The Marketplace of Ideas Sells us Lemons

Again, I’d like to thank Barb Brown and the students of William G. Davis Senior Public School in Cambridge for making me feel so welcome at my reading earlier this morning. It was a pleasure. The blog below is a bit heavy and full of politics, so if you want to read more about my books, you can check out the Unwritten Blog, here.

I thought I’d do my part to serve up a bit of Google justice. Travis Biehn is not a mad bomber.

Skippy, the Amazing Wonderdog has, from the beginning, been following the story of this Newfoundland-born teenager initially convicted of making a bomb threat and possessing bomb-making materials. He successfully appealed his conviction and got the verdict overturned

Biehn was originally convicted of making a bomb threat, but there was absolutely no evidence that he had made the threat. In fact, he was one of two students who reported the threat, and the teacher’s aide to whom he reported it did not take it seriously enough to take it any further.

He was also convicted of possessing bomb-making materials, which, at the time, I erroneously wrote was more or less a slam-dunk. I was trying to take the most balanced view that I could, but I was wrong. In fact, under Pennsylvania law, it is only an offence to possess bomb-making materials if you have the intent to commit a crime with them. And of course, the DA had no evidence whatsoever that Biehn had any such intent. On the contrary, the evidence showed that Biehn had legal purposes for the materials.

The DA’s argument was essentially circular: Biehn must have made the threat, because he possessed explosive materials, and he must have had criminal intent, because he made the threat. The only “evidence” supporting either charge was the existence of the other charge, and Biehn was convicted based on innuendo. The second charge, of possessing explosives, is a felony.

The appeals court drew the obvious conclusion, the conclusion that the trial judge should have drawn, and overturned the convictions.

The Wonderdog notes that, conviction overturned or not, Travis Biehn still has work to do to clear his name, because the media which jumped all over the story of his initial conviction have been almost silent following Biehn’s subsequent appeal.

The results is that whenever anyone Googles Travis’s name, they’ll find a pile of hysteria suggesting that he was once a mad bomber.

That’s the crime here.


This is the second case I have encountered during the course of running this blog, of a teenager being charged for acts of terrorism and facing a rush to judgement from the media, despite the fact that the charges were eventually dropped or overturned. Travis Biehn’s case seems even more cut and dried than that of William Poole (Biehn did not damage his credibility by initially claiming that he was writing stories featuring zombies), but in in both cases, there was a lot of attention given to the accusations and the arraignment, but very little coverage of the exoneration. And blogs unfortunately contributed to the feeding frenzy.

About a week ago, I received the following e-mail from Damian Brooks:

Subject: News from Kandahar that we’re not hearing

I don’t know if your readers would find this interesting, but I thought you might, James: )

I figure it might be a good idea for Canadians to know what the hell we’re doing over there, especially if the public is going to be expected to make decent decisions about supporting the mission or not. Tilting at windmills, I know…

Sad to admit this, though Damian is a blogger I respect, I had a prejudicial reaction, thinking “oh, God, not another blog complaining how the right news just isn’t getting out about Iraq and Afghanistan”. That was, until I visited the Torch and saw who was among the lineup: Andrew Anderson of Bound by Gravity, a conservative blogger of considerable personal integrity and Skippy the Amazing Wonderdog, a member of the Blogging NDP. There’s quite a rational and multi-partisan lineup there, and considerable promise for balanced content and open discussions of the issues at hand.

The post in question, by Damian Brooks, does bemoan the disproportionate coverage of violence and death in Afghanistan, especially in the face of the hard work and the little victories Canadian soldiers have been able to achieve. But it is particularly instructive seeing how Damian deconstructs what’s happening and why, and comparing that to the more typical complaints about the supposed bias (liberal or conservative) of the mainstream media by certain bloggers.

In the comments section of this post on Greg Staples’ Political Staples, a very short post on Greg receiving some much deserved attention by CTV News during the leadership convention was followed up by a post from some more immature commentators deriding the media’s supposed liberal bias.

Maybe after you show them how to blog show the reporter how to [write] while not on their knees in front of a Liberal politician

Given that the media had been interviewing a number of conservative bloggers during the convention, and given that somebody had previously said that this was evidence against there being a liberal bias in the media, I responded disparagingly. This was yet another example of the persecution complex a handful of conservatives had over the fact that the facts the media reports ondon’t always go their way. This sparked a debate between myself and another poster, which you can read here.

The poster’s argument was that evidence that the media had a liberal bias was “overwhelming”. He based this claim on the assertion that the media wasn’t reporting all the good news in Iraq, that hit pieces focused more on Republican candidates than Democratic candidates; that studies showed that journalists were more likely to vote Democratic than Republican.

The problem was, none of his “proof” was proof of a liberal media bias.

The numbers on journalists’ personal voting preferences aside (I don’t know them and so I can’t comment), the poster is supplying only anecdotal evidence of perceived liberal bias twisting particular stories, and the numbers argument holds only if he believes that liberals are incapable of reporting objectively — that simply voting Democrat is enough to cost you your credibility when you submit your story. I say, that’s prejudice.

My expectation and experience is that individuals, whether liberal or conservative, are capable of rising above their worldviews and dealing with reality. All the time, including in the Canadian blogosphere, you do see people of political stripes working together. Consider Greg Staples’ Bloggers Hotstove, or the camraderie between bloggers of various stripes at the Liberal leadership convention, Or the Torch itself.

I reject the accusation that the media has a liberal bias. I do not believe that the media is that organized, and I dispute in the strongest terms this prejudice over individual journalists’ characters and intentions.

On the other hand, there are plenty of examples of sloppy journalism. Even the Dan Rather memos, which the poster took great delight of metaphorically waving in front of my face, speak to sloppy journalism rather than an organized conspiracy to bring down the Bush presidency. Other than the memos, what about the story is untrue? ABC News and Dan Rather rushed the story, for whatever reason, and they paid for it.

In the face of this failing, I can cite others, including:

  • the National Post and the Toronto Sun going all agog over reports that women in the medium security correctional facility in Kitchener, including Karla Holmoka, were treated to a “spa day” and then going on their usual schtick about the system “coddling” prisoners… except that the story, which got front page treatment, was not true. What actually happened was that the women were given a seminar on personal hygiene — something which was an issue for a number of them — and Karla Holmoka and other serious prisoners were not let out of their cells.
  • the National Post’s faulty reporting of Toronto’s crime statistics
  • false reports by the National Post that the Iraniam regime was about to force Jews and other minorities to wear colour-coded clothing to better identify them
  • a report by the UK Mail claiming that a factory producing batteries for the Toyota Prius was poisoning the landscape so badly, NASA came calling to test its lunar vehicles. The land’s previous use as a tailings dump for a nickel mine was not mentioned.

Evidence of the conservative bias of the mainstream media? Hardly. While I stand by my assertion that the mainstream media has no coherent bias, nowhere have I said that the mainstream media is without fault. The Travis Biehn case illustrates one of its many flaws, as do the other items both the poster and I cited. One should not ascribe malevolent intent, when simple incompetence will do.

It’s a shame that some liberals and conservatives try to play the persecution card. If the general public doesn’t think the way they think, or if situations develop that go against their hopes and desires, then somebody else must be at fault. Well, nobody likes to be at odds with the rhetoric of those around them. Few people like to have their worldview challenged by such pesky things as facts. Fortunately, there are people like Damian Brooks who have the maturity to look at reasons other than some (insert opposing political dogma of your choice) conspiracy. His deconstruction of the problem is quite credible as a result:

First of all, it’s easy to forget that the picture Canucks get from our media is of CF operations in Kandahar, not all of Afghanistan. Six provinces in the south - of which Kandahar is the most dangerous - form a part of the overall picture, but not all of it. Afghanistan as a whole is doing much better than one would think from watching news reports focused on the Canadian area of operations.

Within that narrow view, the scope of reporting tightens even more with what the press chooses to report. Journalists are willing to cover what the military calls ‘kinetic ops’ - and what the rest of us call combat - because it makes for exciting stories. And they’re willing to cover the deaths of Canadian soldiers because death is always considered a newsworthy topic - “if it bleeds, it leads.”

His frustration over the media’s addiction to bad news in selling papers is clear (and understandable). The question is, what can we do about it?

Like it or not, we have progressed to the point where we frown on a state-owned media feeding us news we would otherwise rather not hear. By and large, Western society has thrown open the question of what gets reported to the marketplace. Good news has to compete with bad in a competition for our eyeballs and the advertising dollars that come with them. And this is occurring in an environment where our pace of life is increasing. It is unfortunately true that the reason “it bleeds, it leads” is a truism, is because our eyeballs seem to gravitate towards bad news far more than good news. Watch the people around you when you’re travelling and CNN is playing above a bar or in some hotel’s restaurant. See how much more attention people pay to the television than to the food when the news is bad (such as during hurricane coverage), versus when the news is good.

Blogs are no better, I’m afraid, ironically because they are an active activity rather than a passive one like newswatching. By seeking out our news, too many of us tend to gravitate towards reports and opinions which confirm our worldview. What little objectivity the mainstream media has goes out the window in the case of blogs. In the Travis Biehn case, the Wonderdog links to a blog that was in on the rush to judgement against Biehn. Now that Biehn has been cleared, what is their response?

He also requested that I comment on it because in his words I’ve written some prior innacurate/media based commentary on the case. Well only because you asked so nicely.

You’re verdict was appealed. Congratulations.

However I still agree with what Judge Biehn had to say at the time of the original verdict…

Judge Kenneth Biehn, who’s no relation, said the 17-year-old is no terrorist but an “arrogant, guarded, defensive, immature, attention-seeking” youth who needs to be evaluated after completing the juvenile program to see if he can go back to his family at the end of August.

Nice guys. So much for the self-correcting, mainstream-media-balancing nature of the blogosphere.

As our attention spans shorten, can we really blame the media for shortening their news coverage, for getting sloppy and, worst of all, for not getting the whole story out? And as our natural desire to support our own worldview generates attention for sites which feed that worldview, can we blame blogs for not taking up the slack? The blame for the flaws in our worldview ultimately rests with ourselves. It is a rare and remarkable human being who opens himself to challenges to his worldview. It is almost as rare and remarkable a human being who takes the time to look beyond the headlines.

This is the real problem of the world. And it’s not one that I can see easily fixed.

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