On the October 2 broadcast of CBS' Face the Nation, host Bob Schieffer featured a panel of three Republican congressmen to discuss what Schieffer described as "all of these problems that have suddenly beset the Republican party." Schieffer explained that he did not invite any Democrats to be on the panel because the discussion focused on "a Republican problem," and he "wanted to give [Republicans] a chance to talk about it."
But, as Media Matters for America explained: "Schieffer's failure to provide balance or critical questioning allowed the Republican guests to make unchallenged claims about the motivations of the prosecutor in the conspiracy charges against former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX), attack congressional Democrats, and provide partisan analysis in areas unrelated to recent GOP ethics problems, such as President Bush's tax cuts."
Following Media Matters' critique of the unbalanced panel, Vaughn Ververs, editor of CBS News' Public Eye weblog, defended the network's decision, as did Face the Nation's executive producer. But the defense fell flat almost immediately:
PE spoke with "Face the Nation" Executive Producer Carin Pratt, who explained the thinking behind the segment. Pratt said that, given the events of the past weeks, she "didn't want it to get into a partisan fight" over the character, vices or virtues of DeLay or Democratic prosecutor Ronnie Earle. "The fact of the matter," Pratt said is that DeLay "had already been indicted."
If the goal in inviting only Republicans to discuss the indictment was to avoid a "partisan fight" over Earle, it was a spectacularly naïve approach to take. In what must have been a surprise to nobody other than Pratt, Rep. John B. Shadegg (R-AZ) wasted little time before attacking Earle:
SHADEGG: Look, Washington is a city in which destroying people is considered sport. And we live in an era of the politics of personal destruction. As a former prosecutor, I'm very much aware that Tom DeLay's fate is in the hand of this trial, and that prosecutors have immense powers. The United States Supreme Court has said that prosecutors in the exercise of that power need to be guided solely by public responsibility. I think there are grave questions about this indictment, as [fellow panelist Rep.] David Dreier [R-CA] has already said. I do know that prosecutors can drag cases out for a long time, and I know that in this case, there are questions about whether this particular prosecutor has used his powers and his office for political purposes in the past.
Rather than a "partisan fight" over Earle, CBS gave viewers a one-sided political hit on him.
Media Matters also complains that "the unbalanced format allowed Dreier and Shadegg the opportunity to promote Bush's tax cuts without any Democratic response." Why did the Democrats need a response when [panelist Rep. Jim] Leach [R-IA] served to highlight differences within the party on the issue by saying, "It's pretty hard to have a fiscal balance when you have a war, you have a natural disaster and you have spectacular tax cuts. ... I think we have to be very cautious or we're going to have our fiscal house become an embarrassment."
Why did the Democrats need a response? Because Leach's answer blamed "a war ... a natural disaster ... [and] tax cuts" for the budget deficits -- even though the budget was in deficit long before Hurricane Katrina, long before we were at war, and even before the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Ververs ended his post by asking: "And critics see Republican advantage in all this?" Well, yes, there does seem to be an advantage to Republicans in having the opportunity to appear on Face the Nation without a Democratic counterpoint. Isn't that self-evident?
Two days later, Ververs took another stab at defending the Face the Nation panel:
Pratt told me she did not want to get into a "partisan fight" over the actual DeLay indictment but instead was interested in pursuing a discussion about how it adds to the myriad of problems impacting the GOP at this time ... From the perspective of someone who spends a lot of time flipping around various news programs and seeing the same 'Republican talking points' v. 'Democrat talking points' arguments, I appreciate any effort to break out of that formula.
Few would likely object to breaking away from "seeing the same 'Republican talking points' v. 'Democratic talking points' arguments." The problem is that CBS kept the "Republican talking points" while jettisoning the "Democratic talking points." Instead of multiple sides being represented, viewers saw Shadegg attack Earle with nobody to offer the opposing point of view. Schieffer certainly didn't tell viewers what it is; he responded to Shadegg's broadside on Earle by saying "OK."
Dreier attacked Democrats, claiming that "there is really no plan that has come forward from Democrats on any issue whatsoever. And they made a determination early on that they were going to attack Republicans on the issue of ethics." He went on to hint at "ethical problems that exist on the Democratic side" without offering any detail to back up the claim. There was no Democrat there to respond to Dreier's attacks. Broadcasting one-sided partisan attacks is an improvement over giving both parties their say?
Of course the DeLay story is much, much more than just a "Republican story." If the bulk of the coverage has not reflected that or if Democrats have not found a way to speak to it, there would be a real problem. But in fact, the bulk of the coverage has been full of partisan talking points. To take ten minutes out of a week's worth of massive media coverage and claim some sort of bias is stretching reality.
But Face the Nation didn't avoid "partisan talking points." It was full of "partisan talking points" -- but only from one side. When John Shadegg accused Earle of being a partisan, that was a partisan talking point. Dreier accusing Democrats of having no plan? Partisan talking point. Shadegg asserting that "tax cuts have stimulated this economy"? Partisan talking point.
Assuming the goal really was to avoid partisan talking points, that's something everyone can get behind. But giving three Republican congressmen a platform to speak without opposition is a stunningly flawed way to go about it.
But, as the week closed, it became clear that CBS still stands by its one-side-of-the-story-is-better-than-two policy. The October 9 broadcast of 60 Minutes will feature a segment about former FBI director Louis Freeh's criticism of former President Clinton. Reports in The Washington Post and The New York Sun indicate that 60 Minutes refuses to interview any Clinton administration officials who disagree with Freeh, insisting on a response from Clinton himself, or no response at all. As Media Matters noted:
60 Minutes' refusal to accept a surrogate in place of Clinton is inconsistent with the way the show handled a similar story about a book critical of President Bush. On March 21, 2004, 60 Minutes ran a segment about former National Security Council counterterrorism coordinator Richard Clarke's then-upcoming book, Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror (Free Press, March 2004). The segment included not only an exclusive interview with Clarke but also an interview with Bush administration National Security Council official Stephen Hadley, who was given time to defend Bush from Clarke's criticism.
Take action! Urge the producers of 60 Minutes to provide an opportunity for a Clinton administration official to respond to Freeh.
Media Matters has previously detailed numerous examples of conservative misinformation in CBS' news coverage, a sample of which can be found here.
In response to a September 30 letter in which Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) and other members of Congress asked for Bill Bennett's radio show to be suspended, Greg R. Anderson, president of the company that distributes Bennett's show, Salem Radio Network, defended Bennett's comments, claimed they were taken out of context, and added:
In the strongest terms [Bennett] said, "[aborting every black baby in this country] would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do..." The broader context and backdrop of [Bennett's] discussion were the positions on crime and abortion which were discussed in the New York Times bestseller, Freakonomics [by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (William Morrow, May 2005)]. By lifting that one sentence out of context, it would appear to suggest that Dr. Bennett is advocating a position that is the exact opposite of what he actually said.
In response to Anderson's letter, Conyers wrote: "Frankly speaking, I believe your letter completely misses the point of why I and many others ... found these remarks so offensive." Conyers noted (as Media Matters did last week) that "Mr. Bennett gratuitously injected racial stereotyping into a conversation with a caller about social security and abortion." Conyers added that "to date, neither you nor Mr. Bennett have explained why such stereotyping was needed or even bothered to apologize for linking race with crime in such a discriminatory fashion." Conyers also noted (as Media Matters did here) that "Freakonomics, the book that Bennett cited to advance his argument, does not address race at all -- that was solely Bennett's contribution."
Right-wing pundit Ann Coulter joined Bennett and Anderson in misrepresenting Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner's Freakonomics (William Morrow, May 2005), as Media Matters detailed. Bennett, meanwhile, unveiled a new strategy for dealing with the controversy: the "I'm Rubber, You're Glue" defense.
During a bizarre October 4 O'Reilly Factor segment devoted largely to attacking Media Matters, Bill O'Reilly whined:
They won't put the -- when we had to book this segment, I couldn't get people to come on and say what you guys are saying, because they were afraid that Media Matters would go after them. They -- I couldn't -- I had people turn down this segment -- a bunch of them -- what are you, crazy? I'm going to criticize these assassins? They'll come after me. And that's a chilling effect.
O'Reilly should have called us. The O'Reilly Factor has repeatedly declined requests from Media Matters to appear on the show to discuss claims made on it. O'Reilly's failure to ask a Media Matters representative to appear on a program largely devoted to attacking our organization is particularly interesting, given O'Reilly's stated belief that "If you attack someone publicly, as these men did to me, you have an obligation to face the person you are smearing. If you don't, you are a coward."
We've said it before; and we'll probably have to say it again: By his own definition of the term, Bill O'Reilly is a coward.
President Bush's nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court has drawn criticism and ridicule from across the political spectrum.
The liberal The Nation called the nomination "Crony Constitutionalism." At The American Prospect, Matthew Yglesias saw "evidence of cronyism"; colleague Ezra Klein was more certain: "This is cronyism. It should be called that." Columnist Charles Krauthammer agreed: "If Harriet Miers were not a crony of the President of the United States, her nomination to the Supreme Court would be a joke, as it would have occurred to no one else to nominate her. Newsday's Marie Cocco: "A president exposed for appointing unqualified political cronies to fill government jobs of unquestionable importance now has given the nation a Supreme Court nominee who is a political crony." Conservative columnist William Kristol labeled the nomination "a combination of cronyism and capitulation." National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru was charitable: he called it "a kind of higher cronyism." His colleague Jonah Goldberg didn't see anything "higher" about it, arguing: "Cronyism is not a principle, or at least one not easily defended. Miers may be great stuff, but I don't think anyone can doubt Bush picked her because she's his gal Friday."
But the New York Times, faced with near-unanimous consent from left, right and center that the nomination of Miers was "cronyism," inexplicably suggested that only "the left" is making that claim. Then they did it again, with The Washington Post joining in.
MSNBC's Pete Williams claimed "it would be wrong to say conservatives have opposed the nomination," arguing that "the leaders of conservative groups themselves" -- as opposed to mere commentators like Kristol and Rush Limbaugh -- support Miers. But, as Media Matters detailed, several "leaders of conservative groups," from Family Research Council president Tony Perkins to the Free Congress Foundation's Paul Weyrich to the Eagle Forum's Phyllis Schlafly, have expressed misgivings about Miers.
When not busy portraying opposition to Miers as a partisan matter, some news organizations uncritically adopted the White House's line that Miers "cleaned up" the Texas Lottery Commission during her tenure as chairwoman. USA Today reported that Miers "fired two executive directors in an effort to clean up a series of scandals"; the New York Times told readers "she helped clean up" the Commission; the Los Angeles Times reported that Bush "turned to her to help clean up" the commission; and The Boston Globe said Bush "tapped [Miers] to clean up the state's lottery commission."
It probably isn't a coincidence that all four papers used the "cleaned up" description on October 4, just a day after White House press secretary Scott McClellan claimed that Miers "helped clean it up when it needed cleaning up." But shouldn't the newspapers have attributed the description to him rather than presenting it as fact?
Better yet, shouldn't they have actually looked into Miers' tenure as chairwoman of the Texas Lottery Commission -- a tenure Dallas Morning News political reporter Wayne Slater has described as "troubled ... a real, real problem"? Among other controversies, Miers played a recurring role in the mystery surrounding Bush's National Guard record -- or lack thereof. At a time when the Bush administration and the Republican Party face an ever-enlarging list of ethical controversies, the record of a Supreme Court nominee widely described as a "crony" who has been involved in one of the president's most controversial scandals would seem to merit more serious investigation than many news organizations have given it.
Jamison Foser is Executive Vice President at Media Matters for America.