“Media Matters,” week ending November 12; by Jamison Foser

Last week, Media Matters noted the Top Ten media failings in 2004. While we at Media Matters for America don't intend to spend too much more time dwelling on the past, we do want to take time this week to highlight several excellent commentaries on the media that have recently been written by others. Excerpts from some noteworthy analyses appear below, along with links to the full text -- which, in every case, is worth reading.

Week ending November 12, 2004
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Last week, Media Matters noted the Top Ten media failings in 2004. While we at Media Matters for America don't intend to spend too much more time dwelling on the past, we do want to take time this week to highlight several excellent commentaries on the media that have recently been written by others. Excerpts from some noteworthy analyses appear below, along with links to the full text -- which, in every case, is worth reading.

Salon.com's Eric Boehlert wrote that the media's “now familiar deference toward [President George W.] Bush” continues, post-election:

The press's timidity toward the Bush White House is nothing new, and for the trend to continue after his victory is not that surprising. But it was hard not to be slightly taken aback while watching CNN's “Wolf Blitzer Reports” on Nov. 4, when it aired a segment about Bush's controversial call to privatize portions of Social Security savings. Only two experts were interviewed on camera -- one from the conservative American Enterprise Institute and one from the very conservative Heritage Foundation. Both enthusiastically supported Bush's unprecedented plan to move some retirement money into private investment funds.

The Nation's Washington editor, David Corn, offered a lesson for the White House press corps, inserting into the text of a transcript of Bush's recent press conference questions that a critical and aggressive media would ask of the Bush administration. A highlight:

Can you please define the enemy, Mr. President? Is it al Qaeda? Is it Ba'athist remnants in Iraq? Or insurgents who oppose the US presence there? Are we at war with anyone who uses terrorists [sic] methods anywhere? And can you tell us what you have done recently to defeat al Qaeda? During the campaign you said that you have captured or killed 75 percent of the al Qaeda leadership. But The Washington Post uncovered classified information showing that this was an exaggeration and that the US has neutralized no more than half of the top 30 al Qaeda targets. Can you explain your use of the 75 percent figure?

The nonpartisan Columbia Journalism Review's Campaign Desk website took the media to task for its “ineptness” in “pass[ing] along falsehoods” about Senator John Kerry's Vietnam record:

The same ineptness carried over to coverage of Kerry's military service after the senator promised to release all of his military records in April, and again when the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth unleashed its factually questionable campaign against the Democratic nominee. Most of the charges leveled by the SBVFT were unfounded and could be dismissed with an afternoon's read of available Navy documents. Yet, for months, until the end of August, campaign reporters unquestioningly passed along falsehoods, including the charge that Kerry's wounds were not severe enough to warrant a Purple Heart (severity of injury is not a consideration in the awarding of Purple Hearts).

In late August, thanks in no small part to Sen. Kerry's own belated offensive against the SBVFT, the press did its best to insert fact back into the record, but as poll after poll showed, it was too late.

Campaign Desk also denounced the media's tendency to draw false equivalence between disparate events (a common complaint of MMFA's, too):

As the election year accelerated and campaign rhetoric grew more heated, reporters found themselves in a bind. Clinging to a constrictive notion of objectivity, and looking apprehensively over their shoulders for angry charges of bias from partisan readers, they often resorted to a technique known in journalistic circles as “false equivalence.”

Along with failing to fact-check competing claims, false equivalence belongs in the trash heap of discredited journalistic shortcuts, but in the final weeks of the election campaign reporters began relying on the practice as a protective shield. In its most common form, it amounts to a reporter holding up actions on both sides as equally blameworthy, when it's clear that no such equivalence exists.

Joe Strupp, senior editor of the magazine Editor & Publisher, wrote that reporters “have to demand closer scrutiny of a supposedly 'straight-talking' president who offers little respect for the public's right to know” :

So now that George W. Bush has been re-elected, all eyes are on what he plans to do in his next term. But those who cover the president's second act should also be closely watched, if the past four years of White House press coverage are any indication.

It would help, for starters, if the president would hold more news conferences.

His day-after gathering with reporters last Thursday was only his 15th full press conference since taking office nearly four years ago. That is the fewest number of solo press conferences during a first term by any president since 1913, according to a study released earlier this year by Presidential Studies Quarterly.

FDR had more than 300 during his first term, while Harry Truman had 157 and Bush's father had 83 press conferences during his lone four-year stint.

[...]

Now I realize reporters and editors cannot determine how many press events the president will agree to hold. But, they can put the pressure on for more, as well as for increased access and on-the-record briefings.

In the run-up to the Iraq war, reporters were noticeably timid with tough questions about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and proven Saddam links to al-Qaeda. Spotty coverage eventually led The New York Times and The Washington Post to offer self-criticisms earlier this year. The press also failed to extract day-to-day information from the most secretive administration since Nixon's.

[...]

Bush was uncooperative enough with the press when his 2000 victory was questionable, but with a majority win, don't expect him or his people to be any more forthcoming.

That means reporters, editors, and publishers (many of whom count the president as their friend), have to demand closer scrutiny of a supposedly “straight-talking” president who offers little respect for the public's right to know. Newspapers need to take an even stronger role as watchdogs.

Investigative journalist and author Seymour M. Hersh agreed with the many complaints that the media has too often taken Bush's comments “at face value” :

[T]he major media have been part of the problem since 9-11, merely because they have far too often taken the president's public utterances at face value. [T]here also is a terrific unwillingness, perhaps understandable (tho [sic] not by me), to make a moral judgment about a president's policies.

Columbia University journalism and sociology professor Todd Gitlin wrote in Mother Jones that the media's problems aren't new:

IT IS NOT TOO MUCH TO SAY that the press has let the public down on every one of the big life-and-death stories of our time. Begin with those unforgettable 35 days in Florida in 2000, when reporters let Republicans get away with their chosen story line: [George W.] Bush was the presumptive victor and [former Vice President Al] Gore was trying to deprive him of his due. NBC's Tim Russert again and again suggested that Gore be the statesmanlike gent and bow out. Never once did I see a network bigfoot suggest that Bush do the graceful thing and step aside. Bush was cast as president-in-waiting, Gore as the interfering usurper.

Then, from the moment George [W.] Bush walked into the White House, he was excused from serious scrutiny. It would have seemed invasive, ungenerous, downright mean to inquire too forcefully of a chief executive so, well, unchieflike. Anyway, this White House was known to slam the door on overly feisty reporters.

In a remarkable piece three months into Bush's term, John F. Harris of the Washington Post wrote that Bush “has done things with relative impunity that would have been huge uproars if they had occurred under [former President Bill] Clinton. Take it from someone who made a living writing about those uproars.... Do you suppose there would have been an uproar under Clinton if Democrats had been rewarding donors with special closed-door briefings by Cabinet secretaries? GOP donors received just such a briefing with Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson as thanks for their efforts. Far from an uproar, the story has had only a faint echo. Clinton's 'donor maintenance' coffees led to a year of congressional inquiries.”

Robert W. McChesney -- founder, president, and board chairman of Free Press -- blamed media consolidation for the fact that the media “all but abandoned” its responsibility to provide “a balanced inspection of all claims, careful fact checking, and reasoned analysis” :

How do we know who our candidates are and what they stand for when the media fixates on polls, controversy and spin instead of the issues? How do we have meaningful elections when people don't know what they're voting for? Our Founders understood this; that is why they inscribed freedom of the press into the First Amendment of the constitution.

Our media are responsible for giving us a balanced inspection of all claims, careful fact checking, and reasoned analysis. But that was all but abandoned in this presidential campaign. And it is exactly what we would expect. As a result of media consolidation and pressures to cut costs, media corporations have gutted investigative journalism and hard-hitting analysis. Hence we get hours and hours of coverage of the baseless and idiotic “swift boats for truth” story, and barely a look at what the actual policies of this administration are, and how they affect the people of the nation and the world.

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