Accuracy in Media

We recently discussed a Pew Research Center survey of 1,365 adults that found that 56 percent of those surveyed said the media usually report inaccurately and that 67 per cent said that the media try to cover up their mistakes. Fewer than 25 percent believed they were willing to admit their errors. Having kept my eyes peeled to spot errors for over 30 years, I have found a lot of serious mistakes. The media frequently report stories that are at least partially inaccurate, often because they rely on people who tell them things that are wrong. I agree that they try to cover up those and other mistakes, and that is a big problem because a lot of those errors endure for decades, causing serious harm.

It so happens that 2002 is the 40th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s book, “Silent Spring,” which erroneously spread the message that DDT was destroying birds. The title suggested that if action was not taken to ban it, the day would come when the song birds would no longer be around to sing. That message was picked up by the news media and spread far and wide, together with claims that DDT could cause cancer in humans. In 1971-72 the Environmental Protection Agency, then headed by William Ruckelshaus, funded seven months of costly hearings which they hoped would produce evidence that would justify banning DDT. The hearing examiner, Edmund Sweeney, disappointed Ruckelshaus. The 9,000 pages of scientific testimony he digested convinced him that DDT posed no threat to humans, fish, birds or other wildlife.

DDT had saved millions of lives by killing insects that spread diseases like typhus and malaria. It has been described as having saved more lives than any other chemical discovered by man. Ruckelshaus, who had not attended the hearings or read the transcript, overruled Sweeney and ordered steps to phase out the production and use of this life-saving chemical. Efforts to get those in the media who had been influenced by Rachel Carson to report the facts that convinced Sweeney that DDT was safe failed. Thirty years later, the media are still largely blind to the fact that the ban was a huge mistake, one that has resulted in millions of deaths in tropical countries that had used DDT to kill mosquitos that spread malaria and other diseases that are often fatal. One that has been getting attention recently is the West Nile virus that has found its way to the U.S. where it has been killing birds and animals and most recently a small but growing number of human beings.

Amir Attaran, a former Canadian Sierra Club lawyer who is now at Harvard, is trying to educate the public about the enormous damage done by banning DDT. Taking advantage of the 9/11 tragedy, he asks us to imagine seven jumbo jets packed with passengers crashing every day of the year to dramatize the number of lives being lost because of the huge error foisted on the world by Rachel Carson and William Ruckelshaus. Most of the media ignored the scientific evidence and passed on to the public what these well-intentioned but misguided zealots were saying about the dangers of DDT.

It would take a revolution at the New York Times, the Washington Post and the TV networks to get them to tell their readers and viewers that they had deceived them about the dangers of DDT, global warming, nuclear power and the ozone hole. They will never report that the evidence proves that Senator Joe McCarthy was right about the danger posed by the Communists who had infiltrated the government and other institutions. Nor will they report the evidence that proves that Harry Hopkins, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s most influential adviser, was a Soviet agent. No matter how forcefully they are confronted with the contrast between their intense coverage of the My Lai massacre by American troops and their sparse coverage of the Communist massacre at Hue of ten times as many civilians will they concede that their coverage of the Vietnam War was slanted to favor the Communists.

The first draft of history that they write is riddled with major errors such as these, and it may be a hundred years or more before the media admit that they got a lot of it wrong. For now, the New York Times takes pride in correcting misspelled names, the year in which Bush was first elected governor of Texas, and the date on which cracks were first discovered in Amtrak’s Acela locomotives.

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