Hyperbole Taints Gitmo Coverage

Comparing death-free Guantanamo to murderous gulags grossly misleading

June 4, 2005

by David Kopel

Suppose that on a Monday morning this fall, you read a story that said "many hundreds of people attended yesterday's Broncos game." If the crowd were 76,000 people, you might suspect the writer's phrasing was an attempt to minimize public perceptions of Broncos attendance - even though, technically speaking, the term "many hundreds" could include the 76,000 fans at a typical game.

Another story with a formally accurate but extremely misleading estimate of numbers came from the Associated Press' Paisley Dodds in the May 26 Denver Post.Dodds accurately reported Amnesty International's claim that Guantanamo Bay is the "gulag for our time." Perhaps attempting to give some credibility to the charge, Dodds explained that "gulag" refers to "the extensive system of prison camps in the former Soviet Union," where "untold thousands of prisoners died."

The Encyclopedia Britannica estimates that 15 million to 30 million people died in the gulags, while Anne Applebaum, in Gulag: A History,suggests that 2 million died. Had the AP supplied the scholarly figures or said "untold millions" rather than the misleading but technically accurate "untold thousands," the data would have highlighted what preposterous hyperbole Amnesty International was using. A more informative AP story might also have noted (as does Time magazine's May 31 issue) that no one has died at Guantanamo.

TheRocky Mountain Newsblended Dodds' AP text into a New York Timesstory on the Amnesty accusation. The Newsversion explained that the gulags were part of an "extensive system of prison camps" for "political prisoners," but failed to acknowledge that anyone died in those "prison camps" - which would more accurately be described as slave labor camps.

It would be unrealistic to expect local newspapers to be neutral about the success of hometown teams. Although sportswriters might criticize local coaches or players, the local papers are expected to hope that the local teams win. Thus, before the start of last year's professional hockey playoffs, a Newsheadline (April 7, 2004) read "Dear Abby, can we win?"

In news stories, the papers are sometimes scrupulous about not taking sides. For example, in most of the newspaper coverage of the battle of Fallujah last November, or this month's "Operation Lightning" around Baghdad, a reader would find few, if any, hints that the writer wanted U.S. forces to beat the Abu Musab al-Zarqawi forces.

But in the culture wars, the traditional media plainly favor gay rights advocates over their opponents. Consider, for example, the May 28 Newsheadline reporting on Gov. Bill Owens' veto of one gay rights law and his signing of another: "1 veto, 1 victory/Setback for gay workers; gain on hate-crimes law."

The "victory," "gain" and "setback" were entirely in the eyes of the beholder. The headline just as well could have read "Victory for employers; loss for free- speech advocates." The latter headline would have reflected the viewpoint of business interests who are afraid of government investigations triggered by fired employees who claim discrimination, and of free-speech advocates such as New York University professor James Jacobs whose book on "hate crimes" points out that such laws are mainly used to impose severe punishment on petty offenders who hurl nasty epithets.

But, in a sense, the Newsheadline was admirably candid, since the headline made it clear that the newsroom culture at the News(like the similar culture at the Post) considers the merits of pro-gay lawmaking to be self-evident.

Both Denver papers occasionally run news stories on diplomatic negotiations in which the European Union has vainly tried to persuade the Iranian theocracy to curtail its nuclear program. The stories never attempt to resolve the tension between Western concerns that Iran is building nuclear weapons and the official denials from the Iranian government. But other English language news media, which the Newsand Postignore, make the answer very clear.

For example, the Italian news outlet Andkronosinternational (www.adnki.com) reported in its May 27 English edition that a representative of Iran's dictator Ayatollah Khamenei promised that if voters supported Khamenei's candidate for president in the June elections, Iran would develop nuclear weapons. He also denounced democracy as evil and unislamic. Knowledge of such statements is essential for readers to have an intelligent opinion about policy toward Iran.

The Web site regimechange iran.blogspot.com provides good coverage of the situation in Iran, which is far more dangerous than articles in the Newsand the Postadmit. After Sept. 11, there was much media hand-wringing about the media's failure to report the warning signs of danger from Islamic extremists. Yet in 2005, the imminent production of nuclear weapons by the world's major terrorist state garners, at best, a few paragraphs buried deep in the international pages of the newspapers.

Correction: Despite what I wrote in my previous column, the 1992 anti-gay rights initiative, Amendment 2, never went into effect. After the secretary of state certified the election results on Dec. 16, 1992, Gov. Roy Romer was required to proclaim the new law in effect within the next 30 days. Jean Dubofsky, the lawyer for the plaintiffs who sued to overturn Amendment 2, explained to me that on the day before Romer was required to put the law into effect, a Denver district judge issued an order forbidding him to do so.


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