| This Week: |
In January, we noted that the day after The New York Times broke the story of the National Security Agency's (NSA) warrantless wiretapping scheme (which has now been ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge), the Times and The Washington Post combined to devote 6,303 words to the story, in articles attributed to a total of 12 reporters. By comparison, we pointed out that the day after the Monica Lewinsky story broke in 1998, the two papers combined to run 19 articles totaling more than 20,000 words and reflecting the work of 28 named reporters, in addition to both papers' editorial boards -- in just one day.
In the weeks and months after the Lewinsky story broke, the Times and Post (and the rest of the media) continued to devote an enormous amount of resources to their coverage. For example, on February 25, 1998, 35 days after the story broke, the two papers combined to run more than 10,000 words on the Lewinsky story, reflecting the work of at least 17 reporters and columnists. Thirty-five days after the NSA story broke, the Times and Post combined to run roughly 2,200 words on the story, with only three reporters credited for the articles.
We concluded by posing some questions to leading news organizations:
1. How many reporters, editors, and researchers did you assign to the Lewinsky story when it broke? How many remained assigned to that story one month later?
2. How many reporters, editors, and researchers did you assign to the NSA story when it broke? How many remained assigned to that story one month later?
3. How do you explain the disparity?
We were reminded of those questions -- and, more broadly, of the stunning lack of attention paid by many news organizations to the most important issues of the day -- by recent coverage of the ruling that the NSA program is illegal.
Last week, the weblog Think Progress noted that on the day of the ruling, the three major television news broadcasts -- ABC, CBS, and NBC -- combined to run stories about the ruling that totaled only 2 minutes, 52 seconds. By comparison, the three network news broadcasts spent more than 15 minutes that same night on the JonBenet Ramsey murder investigation -- a story of, to put it bluntly, no national significance whatsoever. NBC's coverage was the most egregious: more than seven and a half minutes on Ramsey and only 27 seconds on the NSA ruling.
Meanwhile, a contributor to the popular blog Talking Points Memo pointed out that the morning after the ruling, the Times ran front-page articles on both the NSA case and the Ramsey case -- but listed 13 reporters as contributing to the Ramsey story and only two contributing to the article about the NSA ruling.
The Times' Ramsey article checked in at more than 2,400 words, while the paper found space for only 1,500 words of reporting about the NSA ruling (plus a 550-word editorial.)
Put simply, this is an appalling failure by the nation's leading news organizations -- and it isn't the fault of reporters like the Times' Eric Lichtblau and Adam Liptak, who wrote the article about the NSA ruling. It's the fault of the people who decided to devote only two reporters to covering the ruling, while putting 13 on the Ramsey story. It's the fault of the people who decided that JonBenet Ramsey deserved more coverage than a federal judge's ruling that the Bush administration had violated the law and the Constitution. It's the fault of people who continually make decisions to devote resources, column inches, and airtime to stories like the Ramsey case and the so-called "Runaway Bride" instead of stories that matter.
And that's the important part. We don't have any interest in stories like the Runaway Bride, but if news organizations think they can pay some bills by appealing to the public's inner voyeurs, that's their business. Literally. But when they leave stories of actual national significance uncovered, or poorly covered, while devoting massive resources to lurid local crime stories, that's something we should all care about. That's something we should reject.
After all, it's no coincidence that half the country falsely believes that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. When NBC devotes only 27 seconds to a federal court ruling that the Bush administration has been trampling the Constitution, but spends almost eight minutes on JonBenet Ramsey; when The New York Times assigns a couple of reporters to the Bush administration's illegal actions and more than a dozen to Ramsey; and when CNN ignores the Downing Street memo in favor of the Runaway Bride -- should we really be surprised that the public lacks even a basic understanding of the most important issues of our time?
This week, CNN aired a two-hour program about Osama bin Laden that didn't bother to mention a recent revelation that bin Laden escaped in the mountains of Afghanistan in November 2001 only after President Bush was personally warned that bin Laden would do so unless more U.S. troops were sent to get him rather than leaving the job to Pakistani and Afghan forces. In fact, that revelation, like others contained in Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind's The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11 (Simon & Schuster, June 2006), has thus far not been mentioned in the pages of The New York Times, or on CNN, or on any of the network news broadcasts. Might their failure to report such an obviously significant revelation have some impact on how the public views the Bush administration?
As The Washington Post's Dan Froomkin explained, thorough and accurate media investigation of what the Bush administration has done so far is essential:
There is a popular sentiment among the Washington elite that what went wrong in the run-up to the war in Iraq has been sufficiently examined, and that it's all water under the bridge anyway.
It's popular in the White House and among Republicans for obvious reasons. But it's also remarkably popular among top Democrats and the establishment media, because they aren't all that eager to call any more attention to the fact that they were played for suckers.
There are, however, some people who believe that what led this country to launch a war of choice under false pretenses must be examined in detail -- over and over again if necessary -- until the appropriate lessons have been learned.
Otherwise, one might argue, history is doomed to repeat itself.
Enter history, stage right.
Once again, powerful neoconservative politicians who just know in their hearts that there is a terrible threat posed by a Middle Eastern country they have identified as part of the axis of evil are frustrated by the lack of conclusive evidence that would support a bellicose approach. So they are pressuring the nation's intelligence community to find facts that will support their argument.
This time, that scenario is being played out right in front of our eyes. Maybe that will make a difference?
Washington Post reporter Jonathan Weisman participated in an August 25 online discussion on the newspaper's website:
West Coast: Dick Cheney said he was stuck with the grave decision of whether to shoot down the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania or not. The recently released NORAD tapes confirm that the government first knew of the flight one minute before it went down. Is Cheney lying, again, or was he thinking very fast that day, with his drama unfolding within 60 seconds? I've yet to read anywhere that Cheney has been queried about his story. THANKS.
Jonathan Weisman: If I can get him on the phone, I will query him. Cheney's statements present a quandary for us reporters. Sometimes we write them up and are accused of being White House stenographers and stooges for repeating them. Then if we don't write them up, we are accused of being complicit for covering them up. So, all you folks on the left, what'll it be? Complicity or stenography?
We can't speak for all the "folks on the left," but we suspect most of them would choose "Option C: Journalism."
Indeed, several participants in the online discussion made exactly that point. As one put it: "[R]esearch and intelligent questions based on said research that makes up 'Reporting'. Retyping statements without research is 'Stenography'. Avoiding asking tough questions because it makes your original stenography look really, really bad is 'Complicity'." Weisman, showing nothing but contempt for his readers -- and, though it seems he didn't realize it, for his profession -- responded with a series of churlish comments like "Please apply for my job" and "Sometimes, you folks really drive us nuts."
We can assure Mr. Weisman that the feeling is mutual.
Read the entire transcript of Weisman's chat here for a perfect illustration of many of the problems with journalism today.
Then head over to Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Dick Polman's blog. In June, Polman -- described by ABC News as "one of the finest political journalists of his generation" -- posted an explanation of what's wrong with the kind of journalism Weisman seems to defend:
I don't feel that we should be content with passing along misinformation in "straight" stories. The reader deserves a full context, and that means politicians should be fact-checked -- a job that's relatively quick and easy to do, in the Google era. Providing accurate factual context is not "commentary." It's what "straight" reporting should be about.
It always helps to remember the lesson of Senator Joe McCarthy. The 1950s demagogue, whose inaccurate red-baiting wrecked careers and drove people to suicide, was enabled at every step of the way by journalists who believed their job was to only report "what was said." McCarthy was a senator, therefore, if he said something (true or not), it was deemed news. When he made wild charges about 60 or 80 or 100 communists in the State Department, it was reported as news. The "fact" that he was making such charges was considered sufficient; as the New York Times wrote back then, after reviewing their own McCarthy coverage, "It is difficult, if not impossible, to ignore charges by Senator McCarthy just because they are usually proved false. The remedy lies with the reader."
Washington reporter Richard Rovere, in a book he wrote two years after the senator's death, complained about "the system that required (reporters) to publish 'news' they knew to be fraudulent but prohibited them from reporting their knowledge of its fradulence. [sic]"
In today's world, given the credibility problems that have plagued administrations of both parties, that "system" is not an [sic] adequate. Nor was it then.
Pat Buchanan, "one of the most divisive men in contemporary history" (in a classic case of projection, that's the phrase Buchanan famously used to describe Martin Luther King Jr.) reminded us this week that there is no statement conservative pundits can make that is vile enough to cause them to be banished from major media outlets.
Not that we're surprised anymore; in recent months, we've seen NBC, CNN, and the rest try to cash in on the filth spewed forth by the likes of Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck. But Buchanan is no flash-in-the-pan hatemonger like Coulter; he has a decades-long track record of the kind of comments that even Sen. George F. Allen (R-VA) would probably think over the line. Buchanan once called Adolf Hitler "an individual of great courage." Last year, apparently not having learned his lesson, Buchanan wrote a column (subscription required) questioning whether World War II was "worth it" and wondered, "[W]hy destroy Hitler?"
Now Buchanan is back, with a new book defending bigotry in others and promoting some of his own.
And news shows like NBC's Today and MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews are all too happy to host him, giving him a platform to spread his warped view of the world. But while doing so, they don't challenge him on things like his defense of the idea that "Western civilization was superior and that only Europeans could have created it" or his assertion that the United States must keep "Americans of European descent" from becoming the "minority" in order to "survive."
Of course they don't make him defend these comments.
That would be rude.