Depends Who’s Talking

Posted on 2012 January 30

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Here’s the opening of a news article about the Ford Motor Company, posted by the Reuters news agency:

Ford hit by commodity costs, international woes

“(Reuters) – Ford Motor Co reported a lower-than-expected fourth-quarter profit on Friday as commodity costs shot up and results from operations outside North America fell short of expectations.

“The No. 2 U.S. automaker’s losses in Europe nearly quadrupled during the quarter as the economy suffered amid the ongoing debt crisis. Flooding in Thailand led to a loss in Asia, and increased competition blunted profits in South America.

“‘We saw the external environment deteriorate, and that really affected most regions other than North America,’ Chief Financial Officer Lewis Booth told reporters, ‘and then we saw slightly greater than we expected impact of commodities, currency and also the Thai floods.’

“Shares of Ford, which derives the bulk of its revenue from North America, fell more than 5 percent in premarket trading. . . . “

Now, here’s another article about Ford, from the New York Times:

For Ford, Three Years of Profit in a Row

“DEARBORN, Mich. — The Ford Motor Company reported its third consective full-year profit on Friday and its largest in 13 years, ensuring its hourly workers one of the biggest profit-sharing bonuses in the company’s history.

“Ford said strong sales in North America overshadowed higher commodity costs and losses in other parts of the world. The North American results mean 41,600 hourly workers in the United States will receive $6,200 in profit-sharing bonuses for 2011, up from $5,000 the year before. . . . “

One article says Ford was hit hard by costs; the other says Ford had record profits. These stories must have been written years apart, right? Except they were wired on the same day (January 27, 2012) about the same news event.

The New York Times, not known as a pro-business paper, practically crowed about Ford’s record profits and profit sharing; Reuters seemed obsessed with Ford’s failures overseas. Technically, both articles list the same facts. But the emphasis is totally different: one report makes Ford out as a huge success story, while the other suggests dark days are upon the car maker.

These news services are generally reputable and reliable. How could they have pitched the same news item in such sharply different terms? One clue is in the Times coverage, which emphasizes profit sharing for the workers: the paper tends to be liberal, and its report focuses on good news for the company’s union laborers. Another clue is that Reuters is based in Europe, where Ford’s international sales results would likely be of great interest.

Still, the gap between the reports is the size of a canyon. Why would two major outlets pitch the same story so differently? Could the Times somehow be in Ford’s pocket? Does Reuters have an axe to grind with the company? Maybe the newspaper is under the gun to stress good economic news, while Reuters has been pressured to report bad news about America to counterbalance the recent uproar surrounding Europe’s tottering economy.

But we’re not privy to backroom editorial decisions. There’d be no temptation to speculate, except that the reports are so baldly at odds that they suggest conscious bias, perhaps on the part of both news providers.

This isn’t the first time this has happened, but it’s a humdinger of an example. Perhaps, someday, someone will write a tell-all that clears up these huge discrepancies, especially among the major — and, we’d hope, most trusted — news outlets. Regardless, it’s a great reminder of how the media can tilt coverage, for whatever reasons, while still reporting the facts of the story. Caveat lector.

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