Two days before her competition began, the New York Times published a story about Olympic hurdler Lolo Jones that may have set a new standard for bias in the newspaper. It’s not news to conservatives that the Times can be biased; it’s also not news that its journalists are adept at subtly inserting opinion into their work. But Jeré Longman’s article covered new ground: he took biased-journalism tactics commonly used in the world of political reporting and transferred them to the world of sports reporting. Fans of Jones—who seems, in some ways at least, to be a political conservative—now have firsthand experience of what consumers of political news have dealt with for years.
“Judging from this year’s performances,” wrote Longman, “Lolo Jones seems to have only a slim chance of winning an Olympic medal in the 100-meter hurdles and almost no possibility of winning gold. Still, Jones has received far greater publicity than any other American track and field athlete competing in the London Games. This was based not on achievement but on her exotic beauty and on a sad and cynical marketing campaign. Essentially, Jones has decided she will be whatever anyone wants her to be—vixen, virgin, victim—to draw attention to herself and the many products she endorses.” Longman explained that Jones had “barely made the 2012 Olympic team with a third-place finish at the United States trials. Nineteen hurdlers internationally have posted faster times this year than Jones’s best, 12.74 seconds, including the other two Americans in the field.”
A common tactic employed by biased political journalists is, rather than directly expressing an opinion in a story, to find an expert to state that opinion. As Bernard Goldberg noted in his 2001 book Bias, “Here’s one of those dirty little secrets journalists are never supposed to reveal to the regular folks out there in the audience: a reporter can find an expert to say anything the reporter wants—anything! Just keep calling until one of the experts says what you need him to say and tell him you’ll be right down with your camera crew to interview him.” Longman quoted only two people in his article. Though Jones is one of the most respected and popular athletes in track and field, somehow all of their quotes were critical of her.
Another tactic is the strategic omission. Recall that Longman reported that 19 runners had recorded faster times than Jones this year. His insinuation was that Jones was ranked about 20th in the world and thus would have a minuscule chance of winning a medal. He omitted a key fact: a year ago, Jones had spinal-cord surgery, which caused her to miss a significant amount of training. Consequently, she would start the season slower than usual but would likely improve more than other runners during the season. Accordingly, her 20th-place time surely understated her true ability and her chances at the Olympics. Indeed, Track and Field News, the sport’s Bible, predicted that she would place fifth in London. An even better indication of her ability is her actual finish in the event: fourth place.
Further, Longman also failed to note the idiosyncratic nature of hurdling: nearly any top competitor can win a race. For instance, in one heat of the men’s hurdles competition in London, four of the nine competitors fell and failed to complete the race. Before Dawn Harper won the gold medal in Beijing four years ago, Track and Field News had predicted that she wouldn’t even rank among the top ten in the United States.
Jones herself noted two more omissions in the Times article: that she had won the world indoor championships twice (in 2008 and 2010) and that she was the current American indoor record holder. Jones also suggested that the Times “didn’t even do the research.” If anything, she’s being too charitable. These facts are listed on Wikipedia and several other sources. Longman must have known about them, but they didn’t fit his narrative—that Jones was not a top runner and that instead, as the article’s headline declared, FOR LOLO JONES, EVERYTHING IS IMAGE.
For many fans, the article came as a surprise. The editors at the sports website sbnation.com, for instance, described its harsh tone as “pretty ruthless.” But awareness of a few facts makes the tone less surprising. One is the Times’s political bias. The other is that Jones, over the last several months, has been coming out of the closet with some conservative tendencies. First, she’s a devout Christian and a fan of Tim Tebow. Second, and perhaps most irritating for liberal elites, she’s a 30-year-old virgin. As she recently Tweeted: “Yes, I’m a virgin. #1 reason I’m single bc guys deuce out when I won’t put out. I do so to honor God & future husband.”
Jones was clearly surprised at the Times’s harsh coverage. As she said on the Today show: “I thought it was crazy . . . the fact that it was from a U.S. media, like, I mean, they should be supporting our Olympic U.S. athletes, and instead they just ripped me to shreds.” Someone should explain to Jones that what she calls “supporting our Olympic U.S. athletes,” the typical Times reporter would consider “jingoism.” Someone might also point out that you can’t be a Christian virgin and expect fair coverage from the Paper of Record.