The State of the News Media: Not Good | Bush’s Foot Back in Mouth | A Medicare Cover-Up

A Media Meltdown—In a lengthy report, the non-partisan Project for Excellence in Journalism describes a field of endeavor in decline, in terms of the quality and quantity of newspapers, newsmagazines, and radio and television news programs.

“The State of the News Media in 2004” finds that “Americans think journalists are sloppier, less professional, less caring, more biased, less honest about their mistakes and generally more harmful to democracy than they were in the 1980s.”

Among its findings: Newspapers have 2,200 fewer employees than they had in 1990. The number of full-time radio news employees dropped by 44 percent between 1994 and 2000. The number of broadcast network correspondents has dropped by one-third since the 1980s, and the number of TV network foreign bureaus is down by half. And except for 60 Minutes on CBS, the network prime-time newsmagazines “in no way could be said to cover major news of the day.”

As for the cable news networks, with 2.4 million prime time viewers, the report says that 68 percent of their news segments were “repetitious accounts of previously reported stories without any new information.”

The reporting on national affairs by the major newsmagazines has declined by 25 percent, while they doubled the number of entertainment and celebrity stories. Their readership is down.

It is not visible to many news consumers, but 22 companies now control 70 percent of the country’s newspaper circulation, and 10 companies own the broadcast stations that reach 85 percent of the United States.

The recent wave of in-house journalistic scandals at newspapers has undermined public confidence. The report finds that the number of readers who believe news organizations try to cover up their published mistakes has risen, and now stands at 67 percent.

The Project on Excellence in Journalism, based in Washington, is financed by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Its lengthy report, if printed out from its website, would run to 500 pages in print. The web version is a bit hard to manage, but it is all there at www.stateofthenewsmedia.org.

WMHDI—It stands for What Made Him Do It? In the midst of the still-ballooning controversy over the credibility of his pre-war WMD claims, the mismanagement of the post-9/11 war on terror, and the killing and maiming going on in Iraq, President Bush made jokes about it.

It’s a tradition that every president who attends the Radio and Television Correspondents Association’s self-puffing annual black tie dinner in Washington is expected to make some fun of himself in a brief stand-up skit at the podium.

As he spoke, President Bush cued slide projections of photographs that posed him in the Oval Office on his knees, moving furniture and looking behind draperies, muttering: “Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere,” and “Nope, no weapons over there. Maybe under here?” He got some laughs.

But following a statement from Senator John Kerry, his Democratic opponent in November, that called the Bush performance “stunningly cavalier,” and statements of distress by people who lost family or friends on 9/11, the White House issued a statement that “there is no question about the seriousness with which the president approaches this issue.” Oh, really?

Tight Lips—The seriousness with which the Bush White House has approached other issues has been showing in the delayed disclosure of its fiscal secrecy.

We now learn that top Bush administration officials deliberately covered up a government forecast that the cost of the new Medicare prescription drug benefits pushed by Bush will be as much as 50 percent more than Congress and the American people were told. They also threatened to fire a respected veteran bureaucrat, who wanted to go public with the true figure last June, if he revealed the forecast.

When Richard Foster, the silenced health care actuary, appeared before the House Ways and Means Committee late last month, he told its chairman, Representative Bill Thomas (R-CA), a principle architect of the Bush Medicare bill, that he had been forbidden to reveal the high-cost estimate to him. Thomas gave Foster a strong statement of support.

Another committee member, Representative John Tanner (D-TN), said that “every Republican and Democrat on this committee ought to be outraged at the willful, deliberate, sinister withholding of information.”