Errors, Lies, & “Corrections”


Edward S. Herman

New
York Times
reporters have had a strong propensity to swallow chemical
industry propaganda: most dramatically with Keith Schneider’s proposition
that exposure to dioxin is no more threatening than “spending a week
sun-bathing” (originally said to be the view of “scientists,” but
eventually admitted to be Schneider’s own creation); and Gina Kolata’s
error laden review and Nicholas Wade’s angry repudiation of the book Our
Stolen Future
—“creating an environmental scare without evidence,”
Wade told the authors, without having read the book (see Mark Dowie,
“What’s Wrong with the New York Times’s Science Reporting,” Nation,
July 6, 1998). “Junk science” for the Times is not the science
produced by industry or its hired hands to protect its right to sell, it is
the science of environmentalists and tort lawyers; the paper’s use of the
phrase replicates the views of industry. The Times has never yet
reported the sensational disclosure that both Monsanto’s and BASF’s
studies showing the harmlessness of dioxin, which were actually used by the
EPA in fixing tolerances, were based on fraud. It has never reviewed or cited
the powerful book by Dan Fagin and Marianne Lavelle on Toxic Deception: How
the Chemical Industry Manipulates Science, Bends the Law, and Endangers Your
Health
(Birch Lane, 1996), and I will be surprised if it ever reviews Joe
Thornton’s recent Pandora’s Poison: Chlorine, Health, and a New
Environmental Strategy
(MIT Press, 2000) as this impressive work calls for
radical constraints on the chemical industry.

“Scares”:
Phony and Real

Times
reporters regularly get on industry bandwagons that allege unwarranted
“scares,” but they are extremely reluctant to explore evidence of the
ill-effects of chemicals or of regulatory weakness and capture that ought to
be scary. For example, when the EPA discovered in the late 1980s that Monsanto
had failed to deliver several hundred internal studies of possible ill-effects
of chemicals, contrary to law, and a follow-up moratorium on penalties
resulted in the industry coughing up 11,000 internal studies that should have
been submitted to the regulators, the Times never even reported this
development, with its huge implications for the workability of existing
procedures for testing and protecting the public from any adverse effects of
chemicalization of the environment.

The Alar case,
in which a February 1989 “60 Minutes” program had featured a cancer threat
from the use of the chemical Alar on apples, resulting in a sharp drop of
apple sales, was quickly denounced by industry and its spokespersons as an
unwarranted “scare.” This scare became institutionalized at the Times,
although three months after the CBS program the EPA did ban Alar as a
carcinogenic threat, and the seriousness of this threat was confirmed by the
National Academy of Sciences in 1992. Nevertheless, Jane Brody cited Alar as
the main case in point in her “Health Scares That Aren’t So Scary”
(August 18, 1998), stating that the EPA had never condemned Alar, and using as
her information authority the American Council on Health, an industry-funded
propaganda agency that Brody identified only as “based in New York.” I
wrote a letter to the publisher, noting that Brody’s statement that the EPA
had not condemned Alar was false, and that her identification of the American
Council on Health was inadequate. The Times published a
“Correction” on the Brody piece on September 5, 1998, admitting the two
misrepresentations.

More Alar
Propaganda

But
lo and behold, on August 18, 2000, along comes Times columnist John
Tierney, in his “The Apple And the Sins of Journalists,” with an even more
egregious set of misrepresentations than Brody on Alar and related issues.
Tierney refers to the American Council on Health as “a consumer education
group in New York,” actually going one better than Brody, who located it in
New York without giving it a misleading positive designation. Tierney denies
any health problems associated with pesticides on the grounds that the
“cancer epidemic never arrived,” with death rates from cancer down 19
percent. Tierney doesn’t recognize any possible ill effects from pesticides
except in the form of cancer, although chemical damage to immune systems and
reproduction have come into increasing prominence (and are featured in Our
Stolen Future
). Tierney confuses death rates and incidence; the latter has
risen markedly, the former has almost surely declined because of earlier
detection and improved medical treatment.

Tierney says
that “Scientists denounced the CBS report [on Alar] as inaccurate (there
were more potent carcinogens than Alar), alarmist, and possibly carcinogenic
itself because the ensuing panic caused people to eat less fruit.” While
Tierney cites one scientist who questioned the Alar threat, like Kolata he
chooses his experts carefully, and he fails to mention the EPA finding of
carcinogenicity or the National Academy of Sciences confirmation of the cancer
threat from Alar. The parenthetical that there are “more potent”
carcinogens than Alar is idiotic as a basis for denial of a threat, and the
carcinogenic threat of not eating fruit is little more than a joke.

I sent another
letter to the publisher pointing out that Tierney was repeating claims that
had been acknowledged to be false or misleading in an earlier
“Correction,” but which the paper’s reporters and commentators seem to
be reluctant to abandon. Tierney’s misrepresentations, however, were not
subject to a “Correction,” although his description of the American
Council on Health as a “consumer education group” was more misleading than
Brody’s and his deceptions on Alar and its threats were equally serious.
Furthermore, his statements on pesticides and cancer, and cancer and other
medical risks, which went beyond Brody’s, were misleading and silly.

Perhaps it
would have been too embarrassing to have a Correction referring to errors that
had been made and corrected previously in the paper. That would suggest not
only careless editing but a widely internalized bias that the paper has a hard
time keeping under control.

Times
“Corrections”

An
article some years back by Edwin Diamond, A. Biddle Duke, and Isabelle Anacker,
“Can We Expect TV News To Correct Its Mistakes?”, in TV Guide
(December 5, 1987), stressed the unwillingness of TV networks to correct
errors, and pointed out that newspapers had developed standard practices for
doing this through correction boxes, letters to the editor, etc. The authors
cited a Gannett Center research report that on average, large newspapers
publish “a correction every other day.” But they failed to note the
possibility that the papers might correct a few trivial and obvious errors but
fail to correct more subtle and important ones. Even more important,
“error” may not encompass serious bias in selection of news and sources
and in mode of presentation (placement, tone, structure of material within the
articles, etc.)

A far more
important media shortcoming than an error in dating or misquotation would be
the failure to report essential information, such as the Monsanto and BASF
dioxin study frauds mentioned earlier, the collusion of the EPA and paper
industry in fixing dioxin limits in the late 1980s, and the revelation that
the chemical industry had not submitted 11,000 relevant internal studies on
chemical effects to the EPA.

As another
illustration, after serving up apologetics for the U.S.S. Vincennes’
shooting down of an Iranian airliner in 1988 that killed 290 civilians, the Times
failed to disclose to its readers the contents of the report by Commander
David Carlson in the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings (September 1989),
which offered strong evidence that the apolo- getics for the shootdown were
false and that the action was carried out by an irresponsible Rambo commander.
The Times then failed to report President George Bush’s award of a
Legion of Merit in 1990 for “exceptionally meritorious conduct” to this
commander of the Vincennes. The Times also failed to report on the
Appendix B insertion in the Rambouillet agreement of a proviso for NATO
occupation of all Yugoslavia, which made war inevitable, and the paper has
never mentioned that an official admitted that this was done precisely because
Serbia needed to be bombed.

Apart from
these (and countless other) lies of omission, there are scads of direct lies
that have remained uncorrected. For years Times reporters have spoken
of an Indonesian invasion of East Timor in the midst of a civil war in 1975,
when in fact the civil war was over well before the invasion. This is an
uncorrectible institutional lie that fits well the 25-year Times
apologetics for the invasion-occupation.
                  Z