When I read a lot of news watchdog sites, then, while I'm interested in the content, I find the strident conspiracy model a little tough to take. I know some of those people, and I'm pretty sure that they aren't meeting in Marvin Kalb's office to set the official spin on every story based on how it advances their political agenda.
What's more interesting, I think, it to ask how the spin happens without a central organizer. If, as I suspect, it's some emergent behavior, from what does it emerge?
A story I picked up from NewsBusters.org today shows one way it could happen. The story points to a screen-capture of an ABC News story with the headline "White Supremacists Riot in Toledo, Ohio".
If you followed this story this weekend, you know that this is exactly the opposite of what actually happened: the white supremacists (or neo-nazis, and I haven't bothered to track down why they're called one of the other) didn't riot, and in fact they didn't actually demonstrate — when the police told them they couldn't guarantee their safety, they bugged out. Ran like rabbits.
What happened instead was that a counter-demonstration got out of control: it was the anti-"white supremacists" who rioted. The first paragraph of the story shown in the screen-capture is at worst ambiguous: "Protestors at a white supremacists' march..." could be read either way, but the story appears to identify who was protesting what correctly.
It's that very ambiguity, though, that explains the mistake: the headline writer read that first paragraph and assumed, perceived, the bad guys as being the white supremacists — and thus they became.
The dance of perceptions continues, though, if you read the actual NewsBusters posting. The writer, John Armor — who apparently isn't aware that the reporter doesn't generally write the headline — asks:
Presumably John Seewer, AP reporter, actually attended the event and saw what happened. So, the question is a very simple one:
Who is going to get fired for this gross and public dishonesty which polluted the American press this morning?
Notice that the reporter is being called out by name here, along with the suggestion that there was "gross and public dishonesty" that "polluted the American press", even though the story itself appears to have been accurate, and the headline a feasible interpretation of the first sentence of the story.
On the one hand, a mistaken headline based on the "knowledge" (it appears) that white supremacists are always the bad guys; on the other, a mistaken interpretation of "gross and public dishonesty" where there appears to have been an incorrect headline, quickly corrected. (The reason NewsBusters shows a screen shot is that the actual headline was corrected.)
Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of things. — Epictetus