“Media Matters” ; by Jamison Foser

Several major media outlets used a September 2 poll conducted by The Washington Post and ABC News to suggest that public opinion of President Bush's handling of Hurricane Katrina is split. The Post even suggested that the poll -- which found that a plurality of respondents, including a plurality of independents, gave Bush negative marks -- “might offer some cheer to beleaguered White House staffers who feared a stronger negative reaction.”

This Week:

Media report flawed polls on Bush performance, downplay polls with more negative assessments

In Katrina aftermath, Republicans lie about Democrats -- but the media focuses on “strident” attacks by Democrats

Media gives Bush credit he doesn't deserve, ignores blame he has earned

Where's the media outrage over this potential infringement on freedom of the press?

“Bipartisan” ? You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means

Media report flawed polls on Bush performance, downplay polls with more negative assessments

Several major media outlets used a September 2 poll conducted by The Washington Post and ABC News to suggest that public opinion of President Bush's handling of Hurricane Katrina is split. The Post even suggested that the poll -- which found that a plurality of respondents, including a plurality of independents, gave Bush negative marks -- “might offer some cheer to beleaguered White House staffers who feared a stronger negative reaction.”

But the biggest problem with coverage of the September 2 poll wasn't the media spin that it was somehow good news for the White House that a plurality of Americans disapprove of his handling of Katrina. The biggest problem was that the poll was fundamentally flawed, having been conducted on only one night (strike one), on a Friday of a holiday weekend (strike two), with a very small sample size (strike three).

Despite these obvious flaws in the poll, the Post devoted more than 800 words to it in a September 4 article, including the assessment that the poll results might please the White House. While the Post noted that Democratic and Republican respondents (predictably) differed in their assessment of Bush's handling of Katrina, it didn't bother to tell readers how independents responded. The Post came back to the poll three days later, in a September 7 article that again stressed the divide between Democrats and Republicans -- and again ignored independents:

Wherever reality lies between these mutual recriminations, the path from post-9/11 unity to the rancor and finger-pointing in the aftermath of Katrina's fury charts a clear deterioration in political consensus in the United States and a growing willingness to interpret events through a partisan prism. It is a problem that now appears destined to follow Bush through the final years of his presidency -- a clear failure of his 2000 campaign promise to be a “uniter, not a divider.”

A Washington Post-ABC News poll taken last Friday illustrates the point vividly. Just 17 percent of Democrats said they approved of the way Bush was handling the Katrina crisis while 74 percent of Republicans said they approved. About two in three Republicans rated the federal government's response as good or excellent, while two in three Democrats rated it not so good or poor.

A September 4 New York Times article also mentioned the Post/ABC poll:

An ABC poll found that 46 percent of Americans approved of Bush's handling of the crisis, almost exactly half his 91 percent approval rating after Sept. 11, 2001.

The Times apparently couldn't quite bring itself to tell readers how many Americans disapproved of Bush's handling of Katrina - leaving them to wonder whether or not the 46 percent approval represented a plurality (it didn't).

Conservative columnist Byron York even suggested in a September 8 column that Media Matters' critique of the Post/ABC poll was without merit:

Some of the president's critics complained about the poll. People didn't put all the blame on Bush? Surely something was wrong. For example, Media Matters for America, the “progressive” watchdog group, wrote a critique headlined, “Media touted questionable Washington Post/ABC poll to say public opinion of Bush's hurricane response is mixed.”

Media Matters said the Post polled too few people and the survey was taken during a holiday weekend, when it could not reach a representative sample of Americans.

But then came another poll, this one from Gallup, with a bigger sample size, that was taken, at least in part, during this business week.

And it also showed the public taking a balanced view toward blame for the post-Katrina mess.

Unfortunately for York, the very day his column ran, CBS News, the Pew Research Center, and Zogby International all released poll results that showed widespread disapproval with Bush's handling of Katrina -- supporting Media Matters' contention that the Post/ABC poll was unreliable.

The CBS poll found that only 38 percent of Americans approve of Bush's handling of Katrina, while 58 percent disapprove and that 65 percent of Americans think Bush's response was too slow (only 32 percent said it was about the right speed; 1 percent -- presumably old classmates from Andover -- thought it was too quick). Only 20 percent found the federal government's response adequate; 77 percent think it has been inadequate; and 80 percent said the federal government didn't respond as quickly as possible. Only 48 percent of respondents think that Bush has strong leadership qualities -- the lowest rating Bush has gotten on this question in a CBS poll -- while 49 percent say he did not. Only 42 percent approve of Bush's overall job performance.

The Pew poll found that “The American public is highly critical of President Bush's handling of Hurricane Katrina relief efforts” -- 67 percent think Bush could have done more. The Pew poll finds that only 40 percent of Americans approve of Bush's overall handling of his job; 52 percent disapprove. And, undermining the spin in the Post and elsewhere that opinions of Bush break largely along partisan lines, Pew found that “the president's ratings have slipped the most among his core constituents ­ Republicans and conservatives.”

The Zogby poll results are even more devastating for Bush, if that is possible. The headline on a Zogby press release announcing the poll emphasizes how bad the results are for the White House: “Bush Job Approval Hits 41% -- All Time Low; Would Lose to Every Modern President; Public Rates All Levels of Government Poorly in Katrina Handling; Red Cross Rated Higher Than Federal Government, 69%-17%.”

Zogby found that only 41 percent of respondents have an overall positive assessment of Bush's job performance; 59 percent offer a negative assessment. Nearly as many (37 percent) give Bush a “poor” rating as give him “excellent” and “good” combined (41 percent.) Of 11 specific issues on which Zogby measured approval of Bush's job performance, Bush surpasses 40 percent approval on only one issue. Disapproval of Bush's performance is below 59 percent on only one issue. On every issue, more people describe Bush's performance as “poor” than as “excellent,” “good,” or “fair.”

We await Byron York's next column, in which we expect he'll concede that we were right to dismiss the Post/ABC poll.

In Katrina aftermath, Republicans lie about Democrats -- but the media focuses on “strident” attacks by Democrats

In an effort to escape blame for bungling preparation for and reaction to Hurricane Katrina, the White House has begun a desperate smear campaign against Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco and other state and local officials. A “senior Bush aide” told the Washington Post that Blanco still hadn't declared a state of emergency as of September 3, which the Post dutifully reported. But Blanco had declared a state of emergency, long before -- on August 26. Newsweek also seems to have been taken in by the false White House smear campaign.

While the Post has corrected its error, Newsweek has not. And the Post correction didn't note an obvious, and clearly newsworthy, point: Bush aides are spreading falsehoods about Blanco in an effort to shift blame from the federal government.

Instead of reporting on this craven and malicious smear campaign being conducted by the White House, the Post tells its readers that Democrats are politicizing Katrina; that Democrats are guilty of “strident” criticism of Bush.

Incredibly, among the examples the Post gives of “strident” criticism by Democrats is Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid's (D-NV) call for an investigation into whether Bush's month-long vacation, which he remained on in the early days of the Katrina fiasco, contributed to the slow federal response. What makes this example so astonishing is that just three days earlier, the Post reported that a “Republican who has been in contact with several officials” said the White House's slow response was due to the fact that many high-level officials and aides - including Vice President Dick Cheney -- were vacationing.

Apparently, when Harry Reid offers exactly the same criticism of the White House that Republicans have been leveling, it suddenly counts as “strident” to Washington Post reporters and editors. But perhaps we shouldn't be so surprised; after all, this is the same article that suggested that Hillary Rodham Clinton -- senator, former First Lady, member of the Senate Democratic leadership, prime-time speaker at four consecutive Democratic National Conventions, 2003's most admired woman in America -- is taking advantage of Katrina in a desperate bid to “emerge as a national spokeswoman for the Democratic Party.”

The Post, along with The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and others also mischaracterized recent comments by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi by reporting her description of Bush as “oblivious” and “dangerous,” but omitting her report of their exchange or any indication of what had prompted her assessment, as Media Matters has noted. Pelosi's full account of her meeting with Bush demonstrates that she wasn't simply calling Bush names, as articles in the Times and Post and elsewhere seem to suggest. Instead, she was assessing his comments about and attitude towards FEMA's handling of Katrina:

PELOSI: When I said to the president that he should fire [Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director] Michael Brown, he said, “Why would I do that?” I said, “Because of all that went wrong, with all that didn't go right last week.” And he said, “What didn't go right?” Oblivious, in denial, dangerous.

Pelosi's comments get clipped and cropped in an effort to portray her as “strident” ; Reid gets characterized the same way when he offers the same criticism of the White House that has been made by Republicans ... and yet, nearly a week after The Washington Post printed false attacks on Blanco by Bush aides, the paper still hasn't told its readers what the White House is up to. Instead, it pretends that Democrats are leveling inappropriate criticism.

Media gives Bush credit he doesn't deserve, ignores blame he has earned

While poll after poll shows that the American people think Bush and the federal government have botched their handling of Katrina, conservative pundits have been busy giving Bush credit for things he didn't do, perhaps in hopes of preventing him from being held accountable for the things he did do.

According to Fox News' Brit Hume and Brian Wilson and conservative columnists Linda Chavez and Deroy Murdock, Bush talked Blanco into ordering an evacuation of New Orleans, a dubious claim that has gained little traction elsewhere.

While conservative pundits were giving Bush credit he didn't earn, much of the media was ignoring serious questions about whether he actually hindered relief efforts. The Associated Press and the New Orleans Times-Picayune have run reports that suggest that President Bush's September 2 visit to New Orleans slowed relief efforts, as delivery of needed food and supplies was slowed or even stalled to accommodate Bush's photo ops. Yet these alleged delays went largely unreported; a Media Matters review of national newspapers and broadcast news reports in the days following Bush's visit found that “aside from the AP, no other major news outlet reported the claims regarding the effect of Bush's visit on the Hurricane Katrina relief effort.”

Where's the media outrage over this potential infringement on freedom of the press?

A Reuters article and an online posting by NBC News anchor Brian Williams suggest that FEMA may be trying to prevent journalists from freely reporting on the aftermath of Hurrican Katrina, including apparent efforts to stop news outlets from photographing dead bodies. But, as Media Matters has noted, these heavy-handed attempts to prevent journalists from doing their jobs has drawn little media attention.

Such quiet acquiescence with restrictions on journalists' ability to freely do their job is surprising. Take, for example, The New York Times, a paper that repeatedly editorialized against the jailing of Times reporter Judith Miller, who has disobeyed a federal judge's orders to testify in the Valerie Plame leak investigation. Miller has chosen to go to jail in order to protect her source, who may have broken the law and endangered Plame's life. The Times considers this a gross assault on the freedom of the press, as several editorials have made clear. A sampling:

7/13/05: “Our colleague Judith Miller, unjustly jailed for protecting the identity of confidential sources, was right to view these so-called waivers as meaningless.”

8/8/05: “By keeping Ms. Miller in jail, the United States is sending a signal to the rest of the world that it is O.K. to go after journalists as long as you invoke national security. That's not a good message to send.”

8/15/05: “It's time for the judge and the prosecutor to let Ms. Miller go.”

8/29/05: “it becomes more apparent that having her in jail is an embarrassment to a country that is supposed to be revered around the world for its freedoms, especially its First Amendment that provides freedom of the press.”

So where is the Times editorial denouncing government attempts to keep reporters from doing their jobs in New Orleans? Does freedom of the press matter to the Times only when one of its reporters is in jail? Or only when that freedom may be used to protect the Bush administration?

“Bipartisan” ? You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means

On September 8, CNN correspondent Sumi Das told viewers the same day that “the House and Senate have formed a bipartisan committee to investigate” the government's response to Hurricane Katrina.

Likewise, NBC correspondent Ron Blome appeared on MSNBC to announce that “The vice president also, in answering questions, said he was in favor of that Republican bipartisan suggestion to have a joint House-Senate investigation, the one the Democrats don't like.”

Los Angeles Times readers learned that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) “said he and Republican House Majority Leader J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) had settled on a bipartisan panel of senior congressional leaders to 'do all we can to learn from this tragedy.' The inquiry is to be completed by Feb. 15.”

And on Fox, Brit Hume told viewers “Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill are refusing to participate in a bipartisan investigation into the response to Hurricane Katrina, as proposed by Republicans who control both House and Senate.”

And, under the headline "Bipartisan Inquiry Proposed; Bush Seeks Billions More in Aid," the New York Times reported that “Republican Congressional leaders on Wednesday announced a joint House-Senate inquiry into failures surrounding the response to Hurricane Katrina.”

But, as the New York Times reported in the same article, “Congressional Democrats, who were not involved in putting the joint inquiry together, quickly expressed skepticism about the panel's credibility.”

Democrats were not consulted on the formation of the committee -- and yet the nation's leading news organizations described it as “bipartisan.” The Times, at least, saw the error of its ways and issued the following correction:

A headline with an article yesterday about action by Congress in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina referred incorrectly to an investigation into failures surrounding the government response. The investigation will be bicameral, but its political composition has not been determined and Democrats were not involved in putting the panel together.

Hopefully, the Times and others will learn a lesson from this: “Bipartisan” investigations, like wedding announcements, are best announced with the consent and involvement of both parties.

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