action, abortion and gun control - and that furthermore, these people with different ideas are not necessarily evil bigots, even if some of them do go to church.

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The insular cluelessness of many of my colleagues actually irritates me more than the insular cluelessness of my uneducated old neighbors. Because journalists, unlike the descendants of Dust Bowl refugees, are SUPPOSED to be curious about - or at least aware of - other people with different points of view.

What's their excuse?

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