This “Name That Party” situation has many of the usual elements. There are several stories about two Democratic judges involved in criminal behavior in Pennsylvania, and, with one exception, they “somehow” don’t get around to identifying their party.
But this saga is different for two reasons:
- The crimes to which the judges have pleaded guilty involve “thousands” of juveniles.
- In one lonely exception, the Associated Press’s coverage prominently identified the judges’ party. But in what was apparently a subsequent longer revision, their party identification disappeared.
What follows is a side-by-side picture of the first four paragraphs of a February 11 AP story carried at topix.com (also saved at my host for future reference), and of the five paragraphs of the story as it now appears at MSNBC (also saved at host; red and green boxes are mine; portions of the Topix link were moved from their original locations on the page for demonstration purposes; MSNBC graphic is of the printer-friendly version):
Looking at the green boxes, you can see that at the bottom left, MSNBC is the site to which Topix linked when it posted the story. The nine-digit page ID number at Topix is the same as the ID at the top of the MSNBC page on the right.
But my oh my, how the MSNBC page has changed:
- The “Both are Democrats” sentence is gone.
- The quote from the Juvenile Law Center attorney has been added.
- (not visible in the picture) There are no other differences between the first eight paragraphs excerpted at Topix and the first nine paragraphs at MSNBC.
- The full 856-word article at MSNBC does not identify the party of either of the two judges involved.
It is virtually inconceivable that Topix would have gratuitously added “Both are Democrats” on its own. Those words were almost definitely present at MSNBC when Topix did its excerpt.
Topix is the one and only place I was able to find the “Both are Democrats” sentence. Just a few of the other sites where the party affiliation-free AP story mirrors what is at MSNBC include NJherald.com, DCexaminer.com, Google, Yahoo! News, Fox News, the Salt Lake Tribune, and AOL.com. Even attempts to find cached versions of the story that might have been published earlier with the party affiliation failed (some examples are here, here, here, and here).
I contacted the Luzerne County Courts on Friday afternoon, and confirmed that Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan are indeed Democrats.
Subsequent stories about the two judges have also failed to identify their party. A few examples are:
- A February 12 New York Times story by Ian Urbina and Sean D. Hamill (“Judges Plead Guilty in Scheme to Jail Youths for Profit”)
- A February 13 AP story carried at the Times (“2 Pa. Judges Sued in $2.6M Kickback Scheme”).
- A separate story on the lawsuit written by the Times’s Urbina (“Suit Names 2 Judges Accused in a Kickbacks Case”)
- An unbylined BBC story (“US judges admit taking kickbacks”).
In a Google Web Search on ["both are Democrats" Pennsylvania] (typed as indicated within the brackets), the Topix article came back as the only result related to the judges. A Google News search on the same string came back with nothing.
It would appear that the person or persons at AP who released the earlier unbylined story picked up at Topix actually paid attention to the wire service’s Stylebook (from 2000), which says that:
party affiliation Let relevance be the guide in determining whether to include a political figure’s party affiliation in a story. Party affiliation is pointless in some stories, such as an account of a governor accepting a button from a poster child. It will occur naturally in many political stories. For stories between these extremes, include party affiliation if readers need it for understanding or are likely to be curious about what it is.
Since this is clearly a national story involving a horrible, orchestrated, large-scale betrayal of the public trust, there is little doubt that the rest of the nation is quite “likely to be curious” about Ciavarella’s and Conahan’s party membership. But the AP’s Michael Rubinkam and MaryClaire Dale, who are bylined here in the party-purged version of the story carried at DCexaminer.com, apparently didn’t think readers were entitled to know.
Short of an open admission, the pulled party-affiliation sentence following a brief appearance is probably as convincing a piece of evidence as we’ll ever see that the press is deliberately playing “Don’t Name That Democrat” whenever it can.
Do we even need to ask what would have been reported if Ciavarella and Conahan had been Republicans?
Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org.