How the Journal Played the Torture Report Story

December 14th, 2014 · journalism, Washington

By Arthur Alpert

We drown in facts even as we thirst for meaning.

Meaning is born of context. Reporters and essayists provide it within their pieces by using history, comparisons and other explanatory material.

(It’s not today’s subject but that required reportorial intervention is why “objectivity” doesn’t exist and why “just the facts, please” is a nonsensical request.)

Another kind of context is less obvious. It’s supplied by editors when, for example, they decide to to play a story on Page One, thereby signaling to the reader that it’s important. Page 42? Not that big a deal. They also send us messages with their decisions on size, adorning the piece with color and art, using a pull quote and, of course, headlining it.

This is where the Albuquerque Journal’s top decision makers strike. Blatantly, insistently, they impose a political agenda. Today’s case in point is their “news” coverage of the report on U.S. torture following 9/11.

Let’s start with a Ripley event. Believe it or not, on December 10, 2014, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the editors ran a sidebar on the front page!

A sidebar, the narrower piece that accompanies the main story, follows its big brother. Sometimes, they abut side-by-side. Sometimes the sidebar is below. Once in a while the main story runs up front and there’s a note alerting us to a sidebar on another page.

But – and it’s a big BUT – putting the sidebar (lesser, remember) on Page One and burying the basic account inside is, well, weird. Backward and – I was going to say – inane.

But no, not if we presume the editors are politicians. Now it makes great sense.

For by running the sidebar on the front page (noting that “details” are on A5), the Journal relegates the big, ugly story to A5.

Allow me to hover over that for a moment and restate it this way:

[Read more →]

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Piecemeal Treatment on a Story of Toxic Proportions

December 11th, 2014 · energy policy, environment, journalism, role of government

By Denise Tessier

Catching up after three weeks away from both a computer and New Mexico news, one story jumped out among the many I’d missed. It wasn’t in the Albuquerque Journal, but the Weekly Alibi.

Written by University of New Mexico Professor David Correia, the Nov. 27 Alibi piece was headlined “Welcome to Albuquerque, Nuclear Meltdown Capital of the World.”

Now, a nuclear reactor is needed for a real nuclear meltdown to occur, and the only nuclear reactors in New Mexico were three small experimental ones at the labs and at UNM. But as Correia’s story revealed, Sandia National Laboratories actually triggered dozens of real meltdowns in its unit near Albuquerque after being asked by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to conduct research, with a goal of preventing a repeat of the Three Mile Island incident in 1979. Correia outlined this time period, saying:

. . .commercial nuclear plants all over the world sent enriched uranium to Sandia, where scientists triggered dozens of nuclear meltdowns by irradiating the fuel at temperatures greater than 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit in its Annular Core Research Reactor. . .The experiments contributed to the creation of fail-safe computer codes based on various worst-case scenarios. Nuclear reactors worldwide reprogrammed their computers based on these codes.

But here’s the kicker:

These were real nuclear meltdowns that produced dangerous nuclear wastes. The only safe storage option for such wastes would have been in a specially engineered facility, but no such option existed at the time. Instead the NRC allowed Sandia to bury dozens of radioactive canisters full of meltdown material in vertical holes drilled into shallow, unlined trenches in its 2.6-acre Sandia Mixed Waste Landfill (MWL).

The dump opened in 1959 and for nearly 30 years, until it closed in 1988, received as much as 1.5 million cubic feet of radioactive and toxic material.

And that wasn’t all that was dumped:

Into open pits near the Pueblo of Isleta, Sandia dumped carcinogenic solvents such as tetrachloroethylene (PCE), trichloroethelyene (TCE) and dichlorodifluoromethane (CFC-12).

Into unlined trenches a few hundred feet above the aquifer, it dumped metals like beryllium, cadmium, chromium, nickel and 281,000 pounds of lead.

In the middle of it all, it buried tons of various radioactive elements, including more than 100 drums of plutonium, which has a radioactive half-life of 24,100 years.

Correia’s story ended with a chilling quote he elicited from H. Eric Nuttall, UNM emeritus professor of Chemical & Nuclear Engineering, one of five scientists who conducted an independent review of the landfill at the request of the Department of Energy in 2001, and who is an expert on in situ remediation of groundwater:

“This is no ordinary landfill,” Nutall told me. “It’s unlike any other dump in the United States. It’s full of extremely hazardous and highly radioactive materials. . . .It’s no exaggeration to say that if the material in the landfill were distributed around the world and people were exposed, it would kill everyone on Earth.” (emphasis added)

[Read more →]

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The Journal Deserves Worse Than A Flunking Grade for Keystone XL Pipeline Editorial

December 5th, 2014 · climate change, energy policy, environment, Fact Check, journalism

By Arthur Alpert

I rarely write about the Albuquerque Journal’s editorials because the daily’s owners have a right to express their opinions there. And since the aim of most editorials is to persuade, the authors deserve plenty of room to assemble and tailor evidence for the argument.

That said, editorials ought to live up to the same standards you and I impose on, say, the newspaper’s opinion columns or news stories. Like seriousness of purpose, accuracy, the proper use of evidence, logic and, above all, fairness.

By these yardsticks, I generally grade the Journal’s editorials on local issues as acceptable, some higher, but when it comes to national topics, I flunk a lot. Such is my dismay, however, at the newspaper’s take on the Keystone pipeline published Friday, Nov. 21, that a D or F would not adequately reprove it.

It was that journalistically shameful.

“Pandering to their environmentally activist base,” the editorialist wrote, “59 Senate Democrats, including both Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, have again declared war on American jobs and rejected a boost for the U.S. economy and another step toward energy independence by blocking congressional approval of the $5.3 billion Keystone XL pipeline project.”

The Journal’s stand was no surprise, of course. As my colleague, Denise Tessier and I have noted here, New Mexico’s largest print daily regularly publishes fossil fuel industry views via essays ostensibly from concerned citizens but financed, in fact, by the industry. Also, pro-fossil fuel industry opinions from “think tanks” also financed by the industry or its affluent allies. Nor do the editors bother to identify the real sources of these opinions for readers.

Simultaneously, it omits most stories on alternative energy progress, technically and in market terms. [Read more →]

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Willed Superficiality

November 20th, 2014 · journalism, NM Legislature

By Arthur Alpert

Not a day passes that the Albuquerque Journal does not offer a lesson or five or six in how not to do journalism. This drives me crazy because I get lost trying to decide what to target first.

Should I point out stories the Journal ignores, presumably because its plutocratic agenda forbids?

OK, here, briefly, are a few of the latest:

  • The DOE expects a five billion dollar profit for the taxpayers from the program that funded Solyndra and other green energy startups, as Bloomberg Business Week (and others) noted Nov. 12. Somehow, the Journal, which ran umpteen stories on Solyndra’s big loss (as I noted here Nov. 16, 2011) hasn’t found space for DOE’s big profit.
  • Speaking of energy, the Journal also missed Donald Blankenship’s indictment. The former Massey Energy Co. CEO is charged with conspiring to violate mine safety standards and to impede mine safety officials, making false statements to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and securities fraud. News organizations reported it Nov. 13.

Of course, they were only miners, the 29 who died in that April 5, 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion, not mine owners.

  • The Journal’s post-election analysis included zero coverage of the decisive role played by dark money.

Of course, the Journal continues to employ a range of tactics to promote its oligarchic agenda, including stories not assigned, stories hidden in the back pages and stories disguised under misleading rubrics. [Read more →]

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Old-fashioned Virtues, Anti-Journalism and Net Neutrality

November 16th, 2014 · health care reform, journalism, net neutrality, Uncategorized

By Arthur Alpert

I wanted today to evaluate the Albuquerque Journal’s political coverage leading up to Nov. 4 – hint, it ranged downward from mediocre – and I will get to it soon. But columns by Winthrop Quigley and D’Val Westphal intervened, reminding me of an old suggestion by my colleague, Denise Tessier and, well, I’ve changed course.

If memory serves, she wondered why the Journal doesn’t replace some syndicated columns (and Op Ed essays from covert sources) with the work of staff writers, publishing them not on Page One but on the editorial and Op Ed pages, as local newspapers traditionally do.

(I’ve just read her Feb. 24, 2010 post and yes, memory did serve but she said a lot more and said it better.)

We’ll get back to Denise’s point but first, the columns I cited above:

In his UpFront column headlined “Opposition to the Affordable Care Act is often ironic”, Quigley gently put down those opponents of Obamacare who cry “Socialism” when the reality is the ACA recruits “new customers for the for-profit insurance industry.”

That was Thursday, Nov. 13. I’m writing Friday and the top story is Westphal’s continuing UpFront inquiry into the facts on testing in the state’s public schools. Facts, that is, as opposed to broad generalizations or wild assertions.

This is not about agreeing with Quigley or Westphal. I don’t always. Quigley seems to side with business rather than the nation when their interests clash. And while Westphal’s decision to ask teachers what goes on in classrooms is as impressive as it is rare these days, I’m wary of how she will link and interpret what she finds given Journal management’s record on improving schools.

What matters, however, is that both essayists are serious journalists who are allowed by Journal management to stray from the party line.

Of course that party line – or rather, management’s use of it in deciding what is “news” and in structuring the opinion pages – is destructive of journalism.

[Read more →]

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More National Attention for New Mexico Police

November 10th, 2014 · regulation, role of government

By Denise Tessier

(November 10, 2014) In newsroom vernacular, the New York Times “scooped” papers in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Cruces with its report on overzealous police departments and civil forfeiture laws, which ran in the Times Sunday (Nov. 9).

It would be hoped that the local papers do some follow-up on this one, because the story mentions those three New Mexico cities, merits greater attention and bears repeating.

The story, “Police Use Department Wish List When Deciding Which Assets To Seize,” included segments of videos from police department seminars (one of which was held in Santa Fe), where officers were actually being advised to target big ticket items like luxury cars and to forget about jewelry and computers when seizing assets related to drug crimes, DWI or prostitution (the latter of which was possible courtesy of the Albuquerque City Council).

Star witness for the Times’ indictment of police coveting cars was Harry S. Connelly, Las Cruces city attorney, who is shown in a video (embedded in the Times’ story) relating how his city’s police department was disappointed it couldn’t nail a guy, despite their best efforts to pin something on him in order to get his “exotic” Mercedes. From the video footage of Connelly:

A guy drives up in a 2008 Mercedes, brand new. Just so beautiful, I mean, the cops were undercover and they were just like Ahhhh.” And he gets out and he’s just reeking of alcohol. And it’s like, Oh, my goodness, we can hardly wait.”

The Times’ news story noted that since the expansion of the “War on Drugs” in the 1980s, civil forfeiture has become a law enforcement staple to the point that it helps finance police work, with some department personnel personally using assets like cars that have not been sold at auction.

What is new in the story is that police and prosecutors like Connelly are sharing tips on how to best score these high-dollar assets via continuing education seminars – like the one held in Santa Fe – some of which were videotaped. [Read more →]

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Why Endorse?

November 3rd, 2014 · journalism

By Denise Tessier

Could the Albuquerque Journal’s endorsement of Susana Martinez for governor actually cut the number of votes she gets?

Or does the paper’s endorsement give her a boost?

For that matter, does a Journal endorsement (or lack thereof) affect the chances of approval for any of the dozens of candidates, State Constitutional amendments, bonds, mill levy and advisory questions on Tuesday’s ballot?

The data-driven news site Vox recently offered a partial answer to those questions by highlighting a study that concluded: The answer depends on whether the voter’s views are ideologically similar to that of the newspaper.

At this point it almost goes without saying that the Journal is perceived as ideologically conservative (Republican-leaning), regardless of how many endorsements it gave Democrats in this year’s races.

The 2012 study by Dartmouth’s Kyle Dropp and MIT’s Chris Warshaw found that with regard to general elections, an endorsement from newspapers ideologically similar to the voter increased support for the candidate by approximately 5 points.

Regarding primary elections, the study came to a similar conclusion, but also found that an endorsement from an ideologically dissimilar paper reduced voter support by about 10 points.

So, this study tells us that an endorsement is added incentive for voters who like their paper’s views in general, but that those who disagree with their paper disagree with a bit more passion. One has to assume that there’s also a contingent of voters for whom the endorsements matter not a whit. [Read more →]

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“Plutocrats Against Democracy”: The news deemed not fit to print by the Journal

October 29th, 2014 · climate change, economy, health care reform, journalism

By Arthur Alpert

I had no idea Paul Krugman read the Albuquerque Journal, did you?

Hard to believe, I know, but his Oct. 23 NY Times column contains big hints that he follows our local daily closely.

It’s headlined, “Plutocrats Against Democracy”.

Krugman argues first that plutocrats (that is, persons whose power derives from their wealth) fear democracy. He says that’s why they invest in propaganda, telling voters, “often and loudly, that taxing the rich and helping the poor will cause economic disaster, while cutting taxes on ‘job creators’ will create prosperity for all” by way of “a lavishly funded industry of think tanks and media organizations dedicated to promoting and preserving that faith.”

See what I mean? The Nobel-winning economist has offered a neat description of the Journal’s narrative. He’s also noticed our daily’s reliance on “lavishly funded industry of think tanks” for its Op Ed pages. I wish he’d mentioned the Journal’s unwillingness to identify the money behind those essays, but c’est la vie.

Krugman also points to the plutocrats’ efforts to make “sure government programs fail, or never come into existence, so that voters never learn that things could be different.”

He must have had the Journal’s eternal war on Obamacare in mind, don’t you think?

“But these strategies for protecting plutocrats from the mob are indirect and imperfect,” Krugman wrote. And the obvious answer, he concluded, is “Don’t let the bottom half, or maybe even the bottom 90 percent, vote.”

“And now you understand,” he continues, “why there’s so much furor on the right over the alleged but actually almost nonexistent problem of voter fraud, and so much support for voter ID laws that make it hard for the poor and even the working class to cast ballots.”

OK, at this point, I must cease being a wise guy. Paul Krugman almost certainly doesn’t read the Albuquerque Journal. He’s writing about the plutocrats, not the Journal. I pretended otherwise to highlight the strong resemblance – maybe they’re twins – between plutocrats and the paper.

For the Journal is not a newspaper defined by the search for stories (and let the chips fall where they may) but rather a politics-driven advocate for the very rich.

Now I just said a mouthful. It’s a big, broad indictment. To back it up, I should be able to demonstrate not just how it spins the news it prints (as we do habitually at ABQJournalWatch.com) but also that it refuses to cover stories or carry opinion that contradicts its political line.

Well, guess what? I can. Without breaking a sweat. Censorship is the case. Exactly. Egregiously. And in spades.

The Albuquerque Journal averts its eyes from huge swaths of the local, national and global scenes – pretty much everything the plutocracy would have us ignorant of.

Which is why I have a little list of such stories, about a dozen, assuming I can read the notes I’ve been scribbling for the past week or 10 days. Let’s look at a few today.

[Read more →]

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Journal Editorial Alleging ‘Political Shenanigans’ Displays Partisanship of Its Own

October 25th, 2014 · journalism, regulation, role of government, tax policy, voting rights

By Denise Tessier

“. . .voters should be allowed to help settle the debate. . .” – 2011 Albuquerque Journal editorial, urging voters to support a ballot question regarding red light cameras

The Albuquerque Journal showed a glaring inconsistency last week when it called on voters to reject two advisory questions – on whether marijuana should be decriminalized and whether the county should fund mental health services via a tax – questions that are already printed on this year’s Bernalillo County ballot.

In an Oct 16 editorial that at best was merely hypocritical and at worst, maliciously partisan and undemocratic, the Journal said the two questions “serve no real purpose other than partisan political pandering” and urged voters to vote no on those questions to “register their displeasure” with the Bernalillo County Commission.

Yet in June 2011, when the Albuquerque City Council was split on whether to put to a vote a non-binding question regarding red light cameras, the Journal editorial board advised Mayor Richard Berry to break the tie and put it on the ballot, saying:

. . . while voters do elect officials to make the tough decisions, and public safety isn’t something that necessarily belongs on a referendum, Albuquerque’s red-light cameras should go to a public vote. . .

So, three years ago, the Journal said the issue of red light cameras should go to a vote “if for no other reason than to quiet the talk-radio conspiracy theorists and build community confidence in the program.”

Yet today, when the ballots are already printed up and being viewed by early and absentee voters, the Journal advocates that voters undermine the process and vote “no” to voice their displeasure with the County Commission. In essence, the Journal is advocating that voters throw a monkey wrench into the integrity of the process and forever throw into question whether voters in this election will have cast a “no” against decriminalization and mental health services via a tax or whether they were merely voting “no”– as the Journal urged them – to teach commissioners a lesson. [Read more →]

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Journal Publishes Misleading Voice of ‘Reason’

October 23rd, 2014 · environment, journalism

By Denise Tessier

Last month, the day after about 400 people marched in Albuquerque and hundreds of thousands marched worldwide to demand action on climate change, the Albuquerque Journal ran a relevant but industry-slanted piece that was soon after debunked by one of the paper’s own readers and nationally discredited by the watchdog site, Media Matters.

The timing in running the piece likely was mere coincidence when Journal editors decided to give generous Op-Ed page space to “Plastic bag bans not a panacea for the environment.” But that it would run questionable information and overlook the industry background of the writer is of more egregious concern, and gives the impression the Journal essentially has chosen to chastise two New Mexico cities for banning plastic bags.

The piece was written by Julian Morris, listed as “Vice President of Research” for the Reason Foundation, which, as pointed out by Journal letter writer Bruce G. Trigg, is funded in part by the Koch brothers, one of whom, David Koch, serves as a Foundation trustee. It can be said that these industrial billionaires have an interest in plastic bags, which in the United States are made from a waste by-product of natural gas refining, according to American Plastic Manufacturing.

Let’s look at just the first few paragraphs in the Morris column:

Over 200 municipalities in the United States, including two in New Mexico – Santa Fe and Silver City – have banned the distribution of lightweight plastic shopping bags.

Proponents of these bag bans claim they will reduce litter and protect the marine environment, diminish our consumption of resources and emissions of greenhouse gases, reduce waste and save taxpayers’ money.

. . . a recent report for the Reason Foundation shows that all these claims are false. (My emphasis added.)

Media Matters’ point-by-point analysis of Morris’s article shows the claims by bag ban proponents are not false, and instead it was Morris making misleading and false claims in his widely disseminated opinion piece. [Read more →]

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