Sunday, August 24, 2003 responds to my comments about The Billings Gazette homeless series:

"You said, "The guy had some bad breaks, sure, but the reporter made it
pretty obvious that he screwed up a lot, too."

"True enough, but here's the rub: they guy owns land and a home in
Alaska. *He's not homeless.* He's stranded in Billings either through
ignorance in not being able to read the terms of his bus ticket, or an
inability (or unwillingness) to do any contingency planning.

"Also, my moral (unclear as it was) wasn't necessarily that the Gazette
favors increasing social spending, rather that the headlines are tilted
a certain way to set the tone for the story. It would be interesting to
run an experiment with that story. Have two groups of people read the
same story, and in one group, the headline reads, "Life's setbacks leave
Alaska man homeless" and the other says, "Poor choices strand worker in
Billings." Then ask people their perceptions of his plight."

My only comment: The suggested headline would never fly under the "objective" rules of journalism that most of us in the business were reared on. A headline should summarize the story, not draw conclusions about the wisdom of the decisions it describes. I think the Gazette headline is weak but unbiased. After all, stupidity can be one of life's setbacks, too. Perhaps a netural "Homeless man stranded in Billings" would have been better, even if duller. The point is, it's dangerous to draw conclusions about media bias from a copy editor's attempts to squeeze an interesting, accurate, fair and compelling headline into a half-dozen words or so. Anybody have a better suggestion?

The Billings Symphony's explanation of its decision to ax conductor Uri Barnea just gets lamer. In today's Gazette, Symphony President Robert C. Griffin assures us that the Symphony board "deliberated long and hard before reaching this decision." No doubt Saddam Hussein deliberated long and hard before invading Kuwait. Long deliberations do not justify poor decisions. Mr. Griffin also said the board is "currently engaged in negotiations to reach an agreement as to the terms and conditions under which Barnea" could address the board about his termination. When a board has to negotiate an agreement to talk to its top executive, it's got serious problems.

We're still aiming to get to the bottom of this. If we have any luck, it will be in the Aug. 28 edition.

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