"Media Matters," week ending February 4, 2005; by Jamison Foser


Last week, we noted that despite the long-established precedent of using the word "privatization" to describe Republicans' plans for Social Security, reporters are increasingly bowing to the Bush administration's wishes and using the phrase "personal accounts" instead. "Reporters shouldn't take sides," we noted. "Going along with conservatives' constant manipulation of the language is doing just that."

Week ending February 4, 2005

This week:

Social Security distortions continue to dominate news

State of the Union television coverage continued trend of conservative guests outnumbering progressives

Gannongate heats up: real reporters blast increasingly-controversial Talon News

More controversy about networks' refusal to run issue ads

Social Security distortions continue to dominate news

Last week, we noted that despite the long-established precedent of using the word "privatization" to describe Republicans' plans for Social Security, reporters are increasingly bowing to the Bush administration's wishes and using the phrase "personal accounts" instead. "Reporters shouldn't take sides," we noted. "Going along with conservatives' constant manipulation of the language is doing just that."

This week, we've seen several more examples of reporters taking the Bush administration's side:

  • On MSNBC, Hardball host Chris Matthews, Newsweek chief political correspondent Howard Fineman, and NBC White House correspondent David Gregory all used the "personal accounts" terminology, with Fineman even noting that Democrats "refuse to call it 'personal accounts' -- for them it's always 'private accounts.'" But despite Fineman's suggestion that Democrats are playing word games, the phrase "personal accounts" is a recent invention by Republican pollsters who found that the word "privatization" -- which had been used by all sides for decades -- polled badly.
  • On FOX News, Weekly Standard executive editor Fred Barnes inadvertently illustrated the absurdity of this effort to reinvent the English language. Barnes first argued that the word "privatization" didn't apply because "The government will decide what your options are in investing it"; seconds later, he contradicted himself, saying "the key" to the plan is individual ownership.
  • On CBS' The Early Show, Bill Plante twice used the phrase "personal accounts," while an on-screen graphic with the text "PERSONAL ACCOUNTS ... VOLUNTARY ... CONSERVATIVE INVESTMENTS" appeared on the screen.

A Media Matters review of State of the Union television coverage found that most hosts, correspondents, and commentators used the White House-approved term "personal accounts." The disparity was greatest on network news broadcasts, where, Media Matters noted, "only one correspondent exclusively used the term 'private accounts,' while 8 hosts, correspondents, and commentators adopted Bush's preferred term, 'personal accounts.'"

While acquiescing to Bush administration requests regarding language, many reporters also continued to have trouble getting basic facts about Social Security right.

NBC anchor Brian Williams stood idly by while Senator John McCain (R-AZ) got Social Security facts flatly wrong, falsely claiming that in 15 years there will be "no money at all left in the Social Security trust fund." McCain wasn't telling the truth; the Trust Fund isn't projected to run out until 2042, at the earliest -- but Williams allowed the senator to mislead viewers.

FOX News chief White House correspondent Carl Cameron did Williams one better, explicitly saying, "in 2018, Social Security becomes insolvent, paying more in taxes [sic: benefits] than incoming payroll taxes." Cameron was wrong; "insolvent" doesn't mean "paying out more than you take in," it means "unable to meet financial obligations." The Social Security system is projected to continue to pay out full benefits through at least 2042, even with no changes whatsoever.

CNN White House correspondent Dana Bash, meanwhile, wildly overstated the rate of return that private accounts would yield, suggesting that private accounts would realize ten times the return that the Trust Fund sees. But as Media Mattes noted, "In fact, the chief Social Security actuary has estimated the rate of return on equities at only 6.5 percent" (far less than the ten percent Bash indicated), "[a]nd many other economists have argued that even this estimate is overly optimistic and that Bush's proposal will increase retirees' exposure to risk without producing a better rate of return than the current system."

State of the Union television coverage continued trend of conservative guests outnumbering progressives

Media Matters has frequently catalogued the disparity between the numbers of conservative and progressive guests on cable news. Last month's Inauguration Day coverage, for example, featured 83 Republican and conservative guests on CNN, FOX, and MSNBC, while only 20 progressive guests appeared on those programs.

The trend continued during coverage of Bush's State of the Union address this week, particularly on MSNBC. Between 7 p.m. and 12 a.m., MSNBC featured eleven conservative guests and only two progressives. MSNBC had four elected Republicans as guests: Senators Lott (R-MS), McCain (R-AZ), Santorum (R-PA), and Hatch (R-UT), and no elected Democrats. Bush's communications director and former speechwriter were also guests; the only progressive guests were Ron Reagan Jr. and Hilary Rosen.

Gannongate heats up: Real reporters blast increasingly controversial Talon News

Last week, Media Matters explored the absurdity of Talon News' Jeff Gannon's presence at White House press briefings, noting that Talon News has more in common with an advocacy organization than with a news outlet.

This week, Media Matters president and CEO David Brock wrote to White House press secretary Scott McClellan, asking him to consider revoking Gannon's press credentials. Media Matters also detailed McClellan's tendency to use Gannon as a "lifeline" when real reporters ask him difficult questions:

Talon News "reporter" Jeff Gannon's softball questions often steer White House press secretary Scott McClellan away from more difficult inquiries raised during White House press briefings; on several occasions, McClellan has turned to Gannon for his questions after other press corps members have asked pointed questions on controversial topics. In reviewing White House press conferences from the past year, Media Matters for America has noted numerous instances in which Gannon's lobs -- leading questions that often include false assumptions favorable to the Bush administration -- have allowed McClellan to move to friendlier turf, away from having to answer questions on such issues as the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment; the Bush administration's relationship with former Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi; the growing trade deficit with China; and President Bush's Texas Air National Guard record.

After Media Matters showed that employees of Talon and GOPUSA have extensive political backgrounds but no journalism experience of note, Talon News pulled its employees' biographies from its website.

Also this week, Editor & Publisher reported that "the group that handles credentials for Capitol Hill correspondents turn[ed] down ... [Gannon's] request [for credentials] last summer." Gannon's presence at White House press briefings drew fire from Edwin Chen of the Los Angeles Times, who said: "They ought to get legitimate members of the fourth estate, not political hacks on either side." Bob Deans, who covers the White House for Cox Newspapers, added, "I think Jeff's questions suggest he has a pretty strong partisan bent that is at odds with the mission of White House correspondents who go to those meetings on behalf of the public. ... That is not the point of White House briefings." White House Correspondents' Association president Ron Hutcheson concluded, "I see it as a problem. ... It wastes a lot of time, and it is an abuse of the forum."

According to Editor & Publisher:

Gannon's credibility was first called into question last spring by The Standing Committee of Correspondents, a group of congressional reporters who oversee press credential distribution on Capitol Hill. Julie Davis, a reporter at The Sun of Baltimore and a member of that committee, said Gannon approached the group in April 2004 seeking a Capitol Hill credential for Talon News, but he was refused.

"We asked for evidence that they were an independent news organization," Davis told E&P. "That they were not connected to a political organization, and they could not provide that, so we denied them their credential." She also said Talon News could not prove it carried paid advertising or paid circulation, two other criteria for approval.

Because Talon did not receive a congressional press credential, it was unable to obtain a White House "hard pass," the permanent press credential that allows White House reporters regular access, Davis said. Instead, she said, Gannon has had to get a daily press credential, which is much easier to get but must be issued each day.

More controversy about networks' refusal to run issue ads

Media Matters has previously noted cable and broadcast television networks' inconsistency in rejecting "controversial" issue ads. CBS, in particular, seems to have established a pattern of airing issue ads produced by conservatives but refusing those that are produced by progressives or criticize the Bush administration. The network is not eager to defend this pattern.

This week, after NBC refused to air an ad sponsored by consumer advocacy organization USAction, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) wrote to the Federal Communications Commission asking for an investigation into the networks' policies on issue ads. CREW executive director Melanie Sloan noted, "The network's decisions on which ads to run are inconsistent at best. ... CREW is simply asking that the FCC investigate the implementation of the networks' policies to ensure that each submitted ad is evaluated on the same set of criteria and not prejudiced by the administration's agenda."

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