Thursday, June 21, 2012

That's Not What They Said: AP Headline Misrepresents SCOTUS Ruling in FCC v Fox

One of the neat things about actually paying attention to what's going on, is you can know when other people aren't.  For instance, when the AP posts a headline that says "Supreme Court Throws Out FCC Policy on curse words and nudity on TV" (note: Headline has changed since originally posted to Twitter), they're completely misrepresenting what the Supreme Court actually said.

If you read the article (most people won't) you'll get the real story.  In the case FCC v Fox, the FCC had fined Fox TV (not Fox News) (among others) based on its Decency policy.  Fox maintained that such a fine was unwarranted, and that the policy itself is unconstitutional.

What the Court actually decided was that, since Fox was not given enough prior warning about the policy, the fine was not valid.  The fine was thrown out.  That's it.  The court refused to even look at any larger aspects of the case.

Now, I could turn this into a "misleading headline" post, and blast the AP for it, but I'm, instead, going to turn this into a "why would they" post.

In the Age of Twitter, news agencies have to get stories out fast.  I'm sure this means they have editing issues, and all sorts of problems.  They're afraid of being scooped, so they run a story faster with fewer checks, instead of being very sure of their content.  What's interesting is that they persist in doing this, no matter how many times they have to issue updates, corrections, and retractions.  Why?

I believe there are two things going on here.  One is the common Conservative complaint of "the Narrative."  That is, the predominately Liberal Media wants to push its world-view that Conservatives are icky and Liberals are nice, and whatever other mushy-headed ideas they have.  In pursuit of that, they rush out attention grabbing, and often misleading, headlines, sure in the knowledge that the vast majority of people won't read past the headline.

A classic (as in: old) example of this was in Texas when Ann Richards ran against Mark White for the Democrat nomination for Governor.  The article is not available on line, and it was long ago, but a paraphrase of the title of the article was "Mark White Paid No Taxes in [Year] (1988?)"  The point of the title, obviously, is to make people believe that Mr. White had avoided his taxes in that year.  However, if one read the article, they would find out that he paid no taxes because he owed no taxes.  The business he owned and operated (in oil, I think) had suffered a loss in the year in question- meaning he had no income to tax.

The other is just plain sloppiness.  Anyone paying even passing attention (as I was) to the SCOTUS decisions knew this had nothing to do with the FCC Policy.  They stayed very far away from that, in fact.  However, I suspect the actual reporter was not paying passing attention to the decisions, and simply saw that FCC v Fox had been decided against the FCC.  He (or she) then assumed that meant the whole policy had been thrown out, and rushed out a headline.

That is inexcusable.  The Associated Press is one of only two major news-wires left.  They provide news and leads to the rest of the media world-wide.  With this primacy of place comes an incredible responsibility to get it right.  A delay of a few minutes to double-check what was actually decided would not have cost anything, and would have avoided such a misleading headline.

Now, this is a fairly minor issue, really.  I didn't even know about the case, let alone its subject, until today.  But if this is what passes for journalistic integrity at the AP, all of their stories, and all of their headlines are suspect.  The owe themselves better, let alone us.

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