"Media Matters," week ending April 1, 2005; by Jamison Foser

››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

Quote of the week: "And 10 years, this is gonna be a totally different country than it is right now. Laws that you think are in stone -- they're gonna evaporate, man. You'll be able to marry a goat -- you mark my words!" -- Bill O'Reilly

Week ending April 1, 2005
www.mediamatters.org
action@mediamatters.org

This week:

Social Security: With media coverage like this, why did the Bush administration think it had to pay reporters?

The Hill continues to carry water for House GOP

Coverage DeLayed: Some media outlets ignore DeLay controversy, others make excuses for him

Pharmacists for Life president receives media attention, but not scrutiny

Media coverage distorts weight of "conservatives' anger" in Schiavo case

Quote of the week:

"And 10 years, this is gonna be a totally different country than it is right now. Laws that you think are in stone -- they're gonna evaporate, man. You'll be able to marry a goat -- you mark my words!"
-- Bill O'Reilly

Social Security: With media coverage like this, why did the Bush administration think it had to pay reporters?

The ongoing flood of conservative misinformation in media reports about Social Security has us wondering why the Bush administration ever thought it needed to pay for favorable coverage.

Two examples stand out this week. The first, as Media Matters noted:

On the March 29 edition of Fox News' Your World with Neil Cavuto, substitute host Stuart Varney repeatedly made a false comparison between the Bush administration's plan to let workers divert a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes into private accounts and the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), a retirement program for federal employees similar to 401(k) plans. Importantly, federal workers participate in TSP on top of Social Security; the accounts are not financed by Social Security payroll taxes, so contributions to the program do not require matching reductions in Social Security's guaranteed benefit. Throughout the segment, the on-screen text read: "What a deal!!!"

Incredibly, when Varney's guest, Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board executive director Gary Amelio, pointed out that Varney was "talking about apples and oranges" in comparing Bush's privatization plan to the TSP accounts, Varney cut him off before he could explain.

In the second instance, CJR Daily detailed local news coverage of efforts by Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN) to sell the president's privatization plan:

This morning WISH, the CBS affiliate in Indianapolis, delivered a report on Burton's event without a single word of critical analysis.

[...]

"Daybreak" news anchor Dave Barras delivered the full report:

Congressman Dan Burton is carrying the president's warning about Social Security back home to Indiana. He said the system cannot survive the way it is going right now. Last night Burton led a town hall meeting in Noblesville and addressed what Burton calls misinformation about what the president wants to do. Burton's message is young people need a retirement system they can rely on and right now they don't have one because in about 12 years, he says, the demands for benefits will be greater than the taxes collected to pay for them.

[...]

Quickly, let's recap what the WISH morning news consumers took away from this report as they got ready for the day:

1. I should be alarmed.
2. Social Security faces a cash imbalance, any decade now.
3. We need to fix this imbalance now, or else.
4. Critics are trying to blur the president's message with "misinformation," but he is feeling "very good" about the progress he is making "explaining the problem."

If you ask us, that reads awfully close to a GOP-issued list of talking points on Social Security -- although WISH apparently missed the one that describes private accounts as the government just granting citizens control of their own money.

In case you're wondering: No, Karen Ryan didn't have anything to do with the broadcast.

Finally, the president's privatization plan got a boost from Time Warner CEO and media mogul Richard Parsons, who backed the plan in a piece published in (wait for it ...) Rising Tide: The Magazine Of The Republican National Committee.

The Hill continues to carry water for House GOP

Last week, Media Matters illustrated several problems with an article published in The Hill that was apparently based entirely on the "GOP research" cited throughout:

Amid mounting evidence indicating possible unethical activity by House Republican leaders, The Hill, a Washington-based newspaper that covers Congress, ran a lengthy, one-sided, and misleading article attacking members of the Congressional Ethics Coalition, a group of ideologically diverse organizations that have been critical of the current Congress' approach to ethics.

While suggesting that the groups that form the Congressional Ethics Coalition are in league with House Democrats and liberal funders like George Soros, The Hill left out the inconvenient fact that the far-right Judicial Watch is a member of the coalition, as is the Campaign Legal Center, whose president, Trevor Potter, is a Republican. The Hill, admittedly reading from GOP talking points, made much of campaign contributions to Democrats from members of the board of directors of one coalition group, but didn't mention Potter's extensive history of contributing to Republican candidates.

This week, The Hill followed up its earlier recitation of Republican talking points (and it's important to keep in mind that that isn't our characterization of the March 23 article; the article explicitly cited "GOP research" as the basis for no fewer than five assertions in the article) with another article and an editorial.

So, in a span of just seven days, The Hill has devoted two articles and an editorial -- a total of more than 2,500 words -- to detailing attacks by allies of Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) on the Congressional Ethics Coalition. Yet, in those two articles and one editorial -- in those 2,500 words -- The Hill has not yet mentioned Judicial Watch's membership in the coalition. Nor has it mentioned the Campaign Legal Center's participation.

While The Hill seems to be bending over backwards to avoid mentioning these key facts -- facts which, perhaps coincidentally, would appear to seriously undermine the "GOP research" The Hill lapped up so eagerly -- the newspaper has also taken to inflating the claims it makes based on that research.

Last week, we noted of the first article in The Hill:

[W]hile focusing only on the funding of, and contributions connected to, the progressive member organizations, The Hill misleadingly described that funding. The Hill wrote: "The groups have also accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Open Society Institute, an organization founded by [George] Soros, who spent millions trying to defeat President Bush in last year's election." But while that seems to suggest that several, if not all, of the organizations that make up the Congressional Ethics Coalition got funding from Open Society, only Democracy 21 is named later in the article as a recipient of such funds. [Emphasis added.]

Seven days later, though, The Hill has upped their assessment of the Open Society Institute's funding of coalition members. Last week, it was "hundreds of thousands of dollars" (of which, only $300,000 to Democracy 21 was specifically mentioned); this week, The Hill "reported":

Conservatives at the meeting received GOP research and press reports on millions of dollars in grants that George Soros's Open Society Institute gave to groups critical of DeLay. [Emphasis added.]

The Hill didn't explain what changed in seven days: the content of the "GOP research," or The Hill's interpretation of it. The Hill article mentioned only one group that apparently got Open Society Institute funding (and, surprise, it isn't based on The Hill's thorough investigation, but rather on Republican statements: "DeLay's supporters note that Public Campaign has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants from Soros's institute.")

The Hill's apparent preference for being spoon-fed talking points and "GOP research" rather than conducting its own research is made clear by its bizarre editorial attacking one Congressional Ethics Coalition member organization, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). The Hill spent nearly 500 words denouncing CREW's alleged "secrecy" as "hypocritical":

One such is Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) -- a self-important moniker if ever there was one -- which has repeatedly refused to tell The Hill who sits on its board of directors, unlike all eight other members of the Congressional Ethics Coalition.

Note, by the way, that The Hill says it has gotten lists of board members from all the other members of the coalition -- confirmation that The Hill knows that Judicial Watch and the Campaign Legal Center are part of the coalition, but refuses to report this information to its readers.

But we digress.

The Hill's editorial rant about "secrecy" is perplexing. Surely someone at the newspaper is aware of a resource called Guidestar; a quick visit to Guidestar.org yields this page summarizing CREW's structure and finances. Clicking on the "Form 990" link allows the visitor to download CREW's Form 990, which will list the organizations board members. Sure, a membership is required -- but it's free! At prices like that, The Hill can't afford not to take advantage of this basic resource every reporter should have bookmarked.

Perhaps The Hill's apparent decision to rush to DeLay's defense shouldn't be surprising. After all:

  • The Washington Post reported on July 28, 2003, that The Hill "is owned by News Communications Inc., a company partly run by Canadian-born publishing baron Conrad Black." Black's relationship with The Hill has presumably ended; he is currently being sued by his own holding company, and has been accused of looting companies he controlled until recently. According to the Financial Times, "Black's business ambitions probably always ran second to his urge to be an intellectual force of conservatism. He did not want to simply own newspapers. He wanted to use them to help to reshape the political culture of his native Canada, and to influence that of the United States, Britain and Israel." New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has noted that Black's friends include prominent conservatives Henry Kissinger and Richard Perle; Perle may face his own lawsuit due to his links to Black.
  • The Hill's executive editor, Hugo Gurdon, is a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative organization that is funded by Richard Mellon Scaife, the David H. Koch Charitable Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation -- a who's who of right-wing moneymen. Gurdon indicated in an August 1, 2003, online "chat" with The Washington Post that relationship with Conrad Black (he previously worked at two other Black-owned publications) led to the job at The Hill.
  • Gurdon appeared on National Public Radio in July 2004 to provide a "conservative reaction" to the Democratic National Convention; in a February 2004 NPR commentary, Gurdon referred to President Bush's budget as "a national necessity."

Coverage DeLayed: Some media outlets ignore DeLay controversy, others make excuses for him

While House Majority Leader Tom DeLay faces increased scrutiny of his ethical difficulties, some news organizations are joining The Hill in rushing to his defense.

Fox News correspondent Brian Wilson told viewers, "So far, there is no evidence that DeLay is losing support in his home district." In fact, the Washington Post has reported that DeLay, "struggling to protect his Washington power base as legal and ethical issues fester, also has to watch his back on the home front." DeLay's share of the vote in his last two elections dropped from 63 percent in 2002 to just 55 percent in 2004.

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal editorial page - which used to be quite fond of partisan investigations -- unleashed an unfounded attack on the Texas prosecutor who indicted three DeLay aides. In the course of an editorial that was uncharacteristically critical of DeLay, the Journal attacked Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle as a "partisan Democrat" who "has a record of making suspect accusations." But, as Media Matters has noted (frequently):

[A]ccusations of Earle's partisanship (which the Journal has made before) are not supported by his record of prosecutions, which consists of far more Democrats than Republicans.

[...]

Earle has prosecuted more Democrats than Republicans over the course of his career. A March 17*, 2004, Houston Chronicle editorial stated: "During his long tenure, Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle has prosecuted many more Democratic officials than Republicans. The record does not support allegations that Earle is prone to partisan witch hunts." A March 6, 2004, article in the El Paso Times offered further detail: "Earle says local prosecution is fundamental and points out that 11 of the 15 politicians he has prosecuted over the years were Democrats."

But Fox News and The Wall Street Journal editorial page are conservative media outlets, well-known for their right-wing points of view. Surely other news organizations have thoroughly and fairly covered the controversies swirling around DeLay?

On March 27, the Los Angeles Times reported that when DeLay's father was "badly injured in a freak accident at his home," leaving him "in a coma, kept alive by intravenous lines and oxygen equipment ... the congressman quietly joined the sad family consensus to let his father die." The Times noted that DeLay has been a prominent advocate of the reinsertion of Terri Schiavo's feeding tube. Yet this incredible story of DeLay's apparent hypocrisy received only passing mention by the broadcast news programs.

For ABC, at least, turning a blind eye to a situation embarrassing for DeLay is nothing new; as Media Matters explained on March 17, ABC ignored the growing scandal involving DeLay's lavish, all-expense-paid trips to South Korea and Britain long after it had become major news.

The network continues to pay scant attention to DeLay's ethics troubles; DeLay has been mentioned in ABC reports about Terri Schiavo on March 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 25, and 27. Yet his ethics troubles have only been covered once during that time; on the March 24 edition of Nightline. ABC viewers may not have been told of the controversy surrounding DeLay during World News Tonight or Good Morning America, but those still awake and in search of news at 11:35 p.m. ET got the update. At the beginning of that Nightline piece, ABC's Chris Bury announced, "We asked Mr. DeLay to participate in tonight's program. Through a spokesman, he declined."

But DeLay had appeared on ABC's Good Morning America just days earlier, on March 19; that appearance came three days after a major Washington Post article about DeLay. NBC and CBS had already addressed the issues raised by the article during their broadcasts, but ABC conducted a live interview with DeLay, and didn't ask him a single question about his ethics troubles.

DeLay's colleague, Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH), has gotten off even easier. Ney chairs the House Administration Committee; recent news reports suggest that he, too, may have acted improperly in his dealings with lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The Washington Post reported on March 17:

The Senate Finance Committee yesterday opened an investigation into allegations that lobbyist Jack Abramoff used nonprofit organizations to pay for a variety of improper activities, including overseas trips for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Tex.) and another Republican lawmaker. Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Max Baucus (Mont.), the panel's top Democrat, faxed a letter to Abramoff's attorney seeking information from the Capital Athletic Foundation, a charity he created. The committee wants financial records and receipts for travel, which would include a 2002 trip to Scotland by House Administration Committee Chairman Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) and lobbyist and former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed.

A December 26, 2004, Washington Post article noted:

One member of the House leadership already under scrutiny for his ties to Abramoff, House Administration Committee Chairman Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), used the MCI Center [an arena in Washington] box, and his chief of staff was later hired by Abramoff. A Senate panel investigating Abramoff released e-mails last month showing that Abramoff directed a Texas tribe to contribute $32,000 to Ney in 2002, days after Ney took steps to sponsor legislation sought by the tribe.

Abramoff's fundraising log shows an event for Ney at MCI Center on March 15, 2001. FEC records show that Abramoff and three men associated with him in a Florida-based casino cruise line called Suncruz each donated $1,000 to Ney that day.

Ney had been helpful to them the year before, when Abramoff and a partner, Adam Kidan, were embroiled in acrimonious efforts to buy Suncruz. In an unusual step, Ney criticized the cruise line's owner, Gus Boulis, in statements placed in the March 30, 2000, Congressional Record, putting pressure on Boulis to sell; he then praised Kidan as Suncruz's new owner when the sale went through.

It almost goes without saying that Ney's dealings with Abramoff, which are being investigated by the Senate Finance Committee, haven't been mentioned -- not a single time -- on ABC, NBC, or CBS. Nor has The New York Times mentioned the two men in a single article -- ever.

Perhaps more surprising is that the two major newspapers near Ney's congressional district -- the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Columbus Dispatch -- have combined to publish just one article that mentions Ney and Abramoff this year.

On March 10, the Dispatch reported:

Faced with new questions about a 2002 trip to Scotland, Rep. Bob Ney denied any wrongdoing and said yesterday that he would be happy to discuss the matter with the House ethics committee.

The St. Clairsville Republican has found himself in a scandal involving controversial lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The latest twist concerns whether Ney accurately identified on a House disclosure form the sponsor of the Scotland trip, which included a golf outing at the famous St. Andrews course.

Ney said through a spokesman yesterday that Abramoff told him the nonprofit National Center for Public Policy Research paid for the trip, and that the purpose was to meet with government officials and attend a famous military festival, the Edinburgh Military Tattoo.

A report published yesterday in the Los Angeles Times quotes a center official denying that the research group -- on whose board Abramoff used to serve -- paid for the trip.

That's the only article the Dispatch has published on the topic since November. The paper's readers have not yet been told, among other things, that the Senate Finance Committee is now investigating the matter.

Still, they aren't as out of the loop as readers of the Plain Dealer. The last article that paper published that mentioned Ney and Abramoff came on December 10, long before the recent disclosures in The Washington Post.

Pharmacists for Life president receives media attention, but not scrutiny

It was a busy week for Pharmacists for Life president Karen Brauer; she appeared on CNN and CBS Tuesday morning, and she was quoted in articles in The Washington Post, the Chicago Sun-Times, and elsewhere. That's a lot of attention for a group that, according to its most recent IRS filings, doesn't have any paid employees and raised and spent less than $30,000 in 2003 (the most recent year for which figures are available.)

But while Brauer enjoyed great attention, she escaped great scrutiny. None of those media outlets gave their readers or viewers much information about Brauer or her organization. None mentioned, for example, that Brauer has admitted to lying to patients, and none mentioned her (and her organization's) history of extreme statements. Brauer, for example, has been quoted saying "Birth control serves to make women sexually available to men at the convenience of men and not at the most convenient time necessarily for women. It's really to place women at the service of men." And Pharmacists for Life's web page says of the Terri Schiavo case: "The modern day 'Sanhedrin' in charge of the political/justice machine has shown its face and wishes her dead as the original one did the same to Jesus Christ 2000 years ago."

See Media Matters for more.

Media coverage distorts weight of "conservatives' anger" in Schiavo case

Media coverage of the Terri Schiavo controversy has increasingly focused on anger on the part of some conservatives at the judicial system, often overstating the extent of that anger, and typically failing to note that conservative and liberal judges alike have been in near-unanimous agreement on the matter. As Media Matters explained:

In an April 1 analysis of "the legacy" of the Terri Schiavo case in The New York Times, reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg wrote: "The case also fueled conservatives' anger over what they regarded as a runaway judiciary, laying the groundwork for future fights over Mr. Bush's judicial nominees."

But by linking the Schiavo case with future judicial nomination fights, Stohlberg set up the Schiavo case as a conflict between conservatives -- angry at a federal judiciary run amok and prepared to push for like-minded judicial nominees -- and liberals defending a liberal judiciary. But these purportedly angry conservatives are angry with a conservative federal judiciary, and they represent a minority of both self-identified "conservatives" and self-identified "Republicans." If the Schiavo case does in fact "lay the groundwork for future fights over Mr. Bush's judicial nominees," those who are angry at the Schiavo rulings will presumably be advocating for nominees who would have ruled differently in the Schiavo case. But such nominees would be to the right of the vast majority of Americans who opposed congressional and presidential intervention in the case, to the right of prominent conservative legal scholars, and to the right of an already conservative federal judiciary.

Correction: 

This item originally indicated that the Houston Chronicle editorial was from June 17, 2004, and linked to a website providing the full text of the editorial but another incorrect date, March 17, 2003. In fact, the editorial was written on March 17, 2004.

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