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Distorted editorial amplified by Limbaugh, corrected by Olbermann

Gross distortions on an Iraq column by Editor Rosenthal were amplified on-air by Rush to millions of listeners. However Keith Olbermann of MSNBC and Jay Rosen of NYU weren't about to let the lies go unchallenged...
Abe Rosenthal, Rush Limbaugh, and Me
Editor & Publisher, May 21, 2004

Mark Twain put it best when he said, "A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes." That was certainly the case this week, when A.M. Rosenthal, former New York Times executive editor, now writing for the New York City daily called The Sun, grossly mischaracterized something I wrote in this space two weeks ago. By yesterday, Rush Limbaugh, no surprise, was amplifying the lie.

In his Sun column on Tuesday, titled "Insulting the Victims," Rosenthal's views on the prison abuse scandal in Iraq ranged widely, not to say wildly -- he referred to the insurgency there as a "government" -- but concluded that journalists who cover the brutalization of inmates without explicitly mentioning Saddam's mass graves "are truly embarrassing."

Let's forget for the moment the desperation of measuring our behavior on the Saddam yardstick. And the fact that most of the prisoners abused in Abu Ghraib likely had nothing to do with the mass graves, or possibly anything else very sinister (judging by the Red Cross estimate that most detainees in Iraq were wrongly seized). As Mark Twain might have put it, the man is "entattled" to his opinion.

But before Rosenthal got to that final point he chose to twist, to his own ends, something I wrote recently, introducing it this way: "The other day, an editor of Editor & Publisher, a trade paper, said all American journalists should come out in unity and demand the American withdrawal from Iraq."

This did not speak well for a man who once headed The New York Times. E&P is a magazine, not a "paper," although that has only been true for, oh, a century or so. I am the editor, not an editor, as plainly pegged on the column. More importantly, I did not say anything close to what he had me saying. Other than that: good job.

Rosenthal went on: "The planned unity of newspapers, television, and magazines is not my idea of good journalism -- or journalism at all."

Now, on this point, one can only agree. The problem is, I never called for any such thing.

My May 7 column was not addressed to "all American journalists" (print, TV, radio, Internet), and not even all newspaper journalists. It was aimed only at those who decide on editorials for the nation's largest newspapers -- and it did not, in any case, advocate that they "all" do anything. I merely suggested that at least ONE major paper come out for a phased U.S. pullout from Iraq -- as opposed to, say, sending more troops, which has been the favored position.

It seemed like a modest request, since the most recent USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll shows that 47% of the public now want us to bring home some or all of our troops. I imagine it's over 50% by now, the way things are going.

Subsequently, on CNN, I put that request in even more humble terms: I asked major newspapers to "consider advocating" a phased U.S. pullout from Iraq, or at the minimum begin a "healthy debate" on this subject.

Why did Rosenthal grossly mischaracterize what I am seeking? Perhaps he is afraid of that "healthy debate" on Iraq.

And, of course, it is Rosenthal himself who ends up calling for "planned unity" by urging all editors "to present background stories about the millions killed by Saddam" -- or else be branded "truly embarrassing."

Keith Olbermann of MSNBC made that very point in critiquing the Rosenthal column on the Romenesko page at Poynter.org. In the same place, Jay Rosen, chairman of the Department of Journalism at New York University, asked: "Is that really the best Rosenthal can do in paraphrasing what Mitchell said? Hard to believe."

Naturally, while the truth was still putting on its boots -- or, to update Twain, its Adidas -- this lie was traveling halfway around the world, via the Web (since hardly anyone reads The Sun).

The rightwing Web site NewsMax quoted Rosenthal approvingly, adding its view of E&P as an "embarrassing" magazine. This didn't stop the site from quoting E&P approvingly, and at length, two days later in excerpting William E. Jackson's current column -- apparently because it portrays The New York Times in a bad light.

Finally, if inevitably, Rush Limbaugh, between visits with his lawyer and rants comparing the prison abuse in Iraq to college frat parties, got around to the Rosenthal column, which he apparently came across on what he called the "watchdog" site "run by a guy named Jim Romenesko." (He helpfully spelled out P-o-y-n-t-e-r.) Limbaugh then quoted the wildly inaccurate Rosenthal comments on E&P, pointing out that this is "a media trade paper" with a Web site that caters to the media "chatting to each other ... But that's what Editor & Publisher is, I'm not kidding."

Finally, acting aghast, he added (according to the transcript posted on his Web site): "So we've got an editor of a media trade publication, actually suggesting a coordinated, unified agenda." This led, as you knew it would, to suggestions of liberal media bias.

But now, perhaps, the truth, shoes on feet, is ready to run.

But I have to thank Rush for one thing. In the course of his attack, he mentioned E&P on the Web, "but, you know , I don't go there every day." Love that line. We should blaze it across the top of our home page, as an endorsement.

--- Greg Mitchell is the editor, not an editor, of E&P. He is also the author of seven books on history, politics and current events.

--- A. M. Rosenthal distorted editorial -  http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=45&aid=65888

--- Keith Olbermann's response -  http://poynter.org/forum/?id=letters#mitchell

>> Rosenthal column explains Jayson Blair?
>> 5/18/2004 12:19:44 PM
>> Let me see if I have this straight.
>> Abe Rosenthal accuses Editor & Publisher of calling for
>> all American journalists to demand American withdrawal
>> from Iraq (which it did not do). He then blasts the
>> apocryphal "planned unity of newspapers, television,
>> and magazines" as "not my idea of good journalism --
>> or journalism at all."
>> But of course, the point of his piece was to insist
>> that all newspapers act, in unison, to remind readers
>> of the atrocities of Saddam Hussein. Incidentally, all
>> those journalists who fail to join his plan, are
>> "truly embarrassing."
>> Nevermind the merits, if any, of his arguments.
>> Rosenthal's festival of mixed messages and made-up
>> news may have just explained Jayson Blair.

homepage: homepage: http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=45&aid=66122