“Media Matters,” week ending May 13, 2005; by Jamison Foser

Nearly two weeks after the British Sunday Times disclosed a secret British intelligence memo that suggests that the Bush administration manipulated intelligence to support its desire to wage war in Iraq -- and a week after Media Matters noted that the memo has been largely ignored by the U.S. media -- some news outlets are finally starting to take notice.

Week ending May 13, 2005

This week:

Media finally begins to notice British intelligence memo

CNN's president defends “Runaway Bride” coverage

Meet the Press provided forum for Matalin's misinformation

MRC “studies” reveal more about MRC than about media

Media finally begins to notice British intelligence memo

Nearly two weeks after the British Sunday Times disclosed a secret British intelligence memo that suggests that the Bush administration manipulated intelligence to support its desire to wage war in Iraq -- and a week after Media Matters noted that the memo has been largely ignored by the U.S. media -- some news outlets are finally starting to take notice.

The Washington Post ran an article about the memo on page A18 of its May 13 edition, five days after Post ombudsman Michael Getler noted that readers had complained about the lack of coverage. Oddly, Getler didn't take a position on the paper's decision not to cover the memo to that point.

CNN.com ran a May 12 article that detailed the memo's contents and noted that 89 members of Congress have sent President Bush a letter about it. There is nothing -- absolutely nothing -- in the CNN.com article that couldn't have been written nearly a week earlier. The Sunday Times ran its article on May 1; the members of Congress released their letter on May 6; Media Matters told readers about it the same day. But people who get their news from CNN.com didn't find out about it until May 11.

Still, CNN.com readers are better off than CNN viewers. Since last week, when we noted the network's failure to give the matter more than a passing mention, and wrote that “it's a dark day when CNN's 'witheringly bad' and 'excruciatingly empty' blog segment actually does a better job of covering the news than the rest of the network," CNN has mentioned the memo only twice more -- one of them coming in another “Inside the Blogs” segment on May 12:

ABBI TATTON (CNN political producer): We mentioned before a secret British memo that came out on May 1st in a London newspaper suggesting that the Bush administration was preparing for military action in Iraq in the summer of 2002. Now liberal bloggers have been picking up on this, saying why isn't there more coverage of this in the United States? One of them is Congressman John Conyers, a Democrat of Michigan, who is one of 89 congressman who sent a letter to George Bush asking for an explanation. He's been blogging about this at his blog, ConyersBlog.us, following the coverage, seeing how much it's getting there. What he said yesterday: “Are we nearing the tipping point on the smoking gun Downing Street memo?” We'll be seeing what more he has on that.

There's something seriously wrong with a cable “news” network that virtually ignores a secret intelligence memo that suggests the Bush administration deliberately manipulated intelligence in order to support its policies; virtually ignores a letter signed by 89 members of Congress demanding an explanation -- but covers the fact that one of those congressmen writes about it on his blog. CNN's Wolf Blitzer, who boasts nightly that he brings his viewers “hard news,” hasn't covered the memo; at CNN, such news is left to “Inside the Blogs.”

Well, not just “Inside the Blogs” : as we said, CNN mentioned the memo twice in the last week. The other mention? The dozens of CNN viewers who were watching at 9 a.m. Eastern time on Saturday, May 7, saw the following report by anchor Tony Harris:

Now, to a letter addressed to President Bush and signed by 90 Democrats in Congress. The lawmakers are asking Mr. Bush to respond to a London tabloid report. It claims the president coordinated military action in Iraq months before Congress actually authorized the action. The report cites confidential accounts of a meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who reportedly committed his country to supporting a U.S.-led war.

The Democrats' letter to President Bush alleges in part, quoting now: “If the disclosure is accurate, it raises troubling new questions regarding the legal justifications for the war as well as the integrity of your own administration.”

Harris would have been hard-pressed to downplay the memo more than he did. There was no mention of the most explosive suggestion in the memo: that the Bush administration manipulated intelligence to fit its agenda. Still, Harris's report was better than nothing, which is what most media outlets (we're looking at you, New York Times) have done with this story.

We'll give Conyers the last word for now:

On talk radio today, and on the Internet, there is a palpable frustration about the lack of mainstream media (or as many appropriately call it, “corporate media” ) coverage of the secret Downing Street memo. I share this frustration. In my view, it is inexcusable that the cable news networks and the major newspapers have failed thus far to give this story the attention it deserves. At its core, the disclosure represents a vindication of the assertions of all of us who opposed the war, and truth-telling former Administration officials who were smeared for daring to provide the public the information it is entitled to. More importantly, it shows an Administration that appears to have lied to the American people and their elected representatives, while simultaneously telling the truth to the representatives of the British people, about the most grave matter for any nation -- the decision to go to war.

CNN's president defends “Runaway Bride” coverage

Last week, we noted that while CNN paid no attention to little things like secret intelligence memos about the Bush administration's manipulation of intelligence, it has plenty of time for “news” about the so-called “Runaway Bride” and “American Idol.”

CNN president Jonathan Klein defended the network's coverage of those stories in an interview with Brooke Gladstone on the May 6 edition of National Public Radio's On the Media:

GLADSTONE: Well, let's talk about the other end of that gamut then. Let's talk about Monday, May 2nd. CNN Daybreak -- the rundown had “Runaway Bride.” American Morning -- “Runaway Bride Could Face Criminal Charges.” Live from CNN -- “Runaway Bride Back Home.” Crossfire -- “Should Runaway Bride Faces Charges?” Anderson Cooper, Paula Zahn, Larry King, Aaron Brown -- all of them devoted at least part of their program to Jennifer Wilbanks, the runaway bride, and Jonathan, I have to ask you -- does this fit into the roll-up-your-sleeves storytelling that you have in mind?

KLEIN: Well, sure. I mean, The New York Times covered the runaway bride too, and I'm sure I heard a story about it on NPR.


GLADSTONE: -- is the lesson here that cable news simply operates at a level of inertia and entropy that no one can change, that you throw blanket coverage at a story that really doesn't merit it?

KLEIN: No. If you were listening to me, Brooke, you would have heard me say that on some days, that story that we decide to focus on will be the runaway bride. On other days, the story will be the spread of democracy in Lebanon. We looked around. We didn't see any other network anchor in Lebanon. And then we went to Syria. And we didn't find any network anchor there, either. Now, you could criticize us for covering that story too heavily as well.

GLADSTONE: But are you saying that CNN's coverage of the runaway bride was an appropriate amount of coverage?

KLEIN: Oh, for sure. It was a fascinating story that left a lot of questions unanswered -- what drove her to this? Is this a crime?


GLADSTONE: It seems to me that, for the purposes of our discussion, you keep equating stories like Lebanon, which need no justification, with a weird little blip of a story like the runaway bride, which actually does need some justification.

KLEIN: Well, and yet, that's possibly a pretty elitist thing to say, because I don't know that you can say that one story needs justification, one doesn't. Who are you to argue with “the people” who flock to watch one story and not the other? The reason that I keep bringing up Lebanon and Syria is because our coverage of those stories and the tsunami and the Iraq election are as indicative of the kind of work in journalism that CNN ought to be known for as one day in which we covered the runaway bride. I mean, I'm sorry that you didn't like it -- [laughter] but if you like the rest of what we've done for the last five months, then I feel OK, because I think over time we prove out and are getting even better at being worth the attention of our audience. And yeah, sometimes I'll disagree with it. Sometimes you personally will disagree with it, Brooke. But, you know, maybe you need to get more in sync with what viewers out there [laughter] want to know about.

While Klein kept referring to other stories CNN covered, such as Lebanon and Syria, he missed the real problem with the network's wall-to-wall coverage of a woman's trip to Las Vegas: the stories CNN didn't cover, like the British intelligence memo.

Likewise, the extensive CNN resources dedicated to covering Wilbanks' Vegas vacation might have been better used trying to figure out how to describe Al Qaeda operative Abu Faraj al-Libbi. As Media Matters explained, many news outlets have simply followed the Bush adminstration's lead in asserting that al-Libbi was among Al Qaeda's top leaders despite evidence that Bush officials may be engaging in, in the words of one analyst quoted in the Los Angeles Times, “grade inflation.” Media Matters noted CNN's internal inconsistency on the matter:

CNN published a May 10 column on its website by senior producer Henry Shuster that discussed questions about al-Libbi's status. But CNN's television coverage on May 10 and 11 continued to refer to al-Libbi as Al Qaeda's “operations man,” or “the terror suspect described as Al Qaeda's third in command.” A Nexis search produced no instances of CNN reporting on the dispute over al-Libbi's disputed status since his capture. CNN did note al-Libbi's questionable status prior to his capture, however. Justice correspondent Kelli Arena reported on the September 10, 2004, edition of Lou Dobbs Tonight:

ARENA: Intelligence officials say there is evidence Osama bin Laden is still involved in planning, but beyond that, the new command structure is unclear. For example, Pakistani officials are currently searching for Abu Faraj al-Libbi, who is described as an operational planner. Some say he is among the most of the senior operatives. Others aren't so sure. Even more complicated: untangling the web of affiliates.

Meet the Press provided forum for Matalin's misinformation

Appearing on NBC's Meet the Press, Republican strategist Mary Matalin distorted the truth beyond all recognition in an attempt to discredit opposition to President Bush's controversial nominees. Media Matters explained:

Appearing on the May 8 edition of NBC's Meet the Press, Matalin falsely claimed that "[w]e have a docket problem" because of “a legislative filibuster used for the purposes of stopping nominees” and that the “people who're coming out of the woodwork” to criticize John R. Bolton, Bush's nominee to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, “are avowed, outspoken Bush bashers.”

In fact, the number of current judicial vacancies is significantly lower than at the end of the Clinton administration. Moreover, Bush has yet to nominate candidates to fill most of the available positions, while the officials who have “com[e] out of the woodwork” to criticize Bolton include many conservative and politically unaligned Bush administration officials.

The University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Political Fact Check pointed out that most of the current vacant federal judgeships “are vacant because Bush has not yet named anyone to fill them” and that there were “lots more vacant courtrooms when Republicans resisted confirming some of Bill Clinton's nominees”

Assessing Matalin's ability to lie, unchecked and uncorrected by her host, CJR Daily argued that the problem isn't Matalin, it's the “talk shows eager to roll out the red carpet” for her dissembling:

Why, jaded readers might wonder, does this particular abomination so exercise us? After all, there are any number of talking heads out there willing to lie and spin with reckless abandon and then exhibit righteous indignation toward anyone who expresses disagreement -- and any number of talk shows eager to roll out the red carpet for same.

But Matalin, and “Meet the Press” itself, deserve to be singled out because they are thought to represent the best of political dialogue: a respected political operative who has worked in high places being grilled on the most revered political talk show in America. If anyone still thinks that the carnival barkers are confined to cable shoutfests while serious political dialogue endures elsewhere, last weekend's display should be enough to put that fleeting hope to rest once and for all.

MRC “studies” reveal more about MRC than about media

Media Matters examined two recent Media Research Center (MRC) “studies” that purport to demonstrate a “liberal bias” in the media:

Two recent “studies” by the Media Research Center, a conservative media watchdog group, shine a bright light on the questionable techniques and absurd assumptions that guide the MRC's attempts to “prove” its claim that “liberal bias” is rampant in the U.S. news media. Looking through a funhouse mirror that renders everything -- even the facts themselves -- as manifestations of insidious bias, the MRC had no trouble finding what it was looking for.

Of one MRC study, Media Matters noted:

The basic premise of this “study” -- that if there are more mentions of the word “conservative” than the word “liberal” in a given period, then the news must be “biased” against conservatives -- is so ridiculous that a fourth-grader could pierce its logic.

If precisely the same number of actual conservatives and liberals had been discussed in the news, and conservatives had been identified as such while liberals hadn't, the MRC might have a legitimate gripe (though even this criticism would presume, as the MRC seems to, that “conservative” and “liberal” are inherently derogatory terms). But the real reason there are more mentions of “conservatives” than “liberals” is obvious: there has been more news about conservatives. In the wake of the Republican electoral victories, conservatives both in and out of government are wielding influence and getting more attention. One can't help suspecting that if the results of the MRC's Nexis searches had turned out the opposite of what they did, the MRC would be alleging that the greater repetitions of the word “liberal” showed that conservatives were outnumbered in the media.

Indeed, as Media Matters for America has documented, the news media have granted conservatives more opportunities than liberals to speak in a wide variety of network news forums. On NBC, Meet the Press consistently features imbalanced panels that favor conservatives; interviews on the Today show in April featured three times as many conservatives as liberals; and 19 Chris Matthews Show panels skewed right in 2004, while only 7 skewed left. In the 15 weeks following the 2004 presidential election, the CBS Evening News featured 65 clips of Democratic officials or commentators representing progressive organizations and 83 clips of Republican officials or commentators representing conservative organizations, not including President Bush; and on January 19, CBS anchor Bob Schieffer acknowledged that CBS' Face the Nation hosted more Republican than Democrat guests since the presidential election. Media Matters has noted imbalances in cable news coverage of political events as well, including the 2004 presidential debates and the inauguration.

As an example of the media's supposed tendency to label conservatives but not liberals, MRC complained:

“On the April 26 Today, Katie Couric introduced a debate segment by branding just one side: 'Dee Dee Myers was President Clinton's first White House press secretary, and Tucker Carlson is a conservative commentator and host for MSNBC.' Were we supposed to believe Myers is non-ideological?”

If MRC is counting Couric's “failure” to identify Myers as a “liberal,” we wonder if MRC counted every time President Bush or Vice President Cheney was referred to by the news media without being labeled as a “conservative” ? It would seem absurd to count that as a failure to identify ideological leaning -- yet it would be inconsistent not to, making the “study” fatally flawed.

We say we “wonder” about how MRC deals with these issues because the group didn't make its complete findings public. Instead, MRC just announced its conclusion -- “Since Election Day, network reporters branded politicians or groups as 'conservative' 395 times, compared to 59 'liberal' labels” -- and asks you to trust them. Who was labeled “conservative” ? Who wasn't, but should have been? Who was labeled “liberal” ? Who wasn't, but should have been? MRC doesn't tell you; it just hopes you'll trust it.

Right-wing “studies” like MRC's recent effort on labeling have been an instrumental part of conservatives' efforts to influence the media -- and public opinion about the media -- over the years. But it's all a shell game: phony premises, faulty judgment calls, and a consistent refusal to provide full details.

By contrast, when Media Matters addresses issues of balance like these, we show our work. Take, for example, our February tally of progressives and conservatives featured on the CBS Evening News. Readers don't have to wonder what our methodology was or what judgments we made; we showed them. We revealed the data and the subjective decisions we made about it. Readers can see who we decided was a progressive and who was a conservative. If they disagree with our judgment, they can take that into account.

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