Smoking hottest hot-button issue 

by David Kopel

July 14, 2002

My column two weeks ago ó about factual errors in a Denver Post story on secondhand smoke ó generated lots of mail.

Thanks to everyone who wrote.

Secondhand smoke, it turns out, is the hottest hot-button issue. To generate even more mail, Iíll have to analyze some article titled "Gay Israeli gun-owners protest report claiming that second-hand smoke causes global warming."

A bunch of letter writers thanked me for raising a factual perspective they feel is often unfairly excluded from the media. Thatís one of the main purposes of this column.

Another set of letter writers didnít disagree with my observation that numerous facts in the Post story were wrong, but these writers didnít like the column anyway because: 1) They find second-hand smoke aesthetically offensive (as do I) and want it banned, or 2) They sent me other sources of information (not cited by the original article) arguing that secondhand smoke really is very dangerous.

But the purpose of this column ó unlike most other columns in the Perspective section ó isnít to attempt to resolve public policy debates one way or another. The media watch column isnít here to argue for or against particular smoking laws (or other laws), but to point out instances where Colorado media misreport important stories ó such as by making factual errors or by presenting only a single scientific viewpoint about a topic where there is great scientific dispute (such as second-hand smoke or global warming).

One letter writer accused recently departed media columnist Greg Dobbs of having a secret agenda to prove that the Post suffers from greater liberal bias than the News. Apparently unaware that Iíve been writing on the media every other week since March 2001, the writer worried that I was going to follow in Dobbsí alleged footsteps.

Of course the Post editorial page is more liberal than the News editorial page, but at both papers, as at most other major American daily newspapers, the editorial writers and the news reporters work in separate orbits. Having read every issue of both the News and the Post for quite a while, Iím quite confident that their news sections are not reflective of the papersí editorial pages.

The odds of reading a biased or flawed news story in the News are very similar to the odds of reading such a story in the Post. Usually, the problem isnít institutional bias, but rather a particular reporter not doing a good job on a particular day, coupled with lax editing.

The only way in which the news pages of the Post have a more liberal slant than the News is this: The Post sometimes allows its senior writers to produce front-page analysis pieces which can be extremely one-sided in their selection of facts and use of expert sources. These articles would be better suited for the Perspective section than the front section.

Finally, thanks to all those readers who have sent in story tips; youíve provided lots of great ideas. And also thanks to the letter writers for the "Talk Back to the Media" section of this page, who provide a diverse take on a wide range of Colorado media.

A letter writer in last Sundayís paper complained about the News and the Post participating in the lawsuit to overturn the new Colorado law prohibiting telemarketing calls to people on the no-call list.

Thatís not quite right. One of the papers (the Post) supported the law editorially, and neither is a direct party to the suit. The News and the Post are both marketed by the Denver Newspaper Agency, which is a client of Metro News Service Corp., one of the plaintiffs in the suit.

The problem isnít confined to Colorado. Dean Singleton, the CEO of the Post is the chairman of the Newspaper Association of America, a trade association for newspapers. An official from the E.W. Scripps company (the parent of the News) sits on the NAAís board. While the Federal Trade Commission considers creating a national do-not-call list, the NAA has been lobbying for newspapers to be exempt from the new regulations. The NAAís argument is, essentially, that newspapers are good corporate citizens and provide an important product.

But the purpose of do-not-call lists is not to protect people from fraudulent telemarketers (who are already covered by anti-fraud laws); the point is to prevent intrusive home phone calls, regardless of the merit of the callerís product.

Suppose a reporter covered the National Rifle Association convention, interviewed only NRA members and wrote a story headlined "Crime problem blamed on low rate of gun ownership." A reader might reasonably wonder why the reporter didnít include some balancing perspective from an academic or a gun-control supporter who would suggest that there isnít really a shortage of guns, and that more guns wouldnít solve the crime problem anyway.

But when Associated Press education reporter Greg Toppo covered the National Education Association convention, his interviews with teacher union members revealed that "Lack of male teachers blamed on low pay and prestige" (Post, July 5).

How about some perspective from an education reformer suggesting that teacher salaries really arenít so low and that the biggest barrier to more teachers is the NEA-backed certification system, which keeps many potential teachers from being allowed into a classroom?  

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