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Press Review January 24, 2002
 
In Da Times
By Matt Taibbi Browse author
 
Page 8 of 15
 
The entire piece focuses on Bishop's patriotism. There's no discussion of what drove him to do what he did. They will be rolling out a mental illness of some kind for this "articulate" and "intelligent" straight-A student any day now.

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 9

The New York Times has a lot of reporters. I don't know how many, because I'm too lazy to check, but suffice to say that they have enough to get into depth about anything they want to. Therefore it almost always means something when they let the wires cover an important story.

Your average Times reporter considers anything outside of the Washington Post and the front section of the L.A. Times the minor leagues, and thinks of television reporters as vulgar troglodytes (which they mostly are, of course), so you can imagine what he and his colleagues think of the wires. They are the pack animals of the journalism world, the coolies minding their silver, beneath contempt.

The average Times reporter cannot even conceive of the possibility of being beaten on a story by some automaton from the AP; even if the wires get something first, the Times figures it will get the "real" story later. The AP doesn't refer to everybody (including small children) as "Mr.", after all, and will never know to describe George Bush and Ted Kennedy as "scions of the nations two most famous and opposing political families." Wire reporting and Times reporting are, in the minds of the Times staff, two entirely different professions -- the former custodial, the latter intellectual.

So when the Times decides to run a wire story on a seemingly newsworthy issue, it usually means one of two things:

a) Their own reporter fucked up the story so badly that it was impossible to fix before press time;

b) They are making a statement about the gravity of the story, downplaying its importance by leaving it in the hands of the sous chefs.

This Charles Bishop business has now been left to the wires by the Times for two consecutive days, which almost certainly rules out option A. I was wrong about it being out of the papers by today -- but I was right about the papers rolling out a mental illness to blame the incident on. Incredibly, they also expanded the acne angle. Here is the headline/lead for today:

"PILOT TOOK DRUG LINKED TO SUICIDES

TAMPA, Fla., Jan. 8 (AP) -- A 15 year-old student pilot who killed himself by crashing a small plane into a skyscraper was prescribed an acne medication whose links to suicide and depression have been the subject of federal inquiries, investigators said today."

All kinds of things to note about this story. For one thing, the boy's note expressing sympathy for Osama bin Laden -- still not released to the public -- was pushed down to the bottom of the 7th paragraph, to the second-to-last sentence in this story. The fact that was front-page tabloid news on the first day, and reduced to secondary importance next to the kid's patriotism yesterday, is now just incidental to the entire event.

The second thing to note might seem like a small point to make. The headline says that Bishop "took" the drug. The lead, however, uses the phrase "was prescribed an acne medication", which is more accurate, given that the Times does not know whether Bishop actually took the drug or not. (It later quotes a police official stating that no one knows if he took the drug at all, or how often he took it).

The Times is nothing if not extremely careful about the language it uses. In fact, this is probably the first place a Times editor would point to in discussions about the paper's standards of excellence -- its precise wording and lack of sensationalism.

The Times is the kind of paper that will never forget to include words like "alleged" and "reportedly" where appropriate: and it knows the difference between taking a drug and being prescribed one.

Of course it's logical to presume that Bishop took the acne drug if he was prescribed it -- but in the temple of the Times, the priests do not presume, they report. In any case, this headline is about as much presuming as the Times will generally do. It's safe to say that they wouldn't have pushed the edge of the envelope so far in this direction if the presumption had not been such a desirable one. The story doesn't work without the headline, and they wouldn't have run the headline if they hadn't really wanted to. If they'd found a copy of the Koran in Bishop's bedroom, I guarantee we'd never hear about it.

THURSDAY, JANUARY 10


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