Ever since the end of the 19th century through the next half-century when changing market conditions diluted the partisan press into a more balanced kind of political coverage, the pendulum has inched its way from the center – but not in an increasing amplitude in arc, rather fixed ever more firmly on the left. It largely has continued (if now eroding) norms developed over a century ago – striving for accuracy and objectivity in reporting – but increasingly allows bias through other means.
These days, that takes the form of selective use of information and selective coverage. Bias enters the equation when reporters express incuriosity in comprehensively covering a story because what they see on the surface confirms their deep-seated political biases, and when editors make selections on what they deem worth covering or qualifies as news that mirror their political prejudices.
With leftism running rampant through the mainstream media (almost universally at the national level but somewhat less at the state and local levels, almost universally in the print media but somewhat less in radio and television, where the most diversity is found in local radio and television), incuriosity and selection biases favor liberalism. How a handful of Louisiana media outlets handled some fake news about red-state Florida’s Wuhan coronavirus response provides a textbook demonstration of this effect.
In early May, a Florida Department of Health worker named Rebekah Jones was transferred, then some days later fired. It turns out there was a local angle of sorts to this, since this person obtained a degree from and had worked for Louisiana State University. Let’s have some state media outlets take it from here.
May 18, from the Baton Rouge Advocate:
After months of work on a platform to track coronavirus in the state of Florida, Rebekah Jones says she was fired after refusing a request from the state's Department of Health ….
The cause, she said, was her refusal to "manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen ….”(Interestingly, the Advocate cribbed a USA TODAY report from its Florida Today affiliate, which are owned by the Gannett division of New Media Investment Group, to produce its short piece. Gannett owns the Lafayette Daily Advertiser, against which the Advocate directly competes.)
May 20, from WBRZ Baton Rouge:
The scientist responsible for Florida's coronavirus data portal says she was fired for refusing to fudge data to support the state's decision to reopen and now a state cabinet member is calling for an investigation.
[W]hen Florida's Commissioner of Agriculture, Nicole Fried, heard about the situation she responded by writing to state officials ….
“These actions undermine public trust in our government, are extraordinarily dangerous to public health, and are absolutely inconsistent with the transparency and accuracy that Floridians expect and deserve during this pandemic.”
… prior to her firing, the dashboard she and her team created received widespread praise from across the state, even as far as the White House.
But, in recent weeks users noticed that specific fields of data were unavailable, including data dealing with when people became infected with the virus, with some saying they felt symptoms as early as January.(WBRZ relied on the USA TODAY report plus coverage from WFTV in Orlando, a fellow American Broadcasting Company station owned by Cox Media Group. WBRZ continues to be owned by the Manship family, former owners of the Advocate.)
Also May 20, Shreveport’s KDAQ, its National Public Radio Affiliate:
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is defending the firing of the state's top data scientist tracking the coronavirus pandemic ….
When first asked about Jones' dismissal, DeSantis on Monday called it a "nonissue." He said he understood from an email she sent her supervisor that "she was tired and needed a break."
DeSantis' communications director, Helen Aguirre Ferré, said, "Rebekah Jones exhibited a repeated course of insubordination during her time with the department, including her unilateral decisions to modify the department's COVID-19 dashboard without input or approval from the epidemiological team or her supervisors."
DeSantis took up the charge of insubordination and attacked Jones' claims that she created the state's highly praised COVID-19 portal. "She is not the chief architect of our Web portal. That is another false statement, and what she was doing was she was putting data on the portal, which the scientists didn't believe was valid data."
DeSantis says he has also learned since her firing that Jones faces criminal stalking charges. According to court documents, the charges stem from a relationship Jones had with another student that turned contentious while she pursued a doctorate at Florida State University ….
Jones' removal from the project and her subsequent dismissal have raised questions among researchers about the impartiality and transparency of Florida's COVID-19 dashboard.
Jones' dismissal has also drawn criticism from Democrats.Finally, from May 21 on WVLA Baton Rouge:
“One, she’s not a data scientist. She’s somebody that’s got a degree in journalism, communication and geography,” DeSantis said. “She’s not involved in collating any data, she does not have the expertise to do that. She is not an epidemiologist.”
DeSantis also said Jones was not the chief architect of Florida’s web portal, calling it a “false statement.”
But according to Syracuse University, Jones was the geographic information systems (GIS) manager for the Florida Department of Health. A feature the university posted about her this year says Jones built the state’s interactive COVID-19 website.
“What she was doing is she was putting data on the portal which the scientists didn’t believe was valid data,” he said. “So she didn’t listen to the people who were her superiors, she had many people above her in the chain of command.”
According to the governor, Jones was dismissed from her position because of those actions along with “a bunch of different reasons.”
DeSantis also went after Jones for charges that appear to be unrelated to her position with the state.
“Come to find out, she’s also under active criminal charges in the State of Florida. She’s being charged with cyberstalking and cyber sexual harassment,” the governor said. “I’ve asked the Department of Health to explain to me how someone would be allowed to be charged with that and continue on because this was many months ago. I have a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment.”
Court records … show Jones was arrested by the Tallahassee Police Department in July 2019 just weeks after she filed a suit against an ex.
After taking aim at Jones, DeSantis slammed questions that have surfaced about the accuracy and transparency of Florida’s data. He pointed out that Dr. Deborah Birx of the White House coronavirus task force, has talked multiple times about how Florida has the best data.
“Any insinuation otherwise is just typical partisan narrative trying to be spun,” he told reporters. “And part of the reason is you’ve got a lot of people in your profession who waxed poetically for weeks and weeks about how Florida was going to be just like New York.”
The governor said Florida has a lower death rate compared to several other states despite being “the number one landing spot for tens of thousands of people leaving the number one hot zone in the world.”
“We succeeded and I think that people just don’t want to recognize that because it challenges their narrative, it challenges their assumption,” DeSantis said. “So they’ve gotta try to find a ‘boogeyman.’”(WVLA ripped this story from its Nexstar broadcast partner WFLA in Tampa.)
What impression are we left from these stories? The first two have no Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis Administration reaction because it had yet to respond, but largely takes the word of Jones and her defenders, accepting the theory that the actions were to suppress information unfavorable to DeSantis, with one including a critical quote from the only Democrat statewide elected official – who is not identified as such, preventing the reader from understanding the partisan context of the remark.
The next two have the DeSantis reaction, but while both reveal potential credibility problems with Jones given her past statements and run-ins with the law, they tend to offer defenses of her assertion (based upon an interview she gave with her alumni magazine which descends into self-hagiography). Especially the last tries to write off her credibility problem by positioning her as a crusader against heavy-handed bureaucracy (perhaps influenced by the governor’s political agenda, it is insinuated, which gives science short shrift) and implies her being unfairly attacked over a lovers’ quarrel, these frame the story as “he said/she said.”
Politically, it serves the left in Louisiana and elsewhere to support any attack on DeSantis because of the great success Florida has had in controlling the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic – with a per capita incidence less than 30 percent of Louisiana’s despite its less insular nature – by being the anti-Gov. John Bel Edwards. While the Louisiana Democrat has taken a heavy-handed, one-size-fits-all approach more informed by politics than science, DeSantis’ much more nuanced approach that placed far fewer restrictions on most of the state’s population has proven much more successful. Thus, the left has an imperative of trying to discredit the numbers from Florida, and the Jones story provides the avenue to do it.
Except that so much of Jones’ story and defense are fake news – and one piece of information was out there for any of these four outlets playing off the “local” angle whose staff had 15 seconds to do a web search. From a 2016 edition of the LSU Daily Reveille:
On June 13, 26-year-old University staff member Rebekah Jones was booked on one count of battery on a police officer, one count of remaining after forbidden and two counts of resisting arrest, Scott said. Scott said officers arrived at the Sea Grant building when Jones refused to leave at the request of LSU Human Resources. Scott said Jones initiated physical contact against two LSUPD officers while resisting arrest and officers were forced to subdue her.They all failed to find, if not ignored, information showing Jones had a history of confrontation that can’t be shoehorned into an amorous spat. And there’s more, courtesy of a May 20 report (available temporally to all but the Advocate’s reprint) from the Tallahassee Report, which is (you guessed it) not a mainstream media outlet but an alternative media source:
Jones also has an extensive criminal history in Leon County, where she’s been arrested and charged with three felonies, including one for robbery, and a handful of misdemeanor cases including “sexual cyberstalking,” a case where she created a website and used it to sexually harass her ex-boyfriend. The website has been taken down, but images from the case exist in Leon County court records.
Most of the charges filed against her came after she was hired by the Department of Health, so they would not have turned up in any background check.A summary of the Report’s conclusions gives an entirely different impression of the affair, one based on multiple sourcing and actual investigation:
Claim #1: Rebekah Jones was the “architect” of the Florida’s COVID-19 dashboard.
The truth: Jones was more like the drywall hanger of the dashboard rather than the “architect.” The dashboard was built on the same visual mapping tool that Johns Hopkins University made famous at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis. In fact, Florida’s tool looks extremely similar. That’s because Johns Hopkins University is not the “architect” of the dashboard, either. The tool is actually built not on any of Florida’s many data servers, but using ready-made modules from a subscription service called ArcGIS. Jones’ job was to load data into those modules and decide how it appeared to visitors.
Claim #2: Rebekah Jones was a coronavirus “scientist”
The truth: Jones has a doctorate degree in geography. Her skill set, as applicable to COVID-19, was in mapping data, as we explained above.
Claim #3: Rebekah Jones was asked to manipulate data to support the governor’s plan to reopen Florida
The truth: Jones was asked to temporarily disable the ability to export data from the dashboard so that it could be verified that the data matched other sources ….
… a single column of data became temporarily unavailable for a day and a half. The only other item worthy of note … is that the state’s official epidemiologist (i.e. an actual medical scientist, not a data mapper, like Jones) asked to have the ability to export data from the dashboard temporarily disabled while health officials verify that the dates match other official sources.
Claim #4: Rebekah Jones was fired because she refused to comply with orders to hide the truth about COVID-19
The bottom line: Rebekah Jones was fired for performance issues, not for “refusing to manipulate data.” And her extensive criminal history, which predates her employment in Florida, lends credence to the DeSantis administration that she was just a troublesome employee who is now disgruntled and trying to get media attention about her firing. The easiest way to get media attention right now is to claim a Republican elected official is involved in a conspiracy to cover up COVID-19 data detrimental to reopening the state economy.(Actually, as noted the next day in a National Review piece, which presents a stripped-down version of the Report’s article plus some new information, she doesn’t even have a Ph.D. The story’s reporter is on staff at The Capitolist, a news website covering Florida state politics that leans to the right politically). And to buttress the Report’s conjecture that she would politicize her firing, consider that she fits the profile of a nutty left-wing social justice warrior:
I first sought to be a documentary film-maker, and then I committed myself to being a journalist. I felt the need to give a voice to the voiceless, to cover wars and disasters, poverty and inequality, and social injustice in every place and form it manifests.
I am now a vegetarian, speak in spatial and temporal scales, and am a GIS connoisseur. Above all, I like to think discovering geography was like finding religion for me. It changed the core of who I am. LSU had an equally significant impact, but in other, more deeply personal ways. I learned a lot about inequality, injustice and the power of ignorance.
For all four outlets, the Reveille piece was out there. For three outlets, the Reporter piece was out there. For the last, the National Review piece was out there. And for all to do a follow-up, they have all of these sources plus the semi-retraction Jones issued that absolved DeSantis but continued the conspiracy claim, while providing zero evidence to back it up in a national cable network interview (with Chris Cuomo, brother of New York Democrat Gov. Andrew Cuomo who botched his state’s pandemic response in contrast to DeSantis).
In summation, we have Louisiana journalists seeing a story with a local hook, and they crib it uncritically. They crib it uncritically because all they know is, and perhaps concur with, a national media narrative that Edwards-like heavy-handed government command-and-control responses = good, DeSantis (and Republican Pres. Donald Trump) approaches that eschew that = bad. Florida’s numbers don’t verify their belief; thus, their narrative tells them something must be wrong with the numbers. Then, somebody comes out of nowhere alleging the numbers are cooked; thus, it’s a story worth running without any real attempt to do a complete and comprehensive job of vetting it. There’s no reason to vet it because it is consistent with the “truth” as informed by their political biases.
That’s the mentality of many in journalism today (who exist in a bubble by consuming only content from national media congruent with their views), and why we saw these stories in Louisiana mainstream media outlets over the past week, and why we are unlikely ever to see a follow from them that walks back the gist of the (cribbed) reporting. In the aggregate, there is a leftist bias in news reporting in the mainstream media because political beliefs of reporters and editors make them incurious about the content of stories that confirm their political prejudices and all too eager to run with these stories (and not stories with information adverse to those, which they feel would take too much time to “debunk” because they don’t fit the narrative) precisely because these stories fit their political views.