The New York Times improved its standards for budget reporting over the past four months, providing readers with more adequate context to understand the size and scope of federal programs, budget deficits, and policy proposals.
On October 18, 2013, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan issued a statement affirming the paper's commitment to improving its numbers-based reporting. Sullivan's comments came in response to mounting criticism over how print media's reliance on reporting large numbers devoid of context often confuses and unintentionally misleads readers.
Ongoing Media Matters analysis of print media budget reporting standards confirms that the Times has begun to address these concerns, and now leads two other prominent print outlets -- The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal -- in providing context when reporting numbers.
The Times was less likely than other selected outlets to rely on raw numbers for budget reporting from October 19, 2013 -- the day after Sullivan's statement -- to February 14, 2014. The paper was also more likely than the other newspapers analyzed to provide relevant context. Furthermore, the Times was the most likely to present figures in percentage terms relative to the size of the budget or the size of the economy.*
These results show a deviation from past practices. Media Matters research through the first half of 2013 revealed that the Times relied on out-of-context raw numbers for nearly 67 percent of its reporting concerning the federal budget, the debt and deficit, and spending programs. This reflected roughly the average style of reporting among the three outlets examined.
Despite recent improvement, the paper still relies on out-of-context figures for a majority of its coverage. Sullivan acknowledged in her October 18 statement that "[i]t won't be easy to make these changes happen consistently" across the newspaper's entire staff, but that change is coming "and the sooner, the better."
Hopefully other major outlets follow suit.
Image via Flickr user Frank Sheehan using a Creative Commons License.
Three major national print outlets were more likely to report economic figures in terms of raw numbers devoid of relevant and necessary context, such as previous years' numbers or monthly figures that would give readers an accurate depiction of the economy. These findings, calculated since halfway through 2013, are consistent with a previous Media Matters analysis of print media.
The New York Times published a guilt-by-association attack on Hillary Clinton, attempting to connect a trade dispute over alleged steel dumping to the former secretary of state through unrelated philanthropic connections.
Citing a Commerce Department investigation into dumping allegations against Victor Pinchuk, a Ukrainian business leader, reporter Amy Chozick fixated on Pinchuk's relationship to the Clintons as if it were news to Times readers:
Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton have built a sprawling network of powerful friends around the globe, one that could aid Mrs. Clinton's chances were she to seek the presidency. But those relationships often come with intersecting interests and political complications; few people illustrate that more vividly than the Ukrainian oligarch Victor Pinchuk.
But in 2008, the Times published a front-page story on Pinchuk which reported his relationship with former President Bill Clinton. The article also detailed that Pinchuk is one of the biggest non-American donors to the Clinton Foundation; that Clinton acknowledged the relationship and praised Pinchuk's philanthropy; that the former president spoke in Yalta advocating strengthening Ukraine's ties to the United States and Europe, a cause close to both men; and that Pinchuk attended a birthday party for Clinton (as well as one for former President George H. W. Bush).
Chozick's story does not acknowledge the prior Times account. Instead, it rehashes old details and attempts to tie them to the pending Commerce Department investigation. Yet Chozick offers no evidence to suggest that the Clintons are connected to that dispute in any way. On the contrary, she acknowledges that there is no evidence that Bill or Hillary Clinton, or anybody in the government, has intervened in the trade dispute. Chozick wrote:
There is no evidence that Mr. Pinchuk or Mr. Schoen discussed anything other than the political crisis in Ukraine with the State Department, or that any United States officials tried to influence the trade case.
Hillary Clinton's recent statement that her "biggest regret is what happened in Benghazi" led to a media feeding frenzy who treated her statement as a groundbreaking revelation, while ignoring the fact that immediately following the attacks, Clinton accepted responsibility multiple times including during her testimony with the Senate and House committee.
Canadian pop star Justin Bieber drew media attention today for his arrest on charges of driving under the influence, driving with an expired license, and resisting arrest, with numerous outlets comparing his possible but unlikely deportation with that of the nearly 2 million undocumented immigrants deported under the Obama administration. But Bieber has little in common with the typical deportee and should not be used as an example for reforming the immigration system.
In a post on the case, The New York Times wrote that if Bieber "were poor, obscure and, say, Hispanic," "you'd expect him to be sitting in a holding cell awaiting a one-way trip out of the country." The post continued:
It's just worth pointing out that apart from the humor value of the traffic bust, which followed closely on the heels of Mr. Bieber's infamous neighbor-egging caper, it is in a small way emblematic of the capricious, unbalanced and racially charged way in which immigration policy is conceived and enforced in this country.
The Times added that the "answer is not to treat all immigrants equally badly and deport Mr. Bieber" but that it "is to stop pretending that deportation -- which punishes hard working people but not their employer-enablers -- is an effective tool for dealing with our immigration problems."
Even Fox News, not known for its warm and fuzzy feelings toward immigrants, commented that Bieber "now could be at risk of becoming one of the highest profile immigrants to ever get kicked out of the United States" if he is indeed convicted of those charges. Correspondent Anna Kooiman added: "What will the tweens do then?"
However Bieber, also under investigation on felony charges for vandalism, is hardly the typical face of the immigration reform system. While it's notable for media to debate the shortcomings of deportation policy in light of Bieber's arrest, his case has no overlap with the majority who are deported, many for lesser offenses.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, Bieber is in the country on an O-1 nonimmigrant visa, reserved for "the individual who possesses extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics, or who has a demonstrated record of extraordinary achievement in the motion picture or television industry and has been recognized nationally or internationally for those achievements." (Though his citizenship was listed as "USA" on his arrest report, it was reportedly a "typo" and has since been corrected.)
The most current data from the Department of Homeland Security shows that the United States issued about 10,500 such visas to foreign nationals in 2012, with another 8,000 issued to their assistants and immediate family. This is out of nearly 9 million nonimmigrant visas issued in 2012. The largest percentage of O-1 visas went to British citizens: current notables include CNN host Piers Morgan and footballer David Beckham and his wife Victoria.
Conservative media figures have sharply criticized the recent push by Democratic politicians to alleviate poverty and reduce economic inequality. However, most of this criticism is grounded in a number of myths about the causes, effects, and importance of growing economic inequality in the United States.
David Brooks has a problem with single mothers.
The New York Times opinion columnist scapegoated unmarried moms for their poverty in his January 16 column, joining a chorus of media figures who have ignored basic economics to suggest that marriage is a magic-bullet solution to poverty.
Brooks claimed that "someone being rich doesn't make someone poor," arguing that discussions of income inequality have been too focused on disparities in wealth and not focused enough on the "fraying of social fabric" and the "morally fraught social and cultural roots of the problem," which he pinned in part on single motherhood (emphasis added):
There is a very strong correlation between single motherhood and low social mobility. There is a very strong correlation between high school dropout rates and low mobility. There is a strong correlation between the fraying of social fabric and low economic mobility. There is a strong correlation between de-industrialization and low social mobility. It is also true that many men, especially young men, are engaging in behaviors that damage their long-term earning prospects; much more than comparable women.
Low income is the outcome of these interrelated problems, but it is not the problem. To say it is the problem is to confuse cause and effect. To say it is the problem is to give yourself a pass from exploring the complex and morally fraught social and cultural roots of the problem. It is to give yourself permission to ignore the parts that are uncomfortable to talk about but that are really the inescapable core of the thing.
First, Brooks is wrong on the basic arithmetic of income inequality. As economist Elise Gould at the Economic Policy Institute has explained, "if it had not been for growing economic inequality, the poverty rate would be at or near zero today." This is because without inequality, economic growth would be shared equitably among all income levels; instead, since the 1970s, growing inequality has increased poverty, as the rich benefit more from economic growth.
Second, the "problem" of single motherhood is not that mothers aren't married; it's that significant numbers of unmarried mothers don't have access to basic support systems like childcare, paid family and medical leave, and family planning -- necessary social supports that Brooks dismisses in favor of fearmongering about "fraying of social fabric."
The recently released Shriver Report on women's economic realities in America found that economic policies and programs that improve access to education and child care can do more to help decrease economic hardship for women than marriage ever could. Karen Kornbluh, former ambassador to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, also noted that childcare, after-school programs, and health care reform would provide single mothers the needed flexibility to work more secure and economically beneficial jobs.
If poverty were simply an effect of unmarried parenthood, it would seem logical that both single mothers and fathers would face similar experiences. But the Shriver Report also found that single mothers spend more on housing than single fathers, and most likely work minimum-wage jobs. Poverty, and income inequality, are the results of structural economic problems, which disproportionally affect women -- not the other way around.
(Image: Shriver Report, via Feministing)
Media figures who insist that single mothers are to blame for their own poverty ignore these economic realities, and distract from the conversation we should be having: that all families, regardless of structure, need access to basic social goods like equal pay, family planning, and childcare; benefits which economists have shown would improve the economy and reduce poverty for everyone.
The Associated Press and The New York Times deceptively highlighted 77-year-old Eleanor McCullen as the "new face" of anti-abortion activists, thereby downplaying the threat of violence that women continue to face when seeking medical care at women's health clinics.
This week, the Supreme Court will consider a challenge to a 2007 Massachusetts statute that creates "buffer zones" around reproductive health centers to ensure the safety of patients and staff from anti-abortion protests, which have a history of turning violent. In the past, Massachusetts' buffer zone law has been repeatedly upheld as constitutional by the First Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Associated Press' (AP) January 13 coverage of the case highlighted plaintiff Eleanor McCullen as "the new face of a decades-old fight" between anti-abortion protesters and health clinics and paid special attention "her pleasant demeanor and grandmotherly mien." A New York Times profile of McCullen similarly framed anti-abortion protesters as harmless, noting that McMullen "is 77, and she said she posed no threat":
"I am 5 feet 1 inch tall," she said in a sworn statement filed in the case. "My body type can be described as 'plump.' I am a mother and grandmother."
The only other protester featured by the Times is the similarly unimposing 81-year-old Mary O'Donnell, who "said she found the line baffling."
Both outlets briefly noted that Massachusetts buffer zone law was approved in response to, in the Times' words, "an ugly history of harassment and violence at abortion including a shooting rampage at two facilities in 1994," but neither provided any mention of the ongoing need for such protections or cited any discussion of the violence women seeking medical care at have faced at hands of anti-abortion activists in the past 20 years.
In fact, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has called anti-abortion violence "America's [f]orgotten [t]errorism," emphasizing that content-neutral buffer zones are necessary because patients and doctors of health facilities that offer abortion services remain targets of violent attacks "from murders to arsons to bombings." According to ADL:
Anti-abortion violence has actually remained a consistent, if secondary, source of domestic terrorism and violence, manifesting itself most often in assaults and vandalism, with occasional arsons, bombings, drive-by shootings, and assassination attempts. As one anti-abortion extremist, while serving a prison sentence for anti-abortion arsons, put it in 2010: "Abortionists are killed because they are serial murderers of innocent children who must be stopped, and they will continue to be stopped."
In addition to the Green Bay firebombing, some other recent examples of anti-abortion violence include:
- Madison, Wisconsin, March 2012: A federal grand jury indicted Ralph Lang, 63, on charges of attempting to intimidate by force people participating in a program receiving federal financial assistance, as well as using or carrying a firearm in relation to the alleged crime. According to police, Lang travelled to Madison to threaten to kill people at a local Planned Parenthood clinic; he was arrested after allegedly firing his gun in a motel room while practicing drawing it.
- Pensacola, Florida, February 2012: A federal grand jury indicted Bobby Joe Rogers, 41, of Pensacola, Florida, for the alleged arson of a women's health clinic in Pensacola the previous month. Rogers allegedly used a Molotov cocktail (a type of incendiary device) to set the fire.
- Madera, California, January 2012: A federal court sentenced Donny Eugene Mower, 38, to five years in prison for having thrown a Molotov cocktail at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Madera in 2010, leaving behind a note that read, in part, "Let's see if you can burn just as well as your victims."
- McKinney, Texas, July 2011: A Molotov cocktail was thrown at a Planned Parenthood clinic in north Texas.
- Greensboro, North Carolina, March 2011: Justin Carl Moose, 26, received a 30-month federal prison sentence after pleading guilty to distributing information pertaining to the manufacturing and use of an explosive. Moose, who claimed to be part of the radical anti-abortion group Army of God, had described himself as an "extremist radical fundamentalist" who wanted to fight abortion "by any means necessary and at any cost." He had provided bomb-making instructions to an undercover FBI informant whom he thought was going to bomb an abortion clinic.
- Wichita, Kansas, April 2010: A federal court sentenced anti-abortion extremist Scott Roeder to life in prison on first degree murder and aggravated assault charges for the June 2009 assassination of a Wichita physician who performed abortion procedures.
- Plano, Texas, April 2010: FBI agents arrested Erlydon Lo, 27, on charges that he threatened to use deadly force against a women's clinic in Dallas. Lo had filed a document threatening to appear at the facility the next day that said, in part, "if I must use deadly force to defend the innocent life of another human being, I will."
- St. Paul, Minnesota, May 2009: Matthew Lee Derosia, 33, received a sentence of time serviced and five years of probation for purposely driving his truck earlier that year into the front of a St. Paul Planned Parenthood clinic on the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade.
The AP and New York Times' misleading characterizations of abortion protesters provide an inaccurate picture of the danger women have historically faced in seeking care at womens' health clinics. As the LA Times noted on December 2, 2013, "[t]hough there are many civil, reasonable anti-abortion protesters in the world, history shows that some have turned the perimeters of reproductive health clinics into battlegrounds, using intimidation and sometimes violence."
The New York Times Book Review has run an advertisement for a biography of Fox News chief Roger Ailes during each of the past two weekends.
The ads seem to be an attempt to counter the Sherman book, stating that Chafets' book is "based on the only exclusive interview with Ailes" and that "Chafets book captures the real ROGER AILES and the true inside story of FOX News."
It's unclear who is behind the ads. But the ads were reportedly placed by Ailes' "personal PR consultant."
The ads are somewhat unusual in that they do not mention the publisher, Penguin Book's conservative imprint Sentinel, and are vague about who paid for the placement. A Times spokesperson revealed that the ads were placed, not by Penguin, but by the Dilenschneider Group, a public relations firm, as Huffington Post's Michael Calderone previously reported.
As Calderone notes, the firm's founder, Robert Dilenschneider, is described in Sherman's book as Ailes' "personal PR consultant."
The Dilenschneider Group has so far failed to respond to inquiries about the ads, while Chafets' publicist at Penguin declined to comment on it, stating via email, "I won't be commenting on the ad to anyone. I'm sorry I'm not more helpful."
Another unusual element of the story is that both books are published by divisions of the same company, Penguin Random House, formed when the two prominent publishers merged last year. Sherman's book is published through Random House, while Chafets' is a project of the Penguin/Sentinel division.
For one division to run a high-profile ad indirectly attacking another division's book on the same subject right before that book's release seems odd.
In addition, while there is no ad in the Book Review for Sherman's book, there is a lengthy review of Sherman's biography in the weekly book section.
The entwined history of the Chafets and Sherman biographies, as well as the firm that placed them, may present clues as to the source of the ads.
Ailes reportedly agreed to cooperate with Chafets as a way of pre-empting Sherman's biography; his network gave the relentlessly positive result heavy coverage following its release.
The network reportedly fired its top PR executive who they were worried was leaking information to Sherman; Fox personalities publicly attacked the New York reporter, allegedly at a top network executive's behest; and the network threw roadblocks in the way of Sherman's attempts to speak with Fox employees and even threatened to sue him.
Fox News did not respond to inquiries about any involvement by Ailes or the network in the Chafets ad. Chafets did not respond to requests for comment.
Fox News' assertion that a New York Times reporter who was at the scene of the 2012 attack on the U.S. compound at Benghazi, Libya, should have alerted authorities is drawing harsh criticism from veterans of war coverage who say the critique demonstrates a lack of understanding about the role of journalists.
The comments came in reaction to a lengthy series published December 28 by the Times. The series, authored by Mideast Correspondent David D. Kirkpatrick with additional reporting from journalists in Benghazi and Cairo, refutes many of the claims about the attack that conservatives have used to portray it as a scandal for the Obama administration.
Notably, the piece reveals that a Libyan journalist working for the Times was present during the event, when dozens of heavily-armed Libyans attacked the U.S. compound and set it on fire. Some of the attackers told the reporter and other onlookers that they were acting in response to an anti-Islam video that had been posted on YouTube.
Fox and Friends co-hosts Brian Kilmeade and Steve Doocy responded to this revelation -- which undermined months of Fox News claims that the video had played no role in the attack -- by attacking the Times reporter who had been present.
"[T]he question comes to mind," said Kilmeade, "is, okay, if you have a reporter at the scene and you know Americans are in danger and you are working for The New York Times. Did you, I don't know, have a sat[ellite] phone? Number one. Number two, did you use that sat phone to call in help or announce what was happening?"
"He probably had a phone, probably had a sat phone" Doocy agreed during a later segment. "That would have been the perfect time to call in for help. Did they?"
Kirkpatrick did not respond to Media Matters' requests for comment on the Fox hosts' views, but Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson said in an email, "This is just Fox being Fox" and called such claims "ridiculous."
War reporters and groups that represent them say that the Fox critique shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the role of journalism, particularly during dangerous conflicts.
"When you're in the middle of a riot or an attack like that, first of all, it is not a reporter's job to call the authorities and he would have to assume the authorities know about it. It seems so bizarre," said Josh Meyer, director of education and outreach for the Medill National Security Journalism Initiative and a former Los Angeles Times national security reporter who has reported from Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
2013 got off to a promising start when perennial conservative huckster Dick Morris was finally fired from Fox News.
But any hope for year free from scandal unraveled as conservative outlets like Fox, and venerable institutions like CBS and CNN, found themselves mired in ethical morasses of their own making.
Media Matters looks back at the year in media ethics:
The past 12 months witnessed innumerable attacks on social safety net programs in the United States. These attacks on American social insurance programs were hardly limited to Social Security -- all forms of social insurance, including unemployment benefits, food stamps, and disability, came under fire from mainstream and conservative media alike, regardless of the programs' social or economic benefits. Media Matters compiled a list of the six types of attacks on the social safety net in 2013.
For more than three years, an influential study by two Harvard economists -- Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff -- provided a plausible foundation for attacks on spending of all types. The study fostered debt-paranoia among pundits otherwise interested in austere fiscal policies.
An April study by economists at the University of Massachusetts, however, concluded that the Reinhart-Rogoff data was error-filled in a way that selectively biased the results. A further review of the corrected data by economists at the University of Michigan found that the study should have been deemed inconclusive.
Despite losing its intellectual foundation in April, the deficit reduction talking point maintained a prominent position in fiscal policy discussion throughout the year.
Media calls for deficit reduction in the past year also regularly relied on budget reporting that lacked adequate context that federal budget deficits have declined precipitously from their 2009 peak. A Media Matters review of budget reporting done by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post revealed that a sizeable majority of articles provided budget items and program spending figures out of context. Further analysis concluded this misrepresentative reporting to be little more than a scare tactic, which bolstered calls for deeper cuts to the safety net for the sake of alleged fiscal responsibility.
This lack of context in media, and the effect it had in shifting the policy debate, eventually encouraged Times public editor Margaret Sullivan to issue a statement promising to correct problematic reporting standards going forward, but other outlets have yet to follow suit.
America's top newspapers focused their coverage of health care reform on its political implications while largely ignoring its real-world impact in the week before the health care exchanges opened. Those papers have since shifted their focus, with most articles highlighting benefits under the law and enrollment in the exchanges in the week after the Obama administration relaunched the Healthcare.gov website.
As the calendar races towards 2014, and Congressional members log their final few days in session while facing daunting deadlines for a long list of pressing and unfinished initiatives, the press has been busy chronicling the futility, assigning collective blame, and giving the president permanent failing marks.
According to historians, 2013 is on track to become the least productive single legislative year in modern American history. And it's not even close. In 1995, 88 laws were passed, setting the previous low-water mark. This year, it's doubtful 70 will make it to the president's desk. (And lots of the bills that have passed are ceremonial or rather trivial in nature.) The press is not happy about the trend.
"The paltry number of bills Congress has passed into law this year paints a vivid picture of just how bad the gridlock has been for lawmakers," announced NBC. The Wall Street Journal noted this year's session has been "long on partisanship, indecision and brinkmanship." USA Today bemoaned the inability "to find common ground." And the Los Angeles Times pointed to "partisan dysfunction" as the main Congressional culprit.
See? "Congress" remains in the grips of "gridlock" and "brinkmanship." Congress just can't find "common ground" and suffers from serious "dysfunction."
So that's why immigration reform, the farm bill, a budget deal, unemployment benefit extensions, workplace discrimination legislation, and the defense spending bill haven't been passed or dealt with yet? And that's why the government was shutdown for 16 days in October?
Wrong. The current Congress obliterated all previous records for diminished output because the Republican Party, and especially those in the Republican-run House, purposefully bottled up as many initiatives as possible and unleashed "procedural sabotage." (They even obstructed disaster relief aid for victim of Hurricane Sandy.)
Yet eager to maintain a political symmetry in which both sides are equally responsible for so little getting accomplished, the press gives Republicans a pass for their purposeful dysfunction.
By the way, are you also experiencing media flashbacks to the government shutdown, which the Republican Party proudly engineered by reneging on a budget deal they had agreed to with the last-minute demand that Obama essentially repeal his signature legislative accomplishment of his first term, the Affordable Care Act? Back then, the one-sided shutdown maneuver was nearly universally portrayed as bipartisan "Washington dysfunction at its absolute worst" (ABC News), a "partisan logjam" (Wall Street Journal), and a "fiscal stalemate" (The Hill).
Yet today, even as some Republican members brag about how little they've allowed Congress to accomplish, even as a plurality of voters says the GOP's top priority is to cause trouble for the president, while a majority blame Republicans for the lack of productivity in Washington, the press still prefers to portray the Capitol Hill standstill as bipartisan "gridlock."
Because, of course, both sides are always to blame.
From the December 8 edition of MSNBC's Disrupt with Karen Finney:
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