How News Is Reported—or Not Reported—Can Make It Worse

We were not alone in finding that the extravagant, massively policed, $40-million presidential inauguration parade and the chief executive’s wimpy acceptance speech, followed by the 10 expensive ballroom galas, were bad news. A headline in the New York Times Week in Review section called the Bush oration “A Speech About Nothing, Something, Everything.”

In his 21-minute inaugural speech, the president used the words “free,” “freedom” and “liberty” a total of 49 times. But almost on the eve of the secretive and terror-plagued election there, the words “Iraq” and “terrorism” were not spoken.

Instead, the president intoned that “it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in the world.” Even the right-wing activist Peggy Noonan called that “mission inebriation.”

There was enough speculation that the president was talking up an aggressive, even military, foreign policy that his father, President Bush I, later felt obliged to tell reporters, “People want to read a lot into it—that this means new aggression or newly asserted military forces. That’s not what that speech was about.”

What also got some media attention was that most second term presidents, who can’t run again, are lame ducks who don’t fly. For this president that was borne out by an ABC News/Washington Post poll finding that 70 percent of its respondents said that, viz-a-viz the speech, any U.S. “freedom” gains in Iraq had come at the unacceptable cost of American and Iraqi lives.

ANXIOUS FRIENDS—On the home front, much of the Bush administration’s oncoming legislation looks grounded because the Republican majorities in control of the House and Senate are leery of the political consequences of supporting it in their 2006 election bids. For one thing, members of Congress seem more aware than does the press of what is wrong with the president’s proposed tinkering with Social Security.

The Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Representative Bill Thomas of California, has called Social Security privatization “a dead horse.”

But with minimal media notice, a $5 million big-business lobbying blitz in support of Social Security deform—it is not reform—has been launched by the National Association of Manufacturers and other deep-pocketed corporate and Wall Street powerhouses.

As a recent Op-Ed column in the Los Angeles Times put it, President Bush has persuaded “much of the windy news media” to uncritically attach the word “reform” to his plan to wreck Social Security. By repeatedly calling it “Social Security reform,” writes the Times, “most of the media have capitulated to the administration’s understandable desire to soothe the public with the R-word, thereby displaying as profound a bias as if the Bush plan were routinely described as ‘Social Security destruction.'”

The paper’s analyst concluded: “A culture that pays little heed to the precise meaning of words is easy prey for those who distort words to suit their ideological purposes.”

As the wry statesman Adlai Stevenson once put it: “Journalists do not live by words alone, although sometimes they have to eat them.”

The website www.factcheck.org decodes some of the hype. It cites a study by the non-partisan American Academy of Actuaries that says unquestioning news reports quoting the president’s warning that Social Security is “going bust” are likely to mislead the public into believing that the system “is in far worse financial condition than is actually indicated.” We don’t see enough of that kind of honesty in the press.
Another subject you did not find covered in the mainstream media with any honesty, or actually at all, until Seymour Hersh reported on it in the New Yorker in a remarkable investigative piece, is the amazing plot, attributed to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, for the Pentagon to seize control of spying on foreign countries from the C.I.A. The New York Times and the Washington Post front-paged this story following Hersh’s exposé.

THE ELECTORAL CAMPUS—We saw only minimal reporting anywhere on the uproar by congressional Democrats who converted the otherwise meaningless meeting of the Electoral College on January 6 into a protest about the encroachment of citizens’ voting rights in Ohio and elsewhere.

When the ritual report on Ohio’s electoral vote was called for, Democrats in the House and Senate challenged it and, for the first time since 1877, managed to invoke the two hours of debate allowed in each chamber over a state’s disputed electoral vote count.

It was only a gesture, because the House predictably then voted 267 to 31 to give Ohio’s electoral vote to President Bush, joined by a 74 to 1 vote in the Senate. News reports have treated the complaints that Ohio was rigged for Bush as a largely partisan gesture by Democrats without exploring what Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), the solo protester in the Senate, called a “flawed election system which must be fixed now.”

Boxer in the Senate and Democrats in the House, led by Representatives Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Ohio and John Conyers of Michigan, cited Ohio’s flawed voting machines, manipulative ballot exchanges, partisan voting officials and the hours-long lines at polling places that drove many voters away.

That situation made it into some news reports, but none that we saw mentioned the nearly total failure of the so-called Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA), belatedly passed after the 2000 Florida fiasco.

President Bush so long delayed his appointment of the HAVA board members, failing also to help it get enough congressional appropriations, that critics soon renamed it the “Half America Votes Act.” The HAVA board did not hold its first meeting until May 2004, three and half years after the Florida punch-card disaster, and less than six months before the 2004 election. The media has barely mentioned that. We’ll have more on it soon.

A reader sent us a droll comment on what may have happened in Ohio. Purportedly the Centers for Disease Control had issued a national warning on a newly discovered contagious electoral disease. The theory is that so many people were forced to stand close up for hours in long lines at polling places, that some Kerry supporters may have been exposed to Republicans infected with gonorrhea lecthim—pronounced “gonna re-elect him”—and been sickened enough to have voted for Bush.

And here is an Electoral College amendment of our own: Watching the C-Span coverage of the Electoral College vote tallying on January 6, on our deadline, your editor scribbled down the Kerry vote with a pencil, reading back to himself what looked like 231, but was actually 251, and phoned that error to our typesetter to rush it to press. Sorry.

Back in what used to be called the good old days, on the wall of antique, pre-computer newspaper newsrooms there hung a red-handled chain labeled: “STOP PRESS.” If an editor found that a mistake or a libel had cleared the copy desk and been set in type, he could leap up and pull the chain. It rang bells in the basement press room and the paper, or at least what was left to be printed, was stopped in its tracks to await corrections. Don’t think we’ll need that.

Several readers also asked us why the Electoral College is called a “college”—particularly when one dictionary definition of that is “an organized body of persons engaged in a common pursuit or having common interests or duties.” Huh?

When we consulted our stable of Electoral College gurus about this they said they didn’t know. So we went back to the dictionary and found some etymological possibilities: 1. “collage—an assembly of diverse fragments”; 2. “collegium—is a group in which each member has approximately equal power, especially in a Soviet organization”; and 3. “colligate—to subsume isolated facts under a general concept.”

A reader in Quebec, where many speak French, suggests renaming the institution “Electoral Fromage.”

OTHER MEDIA MANGLES—Most of us know about the CBS News battering of Dan Rather and his staff over the accusations in a Sixty Minutes report on George W. Bush’s stint in the Air National Guard. It was challenged first by the White House and then by a CBS-appointed panel of outside experts.

The finding that the Rather report was not properly investigated led to the dismissal of four top CBS journalists who handed Rather his script, and Rather has said he will retire in March as theCBS Evening News anchor.

The network is reportedly planning to replace Rather with John Roberts, its White House correspondent, or with ABC’s Ted Koppel or CNN’s Anderson Cooper. Or maybe, when her contract ends next year, with Katie Couric of NBC’s Today show. There is other speculation that there may be no regular CBS anchor, just appearances by correspondents at network stations around the country.
Then came Armstrong Williams, the conservative black columnist and TV commentator discovered to have taken a $240,000 payment from the U.S. Department of Education to promote the Bush administration’s widely criticized No Child Left Behind Act. That was disclosed by USA Today, which has recently had some newsroom scandals of its own on other matters.

None of those match the bruising impact of the New York Times scandal over its fecklessly fabricating former reporter Jayson Blair, who was protected by top editorial executives after gross inaccuracies were found. That finally ended with the dismissal of Blair and the Timeseditors who were his mentors.

The nonpartisan but sharp-eyed media monitor FAIR, which stands for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, has also put editors at the Times under attack for abandoning “the battle of the bulge”—a pre-election news story reporting that the odd bulge seen on television inside the back of President Bush’s jacket during his first TV debate with Senator John Kerry was a radio receiver designed to allow White House aides to cue an inarticulate Bush on his replies to Kerry. Bush spokesmen attributed the jacket bulge to “a badly tailored suit”—and even trotted out the presidential tailor to corroborate the story.

But FAIR says editors at the Times purposely did not publish its information and thus “killed a story that could have changed the election.” FAIR says Daniel Okrent, the ombudsman at theTimes, confirmed that the story was “spiked by the paper’s top editors sometime during the week before the election.”

More recently a number of large metropolitan newspapers have come under criticism for an old trick: inflating their reader circulation figures, in part, by subsidized subscriptions paid for not by readers but by advertisers. Papers are delivered to people who haven’t asked for them. Last month the New York Times published an investigative report on these “third-party-paid subscriptions,” citing some of that hanky-panky by itself.

Now we learn from the Wall Street Journal—the Times finally felt obliged to do a catch-up story a day later—that the Justice Department is investigating the planned purchase by the Times of a half ownership of a free daily newspaper in Boston, the Boston Metro, that is handed out to commuters at train and bus stations. The Times already owns the Boston Globe, the largest daily newspaper in New England.

Washington’s antitrust examination of the Boston Metro buy was spurred by a complaint from the Boston Herald, a daily tabloid competitor of the Times-owned Globe. The Justice Department is also looking at the plan of the Gannett Company, the country’s largest newspaper chain, to buy a group of local papers in Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio.

Aggressive contempt for the press seems not exclusively, but largely, a Republican ailment. In the “Free State” of Maryland, the conservative G.O.P. governor, Robert Ehrlich, has ordered tens of thousands of state-government employees not to talk to two Baltimore Sun journalists whose reports on his conduct at the state capitol he has found annoying.

The Sun did not endorse Ehrlich in his 2002 election campaign, but what bugged him most was the newspaper’s disclosure that he planned to sell some state-owned preservation sites to a real estate developer. To get the governor’s “don’t talk” order withdrawn, the Sun has gone to court.

The “don’t-talk-to-reporters” syndrome of the presidential candidates and their staffs—particularly now the Bush White House crew—finds Newsweek magazine’s top Washington editor, Evan Thomas, producing a series of quadrennial post-election books that he says lets him unreservedly tell it all.

To do that he and a small Newsweek back-up staff promise partisan officials of all political parties that if they agree to be interviewed during the campaign they won’t be quoted until after election day. Their latest result, Election 2004: How Bush and Cheney Won and What You Can Expect in the Future, raises the question: Is such hesitation worth it?

In 1898 the “yellow journalism” of the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst—slanted, inflammatory stories under giant, screaming headlines printed on yellow newsprint to attract street sales by strolling paper boys shouting “Extra!”—became somewhat infamous. Hearst papers followed the reportorial strategies of James Gordon Bennett, owner of two New York newspapers in the mid-1800s, the Herald and the Evening Telegram, who once said that “many a good newspaper story has been ruined by over verification.”

Still, as Thomas Jefferson once put it: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”