Posts Tagged ‘New York Times’

CPSIA and the national press

I was sitting down to write a more extended post about the press’s treatment of the CPSIA controversy when I found that Prof. Mark Obbie, whose LawBeat blog watches the world of legal journalism closely, had already said much of what I wanted to say (while generously citing my work along the way). So instead I will refer you to him, and just add a few further observations.

As do I, Prof. Obbie finds noteworthy the “weird blind spot” of the New York Times, which as I noted a week and a half ago (citing commenter Amy Hoffman)

still has not covered this debacle — a crucial point, since it’s hard to get an issue truly onto the news agenda at other highly ranked media outlets if the Times refuses to notice it…. There’s something truly crazy here, given that the Times plays a conscious role as a key trend-spotter in both the design world and the apparel trade, as well as the world of law and governance.

As of Monday, three days after the CPSC’s stay and weeks after the outcry over the law had surfaced in places like the Washington Post (Dec. 21), Wall Street Journal (Jan. 8), Detroit News (Jan. 10) and Los Angeles Times (Jan. 2), the only notice of the controversy to be found in the Times’s index was what Obbie rightly labels “this pathetic gesture, cribbed from the Bloomberg wire, published on Saturday’s page B2 in the Times”. The tiny 45-word piece commits the typical beginner’s mistake (which, I hasten to add, I committed myself on Jan. 2 before I’d begun to look at the issue carefully) of mentioning only toys as a target of the law, thus missing most of its actual sweep.

The Times was hardly alone in being stone deaf. If any serious reporting on the law went out over the national Associated Press or Reuters wires, or on any of the three old-line TV networks or PBS over the past two months, I missed it, though of course I am happy to be corrected if a reader calls it to my attention.

It will be noted that good coverage of CPSIA frequently emanated from “Style”, local-beat, or feature/human interest reporters, and much less often from Washington or government bureaus. I observed in my second Forbes piece that in some quarters of the elite press

it’s usual to turn for guidance on consumer issues to groups like Public Citizen or U.S. PIRG — the very groups who gave us CPSIA in the first place.

I think Washington-based reporting is particularly prone to a version of this problem. The reporter and editor will ordinarily want to be fair and not just run with whatever line Public Citizen or PIRG are putting out, so they know they need to track down the other side of the story. The problem of course is buried in that phrase “the other”. The temptation (which, of course, the consumer group will often encourage) is to designate as “the other” side some big industry or household-name business with a lobbyist, trade association, or P.R. firm conveniently present on the Washington scene to be dialed up — in this case, someone like the Big Two giant toymakers known for their mass-merchandised Chinese imports, or maybe a retailer like Wal-Mart or Target.

We now realize in retrospect something that may not have been quite as apparent earlier when CPSIA was being pushed to approval amid near-unanimous cheering in the press: that the interests of these mass merchandisers may diverge quite drastically from that of small toy, garment, or school-supply makers or retailers not present at the Washington negotiation table, and that laws mass producers can “live with” and are willing to sign off on are not necessarily compatible with the survival of the small makers and sellers. So the story told from inside Washington will be quite different from the story told later outside. That’s my theory, anyway, to account for the selective deafness of some sectors of the national press, and perhaps in particular some editors and publishers who self-consciously concern themselves with questions of high national policy.

More: Welcome NRO “Corner” readers (Iain Murray); our CPSIA coverage is here. And Prof. Obbie has more.

CPSIA: Part II at

Just as my earlier piece on CPSIA was going to press last Friday at Forbes there came a new development: Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), who sponsored the law and have opposed efforts to revisit it, issued a letter that seemed to soften their stance a bit and hold out hope for more exemptions. The magazine asked me to analyze these new developments and the result is up now. Unfortunately, the news is bad: the letter’s suggestions for exemptions are piecemeal, narrow, and much too late. We are still on course for a calamity should the law’s provisions go into effect Feb. 10 and (later round) in August — a calamity that Waxman and other sponsors of the law had every reason to see coming when they passed the bill last year.

In the mean time, as I point out, the Waxman/Rush letter raises the question of whether our leaders on Capitol Hill realize that ordinary children’s books are often bound with metal staples, and that toddlers seldom convey to their mouths such objects as bicycle tires and dartboards. The piece, again, is here (& Matt Bandyk, U.S. News).

More: In comments on an earlier post, kids’ wear entrepreneur Amy Hoffman says the New York Times still has not covered this debacle — a crucial point, since it’s hard to get an issue truly onto the news agenda at other highly ranked media outlets if the Times refuses to notice it (though some are covering the story anyway, as with Bloomberg in a pretty good piece today). There’s something truly crazy here, given that the Times plays a conscious role as a key trend-spotter in both the design world and the apparel trade, as well as the world of law and governance.

In addition, Common Room provides some sorely needed guidance to protesters as to where their CPSIA outrage should be directed: the fact is that Henry Waxman, as chair of House Commerce, is by far the #1 decisionmaker in whether or not this law will be changed. (Next in importance? His counterparts over at the U.S. Senate.) Protests to other House members are significant mostly in creating pressure on Waxman; the ordinary course of business in the House is to leave these matters to the Committee chair, so protesters must hope to get across the message that the ordinary course of business won’t do this time. As for the incoming Obama administration, as Common Room explains, it has few if any ways of intervening directly to prevent a business calamity on Feb. 10 and a further calamity in August; its main power is the power of picking up the phone and jawboning Waxman with the message that he cannot expect cooperation on unrelated things he wants unless he un-bottles up legislation to fix CPSIA. Waxman is also known to listen to the lawyerly pressure groups like Public Citizen and U.S. PIRG, and to Consumers’ Union. My personal view is that while it’s pointless to try to change the minds of these three groups — they will remain utterly in the grip of their ideology or constituency, and unsympathetic to producers — they might be made to see the prudence of urging compromise on Waxman lest national attention to the issue damage their own images.

Microblog 2008-12-25

You really shouldn’t be reading this.  You haven’t even played with the nice new toys Santa brought you.

Now go play with your toys.

Jay Greene on NYT bullying story

In addition to being a colleague of mine at the Manhattan Institute, Jay Greene is 1) a prominent national expert on education who 2) is based in the college town of Fayetteville, Ark., so I was eager to hear what he had to say about Dan Barry’s New York Times article of last month which called shame on the Fayetteville schools for their supposed toleration of the horrendous bullying of an unoffending high school student by the name of Billy Wolfe. Today Greene has a blog post on the case which concludes, as did I in my Apr. 8 post, that Barry’s coverage was by no stretch of the imagination responsible or balanced. Greene zeroes in on Barry’s assertions that “It remains unclear why Billy became a target…” and that “[Billy] has received a few suspensions for misbehavior, though none for bullying,” both of which appear, at best, grossly misleading in the light of a police report aired in the Northwest Arkansas Times detailing Billy’s alleged aggressions against other students, physical and otherwise. Greene also observes that his inquiry to the New York Times public editor about the discrepancies has gone unanswered aside from a form response. He adds:

Finding the police report and collecting all of the interviews found in the NW AR Times article would have required — uhm — reporting. It was much easier to take the story that the Wolfes’ attorney was peddling. And yes, the Wolfes are suing some of the other students and are planning to sue the school district. Barry’s article may read like a plaintiff’s brief because there actually is a plaintiff’s brief out there. …

Unfortunately, the Fayetteville School District is inexperienced with handing national reporters and they are handcuffed in responding to accusations because of student privacy issues and a pending lawsuit. Dan Barry from the NYT was able to ride roughshod over a small town school district. Maybe the Gray Lady is the most obvious bully here.

The full post is here. Among other local coverage not linked in my earlier post is an editorial in the Northwest Arkansas Times, Mar. 30, and John Brummett, “Bullies Crying ‘Wolfe'”, Northwest Arkansas Morning News, Apr. 2.

P.S. And now Gawker is on it.

A NYT school-bullying story comes under scrutiny

Last month the New York Times ran a front-page story about the plight of a Fayetteville, Ark. high school student named Billy Wolfe, who had been “a target of bullies for years”, physically and verbally brutalized by fellow students despite his family’s repeated pleas to a seemingly heedless school district for his protection. (Dan Barry, “A Boy the Bullies Love to Beat Up, Repeatedly”, Mar. 24). Billy’s parents had sued teens they said had harassed their son, and were also considering legal action against the school district.

The article generated a big reaction, especially after young Wolfe himself appeared on the Today show to discuss his plight. Most observers seemed to agree that the harrowing tale lent credence to the whole idea of using lawsuits as a way of responding to bullying in schoolyards, Facebook, etc. — an idea that, coincidentally or otherwise, is the subject of an increasingly visible campaign these days. Even as level-headed an educational observer as Joanne Jacobs wrote on her blog, “Normally, I’m anti-lawsuit, but this may be the only way to bully the bullies and the principal to crack down.” Huffington Post writer Jonathan Fast cited the article as evidence that schools should adopt “zero tolerance” policies on bullying. Some of the many other blog reactions are assembled here (e.g.: Marcotte, Greenfield, DadTalk, The Common Room).

Could there be another side of the story, you may wonder? Well, as a matter of fact, there is. To find it you need to consult the local paper, the Northwest Arkansas Times (Scott F. Davis and Dustin Tracy, “Who’s the bully?: Police, school records raise questions about claims made by Fayetteville High student”, Apr. 3)(via Childs). One may argue about whether Wolfe’s own alleged exploits in victimizing other kids, as catalogued in the NWAT article, will or should affect the disposition of his family’s legal claims. What seems beyond dispute is that the NYT’s story would have been very different in the emotional reactions it evoked — and much less effective in promoting the particular “cause” it was advancing — had it included that other side of the story.

More/updates: Word Around the Net, Val’s Bien, Pennywit @ Likelihood of Success, Joanne Jacobs, Crime & Consequences, Kierkegaard Lives. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette notes that Arkansas already has an unusually strong anti-“cyberbullying” law which “requires school districts to adopt discipline policies banning harmful and disruptive online behavior”, despite misgivings from civil libertarians about official penalties based on students’ out-of-school speech: Evie Blad, “School bullies move online; rules tricky to write, enforce”, Apr. 6. And Scott Greenfield minces no words:

…what is the New York Times thinking? To have its knees cut off by its Northwest Arkansas namesake is humiliating, but to be shown up as deceptive fundamentally undermines its credibility. Without credibility, the Times is just a dog-trainers best friend and a tree’s worst nightmare. …

The failure of the New York Times to present a full and accurate account of the Billy Wolfe story is disgraceful and unacceptable. … If you’re going to put an article on the front page with a big picture, don’t blow it. The Times did. They should be ashamed.

And in our comments section, Ole Miss lawprof Paul Secunda provides the Wolfe family’s response to the NWAT coverage. Update Apr. 24: Jay Greene weighs in.

Food, served tendentiously

From time to time it’s suggested (see Apr. 20) that folks like us are overreacting when we keep commenting on lawsuits that seek to blame food purveyors for obesity: obviously (it’s claimed) these legal actions are going nowhere, and to report on them as if they were going ventures merely casts the whole legal system into disrepute. The thing is, a presumably serious paper like the New York Times regularly publishes articles favorably showcasing obesity litigation and presenting long, uncontradicted quotes from its advocates — as it did once again in a business-section article yesterday (Melanie Warner, “Obesity Inc.: The Food Industry Empire Strikes Back”, Jul. 7). A sample quote, from Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest: “If someone is saying that a 64-ounce soda at 7-Eleven contributed to obesity, that person should have his day in court”. Just three days before that, Times columnist Paul Krugman, with his customary lightness of touch and respect for the good faith of his opponents, delivered a similar screed against business’s alleged responsibility for obesity; he promises it will be the first in a series on the subject. (“Girth of a Nation”, Jul. 4). By the way, if you want to know why the food-industry-defense Center for Consumer Freedom manages to send Krugman and his co-thinkers into such fits of anger, go check out its website, whose assemblage of material on the “Food Police“, to take one example, is nothing if not informative (and refutes Krugman’s naive assertion that “nobody is proposing that adult Americans be prevented from eating whatever they want”).

On a brighter note, Cato’s indispensable Radley Balko (The Agitator) has started a special blog (description of its mission, Jul. 5) devoted to fact-checking the assertions of filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, of Super-Size Me fame. And from Britain comes a welcome new blog entitled Nanny Knows Best, a “site dedicated to exposing, and resisting, the all pervasive nanny state”.

More: Krugman is back today (Jul. 8) with his second installment, and as AtlanticBlog notes, he’s already changed his tune on the issue of whether adults’ food consumption should be left to the realm of free choice. And Radley Balko (Jul. 8) pokes a hole in Krugman’s risible assertion that coercive government policies rationalized on public health grounds have had a record of “consistent, life-enhancing success” — you know, the way alcohol prohibition did.