“Media Matters,” week ending November 19; by Jamison Foser

Media Matters for America noted this week that news outlets have dutifully reported false Republican attacks on Travis County, Texas, District Attorney Ronnie Earle, who is investigating House Majority Leader Tom DeLay -- but they haven't bothered to fact-check those attacks.

Week ending November 19, 2004

This week:

Media complicit in false GOP smear of DeLay prosecutor

Media downplays vote-counting problems

Candy Crowley's attempt to paint Kerry as out of touch revealed her own lack of understanding

Free ride for Rice?

Get this: Sinclair news broadcasts have strong rightward slant

Posts on conservative website advocate violence against journalist

Growing criticism of media's tendency to draw false equivalence

CJR's Campaign Desk becomes CJR Daily

Media complicit in false GOP smear of DeLay prosecutor

Media Matters for America noted this week that news outlets have dutifully reported false Republican attacks on Travis County, Texas, District Attorney Ronnie Earle, who is investigating House Majority Leader Tom DeLay -- but they haven't bothered to fact-check those attacks:

As justification for altering party rules in the House of Representatives in order to allow Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) to retain his leadership position if indicted by a Texas grand jury on political corruption charges, Republicans have claimed that Travis County, Texas, District Attorney Ronnie Earle, who is investigating DeLay, is doing so for purely partisan reasons. This charge was dutifully echoed on FOX News Channel, and most other news outlets have reported it -- without noting that Earle has, in fact, prosecuted more Democratic politicians than Republican politicians.

While Earle is an elected Democrat, as Media Matters for America has previously noted, a June 17 editorial in the Houston Chronicle commended his work: “During his long tenure, Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle has prosecuted many more Democratic officials than Republicans. The record does not support allegations that Earle is prone to partisan witch hunts.” This assertion supports Earle's own claim about his record; a March 6 article in the El Paso Times reported: “Earle says local prosecution is fundamental and points out that 11 of the 15 politicians he has prosecuted over the years were Democrats.”

Columbia Journalism Review's CJR Daily also took reporters to task for their one-sided treatment of Earle:

Travis County, Texas, District Attorney Ronnie Earle has been in office since 1976. In that time, according to The New York Times, he has prosecuted 12 Democratic officials and 4 Republican officials. The National District Attorneys Association ranks his office as one of ten best in the country. Now he's investigating House Majority Leader Tom Delay on charges of corruption related to a fundraising scandal.

Delay is a powerful politician, and Republicans have rallied around him, even going so far as to toss out an ethics rule that would strip him of his post should he be indicted. Those in Congress who voted for the rule change have been asked to defend their vote. In doing so, they've demonized Earle.


In the four stories cited above [from the Associated Press, The Dallas Morning News, Bloomberg.com, and the Houston Chronicle], nobody bothers to mention Earle's credentials, or gives him the opportunity to explain himself. Readers hear only from his Congressional antagonists, all of whom seem perfectly content to tar Earle as a political opportunist.

We've come to expect no less from the hyper-partisan boys and girls up on Capitol Hill. But the media owes its readers -- not to mention Earle -- the whole story.

Speaking of DeLay, the House Republicans this week voted to rescind its rule barring anyone under indictment from serving in the House Republican leadership. House Republicans adopted the rule in 1993, in an effort to embarrass Democrats over the investigation of then-Representative Dan Rostenkowski (D-IL). But now that DeLay is facing possible indictment, according to a Washington Post article, “House GOP leaders and aides said many rank-and-file Republicans” were “eager to change the rule to help DeLay.”

The vote to repeal the rule and allow people under indictment to continue to serve in the House leadership was in a closed caucus meeting, leading blogger Joshua Micah Marshall to point out an obvious story for enterprising reporters:

Do you work for a local newspaper or TV Station? Want an easy story? Call up the local Republican member of congress to see if they supported the DeLay Rule. Believe me, this one writes itself.

Rep. Chris Shays (R-CT) says a “handful” of members of the caucus opposed the rule. Let's be extremely generous and say that's 20 members. That still leaves 211 supporters. Who are they?

Media downplays vote-counting problems

Washington Post columnist and editorial board member Anne Applebaum wrote a widely criticized column this week, suggesting that concerns over paperless electronic voting were unfounded because she doesn't take a receipt when she uses an automated teller machine (ATM). At least, we think that was her point; it was a little difficult to tell for certain.

In what CJR Daily called a “well-deserved smackdown to Anne Applebaum,” the Daily Howler's Bob Somerby pointed out the absurdity of Applebaum's comparison of voting machines to ATMs:

Could any comparison be less apt? No, you probably haven't checked this week to see if your bank is stealing your money. But duh! The reason you haven't checked is obvious -- banks provide extensive paper trails, and a major bank would quickly be caught if it swiped that nine bucks every week. (As anyone except a “journalist” would know, many Americans do check their bank statements quite religiously.) And duh! Let's note another fact which would be obvious to anyone outside Applebaum's tribe. Here it is: If banks were allowed to run audit-free systems, many banks would of course steal your money! Only a fool would fail to know it.

Media Matters for America, meanwhile, noted:

Applebaum's lack of interest in how her vote is recorded may stem from her lack of concern with whether voter fraud swings an election -- or from her apparent unwillingness to spend an extra day counting votes in order to ensure that the correct candidate gains office. From Applebaum's November 3 column:

The worst possible outcome [to the 2004 presidential campaign] would be, and will always be, a repeat of Florida 2000: lawyers, spin doctors, courts and protests that would drag out the result past last night. ... One disputed election [the 2000 presidential election] didn't destroy the majority's faith in that extended democratic process. But nor, arguably, would a few cases of voter fraud in Ohio yesterday, or a few examples of egregious voter suppression in Florida, however critical the districts in which they took place and however much they affected the result. Let's face it: If it's really that close, as it was in 2000, either candidate could plausibly be declared the victor. And the best outcome for the country would always be for the apparent loser to concede and for the nation to hand victory, quickly, to whoever the apparent winner might be. What would, over time, destroy the majority's faith in the process is a system in which every election was litigated or a system in which the result was regularly and doggedly disputed. [emphasis added]

Applebaum doesn't indicate who should decide on the “apparent” winner, if vote-counting doesn't make the winner clear on election night. Rather, she simply indicates that she wants a candidate to concede before her bedtime. To Applebaum, democracy is apparently something to be rushed through, rather than conducted correctly. Little wonder, then, that she doesn't mind her vote being crumpled up and thrown away like an ATM receipt.

Applebaum's recent columns about the 2004 presidential election are not the only testaments to the dubiousness of her claim on the Post's valuable op-ed real estate. MMFA noted earlier this year her odd review of Bill Clinton's memoirs. And on September 3, 2003, she devoted an entire 780-word column to the proliferation of acronyms, which, she warned ominously, “isn't exactly democratic.”

But Applebaum isn't the only media figure who apparently doesn't care whether votes are recorded and counted accurately. MSNBC's Keith Olbermann has used his Countdown with Keith Olbermann program to highlight voting irregularities, only to be mocked as a “voice of paranoia” and accused of perpetuating “idiotic conspiracy theories” by media conservatives.

Candy Crowley's attempt to paint Kerry as out of touch revealed her own lack of understanding

In a luncheon speech in Florida this week, CNN senior political correspondent Candy Crowley told a story meant to illustrate how out-of-touch with “most of America and how they live” Senator John Kerry is. Kerry, according to Crowley, committed the grave blunder of asking for a cup of green tea in a Dubuque, Iowa, Holiday Inn, only to have the waitress stare at him before announcing “We have Lipton's.”

Crowley apparently told the story to illustrate how out-of-touch and elitist Kerry is, but it backfired, illustrating instead her own lack of understanding of, and contempt for, Middle America. Far from being something with which simple Iowa folk are unfamiliar, as Media Matters for America noted:

Green tea may not be quite the highbrow delicacy Crowley seems to think. In fact, Lipton itself makes more than a half-dozen different varieties of green tea. Lipton's website even reveals that green tea accounts for 20 percent of all tea produced. And, according to Lipton's product locator, you can buy green tea in Dubuque, Iowa, at that gourmet market known as ... Kmart.

What does it say about Crowley that she thinks green tea -- readily available at your local discount store -- is some kind of rare, East Coast delicacy? And what does it say about her that she presumes that people in a small Midwestern town can't possible drink or be familiar with green tea?

A standard media storyline about progressives -- prompted in part by conservative talking points -- is that they are coastal elites who look down on “Middle America.” The next time you hear a comment like this, think about it for a moment. Who is looking down on “Middle America” : The person who orders green tea, or the person who presumes that people in Iowa are unfamiliar with green tea? The progressive who speaks in complete sentences, or the reporter who suggests that it reflects an inability to connect with “regular folks” ?

Free ride for Rice?

MMFA noted this week:

Since President George W. Bush nominated national security adviser Condoleezza Rice to succeed Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, major news outlets have produced numerous reviews and assessments of Rice's record during Bush's first term. But these reports have generally omitted mention of Rice's numerous apparently false statements, even when the reviews were conducted by outlets that originally broke the news of the statements in question.

Among Rice's apparently false claims that have received scant coverage in the wake of her selection to be the next Secretary of State: she claimed that Iraq's aluminum tubes were “only really suited for nuclear weapons,” that “the August 6th PDB was in response to the president's questions,” that the Bush administration's pre-September 11 planning “called for military options to attack Al Qaeda,” and that the Clinton administration didn't give the incoming Bush administration a plan for dealing with Al Qaeda.

Get this: Sinclair news broadcasts have strong rightward slant

MMFA this week began a review of Sinclair Broadcast Group's “Get This” news segment:

As part of the news package it supplies to the 62 TV stations it owns or operates, Sinclair Broadcast Group provides a segment called "Get This." “Get This” gives viewers a steady stream of pro-Bush and anti-progressive news items, as well as reports that make light of such topics as the Ku Klux Klan and the recent major assault on Fallujah, Iraq.

“Get This” is created by News Central, Sinclair's Maryland-based nerve center that provides national and international news coverage, as well as commentary, to its stations. Presented each weeknight by Sinclair News Central anchors Jennifer Gladstone or Morris Jones, “Get This” purports to cover “the news items that deserve public attention that you probably won't see anywhere else. They either won't make time for them, or maybe the issues are too 'sensitive' for their audience.”

According to News Central's website, “Get This” claims to “play no favorites.” But while the segment features many humorous or lighthearted stories, the overall issue selection conveys a conservative agenda, focusing on topics such as Democrats' alleged inability to deal with electoral defeat; liberal college professors; author and documentarian Michael Moore's comments; and even President George W. Bush's pets.

Media Matters for America examined all “Get This” segments that have aired since the November 2 presidential election and found that many of the news items either explicitly promoted Republicans or ridiculed and demeaned Democrats and progressives. Other “Get This” segments made light of serious issues facing the United States.

Click here for more details.

Posts on conservative website advocate violence against journalist

MMFA revealed this week that “The discussion board at FreeRepublic.com, a prominent right-wing online forum, contains numerous posts from members advocating violence against NBC News correspondent Kevin Sites, who recorded and reported the close-range shooting by a U.S. Marine of an unarmed and wounded Iraqi insurgent.”

Growing criticism of media's tendency to draw false equivalence

Eric Alterman and Paul McLeary wrote eloquently this week about one of our most frequent complaints about media coverage: false equivalence. Alterman and McLeary wrote, under the headline “Think Again: Phony 'Balance' Benefits Those with the Most to Hide” :

[J]udged by almost any remotely objective standard, the incumbent [President George W. Bush] had a pretty easy time of things from the mainstream media during the election campaign, particularly given the circumstances. While sticking relentlessly to Karl Rove's game plan in portraying Sen. [John] Kerry as having been guilty of “flip-flop” after flip-flop, when in many of these cases the words and votes were being ripped out of context, strikingly, the president managed to escape that label despite changing his position on such central issues as the 9/11 Commission, the creation of a Department of Homeland Security, No Child Left Behind, the WMD Commission, plus many more.

But the media's greatest failure during this past election was most certainly in what we have come to know as “false equivalence.” The evidence of this method of reporting was everywhere, despite the fact that the Columbia Journalism Review's Campaign Desk [now CJR Daily] said that the practice should end up in the “trash heap of discredited journalistic shortcuts.” In a nutshell, false equivalence amounts to little more than a reporter holding up the actions on both sides as equally blameworthy, when it's obvious that no clear equivalence between the two exists. To its credit, CJR's Campaign Desk was consistently out in front on this issue, and found a few telling examples.


Reporters, editors, and producers have done the country a gross disservice by constantly attempting to balance coverage to try to make each side appear just as culpable as the other, making it nearly impossible for their audience to draw any real distinction between the two. In the end, the inability of the media to weigh its coverage based on the facts created a morally neutral fantasy world in which all things were rendered equal, offering aid and comfort to the side with the most to hide -- and the side that was willing to go the furthest to hide it.

CJR's Campaign Desk becomes CJR Daily

Finally, some good news: Columbia Journalism Review's Campaign Desk, which we quoted often and read religiously over the past several months, will continue to exist now that the 2004 election is over, operating under the new name CJR Daily.

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