ABC's Jonathan Karl is drawing criticism from journalism veterans and media ethicists who say his recent reporting on talking points related to the September attacks on diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya has been "sloppy" and "highly problematic ethically."
The conservative media and Republican politicians have claimed for months that the Obama administration had for political purposes edited references to terrorism out of a set of talking points used shortly after the attacks.
On May 10, Karl gave those claims new life with an "exclusive" online report that found, based on what appeared to be direct quotes from the emails of White House and State Department aides, that "the edits were made with extensive input from the State Department."
Karl's muddled account reported both that "White House emails reviewed by ABC News" and that "summaries of White House and State Department emails" led to that conclusion. He also repeatedly produced quotes from what he described as "emails," suggesting that he had personally reviewed the original documents. In on-air reports, Karl and his colleagues subsequently claimed he had "obtained" the emails.
But after CNN produced the full text of one of the emails Karl had cited and reported that the version in Karl's article had made it "appear that the White House was more interested in the State Department's desire to remove mentions of specific terrorist groups and warnings about these groups so as to not bring criticism to the State Department" than was actually the case, Karl acknowledged that he had actually been "quoting verbatim" an unnamed source "who reviewed the original documents and shared detailed notes," and had not seen the emails himself. Observers have suggested that Karl had been burned by his source, given the discrepancies between what Karl reported about the email and what it actually said in full.
The slippery language Karl and ABC News adopted in describing the emails has drawn fire from media ethicists and veteran journalists.
"At best, it's extremely sloppy. At worst, it's a deliberate attempt to conceal the secondhand -- and possibly distorted -- nature of the information ABC was relying on so as to put its shoulder to the wheel of a highly prejudicial reading of the affair," said Edward Wasserman, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, and a Miami Herald columnist. "Whether best or worst is true, it's highly problematic ethically, and the failure to acknowledge and correct is even worse."
Tim McGuire, journalism professor at Arizona State University and former president of the American Society of News Editors, criticized Karl for failing to adhere to basic standards of ethics.
U-T San Diego, a California daily newspaper which has been criticized for promoting the pro-business and hard-right political activities of new owner Douglas Manchester, is under review by state election regulators for allegedly giving discounted political ad rates to conservative campaigns and Republican candidates it favored.
Manchester, a local developer with a history of conservative political activism, purchased the paper, then named the San Diego Union-Tribune, in late 2011. Since then, he has come under fire from local media observers and U-T employees for using the paper to benefit his corporate and ideological interests.
The state inquiry comes amid reports that another pair of corporate titans who are major funders of the conservative movement, Charles and David Koch, are among those interested in buying Tribune Company, owner of the nearby Los Angeles Times and other daily newspapers.
The U-T San Diego's alleged practice has sparked a review by the state's Fair Political Practices Commission, an independent body which oversees campaign violations and can issue fines.
The outlets explain:
inewsource and KPBS audited ads in the U-T every day between Labor Day and Election Day 2012 and compared the list with campaign finance records. The results show varied payments for ads, indicating the U-T may have offered bargains to [a group opposing the campaign of Democratic Mayor Bob Filner] and to other candidates and issues the newspaper endorsed.
According to their report, U-T San Diego may have offered discounted ad rates to local, state, and federal Republican and conservative campaigns that the paper endorsed. Unless such discounts were reported as in-kind contributions to the recipients, they could violate election laws, experts told inewsource and KPBS.
Glenn Beck's The Blaze continues to push the debunked claim that a Saudi Arabian national who was briefly placed on the federal No-Fly List following the Boston Marathon bombing was wrongly removed from that list and, at one time, was a suspect.
And now it wants Congress to help.
For weeks, Beck and The Blaze have fixated on the 20-year-old Saudi man, Abdul Rahman Ali Alharbi, claiming that he was once considered a suspect in the bombing and had been up for deportation. Other news outlets have debunked these claims.
But just this week, a producer at the conservative outlet sent an email (since obtained by Media Matters) to staff members at congressional offices of both houses and parties asking whether members of Congress would "be willing to raise" the Blaze's claims with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano or FBI Director Robert Mueller.
The email (below) from Blaze producer Virginia Grace states:
From: Grace, Virginia
Sent: Wednesday, April 24, 2013 4:40 PM
To: Grace, Virginia
Subject: Revised: Request from TheBlaze
Over the past two weeks TheBlaze has been reporting on the Saudi National, AbdulRahman ali Al-Harbi, who was briefly detained as a potential suspect after the Boston bombing. Shortly after a search of his apartment in Revere, Massachusetts an event file was issued by the NTC designating him as a terrorist under the Immigration Nationality Act 212 (a)(3)(B)(ii)(II) and making reference to involvement in the bombing. Twenty four hours later the file was amended to remove the terrorist designation and a short time after that removed from the system altogether. To date Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has refused to comment on the terrorist designation, first even denying Mr. Al-Harbi had ever been a person of interest before finally admitting to Congress on Tuesday that he had, in fact, been placed on the Watch List for a short time. TheBlaze believes the public has a right to know why Al-Harbi went from terrorist to nobody in the span of 48 hours. What evidence led to the designation in the first place and what transpired to reverse it a short time later.
Would you be willing to raise those issues with Ms. Napolitano or Mr. Robert Muller at the FBI and report your findings to the American public?
Please let us know.
Sincerely, The Blaze
Several journalism veterans say this email is unusual for a media outlet, both as an effort to spark political action and as an attempt to get members of Congress to do their reporting.
"My general view is that legitimate, neutral news organizations should report and let members of Congress decide on their own whether they want to get involved," said Andy Alexander, former Washington Post ombudsman.
A member of the independent panel that reviewed the September attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya is calling attempts by Fox News and congressional Republicans to blame Hillary Clinton for the deaths of U.S. personnel "total bullshit."
Fox News has been promoting Republican attacks blaming Hillary Clinton for security cutbacks prior to the September 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya. But Richard Shinnick, a member of the five-person State Department Accountability Review Board that reviewed the Benghazi attacks last fall, says such claims are unfounded.
"Hillary Clinton was never in the loop for that," said Shinnick, a former 27-year foreign services officer. "It just doesn't make any sense to anybody who understands the State Department. They all know that the Secretary of State was never in that chain of responding to Benghazi, it just wasn't so."
On April 25, the Republican chairmen of five House committees released a report that stated Clinton's congressional testimony that she was unaware of requests for additional security at the Benghazi compound was false, citing a cable signed by Clinton that responded to one such request by calling for security cuts. Fox News, which has frequently harped on the Benghazi attack to criticize the Obama administration, quickly promoted the GOP attacks, calling them a "Benghazi Bombshell."
The Republican report specifically criticized the Accountability Review Board for failing to criticize Clinton:
The Board's finding regarding the security decisions in Benghazi, however, was limited to Diplomatic Security professionals and the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. The Committees' review shows that the leadership failure in relation to security and policy in Benghazi extended to the highest levels of the State Department, including Secretary Clinton.
But Shinnick says the claim that Clinton's signature on the cable indicates her involvement misrepresents how the State Department operates. He said many directives and orders come through that office without the secretary personally reviewing each.
"Every single cable going out is signed 'Clinton,' it is the normal procedure," Shinnick said. "Millions of cables come into the operation center every year, not thousands, millions. And they are all addressed Hillary Clinton."
"So you can make a story that Hillary saw a cable and didn't act on it or sent a cable out; it's all bullshit, it's all total bullshit," Shinnick stressed. "I can't be any clearer than that. I read those stories and fortunately or unfortunately the people on the ARB understood that. If you don't want to believe that, then go chase a story."
As the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum opens today, some in the press have been caught up in a swoon over the former president.
Pundits from the center and the avowed left called on critics to re-examine the former president as a "good man with a good heart," while those on the right declare that "Bush is Back." Political analysts are compiling lists of "The 7 best moments of George W. Bush's presidency" and highlighting polls indicating that Bush is more popular now than he was in office. And Fox News has pulled out all the stops, lining up their Bush-administration-officials-turned-Fox-employees to sing the former president's praises.
Presidential historians and veteran reporters who covered the Bush White House are speaking out, saying that reporting on the Bush library and legacy should put his failures in their proper context.
The academics point out that while some of Bush's defenders in the press have said that the Bush legacy is a question for history, historians largely pan his tenure. And the veteran reporters who covered Bush's presidency urge that coverage of the presidential library provide a complete accounting of his tenure in office, including its many missteps.
"The press needs to take a really cold-eyed look at the circumstances ... look at the state of the country and world on Jan. 20, 2001 and eight years later," said Ed Chen, former Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg correspondent who covered the White House from 1999 to 2010. "Were mistakes made? Sure, the whole WMD fiasco ... it sure has a long way to go for anything close to a full rehabilitation."
Chen later added, "Of the three [presidents] that I covered, we have to put Bush at the bottom."
Several top presidential historians echoed Chen's low-ranking view, noting a week of positive coverage cannot erase that.
"Right now he's ranked as one of the lower presidents because of the War in Iraq and the economy tanking so he's got a long way to go to get rehabilitated," said Douglas Brinkley, a top presidential historian and author. "It is a long revisionist road up from the bottom for George W. Bush. He is ranked toward the bottom rung of presidents."
Indeed, surveys of historians regularly find Bush ranked among the worst of U.S. presidents.
Having toured the new library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Brinkley described it as having a "compassionate conservative motif" for Bush, adding, "I was surprised how much wall space was given to AIDS in Africa, marine conservation, No Child Left Behind. I got the feeling that the Bush crowd was trying to paint their president as more of a centrist than many people feel."
But Brinkley stressed that whatever positive image is being attempted this week cannot rewrite his presidency.
"I don't think it matters two weeks from now, it is a building opening and people tend to be jubilant," he said. "It's the beginning of revisionism of a presidency."
New reports that the politically conservative Koch brothers are interested in buying the Tribune Company's eight regional newspapers -- which include the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune -- are sparking concerns from newspaper staff members that attempts to influence the editorial process in favor of their far-right political views may follow.
Among those concerned is Clarence Page, a top Chicago Tribune columnist, who said he would oppose a takeover of the paper by David and Charles Koch because of "the fact that they seem to be coming in upfront with the idea of using a major news media as a vehicle for their political voice."
In addition to the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, the Kochs are reportedly seeking to buy The Baltimore Sun, the Orlando Sentinel, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Hartford Courant (Hartford, CT), The Morning Call (Allentown, PA), and the Daily Press (Hampton Roads, VA).
The Kochs are major funders of the American conservative movement, funneling tens of millions of dollars every year to build a right-wing infrastructure geared toward reducing the size and impact of government. As the Times detailed, at a 2010 convention of like-minded political donors, the Kochs "laid out a three-pronged, 10-year strategy to shift the country toward a smaller government with less regulation and taxes." Part of the stratgy called for investing in the media.
And that has staffers at Tribune Company newspapers -- several of whom requested anonymity for fear of losing their jobs -- nervous about the possibility that a Koch takeover could bring with it an ideological focus on the news that risks turning the papers into what one reporter calls a "conservative mouthpiece."
According to those staffers, such concerns are rampant at the papers. "Nobody I know in the newsroom would find it a happy event to have the Koch brothers owning the paper," said one longtime Chicago Tribune staffer, who suggested that the purpose of the takeover is so that the brothers can use the publications to "promulgate their political views."
"I haven't heard anyone here who has welcomed the idea of the Koch brothers... the Koch brothers, that scares people," added an LA Times scribe.
"I think we all have concerns when you think an owner might try to influence editorial content," explained Angela Kuhl, Newspaper Guild unit chair at The Baltimore Sun. "That is sort of contrary to what the newspapering business should be about, free press. You don't necessarily want owners and publishers dictating content."
It's the Kochs' explicit call for investing in the media to achieve their political end that has Kuhl worried. "I read the story that said they have a three-pronged approach to how to move the country in the way they think it should head, and one is to influence the media."
The New York Post has seen three of its supposed scoops about the Boston Marathon bombing fall apart this week. Nonetheless, their editor is unrepentant, lashing out at critics and claiming a "crystal ball" would have been necessary for the paper to publish accurate information.
In a widely criticized move, the April 18 Post front page featured the headline "Bag Men: Feds seek this duo pictured at Boston Marathon" along with a photo of two men holding bags at the event. The article reported that investigators had been "circulating photos of two men spotted chatting near the packed finish line" and also that officials "have identified two potential suspects who were captured on surveillance videos." The Post added that "it was not immediately clear if the men in the law-enforcement photos are the same men in the surveillance videos."
The paper later reported in an online story that the two men they had featured on their front page had been "cleared."
In an email to Media Matters, Post editor Col Allan claimed that when the photo was published this morning, the article stated that the FBI was only emailing the photo to other law enforcement officials and noted "there is no direct evidence linking them to the crime."
"With regard to today's front page emails containing images of the two young men were sent to law enforcement offices, federal and state, at 3pm yesterday seeking information about them," Allan said in an e-mail. "I have a copy of one of those emails sent to a regional office of the FBI. At no point did the Post state they were 'suspects.' Today it is clear they were not involved ... had you loaned us your powerful crystal ball we would have known this before the presses ran."
But, asked specifically if placing the photos on Page One was misleading because it gave the appearance the men were somehow involved, Allan stated via email:
"Common sense would suggest if the FBI emailed pictures of these men standing around the Boston marathon to law enforcement offices asking for information about them it might be newsworthy. We made no judgment about the men. We simply reported the facts. Their photos were emailed by the feds. Information about them was sought. If it is your idea that we or anyone else in the media wait until the complete truth is clear then there is little need for journalists. Only historians. "
Allan also claimed that a previous incorrect Post report on Monday, that 12 people had died in the bombing -- which has yet to be corrected - was also not the paper's fault.
"Our sources were federal authorities who have been reliable in the past," he wrote. "In this event, they and thus we, were wrong. Later Monday our reporting online and in Tuesday's paper accurately reflected the official toll...give your crystal ball a good hard polish and drop it over sometime."
The day of the bombing, the Post also reported that a Saudi national student had been "taken into custody" and was considered a "suspect." That student was also cleared of involvement. In response to questions about that story also falling apart, Allan claimed that "The Post said a Saudi student WAS detained in hospital after the bomb blast. He was not free to go. at 2 am the following morning the federal bureau of investigation raided his flat and took away several bags of material. The next day the authorities stated he was co--operating and not considered a suspect. The post would have required one of your hindsight crystal balls to have known this."
The Orange County Register's newest weekly sections on local colleges, which are being financed in part by the colleges themselves, are raising concerns about conflicts of interest and credibility from both inside and outside of the newspaper.
At issue is the financial arrangement the Santa Ana, CA, daily has with three local campuses: Chapman University; California State University, Fullerton; and the University of California at Irvine.
Under an agreement reached earlier this year, the paper is publishing a separate, weekly six-page special section devoted to positive coverage of each university's news and events. Each of those sections include two columns authored by top university staffers.
In exchange, each university is paying the newspaper $275,000, supposedly for advertising that will appear in that section for one year. The sections began running on April 1.
The financial arrangement and partial control of content by the universities has some at the paper and on campus concerned.
"It does make me a little uncomfortable," said Bill Johnson, a Register columnist. "In this business, appearance is everything. Appearance-wise, it is a bit troubling. If you know people are paying for coverage does that affect the coverage? I would like to think we are way above that, writing good news to satisfy an advertiser."
Jeffrey Brody, a journalism professor at Cal State, Fullerton, and a former Register reporter, called it a "disguised advertorial."
"That's a breach of the wall between editorial and advertising of traditional newspapering," he said. "A newspaper should not be making these kinds of quid pro quo agreements. It seems that that does damage the credibility of the university."
A review of the most recent sections from April 15, 16, and 17, finds stories written by Register staffers, along with two pieces from each university's faculty or administration.
A half-page color ad for the university appears on the back page of each section.
The stories range from a review of the number of bronze busts on the Chapman campus to a report on UC-Irvine's annual "Undie Run." None of the stories could be described as critical of the school.
While newspapers often clearly label such content as "advertisement" or "advertorial," the only note related to the Register's arrangement is a small box on the inside of the page alongside the staff list stating "while the university is the section's primary advertising sponsor, all editorial decisions are independent of the university's control."
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Robert Caro criticized conservative media coverage of President Obama during an appearance in New York City, describing it as "something quite horrible" and venomous.
Caro, known for his biographies of President Lyndon Johnson, spoke during a March 29 interview at Strand Books in Manhattan conducted by New York magazine writer Frank Rich as part of promotion for the paperback version of his fourth Johnson book, The Passage of Power.
Caro, who won Pulitzer Prizes for his third Johnson book, Master of the Senate, and his 1975 book about Robert Moses, has long used newspaper and media coverage in his research about U.S. political history.
Asked by Media Matters what he thought of today's conservative media coverage given his experience with historic news accounts, Caro said there had been strong conservative news coverage of past political figures, but stressed today's approach is worse.
"I think today is something [different], the venom, the absolute venom, whatever we think is really underneath it all, it is something quite horrible," he said, later adding, "Here in New York you live in a different world. I was just giving some lectures and you know when you get out in the rest of the country you realize the depth of the anti-Obama feeling."
Caro's comments follow years of conservative media figures smearing President Obama and his family with outlandish conspiracies, regular falsehoods, trumped-up pseudoscandals, and outright attacks.
Dick Morris is working with Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus on a new television advertisement that will include Preibus seeking to attract Latino voters, Morris revealed during an appearance in New York City Thursday.
Speaking at the Poli Conference, a political consulting event for Latin American campaign professionals, Morris said the ad will feature Priebus reaching out to "those Latin Americans who've come to the United States to help us build our country, to help harvest our food, to help make our economy work and [Priebus'] message is 'welcome, we need you, you're making our country younger, more prosperous, harder working and we need you for the future.'"
According to Morris, the ad will make use of "that concept of reflecting back to people their own value and their own worth. In the advertisement he [Priebus] says, 'we honor our ancestors who took covered wagons to settle the west and brave the Indians, but you are the new pioneers, you are the new people in America doing that.' And I think that is a very, very interesting thing to do in a campaign."
Republican Party Spokesman Ryan Mahoney did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ad. Asked about when it might run or where, Morris declined to offer more details.
Morris' work with the Republican National Committee is noteworthy given the implosion of Morris' stature and credibility following the 2012 election and his now infamous prediction of a "landslide" victory for Republican Mitt Romney. After the election Morris was effectively banned from appearing on Fox News, where he worked as an on-air contributor until the network declined to renew his contract in early February. Morris also brings with him a host of ethics problems -- Morris' group Super PAC for America reportedly spent significant amounts of money renting Morris' own email list in the months before the election, allowing him to simply pocket money raised by the group.