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Headline Bias

In the aftermath of the Iraqi election, as the new parliament worked through the political compromises and alliances required to form a stable government, The New York Times ran a “news analysis” describing the difficulties and dangers induced by the relative split among the various political constituencies in the vote — by the lack of a clear mandate for one group to rule.

Although the analysis itself was unobjectionable and even somewhat balanced — labeling something “analysis”, even in the news section, reduces the need for a veneer of objectivity — I found it objectionable because of the way it was prefaced: the headline placed on the story communicated a clear and critical bias against the notion that the election had been successful, a bias that was not supported by the report itself.

If you had merely read the headline and the first paragraph you would have come away with an impression of utter chaos and gloom completely at odds with what the analysis overall communicated. My objection was not to the bias but to the dishonesty. This letter was sent to the editors at the Times but was not published.

14 February 2005

The news analysis by Dexter Filkins, “Split Verdict in Iraqi Vote Sets Stage for Weak Government” (14 Feb), outlining the implications for Iraq’s government of the lack of a clear Shiite mandate, could as easily — and as accurately — have been titled “Split Verdict in Iraqi Vote Sets Stage for Power-Sharing and Secular Government“. How quickly we forget the primary concern of the doomsayers only a few weeks ago: that the Shiite majority would dominate the election and lead to another authoritarian Islamic Republic on the lines of Iran.

That worst-case scenario has not come to pass; the vote gives no party a mandate to impose their will on the others. As Mr. Filkins’ article itself noted, “According to Iraqi leaders here, the fractured mandate almost certainly heralds a long round of negotiating, in which the Shiite alliance will have to strike deals with parties run by the Kurds and others, most of which are secular and broadly opposed to an enhanced role for Islam or an overbearing Shiite government.”  Isn’t that what we all — Iraqis and Americans alike — said we wanted? Isn’t that the first step on the road to true democracy?

There are certainly difficulties ahead for the Iraqi government-to-be, and what democracy they have so far achieved is indeed tenuous. But surely the rough parity among the parties in the election is better than domination by a theocratic juggernaut; surely this represents the best rather than the worst that we could have hoped for.

Would it be so difficult for the New York Times to acknowledge as much before resuming the drumbeat for the latest version of gloom and pessimism?

© Copyright 2005, Augustus P. Lowell

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