What is media coverage of Iraq war good for? Absolutely nothing
On May 1, the British Sunday Times revealed a secret memo, dated July 23, 2002, that was circulated among British defense and foreign policy officials and staff. The memo read in part:
C reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC [National Security Council] had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime's record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action. [Emphasis added.]
Salon.com's Joe Conason wrote of the memo:
There is a "smoking memo" that confirms the worst assumptions about the Bush administration's Iraq policy, but although that memo generated huge pre-election headlines in Britain, its existence has hardly been mentioned here.
[The memo read in part,] "The Foreign Secretary said he would discuss this with Colin Powell this week. It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran."
Those few lines sum up everything that went wrong in the months and years to come -- and place the clear stamp of falsehood on the Bush administration's public pronouncements as the president pushed the nation toward war.
Think Progress has more on the memo's implications.
As Conason noted, the memo has received scant attention in the U.S. media. A May 6 Knight Ridder article began:
A highly classified British memo, leaked during Britain's just-concluded election campaign, claims President Bush decided by summer 2002 to overthrow Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and was determined to ensure that U.S. intelligence data supported his policy.
But beyond that, American media outlets have been largely silent about the memo -- despite paying great attention to the British elections upon which the revelation of the memo had considerable impact.
CNN, for example, aired only the briefest of passing references to the memo:
- CAROL LIN (anchor): "Also, it's an election week in Great Britain. And Prime Minister Tony Blair is on the defensive, mainly over accusations in British press, reportedly from leaked secret documents that he and the U.S. president had planned the invasion of Iraq and committed troops nine months before it happened." [CNN Sunday Night, 5/1/05]
- ROBIN OAKLEY (CNN European political editor): "But Tony Blair and his party are not behaving as if they've got this election in the bag. And the reason is the wrong subject keeps cropping up in the headlines. It's Iraq, Iraq, Iraq, day after day, more revelations, leaked memorandums, leaked Downing Street about the government, for example, committing itself to war in Iraq many months before it has previously indicated that it did so. And Tony Blair is worried that in the marginal seats, a lot of traditional labor supporters who didn't like the war will fail to turn out in what may be a low turnout election." [News from CNN, 5/2/05]
That's it -- and that's more than we can find on MSNBC or Fox News.
Of course, as we noted last week, news organizations have a difficult task in deciding what is and isn't newsworthy.
In this case, for cable news outlets to have covered the disclosure of a memo that suggests that President Bush manipulated pre-war intelligence to support his agenda, they might have had to cut back on their wall-to-wall coverage of one of the most important issues of our time: the so-called "Runaway Bride," Jennifer Wilbanks. A search of the Nexis database yields 125 news reports about Wilbanks on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox since May 1 (including online news reports). Or perhaps they would have had to pare down their coverage of American Idol, or the Michael Jackson trial.
The cable "news" networks aren't alone in ignoring the story, though. The New York Times, which famously apologized for its pre-war coverage, apparently still hasn't learned its lesson -- the "paper of record" hasn't yet mentioned the British memo.
Maybe that will change now that 88 members of Congress have sent President Bush a letter demanding answers about the matter. If not, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), who circulated the letter, might want to see if Paula Abdul will sign it.
(P.S.: After this was written, but before it was posted, CNN again mentioned the memo: Inside Politics host Judy Woodruff introduced the May 6 "Inside the Blogs" segment by saying, "A secret British government memo has been made public, and it has the blogosphere all abuzz. We check in now on that and more with CNN political producer Abbi Tatton and Jacki Schechner, our blog reporter." Woodruff offered no explanation for why CNN and other media outlets haven't been similarly "abuzz" over the memo. Regardless, it's a dark day when CNN's "witheringly bad" and "excruciatingly empty" blog segment actually does a better job of covering the news than the rest of the network.)
What is going on at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting? And why won't The New York Times tell you?
It's a strange time at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which just hired two new ombudsmen -- a conservative, William Schulz, and ... another conservative, Ken Bode.
Oddly, while The New York Times reported the hires and noted that CPB's Republican chairman, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, is trying to "correct what he and other conservatives consider liberal bias" at CPB, the paper didn't mention that Schulz is an avowed conservative who previously worked with Tomlinson at Reader's Digest, and Bode is, at best, a middle-of-the-road journalist -- one who endorsed Republican Indiana gubernatorial candidate (and former Bush Office of Management and Budget director) Mitch Daniels in his 2004 race and happens to be an adjunct fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute. Even if, through some contortion of fact and logic, the case could be made that Bode and Schulz "balance" each other out, achieving political "balance" is not the function of an ombudsman, or two. According to The Ombudsman Association's code of ethics, an ombudsman is a "designated neutral" who "strives for objectivity and impartiality."
The Times also "failed to mention the presence of conservative media figures with a record of misinformation" on PBS and NPR, as Media Matters noted. The Times dutifully reported complaints by conservatives that the news organizations are too liberal, but didn't bother to mention contradictory information, such as the fact that PBS airs programs hosted by frequent purveyors of conservative misinformation, including Paul Gigot of the far-right Wall Street Journal editorial page and Tucker Carlson.
The Times reported that Tomlinson "contracted last year with an outside consultant to keep track of the guests' political leanings on one program, Now With Bill Moyers. " Later, the Times again referred to Tomlinson's concerns about balance on the program:
In December 2003, three months after he was elected chairman, Mr. Tomlinson sent Ms. [Pat] Mitchell of PBS a letter outlining his concerns. "'Now With Bill Moyers' does not contain anything approaching the balance the law requires for public broadcasting," he wrote.
Shortly after, Mr. Tomlinson hired a consultant to review Mr. Moyers's program; one three-month contract cost $10,000. The reports Mr. Tomlinson saw placed the program's guests in categories like "anti-Bush," "anti-business" and "anti-Tom DeLay," referring to the House majority leader, corporation officials said. The reports found the guests were overwhelmingly anti-Bush, a conclusion Mr. Moyers disputed.
Mr. Tomlinson said he conducted the content review on his own, without sending the results to the board or making them public, because he wanted to better understand complaints he was hearing without provoking a storm. "If I wanted to be more destructive to public broadcasting but score political points, I would have come out with this study a year and a half ago," he said.
It is worth noting that while the Times report suggests that Tomlinson's review confirmed his suspicions of a lack of balance in Moyers' guests, nothing in the article explicitly states as much. And, while Tomlinson implies the study confirmed his suspicions, he does not say as much, either. Several possibilities exist: the Times had access to Tomlinson's study, and it demonstrated a guest imbalance; or the Times had access to Tomlinson's study, and it didn't confirm an imbalance; or the Times did not have access to the study. Whatever the situation, surely the Times should have made it clear to readers.
Finally, National Public Radio's (NPR) controversial religion reporter, Barbara Bradley Hagerty, took an overly narrow view of "Christian values" in concluding a report about religious conservatives who believe that separation of church and state is inconsistent with the principles outlined by the nation's Founding Fathers. Media Matters noted that this isn't the first time Hagerty has faced criticism:
Several blogs have detailed the apparent conflicts of interest in Hagerty's reporting for NPR, including what seems to be Hagerty's violation of NPR's ethics guidelines. Eschaton (a blog run by Media Matters for America Senior Fellow Duncan Black, but otherwise unaffiliated with this organization) and others demonstrated Hagerty's failure to disclose the right-wing backgrounds of people she interviewed in a piece about Sen. John Kerry's (D-MA) Catholicism. Another blog, Better Angels, posted a series of items about Hagerty and NPR's coverage of religion in May 2004; see in particular this post, this post, and this post.
NPR's Rudin, MSNBC's Scarborough respond to criticism
NPR political editor Ken Rudin, a journalist with more than two decades of experience, and MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman, both responded to criticism this week, but in very different ways: One stridently mocked critics for correctly pointing out a factual error in a broadcast; the other graciously thanked critics for pointing out information he had overlooked, and for their "invaluable" efforts to "hold reporters and journalists accountable."
After Media Matters noted that NPR reporter David Welna misattributed the origins of the phrase "nuclear option" to Democrats, Welna's subsequent reports either correctly noted that Republicans coined the phrase, or omitted any reference to its origin. So far, so good: that, more or less, is how journalists should respond when an error in their work is brought to their attention. But when NPR political editor Rudin addressed the matter in his April 28 "Political Junkie" column, he seemed to think that the real problem wasn't that an NPR report got a basic matter of fact completely wrong, but rather that listeners who pointed out the error weren't sufficiently creative in their emails:
Finally, congratulations to the dozens and dozens of free thinkers who wrote in, often using the exact same language, regarding a piece by NPR's David Welna on the oncoming collision in the Senate over the right of the minority to filibuster judicial nominations. David mentioned that Senate Democrats are calling Republican leader Bill Frist's threat to change the rules and curtail the filibuster the "nuclear option." Some Web logs took NPR to task by saying we were parroting the GOP line by attributing the quote to the Dems, when after all it was Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS) who coined the phrase. All David was doing was saying that Democrats were calling it the "nuclear option," which they were. Welna didn't say that the Dems originated the term. He didn't get into its etymology. But suddenly, according to a bunch of blogs, NPR was "bamboozled," joining the vast right-wing conspiracy in attributing the phrase to the Democrats. And that was followed by dozens of e-mails, all from people "outraged" that NPR would stoop to such tactics. The least they could do is change some of the wording and make it look like they actually did some independent thinking before pressing the "send" button.
To Ken Rudin, apparently, it's less important that NPR get the facts right than that NPR listeners consult a thesaurus when writing to him. Readers of Rudin's column who write to him about his priorities can save him a great deal of frustration by remembering that, instead of "wrong," they can use the words "incorrect," "amiss," "askew," "bad," "faulty," "mistaken," "off-target," "perverse," or -- our favorite -- "misguided."
MSNBC's Scarborough, meanwhile, was the subject of an April 29 "Action Alert" from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), which said Scarborough Country guest G. Gordon Liddy's "advocacy of shooting federal agents should have been disclosed in a segment about violent talk radio rhetoric."
Scarborough quickly responded to FAIR:
Just saw your site's write up on my show with G. Gordon Liddy.
I admit that I am shocked that I did not have personal knowledge of Liddy's statement. I remembered Bill Clinton blaming Liddy for Oklahoma City but obviously did not know the back story. As one who has stayed on top of pop culture and media since my teenage years, I am embarrassed I did not recall that shocking statement.
Secondly, I am surprised our team did not have this information at hand when we did the segment. It was an embarrassing oversight and one that I will mention on an upcoming show.*
Ironically, the point of the segment was to focus on how inflammatory talk radio has become and what is required to get good ratings. Having the Liddy comments on air was a great opportunity that we lost.
Thanks for your work to hold reporters and journalists accountable. Such a service is invaluable for those of us who want to be fair.
All the best, Joe Scarborough
* Scarborough has not yet done so.
NPR's Ken Rudin, along with many of his fellow journalists, could take a lesson from Scarborough's refreshing openness to media criticism.
Christian Science Monitor ignores Minuteman's ties to white supremacists
We've long lamented the media's tendency to ignore relevant details about activists they give attention to. In April, for example, we noted that a Christian Science Monitor article that quoted Karen Brauer of Pharmacists for Life "offers a fresh example of how poor a job many reporters do of giving readers and viewers adequate information about the sources they cite."
So we were disappointed, but not surprised, when another Monitor article glossed over the controversial background of Minuteman Project volunteer Joe McCutchen. As Media Matters explained:
In a May 2 article chronicling the Minuteman Project's efforts to patrol a portion of the U.S.-Mexico border, The Christian Science Monitor described Minuteman volunteer Joe McCutchen as "a retired pilot" who donated his time and money to man a lookout post on the Arizona/Mexico border eight hours a day for two weeks. But the article's portrayal of a man dedicated to the Minuteman "vigil" -- spending "14 days in a folding chair, buffeted by wind storms, face-cutting sand, freezing cold, and scorching sun" -- failed to include information that seems relevant to his motivation: his connection to two white supremacist organizations.
Monitor staff writer Daniel B. Wood quoted McCutchen describing "a new sense of compassion for the illegals who are being exploited by both countries," but Wood did not report McCutchen's association with the Council of Conservative Citizens and American Renaissance [a print publication listed as a hate sheet by the Southern Poverty Law Center], despite a January 27 Associated Press report exposing these ties.
We understand that news reports can't always -- shouldn't always -- include every detail about the background of every subject. But is it really asking too much to expect that an article about McCutchen's efforts to keep people from crossing the border from Mexico into the U.S. -- that makes particular note of his stamina and commitment -- might mention the fact that he has close ties to white supremacist organizations?
Pat Robertson: God doesn't control the weather -- except during Gay Days
Appearing on ABC's This Week, the always-interesting Pat Robertson seemed to contradict previous comments he has made about God's manipulation of earthly weather systems. Media Matters explained:
Responding to a question from ABC host George Stephanopoulos about why a God "so involved in our daily life" would allow a tsunami to kill hundreds of thousands of people, Rev. Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition of America, replied: "I don't think He reverses the laws of nature." That statement, on the May 1 edition of ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos, conflicts with other meteorological comments by Robertson, who has repeatedly linked natural disasters to the will of God.
After Orlando, Florida, city officials voted in 1998 to fly rainbow flags from city lampposts during the annual Gay Days event at Disney World, Robertson issued the city a warning: "I don't think I'd be waving those flags in God's face if I were you. ... [A] condition like this will bring about the destruction of your nation. It'll bring about terrorist bombs, it'll bring earthquakes, tornadoes and possibly a meteor."
Robertson claimed that his prayers to God helped steer Hurricane Gloria in 1985 and Hurricane Felix in 1995 away from Hampton Roads, Virginia, the headquarters of Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network, according to The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, VA) on June 10, 1998. The Virginian-Pilot further noted that "Robertson also believes that various natural disasters are signs of God's will and that the world will suffer more of them before the arrival of 'the end of the age.'"
Pat Robertson (again): Judges are a greater threat to America than Al Qaeda, Nazis
The New York Daily News reported on May 2:
Federal judges are a more serious threat to America than Al Qaeda and the Sept. 11 terrorists, the Rev. Pat Robertson claimed yesterday.
"Over 100 years, I think the gradual erosion of the consensus that's held our country together is probably more serious than a few bearded terrorists who fly into buildings," Robertson said on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos."
"I think we have controlled Al Qaeda," the 700 Club host said, but warned of "erosion at home" and said judges were creating a "tyranny of oligarchy."
Confronted by Stephanopoulos on his claims that an out-of-control liberal judiciary is the worst threat America has faced in 400 years - worse than Nazi Germany, Japan and the Civil War - Robertson didn't back down.
"Yes, I really believe that," he said. "I think they are destroying the fabric that holds our nation together."
Which raises a question we wish we could answer: When is the last time a liberal who is as extreme and incendiary as Pat Robertson was granted the opportunity to appear on such a high-profile broadcast as ABC's This Week?
Almost incredibly, Robertson hasn't backed down; in a letter to Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Robertson suggested that his comments have been "blown out of proportion" and "taken out of context." After claiming to have been taken out of context, Robertson again said it is his "firm conviction" that "Supreme Court decisions which have led to ... the sanctioning of pornography" are "graver dangers in the decades to come than the terrorists."
Oh. Well, that clears everything up.
We don't often agree with Steve Forbes, but the former Republican presidential candidate's famous description of Robertson does have a certain appeal.
Coming soon: Right-wing media present medical advice from Cliff Huxtable
First Fox News treated viewers to the insights of psychic medium John Edward on the Terri Schiavo case. Now, Fox host Cal Thomas wrote a syndicated column defending the use of torture by invoking the experience and expertise of counterterrorism expert Jack Bauer.
To be sure, Bauer has an impressive resume: Special Assistant to the Secretary of Defense; Delta Force Counter Terrorist Group; a B.A. from the University of California (Berkeley). Unfortunately, that resume -- like Bauer himself -- is completely made up. Bauer is a fictional character on 24, a fictional television show that is a product of the often fictional Fox Broadcasting Co.
Social Security misinformation runs rampant following Bush press conference
As it has all year, conservative misinformation has dominated media coverage of President Bush's plans to privatize Social Security following his press conference a week ago. Media Matters has extensively detailed and debunked this misinformation; read all about it here, here, here, here, and here.
ABC airs ad from right-wing religious group -- after claiming it doesn't run ads from religious groups
The right-wing religious group Focus on the Family capitalized on the exhausting household mayhem of Monday's season finale of "Supernanny," the ABC reality show, by airing ads for parenting products that are available on its Focus on Your Child Web site. The site offers some generic parenting pointers, but as Media Matters points out, it also peddles some controversial methodology. There are audiotapes explaining "the rationale behind the use of corporal punishment and how to administer it with love." And there is founder James Dobson's book, the original 1970 version of which advised parents that "minor pain can ... provide excellent motivation for the child." (A new edition of the book was released in '96, but since the War Room library doesn't yet contain a copy, we're not sure if that particular advice carried over.)
Curiously, Monday's ad for such "parenting advice from a faith-based perspective" didn't prove too controversial for ABC -- even though last year the network allegedly refused to air a gay-friendly ad from the United Church of Christ, on the grounds that "the network doesn't take advertising from religious groups."
It's hard to see how ABC figured that Focus on the Family doesn't qualify as a religious group -- as DailyKos points out, the Focus mission statement reads, "To cooperate with the Holy Spirit in disseminating the Gospel of Jesus Christ to as many people as possible, and, specifically, to accomplish that objective by helping to preserve traditional values and the institution of the family."
Media Matters' first birthday
Media Matters for America celebrated its first birthday this week. Our first year has been more successful than we could have hoped -- but we're just getting started. We couldn't have come as far as we have without our readers and supporters, and we need your help going forward. Media Matters founder, president, and CEO David Brock explained:
Like any fledgling enterprise, we have plenty of room for improvement. Please help us stem the tide of conservative misinformation in the media by getting directly involved in our work. Many of our items have come to us from readers, who email them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Media Matters also wants to develop a corps of media activists. Our website readers know that our research items include contact information for the offending parties, so our readers can confront the media directly with their concerns about conservative misinformation. And we know that media as varied as CNN, ABC's Nightline, syndicated columnists Thomas Sowell and Michelle Malkin, and the ombudsmen of The New York Times and The Washington Post have felt the heat. Please register for our action alerts, and enlist friends and family.
Together, we will continue to make a difference.