February 24, 2015

Ginning Up the Base

Courtesy of Huffington Post
I have always loved the NY Post. Not because of it's great writing or enlightening reporting. And no, not for the gossip, although it's certainly salacious. Rather, I am a long-time fan of the paper's headlines. Eschewing any sense of "integrity," the Post abandons any pretense that it exists for any reason other than to sell papers and agendas. Towards that end, they have some great headlines.

Their stories often follow suit. For instance, on January 29, 2015, the NY Post ran a story about Ruhim Ullah, the machete man, if you will. According to the Post, Ullah menaced a police officer with a machete, causing the officer to shoot him in self-defense. Ullah then sued the officer for shooting him, and ultimately settled for $5,000. The author of the article, Selim Algar, wrote that Ullah's own lawyer had admitted the shooting was justified; a statement that made the already seemingly ridiculous lawsuit even more absurd. The Post's story triggered a mini-fire storm of criticism from police officials, and gave Mayor de Blasio just the opportunity he was seeking to show the NYPD what a good friend he was to the boys in blue.

The thing is, the Post story -- which concludes by juxtaposing the Ullah nuisance value settlement with settlements for $98 million to resolve a longstanding class-action discrimination case brought by minority FDNY applicants, for $41 million for the Central Park Five, and for $18 million to protesters arrested following the 2004 Republican National Convention, apparently to suggest that all of these settlements are similarly frivolous -- is fundamentally inaccurate.

Courtesy of FAIR
According to Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting ("FAIR"), contrary to the Post article, Ullah's lawyer denied ever saying that he thought the shooting was justified, stating that the Algar appeared to have simply made up the quote. Equally important, Ullah's claim, seemingly backed by some friendly witnesses, was that he had put down the knife prior to the shooting. The FAIR piece also notes that "the Post's Algar . . . has a dicey record on embellishing key facts." I am not arguing that this case was one that should have been brought. I don't know enough about the case to have an opinion. But one thing is clear: the facts were significantly different than what the Post presented, and that's before getting to the apparently fabricated quote from Ullah's lawyer.

I was in court with a supervising attorney from the City's Special Federal Litigation Unit shortly after the story broke (and after Mayor de Blasio made a speech suggesting that the City's lawyers had long followed a policy of paying out absurd amounts on frivolous lawsuits, much to the consternation of the lawyers he had just maligned). This lawyer made clear that while the machete case was eminently defensible, there was definitely more to it than what the Post had suggested, and that the settlement had made sense. Never one to allow subtle niceties to interfere with political expediency, de Blasio seized on the falsified machete story to make some hay in his efforts to woo back his officers.

That the story was inaccurate in a meaningful way is not surprising. The Post is more political cartoon than newspaper, and ought to be read as such. It's too bad that more self-styled serious papers and news outlets didn't pick up on FAIR's article or call the Post on its errors. Still, I guess that's entertainment.

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