Blogger Bill Scher does a thorough and important dissection of a recent CNN.com story that purported to examine possible pork layered into infrastructure spending requests recently made big city mayors.
There's nothing wrong with that premise in terms of good enterprise reporting. The problem, according to Scher, was that CNN simply gave a platform to conservative partisans to sound off about "pork" without providing a larger context.
For instance, the CNN article raised red flags because:
A report to Congress that requests $73.2 billion to pay for infrastructure projects around the country includes plans for a polar bear exhibit, an anti-prostitution program, a water park ride, zoos, museums and aquatic centers, CNN has found...Those projects -- plus money for aquatic centers, museums, bike paths, zoos, skateboard parks, dog and equestrian parks, police department stun guns, tree planting and murals -- total $376.5 million.
1) Do the math. CNN claims the mayors' request includes $376.5 million of "pork." But the entire request totals $73.2 billion.
That means one-half of one percent of the proposal is pork, and 99.5% are solid requests.
Bloomberg News leads the charge by announcing that somebody who gave money to the Clinton Foundation is being investigation by the feds for wrongdoing.
We suspect this is really why the press, for years, has been clamoring for the Clinton Foundation to release a list of its donors, which it recently did in order to aide Hillary Clinton's confirmation as SoS. The press wanted to see the donor list so the press could suggest that Clinton is tainted by his post-White House work.
We saw that most recently when the NYT published a dreadful piece of journalism that tried to raise questions about Clinton based on the fact that a wealthy business man who paid Clinton to speak before a group was being separately criticized by a group of his investors. Clinton, the Times seemed to suggest, was responsible for private investors upset with an international businessman. Talk about adopting new standards.
Anyway, Bloomberg trumpets this big news [emphasis added]:
Canadian investor Victor Dahdaleh, facing a U.S. federal probe of allegations that he helped Alcoa Inc. defraud a Bahrain government-controlled metals company, is among donors who gave as much as $5 million to former President Bill Clinton's charitable foundation... Dahdaleh's dispute with Bahrain shows how entanglements by Bill Clinton's financial backers may pose headaches for Hillary Clinton as the New York senator seeks confirmation as President-elect Barack Obama's secretary of state.
Quick journalism point. Bloomberg noted that the probe began in March. When did Dahdaleh give his money to the Clinton Foundation? Bloomberg either does not know or simply does not report the fact, which wouold offer some illumination, no? Because if Dahdaleh gave his money to the Foundation before his company was probed, Clinton would had to have been a fortune teller to see any pending (paper-thin) conflict. But again, Bloomberg leaves that pertinent information out.
Meanwhile, the actual significance of Dahdaleh giving money to a charity? Bloomberg never really says. But c'mon, there's an unrelated federal probe involved. (No indictments yet, of course.) Doesn't that speak for itself?
Actually, that's not entirely true. Bloomberg does uncover this quote:
"It certainly creates a couple of extra hurdles for the Obamawould administration," said Joel Rosenthal, president of New York's Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.
Let's map this out. According to this person, Obama has troubles because the husband of his SoS choice runs a charity and among the 200,000 of people who gave money to that charity, one is being questioned by authorities regarding his business operation.
We're pretty sure that's the definition of guilt by association.
UPDATE: The WaPo's Eugene Robinson pens a Clinton donor column today. At the very top he announces it's "far-fetched" to think Hillary as SoS would be influenced by any of the Foundation donors. Nonetheless, he thinks the released donor list will "provoke suspicion and give rise to conspiracy theories." So what does Robinson do? He spends pretty much his entire column fueling those suspicions by raising questions about the donors.
Behold this dreadful passage:
More ominous would be any perceived tilt toward India in its bitter standoff against neighboring Pakistan. The list reports several huge donations from Indian tycoons and a high-six-figure donation from the Confederation of Indian Industry. Pakistan is not similarly represented. I know this is a ridiculously slim thread from which to hang any charge of bias, or potential bias. But India and Pakistan, in their unbounded mutual suspicion, take the concept of paranoia to a new level. I guarantee that somewhere in Islamabad, a sense of grievance is already being nurtured.
I'd argue it's the Betlway press that suffers unbounded suspicion...of the Clintons.
What the New York Times needs is semi-reasonable token conservatives on its op-ed pages. Ones, like David Brooks, who occasionally wander slightly off the reservation to promote some mildly independent view, or ones like William Safire who are nakedly intellectually dishonest but smart and weasley enough to get away with it. Kristol, a lightweight, was not up to the task. His very first column was not only headlined "President Mike Huckabee?" but it warranted an immediate embarrassing correction (a rarity on the op-ed page).
Talk about day dreaming up narratives, take a look at this [emphasis added]:
Why is Obama's coverage different than that of every other president-elect? Plenty of reporters were enamored of President-elect Clinton and agreed with many of his views. But he was seen as an outsize figure, a man of enormous talent and appetites, and a Bubba-like figure from Hope, Arkansas. He was Not Like Us.
But the reason there are so many stories about Obama having to give up his normal life, surrender his BlackBerry, yadda yadda, is that reporters identify with him. He is a writer who produced two books. He lives in a big city. He was not born to a wealthy family. And yet he keeps his essential core hidden. So journalists, I believe, are as curious about Barack as the public at large.
First, notice how president Bush does not exist and has been erased by the Beltway media? Because I'm pretty sure Kurtz could have just as easily made the case that "plenty of reporters were enamored of President-elect" Bush. But that topic is not to be addressed.
Second, it's never a good sign when a journalist doesn't even bother to back up the central point in his piece. i.e. How on earth has Obama been treated different than every other president-elect. And is that a good thing or a bad thing? Is Kurtz actually suggesting the press, currently in day No. 10 hyping the paper-thin Blago/Obama "scandal," has been showering the president-elect with good press?
Specifically, Kurtz is just amazed that the press is obsessed with the trivia (i.e. his BlackBerry) and minutia surrounding Obama's transition. The writer thinks that quite unusual.
Please. It's utterly predictable because the Beltway press has consistently advertised the fact, and only underscored it in recent weeks, that it revolves around trivia and minutia. It lives for distractions. As Politico recently noted (without an ounce of irony):
Reporters have been bombarding the president-elect's transition office and those close to Obama with the most detail-obsessed questions about his every move. Among the inquiries received in recent weeks: Does Obama prefer Macs or PCs? Who designed that tie he's wearing? Where does he buy his suits? What's his morning exercise routine like? How about his basketball techniques? What movie has he seen recently? Who cuts his hair? Will he sell his house in Chicago? What did he have for Thanksgiving dinner? What's his favorite food?
Behold your press corps at work.
Are supporters of Hillary Clinton livid that Caroline Kennedy might be appointed by NY's governor to fill the U.S. senate seat that Clinton is vacating to become SoS? i.e. Is there more Clinton drama??
Clinton weighed in to end speculation she was behind a recent spate of public snarking about Kennedy's abilities as payback for Kennedy's support of Barack Obama over Clinton.
Clinton "called off the dogs" who were attacking Kennedy, reported the News.
But if Clinton's supporters are so upset, and reportedly so numerous, than why didn't ABC or the Daily News quote, or reference, even a single one? That seems more like gossip and less like journalism to us.
UPDATE: With New York TV reporter Marcia Kramer, three makes a trend:
Meanwhile, Kennedy will probalby have an easier time winning the nomination now that Clinton has ordered her supporters to stop attacking her.
Like ABC and NY Daily News, Kramer offers no examples of Clinton supporters "attacking" Kennedy.
Obama did not answer Blago questions yesterday, so the Times Jeff Zeleny rushed the update onto the newspaper's blog. (Nothing gets past the mighty Times!)
Do news passages get any more entertaining/revealing/depressing than this?
Mr. Obama, yet again, declined to answer questions about Mr. Blagojevich in any detail. Neither he nor his advisers are accused of any wrongdoing.
For us, that perfectly captures the media inanity around the Blago/Obama story. Nobody is accusing Obama or his aides of doing anything wrong which means he must answers questions immediately regarding a story in which neither he nor his aides are accused of doing anything wrong.
Of course the headline was priceless, as well: "Blagojevich Questions Continue to Overshadow Transition"
Who determines whether Blago is overshadowing the transition? The Beltway press corps, of course. And they've already gone all in on the story.
But wait! Zeleny has real Blago news:
But don't look for Mr. Obama to announce the findings of the internal inquiry of which advisers – in addition to Rahm Emanuel – had contact with the Illinois governor's office over replacing Mr. Obama's Senate seat. The plan now, aides said, is to release the review by written statement.
Did we mention nothing gets past the mighty Times?
Some Times readers though, seem unimpressed. From "Chicago Todd":
Whitewater redux — a media in perfect unison singing out the latest talking meme without evidence or facts. Has any prominent media publication expounded on the fact that this is a media generated controversy?
Just because you say that "Blagojevich Questions Continue to Overshadow Transition," it doesn't make is so. Most people I talk to think the Blago questions are irrelevant.
Like John McCain before him this week, Newt Gingrich let it be known he's unhappy with the RNC for posting a very partisan, gotcha-style web ad making all sorts of dark insinuations about Obama and the unfolding Blago story.
The recent web advertisement, "Questions Remain," is a destructive distraction. Clearly, we should insist that all taped communications regarding the Senate seat should be made public. However, that should be a matter of public policy, not an excuse for political attack. In a time when America is facing real challenges, Republicans should be working to help the incoming President succeed in meeting them, regardless of his Party.
Gingrich's point is well taken. But as we noted last week, it's been the Beltway press corps that been waaaaay out in front of the GOP in terms of laying on the Blago spin as thick as possible. It's been the press for the most part, not Republican operatives, who have been scheming and dreaming up all sorts of what-if scenarios.
The Hill's A.B. Stoddard was on MSNBC this afternoon discussing the media's focus on Barack Obama's purely theoretical (and not alleged by anyone) involvement in the Blagojevich allegations:
STODDARD: They've pushed that off into next week and according to lawyers quoted in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, they're just choosing to do this. They're choosing not to talk. They're under no legal impediment. There's no injunction against them. Although Patrick Fitzgerald doesn't want them to talk, they're not legally kept from doing so. They're not. They're choosing not to talk. So in some ways Barack Obama is sort of doing this to himself. He's going to keep getting those questions and it's going to be a feeding frenzy next week.
See, the media feeding frenzy is Obama's fault: if he would just disclose the contacts between his staff and Blagojevich, it would all go away.
This, of course, is inane. The questions most certainly would not go away. Indeed, they would intensify. Stoddard kept insisting that Obama is under no obligation not to talk. True. True, but dumb. Dumb because if Obama blows off Fitzgerald's request, the media would go into a frenzy about whether that means he is impeding the investigation, and why. And I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that A.B. Stoddard would be an active participant in it.
MSNBC's Contessa Brewer then responded:
BREWER: And it's leaving room for people to ponder and question and leave time for doubts to arise and in fact we're seeing this new Marist poll that shows that 63 percent of Americans feel the Obama transition is on the right track. Now that's pretty good, but an NBC News Wall Street Journal poll showed earlier that that number was more like three quarters of the people that had responded. Is the Blagojevich scandal and the surrounding questions, no matter what the answers are, if they remain unanswered, is it likely to affect how people view this transition?
This is a completely invalid point. Brewer is comparing the results of two different polls conducted by two different polling organizations and purporting to show a trend as a result.
Hey, look, this fruit has red skin, while that fruit has orange skin! Right ... one is an apple, and one is an orange.
But Brewer didn't merely err in comparing the results of two different polls. She portrayed the Marist poll as "new," and suggested the results reflect the "time for doubts to arise."
Well, guess what? The Marist poll was released today ... but it was conducted December 9th and 10th. That's the day charges were filed against Blagojevich, and the next day. In fact, the Marist poll began the day after the NBC/Wall Street Journal ended.
So Brewer is comparing two polls, by two different polling firms, which were conducted on consecutive days, both of which were completed more than a week ago, and both of which were completed before the Blagojevich story was 48 hours old - and in doing so, she is purporting to show an erosion in Obama's public standing as a result of "doubts" that have supposedly arisen in the past week.
Later, Brewer told Stoddard: "I know there are journalists who are taking a lot of heat for not being aggressive and tough with Obama."
Yeah, and there are journalists who are taking heat for being unfair to Obama by obsessively and misleadingly covering the story, despite the fact that there is no allegation that Obama or any of his staff has done anything wrong. But Brewer didn't mention that.