Media Malpractice

Who can Americans trust to report news accurately? Yesterday, I blogged about a recent survey that showed increasing skepticism about Fox News. Barely a half-hour after I posted, my husband mentioned that he’d been listening to a newscast on the radio in which the reporter interviewed lawmakers who are calling for the use of military tribunals for the Boston bombing suspects. According to my husband, the newscaster then reported–as fact–that such tribunals have proved to be more effective than the regular criminal courts. “I didn’t know that,” he said.

He didn’t know it, because that superior effectiveness is not even remotely a “fact.”

The facts are these: after 9-11, the Bush administration initiated prosecutions of 828 people on terrorism charges in civilian courts. Last year, according to a report from the Center on Law and Security, NYU School of Law, trials were still pending against 235 of them. That leaves 593 resolved cases. Of that number, 523 were convicted, for a conviction rate of 88%.

In addition, the Bush administration pursued 20 cases in military tribunals. So far, there have been exactly three convictions. The highest-profile was the case involving Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s driver. Hamdan was convicted, but he was sentenced  by a military jury to a mere five and half years–and the tribunal judge, a US Navy captain, gave him credit for time served, which was five years. So Hamdan served only six months after conviction.

Furthermore, in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld–the case that grew out of this particular trial–the Supreme Court held that the Military Tribunals as constituted at the time violated both the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

The propriety of using a Military Tribunal in any given case is, of course, open to debate. What is not debatable is the history of their past performance. It is perfectly legitimate to argue about the pros and cons of using such tribunals; I have my opinion, and others are entitled to theirs. But that debate needs to be grounded in fact, not propaganda.

If we cannot depend upon the media to provide accurate information and to separate opinion from fact– if we have lost what used to be called “the journalism of verification”– we are reduced to exchanging opinions anchored to nothing but our individual biases.

We live in a complicated world. We desperately need a competent and trustworthy media.