A slanted report from a usually reliable source

Not sure what happened in the editorial process at VTDigger, but on Wednesday morning it published a terribly one-sided piece on the F-35 issue.

Those opposed to F-35s at Burlington Airport probably liked the article, and will probably attack me for the following critique. But really, no matter what your political persuasion, this is a clear and obvious example of slanted journalism at its worst.

By comparison, Mark Davis of Seven Days wrote a story that was fair and respectful to both sides and provided readers a clear understanding of the status of the issue.

The two stories provided very different versions of a court hearing in a legal challenge to the F-35 siting decision. At the end of the hearing, the judge said he would consider some extremely limited factors in the case, which was bad news for the plaintiffs.

The Digger article was written by Adam Federman. His name does not appear on the Digger staff listing; nor was he identified at the end of the piece, which is customary for a non-staff contributor.

Federman’s piece is a dutiful chronicle of one side of the issue — the anti-F35 side. The story is framed around their objections, and (unfairly to readers who want to stay informed) exaggerates the antis’ chances of success.

The article includes lengthy quotes from anti-F35 activists. The only space Federman gave to a supporter was the two-paragraph lede, which quoted an Air Force attorney as acknowledging “the public health and safety risks associated with the F-35.”

Not a hint of a pro-F35 argument anywhere in the story.

Nary an acknowledgment of the legal situation: that the opponents are arguing from a position of weakness, and that the military is almost certain to prevail. Federman failed to correctly interpret the judge’s statement at the end of the day’s testimony, which is kind of an important thing for a court reporter to do.

Here’s a key passage from Davis’ story:

“This is not a one-man referendum on where to base the aircraft,” [Judge] Crawford said. “I’m not here to make my own investigation into noise levels or the likelihood of a catastrophic crash. My assignment is to review the process of the Air Force, and determine if it fits in the discretionary judgment allowed these agencies.”

To me, that sounds like the judge won’t consider many of the broad arguments made by the opponents — he will simply evaluate the Air Force’s process and, crucially, do so within its “discretionary judgment” And the military, being charged with the duty of protecting our nation, is given a great deal of latitude in decision-making.

I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just saying that’s the law. The judge’s ruling was not final, but it contained a lot of bad news for F-35 opponents and broad hints that the judge will rule in the military’s favor.

Neither Federman nor VTDigger did anyone any favors by publishing such a misleading piece of reportage. I’m rather shocked that his story was cleared by the editors, who are usually sensitive to the basic requisites of good journalism.

6 thoughts on “A slanted report from a usually reliable source

  1. Sue Prent

    The article in question is attributed to Mr. Federman, right at the beginning of the piece.
    I really don’t get why you are calling it “incredibly one sided.” It seems like a pretty straight-forward account of Tuesday’s testimony. If the impression left by that testimony favors one side of the argument or the other, it is in the judgement of the reader. I can’t see how Mr. Federman could have been more even-handed, unless he was to introduce arguments from other occasions into his account of Tuesday’s proceedings.

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      Oh, come ON. He drew heavily from the antis’ arguments and didn’t cite a single argument in favor of the F-35s. That’s journalistic malpractice, plain and simple.

      As for the attribution, yes, I know his name is at the top of the piece. That’s how I knew he wrote it. But there was no identifying information, as is standard journalistic practice when using a story from a non-staff writer.

  2. Dennis Shanley

    It does seem a strange and extremely unusual editorial failure on the part of VTDigger. I am certainly hoping that we are witnessing a temporary lapse in judgment rather than a shift into advocacy journalism.


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