“Media Matters” ; by Jamison Foser

Last week, we looked at the way The New York Times and The Washington Post covered two stories the day after they broke: the 1998 Lewinsky investigation and the current Bush administration domestic spying program.

This Week:

Media less assertive in covering NSA scandal than Whitewater

Media coverage of NSA story continues to fall short

Media sees silver lining in every cloud hanging over Bush administration ...

... and grey clouds inside every silver lining for Democrats

Matthews falsely smears progressives ... again

Media less assertive in covering NSA scandal than Whitewater

Last week, we looked at the way The New York Times and The Washington Post covered two stories the day after they broke: the 1998 Lewinsky investigation and the current Bush administration domestic spying program. We summarized:

All told, on January 22, 1998, the Times and the Post ran 19 articles (five on the front page) dealing with the Clinton investigation, totaling more than 20,000 words and reflecting the words of at least 28 reporters -- plus the editorial boards of both newspapers.

In contrast, on December 17, the Times and the Post combined to run five articles about the NSA spying operation, involving 12 reporters and consisting of 6,303 words.


We could go on and on with comparisons like these, and bring in other news organizations, but it should be clear by now that the nation's leading news organizations haven't given the NSA spying story anywhere near the coverage they gave the Clinton-Lewinsky matter. And, based on available evidence, they haven't dedicated nearly the resources to pursuing the NSA story that they dedicated to the Lewinsky story.

We've gotten some feedback, suggesting that the disparity is because, basically, “sex sells.” Of course, we heard throughout 1998 that the Lewinsky story “isn't about sex, it's about law-breaking.” Anyone arguing that the Lewinsky story got such relentless coverage simply because “sex sells,” however, is going to have to explain CBS' This Morning hosting Jonah Goldberg to discuss Linda Tripp -- a segment few viewers likely found “sexy.”

But is it true that disparity in media coverage can be explained by the fact that “sex sells” ? And, if so, does that make it right? The second question shouldn't require much attention, so what about the first?

Media coverage of Whitewater reached a frenzy, with calls for special counsels and investigations, long before the Lewinsky story broke. In the mid-1990s, Whitewater was a nearly 20-year-old land deal in which the Clintons lost money. As a January 5, 1994, Washington Post editorial explained, "[t]his should be stressed -- there has been no credible charge in this case that either the president or Mrs. Clinton did anything wrong."

And yet the news media covered Whitewater as though it was Watergate, Teapot Dome, and Iran-Contra all rolled into one. A few examples:

The February 9, 1994, broadcast of ABC's World News Tonight, minus commercials, clocked in at 22 minutes. Fully 18 of those 22 minutes, according to The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz, were about Whitewater. Kurtz explained in a February 11, 1994, Post article:

In a highly unorthodox move, the ABC newscast devoted 18 of its 22 minutes to the Whitewater scandal, a story spectacularly ill-suited to television. “We are going to attempt something ambitious this evening,” anchor Peter Jennings announced, “which is to try to explain in one fell swoop the Whitewater jam that Bill and Hillary Clinton seem unable to get themselves out of.”


“Most people, and I include myself among them, didn't really understand the Whitewater deal,” said Rick Kaplan, who replaced Emily Rooney last month as the newscast's executive producer. “It just didn't make sense to do it as a bunch of four-minute pieces.”


“With two minutes here and one minute there you think, 'My eyes glaze over, no one's going to understand this,' ” Kaplan said. “I said look, the only way to follow this is to do it all at once.”

Media analyst Robert Lichter called it “a very good piece of explanatory journalism” that “tells other journalists this is important and tells the White House that journalists aren't going to ignore the story because of the special counsel's investigation.” But in a recent Times Mirror poll, only 13 percent of those surveyed said they were following Whitewater very closely.

That same night, ABC's Nightline devoted its entire broadcast to Whitewater.

Whitewater was a story that, according to Kurtz, the American people weren't following closely. According to the Post, there had been “no credible charge in this case that either the president or Mrs. Clinton did anything wrong.” Yet ABC devoted an entire broadcast of Nightline and 18 of 22 minutes of World News Tonight to it -- and that's just one network, one day.

And it can't be emphasized enough: The public simply was not clamoring for more coverage of Whitewater. The New York Times reported on January 16, 1994:

Whitewater, with its intricate issues of banking regulation, tax writeoffs and real estate partnerships, has not so far registered dramatically with the American public, perhaps because it is too complicated. A Gallup poll taken at the end of the first week in January found that Mr. Clinton's favorable rating is 62 percent, nearly as high as the 66 percent when he first took office.

A January 1994 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found that 54 percent of Americans approved of Clinton's handling of his job; 62 percent had a favorable opinion of him; only 12 percent thought he “did anything wrong in Whitewater real estate deal” ; and a plurality of Americans thought an independent counsel was unnecessary.

So, the public didn't care about Whitewater and didn't think Clinton had done anything wrong. Most Americans approved of Clinton's handling of his job, and even more of them had a favorable personal opinion of him. There was “no credible charge in this case that either the president or Mrs. Clinton did anything wrong,” according to The Washington Post's editorial board.

And yet, that same Washington Post editorial called for the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate ... well, to investigate “no credible charge.”

That's right: the Post argued, in the same editorial, that there was both “no credible charge in this case that either the president or Mrs. Clinton did anything wrong” -- and that there should be an independent investigation. Forget about evidence, the Post was saying there wasn't even a credible allegation of wrongdoing, but that there should be an independent investigation anyway.

The January 5, 1994, Post editorial read, in part:

The administration has taken the position that there's no need to name an independent counsel in the Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan case. It argues that the investigation is safely in the hands of career Justice Department attorneys, that the president and Mrs. Clinton are cooperating fully even though not directly involved and that the attorney general has no current power to appoint a fully independent counsel anyway.

We think that's wrong -- that, murky though most aspects of this case still are, it represents precisely the kind of case in which an independent counsel ought to be appointed. We say that even though -- and this should be stressed -- there has been no credible charge in this case that either the president or Mrs. Clinton did anything wrong. Nevertheless, it is in the public interest -- and in the president's as well -- to put the inquiry in independent hands.


There is no way even under the best of circumstances, which don't exist here, that a Justice Department in any administration can conduct a credible investigation involving a president to whom it is ultimately responsible. That's what's at issue in this matter -- and why an independent figure should be named.

Now, how has the Post's editorial board addressed the current Bush administration domestic spying operation?

  • 12/18/05: "[T]he administration appears to have taken the position that the president is entitled to ignore a clearly worded criminal law when it proves inconvenient in the war on terrorism. ... FISA has been the law of the land for 2 1/2 decades. To disrupt it so fundamentally, in total secret and without seeking legislative authorization, shows a profound disregard for Congress and the laws it passes."
  • 12/20/05: “The snooping appears to violate the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), but the attorney general says it doesn't. ... The administration must be forced to explain itself comprehensively, so Congress can decide how to respond.”
  • 1/23/06: “The most detailed legal justification to date for the National Security Agency's warrantless domestic surveillance has emerged from the Bush administration, but the 42-page version isn't any more convincing than its shorter predecessors. In some ways -- particularly in its broad conception of presidential power in wartime -- it is more disturbing.”

So, in 1994, the Post argued that there was no “credible charge ... that either the president or Mrs. Clinton did anything wrong” -- but called for an independent investigation anyway.

Now, the Post argues that the Bush administration is “ignor[ing] a clearly worded criminal law,” “show[ing] a profound disregard for Congress and the laws it passes,” “appears to violate the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act,” and “must be forced to explain itself comprehensively.” The Post finds the administration's “legal justification” for the spying program unconvincing and “disturbing.” And yet the Post has not called for an independent investigation.

Why not?

It cannot be because the Post considers the allegations against Bush less credible than those against Clinton; the paper itself has argued exactly the opposite. It cannot be because there is no public desire for an independent investigation -- there is. A January 20-22 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found that 58 percent of Americans think a special counsel should be appointed to investigate the spying program.

And what of The New York Times, which had this to say about Whitewater on January 7, 1994:

Attorney General Janet Reno seems hellbent on sacrificing her reputation to the White House's effort to contain the Whitewater Development flap. Not only has she continued to refuse, on insultingly specious grounds, to appoint an independent counsel. It now emerges that by so refusing, she has bought time for Justice Department and White House lawyers to cook up a deal to keep the Whitewater records under wraps. Moreover, those records are being handled so sloppily that when an independent counsel is finally -- and inevitably -- appointed, that official will have to spend vast energy to be sure no evidence has been destroyed.

Is no one at the White House reading the history of recent Presidential scandals? These clumsy efforts at suppression are feckless and self-defeating. This White House's attempts to maintain political control of the investigation into President and Mrs. Clinton's real estate dealings in Arkansas are swiftly draining away public trust in their integrity.

Ms. Reno insists she does not wear the White House collar, but her news conference yesterday undermined that claim. She holds out the possibility that she will seek a court-appointed independent prosecutor as soon as the House passes legislation authorizing such positions. But Ms. Reno does not have to wait. She already has the authority to appoint a special prosecutor from outside her department, and Congressional Republicans are right to insist that she do so. When the Independent Counsel Act is revived -- as it ought to be -- then this special prosecutor can give way to a court-appointed prosecutor operating with even more independence.

Now, The New York Times denounces, as it did in a December 18, 2005, editorial, “illegal government spying on Americans.” It asserts that “Nobody with a real regard for the rule of law and the Constitution would have difficulty seeing” the program as a violation of civil liberties. It concludes "[W]e have learned the hard way that Mr. Bush's team cannot be trusted to find the boundaries of the law, much less respect them."

Yet the Times does not call for a special counsel. Instead, it declares “Mr. Bush should retract and renounce his secret directive and halt any illegal spying, or Congress should find a way to force him to do it.”

But what gives the Times reason to believe that Congress would do so even if it could? Five days later, another Times editorial described the relationship between the Bush administration and Congress: “Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney are tenacious. They still control both houses of Congress and are determined to pack the judiciary with like-minded ideologues.”

Why on earth would the Times dare to hope that a Congress under the “control” of Bush and Cheney would “find a way to force” Bush to do anything? Just this week, the Times reported that the Bush Administration “declines” to provide the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee documents it has requested as part of its investigation of the administration's handing of Hurricane Katrina, and refused to make administration officials available for sworn testimony. What makes the Times think the Republican-controlled Congress will want to “find a way to force” Bush to do anything? Or that it would be able to even if it wanted to?

What explains the Times' refusal to call for a special counsel in the case when it believes the Bush administration, led by the president himself, is acting illegally? Why was a special counsel more justified in 1994 than now?

Media coverage of NSA story continues to fall short

Last week, noting the lack of resources news organizations have devoted to the domestic spying scandal, we listed some of the many stories related to the scandal they should pursue. This week brought a perfect example of the kinds of stories that any news organization, with little more than some research time on Lexis-Nexis, could produce that would greatly improve the public's understanding of the spying operation -- but it came not from The New York Times or ABC News or USA Today; it came from attorney and blogger Glenn Greenwald.

As Media Matters for America explained:

In the past two days, numerous media outlets have -- without challenge -- cited Gen. Michael V. Hayden's January 23 claim that the Bush administration's decision to bypass the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court to monitor domestic phone conversations is legal because the program has targeted only phone calls that the National Security Agency (NSA) has a “reasonable basis to believe involve Al Qaeda or one of its affiliates.” Some media have repeated the more specific claim by Hayden, a deputy director for national intelligence and former head of the NSA, that the program is legal because the Fourth Amendment requires that the government have only a “reasonable basis” for the surveillance, rather than meet the stricter “probable cause” standard required for a FISA warrant.

But as attorney and blogger Glenn Greenwald noted on January 24, even as the administration was already bypassing FISA in 2002, the Justice Department issued a statement opposing proposed legislation by Sen. Mike DeWine (R-OH) to loosen the standard for such surveillance under FISA from “probable cause” to “reasonable basis.” The administration argued in the statement that lowering the standard was likely unnecessary and possibly unconstitutional. In light of this revelation, which contradicts 1) Hayden's suggestion that the stricter “probable cause” requirement under FISA was inhibiting crucial intelligence gathering and 2) the administration's claim that Congress had tacitly authorized the administration's circumvention of FISA in conducting its secret surveillance program, will the media outlets that repeated Hayden's defense of the program's legality under the Fourth Amendment now report the facts undermining that defense?

To their credit, some news outlets, including The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, covered the information Greenwald discovered; the Post even followed up with a second article dealing with the matter. But there are follow-up stories to be explored. ThinkProgress has pointed out that the "Administration's Response To Greenwald Is Contradictory and Inaccurate" and argues that "Hayden Lied To Congress And Broke The Law." And, as Greenwald has demonstrated in a follow-up to his original post, any media outlet that devoted the resources would likely find a great deal of newsworthy testimony in transcripts of the 2002-03 debate in Congress about FISA.

Or they could sit back and continue to let bloggers do their jobs for them.

Media sees silver lining in every cloud hanging over Bush administration ...

Last year, we noted that -- in the midst of a disastrous stretch for the Republican Party -- Newsweek's Howard Fineman bizarrely -- and somewhat dishonestly -- focused on reasons for Democrats to be “gloomy.”

This week brought several more examples of the tendency of the media to find good news for Bush and the Republicans no matter how much things seem to be going against them.

Los Angeles Times reporter Ron Brownstein, for example, wrote in a January 27 article detailing the results of an L.A. Times poll that there remains “broad, though slightly eroded, confidence in Bush's handling of terrorism.” But, several paragraphs later, Brownstein got around to revealing the actual poll results: “48% said they approved of Bush's performance in fighting terrorism, whereas 49% disapproved.”

The attentive reader will note that more Americans disapprove of Bush's performance in fighting terrorism than approve of it. That's the “broad, though slightly eroded” confidence in Bush's handling of terrorism Brownstein referred to.

The headline on Brownstein's article read “Bush's Ratings Sink, but Trust Remains.” But did the poll really show that the public continues to trust Bush, or was the Los Angeles Times' headline writer also spinning the results for Bush? The poll results show that 47 percent think Bush is not “honest and trustworthy” ; only 46 percent think he is. So, more Americans think Bush is not trustworthy than think he is -- and the Los Angeles Times tells readers “Trust Remains.” Presumably, they meant “Trust Remains Low” but ran out of room.

The New York Times went further. In an article that could have been written by Karl Rove, the Times previewed Bush's upcoming State of the Union address by asserting that Bush “stabilized his political standing after a difficult 2005.” As Media Matters noted, that creates a grossly misleading impression in readers: Bush's poll numbers, for example, are remarkably stable -- and remarkably bad. Not the kind of stability the Bush administration is looking for.

The Times went on to assert that Bush has “dealt to a large degree with the most acute political problems from the latter half of last year.” No indication was given of how Bush has “dealt” with, say, the fallout from his handling of Hurricane Katrina, or the indictment of a senior White House aide in connection with the Valerie Plame case, or the continued jeopardy Karl Rove is apparently in for his role in the same case, or the indictment of his head of procurement*, or the Jack Abramoff scandal. The latest CBS/New York Times poll shows that large pluralities dislike Bush and disapprove of his performance as president. It shows (PDF) that 67 percent think the Bush administration lacks a plan to help find homes and jobs for Katrina victims; that 64 percent are concerned about losing civil liberties as a result of Bush's policies; that 54 percent think the war in Iraq is going “badly” for the United States; that 58 percent think Bush describes things in Iraq as better than they actually are, while only 31 percent think he describes things accurately; that 38 percent think the economy is getting worse while only 17 percent think it is improving; 70 percent think the deficit will be larger by the end of Bush's term, while only 6 percent think it will be smaller. All of this comes, remember, from the most recent New York Times poll. And yet, The New York Times reports that Bush has “dealt to a large degree with the most acute political problems” he faced last year, and that he has “stabilized his political standing.”

... and grey clouds inside every silver lining for Democrats

When polls show that nearly 60 percent of Americans favor a special counsel to investigate the Bush administration's apparently illegal domestic spying operation; that 64 percent are concerned about losing civil liberties as a result of Bush's policies; that more people are concerned the government will “enact new anti-terrorism laws which excessively restrict the average person's civil liberties” than that it will “fail to enact strong anti-terrorism laws” ; that a majority of Americans think Congress should consider impeachment "[i]f President Bush wiretapped American citizens without the approval of a judge"; and that, basically, people don't like George Bush, Dick Cheney, Republicans in Congress, the jobs they are doing, or the policies they support.

Well, when all of that is true, naturally, the media tells us Democrats are in grave danger politically if they continue to criticize the domestic spying scheme.

Brownstein wrote a column headlined "Democrats May Argue Liberties to Their Peril." The Washington Post repeated GOP spin that the NSA spying is a clear winner for them; the Post didn't bother to include so much as a hint that an apparently illegal violation of civil liberties ordered by a wildly unpopular president might not be as much of a slam-dunk winner as Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman would have us believe.

Matthews falsely smears progressives ... again

Last year, we noted that MSNBC's Chris Matthews repeatedly smeared Democrats by falsely claiming that a memo distributed by the Democratic National Committee accused Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr. of being “lenient on the mob,” and calling that an example of Democrats “going after [Alito's] ethnicity.” In fact, Matthews was lying. The memo said nothing about Alito being “lenient” on anyone and made no mention of ethnicity. But Matthews repeatedly made false claims about the memo, waving it in front of cameras -- but not quoting from it.

Now, Matthews is back at it, falsely attacking a television ad run by Americans United for Change. As Media Matters explained:

On the January 25 edition of MSNBC's Hardball, host Chris Matthews falsely attacked a television ad that associates former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) with money laundering. Matthews falsely claimed that the ad -- produced by Americans United for Change -- accused DeLay of bribery, saying, “That's not a charge against him. His charge is this thing about hard money, soft money.” In fact, contrary to Matthews's accusation, a video clip he played of the ad showed pictures of DeLay, former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and former vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby while an announcer said, “What time is it when Republican leaders are indicted for money-laundering, bribery, and obstruction of justice, while political friends get appointed to run life-or-death agencies?” The ad showed the image of DeLay while the announcer said “money-laundering,” then switched to Abramoff as the announcer said “bribery,” and to Libby as he said “obstruction of justice.”

While discussing the ad, Matthews asked Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank:

MATTHEWS: Have you noticed in the Democrat ad, though, they do a close-up on Tom DeLay and they said “bribery” ? Well, that's not a charge against Tom DeLay. His charge is this thing about hard money, soft money. It's a political little bit of a fandango. But nobody's accused him yet of bribery. But that ad sure does.

But Matthews's description of the ad was flatly false. The word “bribery” did not coincide with the “close-up on Tom DeLay,” but rather with a picture of Abramoff. The ad therefore did not accuse DeLay of bribery, as Matthews claimed.

When Matthews wasn't lying about progressives, he was describing Latino immigrants as “The hardest-working people in the United States” -- and concluding that, therefore, "[t]hey sound like they're natural Republicans to me."

Jamison Foser is Executive Vice President at Media Matters for America.