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Tuesday, February 01, 2005

What Is Going on at AP?

Has anybody else noticed something strange going on at the world's oldest and most venerated news service, the Associated Press? AP reporting appears in virtually every daily newspaper in America and it establishes vital standards for the journalism profession with its AP Stylebook.

If something is amiss at AP, it ought to worry everybody who cares about maintaining an independent, credible news media because AP is a backbone of the MSM. Let's not forget, either, that AP is directly affected by the continuing circulation and influence declines of traditional dailies and by the rise of Internet-inspired New Media.

There seems little doubt that something indeed is amiss at AP. I've been reading the spate of recent posts like this one at Powerline.com, and Oh, That Liberal Media has items inspired by AP with some regularity. There was also that distressing dispatch a few days ago that seemed totally ignorant of the pervasive anti-semitism of the Soviet era in Russia. And what on earth happened with the GI Joe hostage blunder of AP's Robert Reid (See Wizbang's precise summary here and Powerline's hilarious reaction here).

Then I read a weekend dispatch by AP's Matt Crenson, which included a blatant falsehood made worse by what appears to be journalistic laziness of the worse sort. The story reported that "some experts" disagree with President Bush's contention that Blacks receive a lousy rate of return from Social Security in great part because of their shorter lifespans, compared to Whites. Crenson's "experts" include "the AARP," some unnamed "experts" and "the Social Security Administration's actuaries."

Then came this sentence: "Only the conservative Heritage Foundation came to a different conclusion." I read the rest of the article expecting to find quotes from somebody at Heritage explaining why they reached a different conclusion but there were none.

Crenson's statement about Heritage is easily checked. So I did and guess what? Not only is Crenson's assertion wrong as a matter of fact, it is so egregiously wrong as to raise suspicions of either a calculated distortion or an amazing instance of sheer reportorial incompetence.

In fact, Heritage is far from being the only observer to conclude that Blacks receive a sorry deal from Social Security because of demographics. The same essential conclusion has been reached by researchers at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, researchers at the Urban Institute, a liberal think tank, researchers at the RAND Corporation, researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research, scholars at the Center on the Economics and Demography of Aging at the University of California at Berkeley, and on and on, with studies going back at least a decade. For a more complete listing, check out the Heritage Policy Weblog here.

It appears the only other people who claim Heritage is unique on this issue are opponents of President Bush's proposal to allow workers to invest a portion of their Social Security taxes in government-approved investment funds. Opponents like ... the AARP cited by Crenson. Surely this AP reporter didn't simply rewrite the anti-Bush talking points of the opponents of Social Security reform, including their bald-faced lie about Heritage?

Regardless of how or why Crenson committed such an error, where was the AP Washington bureau's copy desk fact-checkers when his story was originally filed? Why didn't somebody on the copy desk ask Crenson how he verified his statement about Heritage? Didn't anybody there at least wonder why nobody from Heritage was quoted? Didn't it strike somebody that Crenson's story had a big hole in it, thanks to the absence of any factual explanation for why Heritage arrived at its lonesome conclusion? I mean, come on, people, this is entry-level journalism! Or am I just becoming a crotchety old editor?

Well, I emailed Crenson earlier today asking him why he didn't quote anybody from Heritage. So far I've not received a response. Regardless of Crenson's response or lack thereof, I'm taking a cue from The National Debate's Robert Cox and requesting that AP correct Crenson's factual error and provide evidence of measures being taken by the world's oldest and most trusted news service to prevent any more Crensons from occurring.

Why do I take this so seriously? Because I'm an old newspaper guy who knows there are still a bunch of great journalists working at all levels in AP and I hate to see their fine work tarred by stuff like Crenson's product.

It took Cox more than a year to get The New York Times to admit a factual error, but he was persistent and in the end got both a correction and a change in the policy that allowed the error to be published in the first place.

Let's see what AP does. If anything. I'll keep you posted.

UPDATE: There is now a "bad" AP blog, called Bad Language. At first glance, this doesn't appear to be evidence that the folks responsible for BL have a clue about what the Blogosphere is about. As evidence, consider this quote from one of AP's "bad" bloggers, Derrick Lang: "All you should expect from Bad Language is sarcasm-coated news and commentary about all things pop culture."

In other words, AP doesn't take blogs seriously. For the complete AP dispatch, check out Editor & Publisher here.