Media goes all fuzzy on protest

Lack of specifics, perspective on figures used by Auraria students hurts coverage

by David Kopel

March 13, 2004

Last week, some students at Denver's Auraria campus protested the Iraq war by drawing sidewalk chalk figures to represent the thousands of civilians they say have been killed as a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The Rocky Mountain Newsran a photo and 9News television covered the event. In both cases, coverage would have been improved by supplying the source of the protesters' claim. 9News vaguely referred to "a Web site," and the Newsphoto caption supplied no source.

The Web site is It claims the number of civilians killed is between 8,437 and 10,282. The Auraria protesters used the lower number in a collage that 9News also filmed, but the voiceover mentioned only the 10,000 figure. The Newsincorrectly wrote that the figure includes casualties since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, although the data actually go back to January 2003.

Giving viewers and readers the data source is always important - and especially so when the data may be disputed or subject to interpretation. Here, the Web site's Iraq casualty numbers include Iraqis who have been murdered by anti-American terrorists in Iraq, as well as Iraqi "civilians" who were killed under circumstances suggesting that they were attempting a terrorist attack - such as people in cars which tried to run through checkpoints. Also included are looters and "former" Baath Party members and officials.

Colorado's self-appointed guardian of public morals, Denver Postcolumnist Jim Spencer, slammed Gov. Bill Owens for considering a Senate run, because Owens is separated from his wife (March 4). Spencer pointed to the 1960s, "when a divorce cost Republican Nelson Rockefeller a chance to run for president."

Spencer had the facts entirely wrong. In 1964, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller did run for president. After winning the Oregon primary in May, Rockefeller was in good shape to stop Barry Goldwater in the June 2 California primary, and held a 14-point lead in the polls shortly before the election.

However, three days before the primary, Rockefeller's second wife, Happy, gave birth to Nelson Rockefeller Jr. - reminding voters of Nelson Rockefeller Sr.'s extremely tawdry behavior, which went far beyond divorcing his first wife.

What stopped Rockefeller was not his March 1962 divorce; he easily won re-election as New York governor that year. But in May 1963 Rockefeller married Happy Murphy, who had been his mistress for five years, who was 20 years his junior, who divorced her own husband, and who abandoned her four children in order to marry Rockefeller. The timing of the birth of Nelson Jr. was a catastrophe for Nelson Sr., who lost California 51 percent to 49 percent.

In any case, Rockefeller got yet another "chance to run for president," losing the 1968 Republican nomination to Richard Nixon. Rockefeller's worst problem in 1968 was not his sybaritic lifestyle, but that the northeastern liberal business establishment was no longer the dominant force in the Republican Party.

The News(on March 5, using a New York Timesstory) and the Post(March 4, with an Associated Press story), ran stories about a group called Peaceful Tomorrows, which recently issued a widely publicized press release objecting to Bush's television commercials, which include footage from Sept. 11, 2001.

Not reported was the fact that Peaceful Tomorrows represents only a tiny fraction of 9-11 families - 120 people out of what must be tens of thousands of people who lost a loved one on Sept. 11. Also not reported was the fact that Peaceful Tomorrows is opposed to the war on terrorism, and used (the group formed to oppose Clinton's impeachment, and now active in the anti-Bush campaign) for public relations.

The Newsarticle said that "a firefighters union" had also criticized the ads. The Postarticle specified that the union was the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF). The Postincluded a scathing anti-Bush quote from union president Harold A. Schaitberger. Although the Postnoted that the union has endorsed Sen. John Kerry, neither paper reported that union president Schaitberger is a co-chairman of the Kerry campaign, or that IAFF was the first union to endorse Kerry.

Last Tuesday, KWGN-Channel 2 reported "A dramatic increase tonight in the number of hate crimes against gays and lesbians here in Colorado." The report was based on a press release from the Colorado Anti-Violence Program (, a gay-rights group.

Channel 2's use of the word "hate crimes" came from the CAVP's press release, but Channel 2 should have done some more investigation before using that loaded phrase. I spoke with Carter Klenk, the program director for the CAVP, and she explained that the CAVP's figures include incidents which are violations of the criminal law (such as assaults or threats) and incidents which are not criminal violations (such as abusive speech).

She also pointed out, accurately, that people who engage in hateful but noncriminal speech against gays sometimes later escalate to criminal violence. So CAVP has good reason to compile data on noncriminal incidents. The media, however, should confine the use of the phrase "hate crimes" to incidents that are actually crimes. Using the word "crimes" to refer to noncriminal incidents of hateful behavior misleads the viewer.


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