“Media Matters,” week ending January 14, 2005; by Jamison Foser

Quote of the week: “I'm getting a little fed up with hearing about, oh, civilian casualties. I think we ought to nuke North Korea right now just to give the rest of the world a warning.” -- Ann Coulter

Week ending January 14, 2005

Quote of the week:

“I'm getting a little fed up with hearing about, oh, civilian casualties. I think we ought to nuke North Korea right now just to give the rest of the world a warning.”
-- Ann Coulter

This week:

Social Security battle heats up; conservative misinformation dominates coverage

One-sided “tort reform” coverage misleads readers

Bush administration propaganda efforts come under increased scrutiny

CBS employees lost their jobs; is Judith Miller next?

Social Security battle heats up; conservative misinformation dominates coverage

As the battle over Republican efforts to privatize Social Security heats up (a conservative organization began running pro-privatization television ads featuring footage of former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a campaign his grandson denounced), reporting on the topic has continued to disappoint.

ABC's Good Morning America featured a discussion between ABC senior national correspondent Claire Shipman and Michael Tanner, a principal Social Security privatization advocate and Cato Institute director of health and welfare studies. ABC did not balance Tanner with a guest opposed to privatization, and Shipman treated him as an impartial expert rather than an interested party. Unsurprisingly, as Media Matters detailed, the Shipman-Tanner segment grossly misled viewers and distorted the possible impact of privatization on future retiree benefits.

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) noted an NBC broadcast that ignored privatization critics while presenting a conservative activist as an impartial “analyst” :

On the January 11 NBC Nightly News broadcast, anchor Brian Williams seemed to be addressing that issue, introducing a segment by noting that “critics say he's exaggerating the problem to sell his plan, while not yet talking about big cuts in future retiree benefits.”

But the report that followed included no such critics of the administration's “crisis” rhetoric.


NBC did include comments from one worker who was worried about future benefit cuts in Social Security. His fears were balanced by a soundbite from David John, billed by NBC as a “Social Security Analyst” and one of the “supporters of the benefit cut.” Left unmentioned, however, was Johns' institutional affiliation: He works for the conservative Heritage Foundation, one of the most active pro-privatization think tanks in the country.

Columbia Journalism Review's CJR Daily echoed a frequent Media Matters complaint, criticizing New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller for presenting a disagreement about Social Security's future as a simple difference of opinion rather than a matter of fact:

Bumiller handles these uncomfortable facts deeper in the story, writing, “Even without changes, Mr. Bush's critics say, the system would be able to pay three-quarters of promised benefits four decades from now, when baby boomers have long retired.” (Italics added [by CJR Daily].)

As we just pointed out, the system will be able to pay three-quarters of promised benefits four decades from now. This is fact, not conjecture, and not tenuous political rhetoric. But instead of laying it out as fact, Bumiller hides behind the coattails of “Mr. Bush's critics.”

Here, we call it “reportorial authority,” and it doesn't require finding unnamed “critics” to hide behind. In this case, it requires nothing more than going to nonpartisan sources like the CBO, or Social Security's actuaries, to ascertain the veracity of a provocative statement uttered by a partisan.

As the Daily Howler's Bob Somerby explained:

Correcting misstatements by major officials is part of a journalist's job description! And they shouldn't feel they have to find a Democratic spokesman to contradict Bush; that is their job as reporters. As we think Michael Kinsley first asked, how stupid would it be to write something like this: “Today, George Bush said the earth is flat. A Democratic spokesman quickly challenged him.” Objective reporters don't need third parties to interject simple matters of fact.

One-sided “tort reform” coverage misleads readers

While the Bush administration's push to privatize Social Security is getting the bulk of the attention, conservative efforts to limit lawsuits are gaining increasing momentum -- and are increasingly the subject of misleading and one-sided news reports.

Earlier this week, Media Matters noted a Sebastian Mallaby column in The Washington Post that relied heavily on a deeply flawed study to make the case for “tort reform.”

The New York Times joined the fray on January 12, offering an article about efforts at the state level to limit civil litigation. Unfortunately, in reporter James Dao's 1,100-plus word article, only three sentences detailed the reasons to oppose such efforts. That imbalance was unfortunately representative of the whole article. While the article contained quotes from three advocates of lawsuit limits, it contained a quote from only one opponent -- and that was in the last sentence. On several occasions, the article repeated as fact claims from those who support limiting lawsuits -- but failed to provide specifics. For example:

But in most of the states, soaring malpractice premiums have been the driving force for the campaigns - in part because compelling stories about doctors and their patients have put human faces on the larger issue. In some regions, soaring premiums have led doctors to strike, stop delivering vital services and even quit.

But the Times provided neither examples of doctors who quit or refused to deliver vital services, nor statistics or data to demonstrate how widespread the “problem” is. Has this happened three times, or three million? What question could be more important than that? Why doesn't the Times even attempt to answer it?

The article noted that an American Insurance Association (AIA) official said “many doctors practiced 'defensive medicine' involving unnecessary but costly procedures to avoid lawsuits.” But the Times didn't bother to look into the AIA's claims, or what the official meant by “many doctors.” Rather than taking the AIA's claims at face value, the Times might have done some research, which would have revealed that, as FactCheck.org has noted, the Government Accountability Office and Congressional Budget Office have dismissed such claims about defensive medicine as inconclusive.

In the 17th paragraph, the article finally listed a reason why some people oppose limits on lawsuit: “Trial lawyers say that personal injury litigation represents a relatively small part of rising insurance costs.” That is presumably a verifiable or refutable fact, but the Times chose to include it simply as a statement of opinion.

More troubling, the Times article failed to address larger questions: Why should anyone, besides the doctors who pay them, care about rising malpractice premiums? One reason might be that, as the article suggests, doctors are responding to rising premiums by retiring or refusing to provide certain services. But Dao and the Times made no effort to quantify this, leaving readers in the dark about whether this is a real problem.

Non-doctors might also care about malpractice premiums if those premiums constitute a significant portion of overall health care costs. If limiting lawsuits will lead to reduced malpractice premiums, in turn leading to lower health care costs, that could be a good reason to support limits on lawsuits. Indeed, this is a central argument of “tort reform” advocates and a basic part of the growing debate. But the Times ducks the question entirely. Had the Times addressed this matter, readers might know that -- as Media Matters has repeatedly noted -- the Congressional Budget Office has said that malpractice premiums have a minimal impact on overall health care costs.

That's the kind of context the Times should be giving its readers: How many doctors are refusing to provide treatment out of fear of malpractice suits? How much does malpractice insurance contribute to overall health care costs? Those are the questions that responsible reporting about efforts to limit malpractice lawsuits should attempt to answer.

Bush administration propaganda efforts come under increased scrutiny

The controversy over the Bush administration's use of secret government-funded propaganda to promote its policy positions raged on this week, amid new disclosures about payments to Armstrong Williams and for fake television “news reports.”

Williams has tried to justify his secret payments from the Bush administration by claiming that he merely took money to advocate policies he supported anyway. But Media Matters revealed this week that Williams's excuse, dubious even if true, is contradicted by his criticism of No Child Left Behind in 2001 -- more than two years before he took payments to promote it.

Also this week, a member of the Federal Communications Commission said the agency should investigate whether Williams broke the law by failing to disclose the $240,000 he took to promote Bush administration policy. And United States Senators Harry Reid (D-NV) and Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) wrote to President Bush urging Williams's removal from the President's Commission on White House Fellowships.

Meanwhile, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) has filed a series of Freedom of Information Act requests (FOIAs) with 22 government agencies, seeking records of contracts with public relations firms, in an effort to determine whether there are additional examples of the Bush administration secretly financing covert propaganda:

CREW has now filed FOIAs with 22 agencies requesting copies of all contracts with public relation firms, including Ketchum and Fleishman-Hillard. Both firms have contracted with the government resulting in similar controversies, and in violation of the Publicity and Propaganda clause. The Williams case is the fourth that has become public. Previously, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) criticized the Department of Health and Human Services for having Ketchum create fake news footage in support of the new Medicare Bill. GAO is also investigating another contract between Ketchum and DOE and a contract between the Office of National Drug Control Policy and Fleischman-Hillard [sic].

“This type of covert propaganda, [sic] has no place in a healthy democracy,” Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW said today. “It is particularly outrageous that the government continues to engage in this sort of illegal activity despite the fact that the GAO has said that it is illegal.”

Sloan continued, “The question now is how extensively has the Administration used propaganda to shore up its controversial policies? Did it pay any commentators to speak out in support of the Patriot Act? Is it paying anyone now to convince the public that Social Security is in crisis? By filing these FOIAS, we hope to answer these questions.”

CBS employees lost their jobs; is Judith Miller next?

CBS released a report this week on its controversial use of four disputed documents about Bush's National Guard record, announcing that they had fired or asked for the resignations of four staffers. As Media Matters has noted, the report did not in any way exonerate Bush; nor does it contradict the documented evidence that Bush skipped a required physical; was grounded from flying; and received a questionable honorable discharge that he may not have earned.

The firestorm over the CBS report illustrates a double standard regarding media mistakes. CBS has been roundly criticized, and employees have lost their jobs, over a report that used documents that may not have been real. Last year, The New York Times ran at least five articles and columns that used a “quote” from Senator John Kerry that was definitely not real. Nobody lost their job -- or even, so far as we know, was even reprimanded.

As Somerby has explained:

We finally have the full information. Yes, [New York Times columnist] Maureen Dowd invented that fake NASCAR quote-the comical “quote” from pretentious old Kerry (see The Daily Howler, 9/21/04). And once Dowd invented the phony quotation, it spread through the great New York Times. It was repeated by [John] Tierney; repeated by [Sheryl Gay] Stolberg; repeated by [Timothy] Egan; repeated by [Frank] Rich-and Kerry was mocked for his pompous (fake) statement every single time that they did it. Five separate times in the past several months, Kerry was mocked in the Times for his comment. And oh yes, let's repeat this-the “quotation” in question was phony. Kerry never made the statement in question. Maureen Dowd simply made the “quote” up.

In 2000, The Washington Post and The New York Times both published a “quote” attributed to former Vice President Al Gore about Love Canal that definitely wasn't real, and resulted in him being widely criticized. Nobody lost their job, and nobody was reprimanded, so far as we know. As Columbia Journalism Review noted:

In the Love Canal flap, The Washington Post and The New York Times both misquoted Gore as saying at a high-school appearance in New Hampshire in November, “I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal . . . I was the one that started it all.” In fact, what Gore had said was, “That was the one that started it all.” He made his remarks in the context of telling the high-school students about another high-school student, in Toone, Tennessee, who had alerted his congressional staff to problems with toxic waste. Both newspapers eventually ran corrections -- but not until the damage had been done.

Other examples abound: Neither The Washington Post's Susan Schmidt, nor The New York Times' Jeff Gerth, nor anyone else at the Post, the Times, the Wall Street Journal, or elsewhere lost their jobs over years of flawed reporting about Whitewater. And, of course, The New York Times still employs Judith Miller and others, despite their deeply flawed reporting in the lead-up to the United States' 2003 invasion of Iraq.

As FAIR wrote this week:

The claims that this controversy proves that CBS, or the media as a whole, have a liberal or anti-Bush bias, are ludicrous. When CBS staffers got caught taking shortcuts on a story critical of Bush, it cost them their careers. By contrast, other reporters have received much less scrutiny and punishment for offenses of far greater magnitude-- and with much more significant consequences to society. The New York Times, for example, published numerous allegations about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that turned out to be false-- such as one source's claim that “all of Iraq is one large storage facility” for WMD. Those stories, many of which were splashed on the paper's front page, did a great deal to sell the White House's bogus case for war against Iraq.

While the Times has admitted that some of its WMD reporting was “insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged,” the reporter most responsible for those stories, Judith Miller, was never sanctioned by the Times-- and indeed still continues to report on Iraq for the paper. Ironically, after MSNBC's Hardball finished its discussion of CBS and journalistic responsibility on January 10, the show turned to a discussion of Iraq featuring... Judith Miller.

The lesson of “Memogate,” then, is that journalists may be punished for bad reporting-- if they have offended the wrong people. If they have merely helped steer the country into war under false pretenses, their careers can continue unimpeded.

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