Friday, September 25, 2009

Doing the News

As an occasion for developing skill in the craft of extracting solid information from news media prose, the following piece of reportage (Daily Mail, 9/23/09) can be instructive. Here is the full text, followed by an inventory of peculiarities and faults. -----Court hands ballot spot to Voice party ----NY Supreme Court dismisses lawsuit ---- brought by Greene County Democrats
By Melanie Lekocevic Hudson-Catskill Newspapers ---After months of battling it out in the courts, the Have a Voice Party will now officially be on the ballot, as the New York State Supreme Court has dismissed the case filed by Greene County Democrats that sought to block the party from inclusion on the ballot. ---Have a Voice was created in the wake of an earlier court decision which deemed Linda H. Overbaugh's nominating petitions invalid because of a filing error — her petitions used the wrong middle initial — and removed her from the Republican ballot. ---Other candidates on that ballot, which remain on the GOP ticket, include Greene County Legislature Majority Leader Keith Valentine, Legislator Karen Deyo and candidate Joseph Izzo. Those three candidates remain on both the GOP and Conservative Party lines, and also join Overbaugh on the Have a Voice Party ticket. ---When the alternate party was created, Democrats again filed suit, claiming the witnesses were “induced” to say they had witnessed petition signatures, and that in fact they had not. That is the charge that was dismissed this week by the state courts. ---“We were always confident in this outcome as we knew the accusations against us and the young voters who took the time to witness our petitions were false and without merit,” Valentine said. ---“The accusations were comprised of typical political rhetoric that is being used by [Legislator] Forest Cotten and Robin DePuy in an attempt to sway public opinion but they could not stand up in a court of law, where only the facts count,” he continued. ---“The facts are that the signatures on our petitions were valid and witnessed properly and far exceeded the required amount under election law.” Overbaugh said now that the legal battle was over — for the moment, at least — she is looking ahead to address the problems that face Catskill voters. ---“I am happy to finally have the opportunity to address the issues of concern to the Town of Catskill voters, rather than spending all my energy defending frivolous law suits,” Overbaugh said. ---“I have sought to enter the race for Greene County Legislator from the Town of Catskill because I feel I have garnered a vast amount of experience in economic development, the needs and interests of local business, and have been successful in interacting with government entities on all levels,” she added. ---Overbaugh is executive director of the Heart of Catskill Association. ---Incumbent Legislator Karen Deyo said the court victory was gratifying, but she expressed anger at the claims made by their opponents. ---“The only voice I'd like to hear at this time is an apology from the Democratic chairman, Thomas Poelker, for his unfounded accusations,” Deyo said. ---Fellow candidate Joseph Izzo was even less forgiving. ---“Thanks to our court system, which saw through the foolishness and stupidity of the Democratic Party, the challenge to our petitions was denied,” Izzo said. “The public can be assured that they, and only they, will decide who represents them on the Greene County Legislature.”
-----Exemplified in those paragraphs are several varieties of bad journalism. ----*Bad English. “Other candidates on the ballot, which remain…” “Those three candidates remain on both…lines, and also join Overbaugh on the Have a Voice Party ticket.” (Paragraph 3). -----*Gross omission. The heart of the story, as signaled in the headline (“Court hands ballot spot…”), is a judicial decision, which apparently was in the form of a dismissal. Readers are not told directly, however, what judge or judges (vs. “the Supreme Court”) ruled and what were the terms of his/her/their decision. This information must have been available; otherwise the Have A Voice defendants would not have been in position to talk. -----*Partiality (or lop-sided incompleteness; vs. impartiality). In addition to relying on an interested party’s colored version of the key facts (as in the latter half of Paragraph 6), the author of this story reports comments, and she only reports comments from one side of a controversy. She quotes biting remarks made by three of the apparently victorious defendants against local Democrats in general and against three named individuals: Forest Cotten, Tom Poelker and Robin DePuy. (Note: one of the principals, Ms Overbaugh, abstained from the recriminations). Professional journalists’ ethical codes prescribe that targets of reported verbal attacks be given, as soon as possible, a chance to reply. If no response is provided, the report mentions that the target chose not to reply or could not be reached. In the absence of that kind of stipulation, the reporter comes close to endorsing, as well as recording, the criticisms. She eschews fair and balanced journalism. -----*Insidious half-truth. The sub-headline “NY Supreme Court dismisses lawsuit brought by Greene County Democrats” invites readers to infer that (a) a collective of judges acted, and (b) the dismissed lawsuit was brought by THE Greene County Democrats (even though the the is left out). The latter suggestion is deepened by the quotation whereby Mr Izzo ascribes the failed lawsuit to “the foolishness and stupidity of the Democratic Party.” Readers are prompted to believe that “the Democratic Party” was the plaintiff in, or the main instigator of, this lawsuit. -----*Inaccuracies. The foregoing journalistic misdeeds are directly evident. Others that infest this story depend for their detection on special knowledge of the subject. In this case, previous news stories about the impending election and relevant court records show that: ----->>The plaintiff in the dismissed lawsuit was not the Democratic Party or a group of Democrats but one person: C. Robin Depuy, who is a Catskill candidate for election to the county legislature on a Common Sense Party line. Ms Depuy is, to be sure, an active Democrat, and her suit was supported by some leading GreeneLand Democrats. It also was shunned by other Democrats (including Forest Cotten). ------>>The Have A Voice Party’s origin goes back to early August, not “months.” ------>>The nominating petitions involving Linda Overbaugh (Paragraph 2) were not “her” petitions but rather were those of four would-be Republican and Conservative candidates for the four Catskill seats in the county legislature. ----->>The “filing error” in those petitions involved not just “the wrong middle initial” but also the wrong home address, namely, that of an actual Linda L. Overbaugh (who disavowed any intention to stand for office). The compound error was committed by Republicans. A challenge to the validity of those petitions was filed by some local Democrats. It yielded a ruling by Supreme Court Judge Joseph Teresi that Linda H. Overbaugh of Cauterskill Road, the avowed candidate, could not appear on the November ballot in place of the petition-backed Linda L. Overbaugh of Willis Avenue. At the same time Judge Teresi rejected the challengers’ call to rule that the error in the petitions renders void the candidacies of all four nominees (Karen Deyo, Joseph Izzo and Keith Valentine as well as Ms Overbaugh). ------>>The decision imputed in our news story to “the New York State Supreme Court” came in fact from Judge Teresi. It consisted of dismissing Ms Depuy’s challenge to the validity of the petitions aimed at putting the Have A Voice slate on the November ballot. The challenge was based on contending that avowed witnesses to signatures on those petitions did not really see the signings. In support of that claim, the plaintiff submitted four affidavits from persons who had signed the Have A Voice petitions but said they were unacquainted with the ostensible witnesses to their signatures. In response, the defendants called attention to the large volume of unchallenged signatures. They also presented affidavits from the nominal witnesses, saying that they had indeed been present at the signing. And they submitted affidavits from three of the four cited signatories, effectively repudiating their previous affidavits. Judge Teresi ruled that no plausible evidence of fraud, no plausible basis for challenging the authenticity of the Have A Voice petitions, had been established. Case dismissed. EDITORIAL NOTE. The foregoing analysis of a politically charged news story could be seen as a political trick. The poor journalism it exposes happens to be slanted in favor of local Republicans. The act of exposure can be viewed then as a pro-Democratic punch. With regard to that problem, I venture to respond as follows. First, in my judgment the lawsuit filed by Ms Depuy, with backing from prominent GreeneLand Democrats, should never have been filed; its dismissal was richly deserved. Second, as a Catskill voter in the November elections, I intend to vote for Ms Overbaugh and for Mr Cotten.

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