The Most Trusted Name in News?
Ten years ago tomorrow, Fox News slithered onto the scene, beginning its assault on logic and reason and fact and decency and, basically, all that is great about America. A maniacal scheme hatched by real-life Bond villain Rupert Murdoch and his Number Two, former Republican strategist Roger Ailes, Fox News' impact on the nation's media cannot be overstated; nor can the effect it has had on our political discourse.
This is not a column about Fox News. You know about Fox News already. (If you don't, feel free to click here and read some of the 1,473 items we've posted about Fox at last count. Don't have time? Here's the short version: They lie -- a lot. They like George W. Bush -- a lot. They hate Democrats -- a lot.)
Instead, we focus today on CNN -- or, if you prefer, Fox's Mini-Me.
On Thursday, October 5, the Chicago Tribune and The Hill both ran articles that touch on who was behind the recent revelations about former Republican Congressman Mark Foley (FL), who resigned after news reports that he had sexual conversations with teenagers via email and instant messages.
The Chicago Tribune quoted House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-IL) blaming Democrats for the revelation:
When asked about a groundswell of discontent among the GOP's conservative base over his handling of the issue, Hastert said: "I think the base has to realize after awhile, who knew about it? Who knew what, when? When the base finds out who's feeding this monster, they're not going to be happy. The people who want to see this thing blow up are ABC News and a lot of Democratic operatives, people funded by George Soros."
He went on to suggest that operatives aligned with former President Bill Clinton knew about the allegations and were perhaps behind the disclosures in the closing weeks before the Nov. 7 midterm elections, but he offered no hard proof.
"All I know is what I hear and what I see," the speaker said. "I saw Bill Clinton's adviser, Richard Morris, was saying these guys knew about this all along. If somebody had this info, when they had it, we could have dealt with it then."
Though Hastert offered no proof for his allegations, as the Tribune noted, his comments would drive CNN's coverage of the Foley scandal for a day.
The Hill, meanwhile, reported that the emails were given to reporters by a Republican, not a Democrat. The article, headlined "Longtime Republican was source of e-mails," revealed that:
The source who in July gave news media Rep. Mark Foley's (R-Fla.) suspect e-mails to a former House page says the documents came to him from a House GOP aide.
That aide has been a registered Republican since becoming eligible to vote, said the source, who showed The Hill public records supporting his claim.
The same source, who acted as an intermediary between the aide-turned-whistleblower and several news outlets, says the person who shared the documents is no longer employed in the House.
But the whistleblower was a paid GOP staffer when the documents were first given to the media.
The source bolstered the claim by sharing un-redacted e-mails in which the former page first alerted his congressional sponsor's office of Foley's attentions. The copies of these e-mails, now available to the public, have the names of senders and recipients blotted out.
These revelations mean that Republicans who are calling for probes to discover what Democratic leaders and staff knew about Foley's improper exchanges with under-age pages will likely be unable to show that the opposition party orchestrated the scandal now roiling the GOP just a month away from the midterm elections.
The Hill's report is consistent with comments by ABC News' Brian Ross, who broke the story, and who told The New York Times that his sources were Republicans:
Mr. Ross dismissed suggestions by some Republicans that the news was disseminated as part of a smear campaign against Mr. Foley.
"I hate to give up sources, but to the extent that I know the political parties of any of the people who helped us, it would be the same party," Mr. Ross said, referring to Republicans.
So, on the morning of Thursday, October 5, CNN reporters and producers almost certainly knew the following facts:
1. The Republican Speaker of the House was blaming Democrats for revealing that Republican Congressman Mark Foley had sexually explicit internet conversations with teenagers, though the speaker offered no evidence to back up his allegations.
2. A widely-read Capitol Hill newspaper reported (on the front page) that the emails were passed on to reporters by a "longtime Republican."
3. The ABC News reporter who broke the story said his sources were Republicans.
How did "the most trusted name in news" choose to handle this information? By flagrantly misleading their viewers -- over and over again, all day and into the evening.
CNN repeatedly reported Hastert's allegations, and similar charges made by other Republicans. But not once did those reports include any mention -- no matter how vague -- of the report in The Hill that a "longtime Republican" was the source. Not once did they mention Brian Ross's statement that his sources were Republicans.
For example, at approximately 9 a.m. ET, CNN congressional correspondent Dana Bash told American Morning viewers of Hastert's allegations:
BASH: Now, the speaker told the Chicago Tribune last night that he has no intention of resigning and tried to make the case -- tried to rally his angry base by saying that's exactly what Democrats want, for him to fold his tent so they can sweep the House. He also stepped up a charge that he has been making in the past couple of days that Democrats were behind the timing of all this. He said that his opponents, funded by George Soros, even aligned with Bill Clinton, held on to this to make a bigger splash right before the election.
Bash made no mention of The Hill's report, or of Ross's comment. She didn't even include a response from the Democrats she was helping Hastert to smear. Bash, by the way, is CNN's "congressional correspondent." The Hill is named after Capitol Hill, where Congress is located; the paper bills itself as "The Newspaper for and about the U.S. Congress." For those readers unfamiliar with Capitol Hill, copies of The Hill are even more plentiful than Abramoff skybox tickets. Someone whose job is to cover Congress, from Capitol Hill, would have to make a real effort to remain unaware of a Page One article in The Hill about the very subject she is reporting on.
But, for whatever reason -- and there are many possible reasons, several of which are perfectly innocent -- Bash didn't mention the facts reported by The Hill.
Half an hour after Bash's report, at 9:39 a.m. ET, Media Matters for America posted an item noting that she uncritically repeated Hastert's baseless charge and that she failed to mention The Hill's report.
CNN's first reports of Hastert's claims -- those reports by Bash and others that came before, say, 10 a.m. -- might plausibly and charitably be described as inadequate or sloppy rather than negligent or knowingly misleading. Maybe they hadn't seen The Hill yet; maybe they had, but lacked time to incorporate the information into their on-air reports; maybe they hadn't been able to reach Democrats for a response; maybe they had missed Ross's comments in The New York Times a few days before. We know the reports were incomplete, inadequate, and misleading, but we have no idea why.
But it's hard to be as charitable towards CNN's reporting for the rest of the day. Twenty-seven separate times, by our count, CNN repeated Hastert's unsubstantiated and false claims that Democrats were behind the Foley story.
Those 27 mentions include passing mentions, like Lou Dobbs's statement that "Congressman Hastert blamed the scandal on the Democratic Party, its supporters in the media and financier George Soros," and they include full-length reports by correspondents Mary Snow, Drew Griffin, and others, and they include everything in between. But each conversation is counted only once -- so, for example, when The Situation Room featured a lengthy report during which the allegation was repeated multiple times, we only counted it once. CNN's transcripts for October 5 are here -- if you don't trust our count, do your own, using your own standards. Maybe you'll come up with 17, maybe you'll come up with 37; we think 27 is as good a number as any.
But it doesn't really matter what the number is; what matters is that none of them -- not a single one -- mentioned the basic facts as reported by The Hill and The New York Times: the people responsible for giving the media the Foley story were Republicans.
Instead, CNN simply reported and repeated Hastert's bogus attacks all day, dozens of times, without noting even the most basic of facts -- facts that clearly illustrate the falsity of Hastert's charges.
To be sure, CNN anchors and reporters did occasionally question whether Hastert's desperate gambit would work -- whether it would be politically effective -- but they didn't point out that it simply wasn't true. We recently explained the foolishness of this approach to political journalism:
The typical explanation -- from journalists and observers alike -- for why news stories should not state that a claim made by a political figure is false is that to do so would be to make an inappropriate judgment that is best left to the reader. As Lehrer said: "I'm not in the judgment part of journalism. I'm in the reporting part of journalism."
While shying away from making judgments about matters of fact, of readily-discernable truth, journalists do make judgments all the time. In particular, judgments about how events and actions are likely to be received by the public are a regular feature of political reporting.
We frequently note the tendency by journalists to tout the political advantage Republicans are likely to gain from ... well, from just about everything. Author and blogger Glenn Greenwald made the same point this week.
In other words, reporters often refuse to offer their judgment about matters of fact, but they do offer their judgment about the potential political effects of events and actions.
This is completely backwards.
Consumers of news lack the time, expertise, and, in many cases, ability to determine which of two contradictory statements by competing political figures is true. They often lack the resources to determine if, for example, President Bush's claim to have "delivered" on the promises he made in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is true. That's where news organizations should -- but, with depressing frequency, have not -- come in. They have -- or should have -- the expertise and the time to assess those claims, and to report the facts. That's what readers, viewers, and listeners need. That's what journalism should be all about.
On the other hand, as consumers of news, we don't need journalists telling us what the "political impact" of something is going to be; how it will "play at the polls." It's our job to decide that. It's our job to decide who we'll vote for and why; how we'll assess the parties' competing agendas and approaches to the problems we face.
Instead of telling us how they think we'll react, we need journalists to give us the information upon which we can make an informed decision. To tell us the facts, and the truth, and the relevant context. Then we'll tell them the political impact.
Greg Sargent drew our attention this week to two excellent examples of a reporter doing his job the right way: Washington Post reporter Peter Baker wrote articles on consecutive days in which he clearly and convincingly debunked the false Bush claims he was reporting.
But CNN's reporting on the Foley scandal has been a perfect example of this problem. While omitting salient facts, it has featured mindless repetition of bogus Republican charges and inane attempts at political prognostication.
A prime example of the latter: During the 1 p.m. ET hour of Wednesday's, October 4 broadcast of Newsroom, congressional correspondent Andrea Koppel told viewers of a "signal that, perhaps, the worst is over for the time being" for Hastert. "The time being" didn't last very long: At the top of the 2 p.m. hour, Newsroom reported that Kirk Fordham, the chief of staff to National Republican Congressional Committee chairman Tom Reynolds, had resigned. And near the beginning of the 4 p.m. hour of The Situation Room, CNN was reporting that Fordham said he made Hastert's office aware of Foley's behavior years ago.
The worst is over, indeed. If CNN is going to give us predictions instead of facts, is it too much to ask for the self-described "best political team on television" to make predictions that aren't laughably outdated by dinnertime? (Late Friday afternoon, Koppel reported, "According to GOP leadership staff I have spoken today, they feel that some of the pressure now is off Speaker Hastert." So you can expect more bad news for the Republicans any minute now.)
More troubling, though, than CNN's poor prognostication is the news channel's apparent efforts to expand its market share by reaching out to those potential viewers who would watch Fox if only it was a bit kinder to Republicans.
Earlier this year, CNN hired Bill Bennett, a longtime Republican activist and unofficial Bellagio resident. Dubbed "The Bookie of Virtue" by the Washington Monthly, Bennett is perhaps best known as the moral nag who lectured Americans in The Book of Virtues to "set definite boundaries on our appetites" -- while losing millions of dollars during apparently boundary-free binges in the gaming halls of Atlantic City and Las Vegas. But Bennett isn't just a hypocrite: He's also a stridently conservative Republican who last year bizarrely equated black people with criminals.
Then CNN proved to skeptics that its hiring of Bennett was no fluke by giving radio host Glenn Beck his own hour-long Headline News show. Good thing, too, otherwise viewers would have missed out on Beck's insightful comments comparing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean -- and on his timely August 9 declaration that Armageddon would arrive on the 22nd of that month. Fortunately, due to CNN's decision to hire Beck, viewers had plenty of time to prepare; even more fortunately, Beck's prognostication skills are no better than Andrea Koppel's.
But questionable personnel moves are only part of the story; CNN's on-air content tells the story best. The channel's reprehensible treatment of Hastert's bogus allegations that Democrats were responsible for the news stories about Mark Foley speaks for itself -- but it isn't the only way CNN has made a mockery of its claim that it is "the most trusted name in news" this week.
While it couldn't be bothered to tell viewers that Hastert's charges about Democrats were false, CNN did put a great deal of effort into amplifying and expanding upon them. When Hastert and his staff were unable to provide evidence to substantiate his claims that Democrats and financier George Soros were behind the Foley revelations, CNN tried its best to cover for them, repeatedly running a lengthy segment in which they ominously noted that Soros has contributed to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), the watchdog group that sent the FBI copies of some of the Foley emails in July, and repeated GOP claims that CREW was somehow behind the news reports. CNN didn't tell viewers this, but ABC News' Brian Ross specifically told The Wall Street Journal that CREW was not his source.
Worse, CNN reported anonymous claims by "government sources" that CREW hampered the FBI's investigation "because the group that provided it the email on July 21st of this year wouldn't name the page and edited the messages." CNN did include a response from CREW executive director and former assistant U.S. Attorney Melanie Sloan:
SLOAN: I would call that a lie, in fact. On July 21, 2006, I sent to the FBI the emails. They were not redacted in any way like they're claiming now. The kid's name is on the email. His full name and his email address, as well as the name of the Congressional staffer to whom he was sending the emails.
But CNN then immediately repeated the bogus claim that CREW was responsible for the recent news reports about Foley. CNN correspondent Drew Griffin noted: "Conservatives charge that CREW and its Democratic supporters held back the memo until just before November's elections." Griffin, of course, didn't bother to note that those conservatives aren't telling the truth; that The Hill reported, and Ross stated, that Republicans gave the emails to the media; Ross has specifically said that CREW was not his source.
Later in the CNN report, Griffin noted that Sloan says that, contrary to the claims by anonymous government sources that CREW was uncooperative, there was no follow-up by the FBI after she sent them the emails in July.
GRIFFIN: Did you send it to some inbox that you knew would not get attended to?
SLOAN: No. And I'm going to tell you for the first time exactly who I sent it to because now that the FBI has been deciding to lie about what I sent and what they received, I sent it to an agent, a special agent in the Washington field office.
GRIFFIN (voice-over): Melanie Sloan gave us the name, and we called that FBI agent in question. So far, she has not returned our call.
Look at that exchange carefully: Sloan named the FBI agent who she says was unresponsive -- but CNN cut that part of the video off and kept the agent's name a secret.
So CNN decided it was appropriate to allow government officials to hide behind anonymous quotes in order to accuse a private citizen of, essentially, obstructing justice.
But when that private citizen rebuts those accusations with an on-the-record, on-camera statement about who she tried to reach at the FBI, CNN edits the comments to conceal the FBI agent's identity.
That isn't the only way CNN seemed to bend over backwards to protect the FBI. Despite multiple segments about the interaction between CREW and the FBI, CNN never once noted that government sources have made conflicting statements. They've said that they looked into the emails in July and found no reason to continue with a full investigation. And they've said they were unable to investigate because CREW withheld information? Well, which is it? CNN didn't even tell its viewers the conflict exists, much less try to get to the bottom of it. Nor did they mention that the FBI's purported interest in investigating the matter is undermined by the fact that, once the story broke last week, the FBI waited until October 4 before sending a "preservation letter" to Congress to ensure that evidence was not destroyed or tampered with.
Foley resigned on September 29; the FBI didn't send a preservation letter until October 4. And CNN doesn't think that's newsworthy, or relevant to report which anonymous government officials claim they wanted to investigate promptly in July but were thwarted by the whistleblowers who brought the matter to their attention in the first place.
CNN has given no indication that it has asked its anonymous government sources about that.