Sloppy advocacy journalism ID'd

Thinly veiled support for identity-theft legislation takes form of story at Post

by David Kopel

Dec. 6, 2003, Rocky Mountain News

Sometimes when I write a column debunking media claims about some social problem, unhappy readers assume that I'm against doing something about the problem. So to set the record straight: I'm against identity theft. I've personally been a victim of identity theft. The Independence Institute has never received any contributions from the Identify Theft Lobby. And I like state Sen. Bruce Cairns and Rep. Bill Crane, who plan to introduce an identity theft bill in the 2004 legislative session.

However, a Dec. 1 Denver Postarticle touting the new legislation was sloppy advocacy journalism. The Postclaimed that "The Federal Trade Commission estimates that one in four Coloradans in the next 12 months will have their identity assumed by someone else." But if you look at the FTC's identity theft Web site ( ), you will find no such statistic.

The Post'sreporter did not return my e-mail asking for her source for the claim.

What the FTC site does provide are data showing that of Colorado's 4.5 million people, there were 2,600 reported victims in 2002. That's about one-twentieth of 1 percent. An FTC poll reported that, nationally, 4.6 percent of Americans were victims of identity theft last year. (Since many people never report crimes to the police, polls often yield much higher victimization rates than do police crime reports.) The FTC poll did not report state-by-state data. The poll made no projections about the future, and certainly did not claim that Colorado's rate would quintuple in 2004.

The Postannounced, "Identity thieves are drawn to Colorado because it is one of two states that do not have an identity-theft law."

The headline claimed, "Colorado's lax laws attract ID thieves."

Supposedly buttressing this claim was the fact that Colorado ranked 14th in ID theft in 2001, and 11th in 2002.

The article correctly stated that the District of Columbia and Vermont also lack an ID theft law. Yet the article reported no data from those jurisdictions. According to the FTC, the District of Columbia is the No. 1 jurisdiction for ID theft while Vermont ranks 49th. So although the Postmade the factual assertion that "lax laws" attract ID thieves, Vermont's experience is completely to the contrary.

Deep in the article, the 22nd paragraph acknowledged that Colorado already has ID theft laws, since "laws on forgery, criminal impersonation and theft have been tweaked to include identity theft." The article quoted an expert sheriff's investigator who said that Colorado laws have not caught up to the burgeoning problem.

But the article included no explanation of precisely why Colorado's current laws are supposedly inadequate.

One-sided puff pieces for forthcoming legislation often appear in the papers in November, December and January.

The U.S. Postal Service has announced a new stamp honoring black entertainer Paul Robeson. According to an Associated Press article by Jennifer C. Kerr (Post, Nov. 24), Robeson "was labeled a subversive for his mid-century activism against racism and anti-Semitism."


Sen. Hubert Humphrey and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt were mid-century activists against racism and anti-Semitism, and they were not labeled as subversives. Robeson was labeled as a subversive because he was one. Robeson was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party USA, which was under the direct control of the Soviet Union. Robeson was a fervent admirer of Josef Stalin, even after Stalin's genocidal tyranny became well-known.

When Stalin died in 1953, Robeson eulogized the "Beloved Comrade" for his "deep humanity" and "his wise understanding," which left "us a rich and monumental heritage."

Robeson supported the Soviet invasions of Finland and Poland in 1939, and until Hitler violated the Hitler-Stalin Pact, Robeson urged Americans to refuse to support the democracies that were under fascist attack. It is also disgusting for the AP to call Robeson an activist against anti- Semitism even though Robeson traveled to Moscow in 1949 to support Stalin at the height of Stalin's anti-Jewish pogrom.

Bill Johnson's Nov. 22 column in the Rocky Mountain Newsconsisted of the complaints of a mother who insisted that her 24-year-old son committed suicide after a probation officer named Marie made him begin taking Antabuse, a drug used in the treatment of alcoholism; the son had violated probation terms about not consuming alcohol. According to the manufacturer, Antabuse can produce psychotic side effects, which are "in most cases attributable" to interactions with other drugs or to "the unmasking of underlying psychoses in patients stressed by withdrawal of alcohol."

But Johnson reported only a single incident in which the probationer drank two beers.

Antabuse requires a prescription. So, contrary to what Johnson claimed, a probation officer cannot unilaterally force someone to take it; a physician must concur. At the least, Johnson should have attempted to interview the prescribing physician and the probation officer, to see if there was another side to the story.

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