MoveOn.org and the media mess

››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

Last Monday, on the same day that Gen. David Petraeus was testifying before Congress about how important progress was being made in Iraq, the Pentagon announced that nine American service members had died that day in Iraq. Given the death toll to date, the sad notice did not qualify as a blockbuster development. But such a high number of dead service members in one 24-hour span certainly qualified as news, especially on a day when so much attention had been trained on Iraq inside Washington, D.C., including its newsrooms.

Last Monday, on the same day that Gen. David Petraeus was testifying before Congress about how important progress was being made in Iraq, the Pentagon announced that nine American service members had died that day in Iraq. Given the death toll to date, the sad notice did not qualify as a blockbuster development. But such a high number of dead service members in one 24-hour span certainly qualified as news, especially on a day when so much attention had been trained on Iraq inside Washington, D.C., including its newsrooms.

Yet among the four all-news cable channels (CNN, CNN Headline News, Fox, and MSNBC) last week, there were just two mentions of the nine dead soldiers, according to TVEyes.com.

What also happened last Monday was that Internet-driven grassroots organization MoveOn.org purchased a full-page ad in The New York Times questioning Petraeus' truthfulness, and did so under the headline, "General Petraeus or General Betray Us?"

Among the same cable news channels, there were more than 500 mentions of the MoveOn ad last week. According to the decisions being made at cable TV news, the advocacy newspaper ad was 250 times more important than a rash of American fatalities in Iraq.

More than 50 months after the war was launched, I'm still wondering whether the media are ever going to get their Iraq coverage right.

There was certainly nothing wrong with debating the merits of the controversial MoveOn ad, arguing whether it was short-sighted and counterproductive or whether it represented some necessary truth-telling. MoveOn clearly wanted to elicit a passionate response. The group got one, and that reaction generated news.

But the week-long controversy the ad sparked, and the press frenzy that fueled it, revealed more about newsroom elites than it did about aggressive progressives who purchased the Petraeus putdown.

Journalists needlessly obsessed over the ad. They wildly inflated the political repercussions. They rarely explained what the actual contents of the ad were. And they let Republicans float the allegation that The New York Times gave MoveOn a special discounted rate because the paper agreed with the ad's sentiment. (Not only do facts have a liberal bias, as Stephen Colbert once famously noted, but apparently so do rate cards.)

Tactics and etiquette, that's what excites the Beltway press corps. And last week, the press loved the Republican tactic of campaigning against the MoveOn print ad. ("A brilliant straw man," gushed NBC's Chuck Todd.) And last week, the press tsk-tsked MoveOn's lack of etiquette in raising doubts about a four-star general. As for the war itself? That kind of coverage can always wait for another week. (Newsrooms have little interest in chronicling what's actually happening in Iraq. And FYI, ABC's Nightline has now gone nine straight weeks without broadcasting a single substantive report from Iraq.)

Fox News contributor Susan Estrich, bemoaning the MoveOn ad and claiming it was a huge problem for Democrats, labeled it a "juicy distraction." Based on the week's events, it's hard to say who thought the distraction was juicier, Republicans or members of the press. Both groups jumped at the chance to switch the Iraq focus from policy to politics. The wholly unimportant MoveOn disturbance allowed the press to treat the Iraq debate as another who's-up/who's-down Beltway campaign, which is what journalists prefer.

Is it any wonder CBS News' Public Eye blog reported that the MoveOn ad "nearly eclips[ed] the General's testimony"? Why? Because the press made it a big story. Period.

According to the washingtonpost.com's Chris Cillizza, "the biggest news" that came out of Monday's Petraeus hearing was the MoveOn ad. That's right, the biggest news. And how did Cillizza know? Because lots of Republican politicians said so, and Cillizza quoted them all.

The MoveOn media narrative was crammed with lots of chatter about how Democrats were forced to "denounce" the ad, but very little proof was given. The New York Post insisted Democrats were "squirming" over the ad, yet the article contained not a single example or quote to back up that assertion.

And why would Democrats be "denouncing" and "squirming" over an ad they had nothing do with and were never consulted about? That news hook last week, that MoveOn and the Democratic National Committee somehow got their signals crossed about Iraq, continued a longstanding tradition of the media basing its MoveOn coverage around the assumption that the organization is an appendage to the DNC. It is not. It's an autonomous grassroots organization that forcefully expresses the views of its 3 million-plus members, views that sometimes echo those of the Democratic leadership and sometimes do not.

In truth, the MoveOn ad was a non-story for most Democratic members of Congress, but the press strained to paint a different picture. A Politico article dated September 13 ran under the headline " 'Betray Us' ad unites GOP, distracts Dems," which was wrong on both counts. The MoveOn ad clearly failed to unite the GOP, because the article itself identified key Republicans who last week continued to voice their concerns about Bush's Iraq policy. More important, the article emphasized that the ad had distracted Democrats "at a time when the party could instead be pressing for an end to the war." But the Politico could not point to a single instance of any Democrat who last week stopped pressing for an end to the war simply because MoveOn bought ad space in the Times.

And then there was the lede:

To judge from the wall-to-wall coverage of MoveOn.org's full-page ad in The New York Times on Monday, the liberal group strolled to the 18th hole up by two strokes, pulled out its driver and shanked one deep into the woods.

Honestly, the level of writing at Politico continues to be just atrocious. I don't even know what that sentence means. Think about it: Based on wall-to-wall coverage, MoveOn was winning by two strokes? Well, the wall-to-wall coverage of the ad was almost uniformly negative, so how could the advocacy group have been up by two strokes? Or did Politico mean that in the larger war debate, MoveOn was up by two strokes? That seems unlikely, because just days earlier, Politico published an article about how anti-war forces on Capitol Hill were stymied, and that frustration over not being able to end the war was running high. Yet suddenly, anti-war activists were up two strokes in the war debate on the eve of the Petraeus hearings, but then they blew it by running the "Betray Us" ad? What, Bush was hours away from announcing a full and complete withdrawal from Iraq but called it off after he paged through the New York Times A section last Monday morning and saw "Betray Us"?

And note this passage:

Though Democrats haven't denounced the ad en masse, it's safe to say they're being honest in wishing it hadn't happened. "MoveOn has thrown the Democratic leadership under the bus," said a GOP leadership aide who asked not to be identified. "The only one benefiting from MoveOn.org's tactics is MoveOn.org."

So in order to illustrate how Democrats privately felt about the MoveOn ad, Politico quoted an anonymous Republican aide. Can somebody please explain that sourcing method to me?

Meanwhile, what exactly, beyond the headline-grabbing phrase "General Betray Us," did the MoveOn ad say? After all, it was full of ad copy (paragraph after paragraph), and it appeared to go into great detail about Petraeus and his scheduled testimony. (Read the full ad contents here.) What specific points did MoveOn make to bolster its claim that the general's analysis of Iraq might not be believable? Thanks to the press coverage, news consumers had virtually no idea what the ad said, because journalists refused to report it.

Fuming over at Time.com's Swampland blog, Joe Klein called the ad "nauseating" and "idiotic" but never explained what the ad said. Los Angeles Times columnist Ron Brownstein labeled MoveOn's move "spectacularly unseemly," but never detailed the facts used to support the ad.

CNN's Tom Foreman openly mocked MoveOn and its ad, claiming "the liberal group MoveOn.org took a full-page ad in The New York Times to effectively call the general's testimony a pack of lies before he said a word. But MoveOn itself played fast and loose with the facts in the ad, giving Republicans a field day."

Of course, Republicans didn't attack the facts of the ad, they attacked the language. But CNN played along, never bothering to detail how MoveOn allegedly played "fast and loose with the facts."

Back at Politico, the publication reported that "by drawing attention to the ad, MoveOn said it hoped to raise the issue of Petraeus' credibility, something they claim Democrats in Congress, with a few exceptions, are unwilling to do." In fact, MoveOn raised the issue of Petraeus' credibility in the ad, but Politico wouldn't detail what points the group had made.

For most of last week, the closest I could find to any mainstream outlet reporting the specifics of the ad, or at least mentioning the statistics that made up the heart of the ad, came from the Washington Post blog The Trail, which quoted MoveOn's executive director, Eli Pariser:

"Our whole goal was to open up this conversation about these numbers," he said, referring to the statistics Petraeus offered in his testimony to suggest progress was being made in Iraq, which MoveOn called "at war with the facts" in its ad.

What did the statistics actually say? Readers still had no idea. It wasn't until Saturday, five days after the fact, that The New York Times actually spelled out the specifics of the ad. Better late than never, I suppose, because even then, the Times was one of the very few news outlets to detail the allegations MoveOn was making in the print ad, the ad the media claimed all week was so wildly important.

As for the question of whether Petraeus did on Capitol Hill precisely what MoveOn suggested he would -- make a political statement instead of a detached military assessment -- the press expressed zero interest in covering that angle of the story.

They were too busy denouncing war critics as deviants. The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan claimed that, "No one -- no normal American -- thinks a U.S. Army four-star came back from Iraq to damage our democracy by telling lies."

Beltway press elites simply cannot grasp the notion that Americans think the Bush has been lying about the war for a very long time, and so have his generals. Prior to his testimony, most Americans did not think Petraeus, despite his four stars, would be honest in his assessment of the war. And after his testimony, just 35 percent thought Petraeus had been "truthful," according to a Fox News poll. But the Beltway etiquette police, led by the likes of Noonan, pretend that anybody who suggests Bush and the Pentagon actively deal in misinformation are not "normal."

Rounding out the MoveOn week was the right-wing, connect-the-non-existent-dots conspiracy charge that the New York Times ad department, which has been ravaged by revenue declines in recent years, nonetheless gave MoveOn a deep discount off the Times rate card as some sort of display of anti-war solidarity. The fact that the ad rate for MoveOn was quoted before anyone at the Times had seen the ad, or that accusers seemed to have no idea how agencies purchase media on behalf of their ad clients, did not dim the press interest in the story.

Republican contender Rudy Giuliani was particularly vocal in criticizing the Times. And how did the Giuliani campaign express its disdain for The New York Times? By promptly writing the paper a check for $65,000 in order to run its own full-page ad in the newspaper defending Petraeus.

Giuliani was given the same rate that MoveOn received. Yet one day after the Times explained how its rates often fluctuate wildly depending on a whole host of variables, and one day after Giuliani purchased his own full-page Times ad, CNN aired a clip of Giuliani complaining about the discount the newspaper gave MoveOn. CNN did not include an explanation for the rate discount, and CNN did not report that Giuliani had received the exact same rate for his own ad.

No wonder, as MoveOn week concluded, that NBC's Chuck Todd toasted the GOP, proclaiming that "Republicans won the media argument no matter whether the facts were correct or not."

Who's betraying whom?

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