With the passing of legendary New York Times newsman Anthony Lewis this week, observers have noted that his lasting legacy will likely be his clarion insights and logical, lucid writing style that helped make the courts and the law more accessible for everyday news consumers. From his two Pulitzer Prizes for reporting, to his opinion column which he wrote for more than three decades, Lewis' imprint on the Times was vast.
What may be getting overlooked in the remembrances though, and what the Times itself neglected to mention in its otherwise thorough Lewis obituary, was the pivotal role Lewis played during the 1990s when he stood up to his own newspaper, as well as to an army of Republican partisans waging war against President Bill Clinton. Lewis wrote passionately about the mindless pursuit of the Whitewater story and the Clinton impeachment saga. As a legal scholar, Lewis was utterly appalled by the conduct of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr and his office of "thuggish deputies."
Today, pointing out the gaping holes in the Whitewater tale and the impeachment media circus might seem like common sense punditry. But at the time, and especially inside the Times, where a fever-swamp disdain for Clinton ran wild, Lewis' level-headed truth telling stood out.
"For a while there, he seemed the only sane and dispassionate person at the New York Times," author Gene Lyons told Media Matters this week. Lyons detailed the Times' journalism shortcomings in his 1996 book, Fools For Scandal: How The Media Invented Whitewater, and co-wrote with Joe Conason The Hunting of the President: The Ten Year Campaign To Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Lewis wasn't shy about listing Clinton's policy faults and failures. (He despised the "cruel" Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act passed in 1996.) But he refused to stand by while the law was so transparently used, and misused, as a political weapon, first in an attempt to destroy Clinton's presidency via the Whitewater investigations, and then in an attempt to drive Clinton from office with impeachment.
Additionally, Lewis served as an important counter-balance on the Op-Ed page to the Times' William Safire. Whereas his conservative colleague Safire got almost everything wrong for eight years about the Clinton scandals, Lewis, following the facts and common sense, got it right. (Safire didn't fare much better during the Bush years, hyping "the "undisputed fact connecting Iraq's Saddam Hussein to the Sept. 11 attacks.")
A liberal who wasn't known as a partisan brawler, Lewis' gaze more often seemed fixed on matters that transcended the typical right/left warfare. Yet he remained a steward of justice and fair play and refused to remain silent when he saw the young Democratic president being hounded by his political opponents and by the Beltway press in a way the writer had never seen before.
Responding to a barrage of criticism he received for a factually inaccurate and flawed column he wrote this month about the sequestration battle, New York Times columnist Bill Keller wrote a follow-up blog post to detail how critics had hounded him online, especially via Twitter.
Denouncing the social media tool's tendency to produce what he called mean and shallow commentary, Keller lamented Twitter's suddenly pervasive power. "It is always on, and it gets inside your head," he wrote, adding, "there is no escape." Indeed, within days of writing his column, Keller felt compelled to pen a lengthy piece about his Twitter encounter.
The columnist painted an unpleasant picture of being hounded and "bull[ied]" on Twitter for merely expressing "an unpopular view." But as the tenth anniversary of the United States-led invasion of Iraq approaches, I couldn't help thinking back to when columnists like Keller, and newspapers like the New York Times, where Keller became executive editor in July 2003, helped cheer the nation to war. To date, that conflict has claimed the lives of nearly 8,000 U.S. service members and contractors and more than 130,000 Iraqi citizens, and is projected to cost the U.S. Treasury more than two trillion dollars. (The Times' public editor later called the paper's prewar coverage "flawed journalism.")
Thinking about the historic failure of the Times and others in the media a decade ago, I couldn't help wish that Twitter had been around during the winter of 2002-2003 to provide a forum for critics to badger writers like Keller and the legion of Beltway media insiders who abdicated their role as journalists and fell in line behind the Bush White House's march to war. I wouldn't have cared that recipients might have been insulted by the Twitter critiques or seen them as mean and shallow, the way Keller does today. Sorry, but the stakes in 2003 were too high to worry about bruised feelings.
Looking back, I wish Keller and other pro-war columnists had been "bullied" (rhetorically) as they got almost everything wrong about the pending war. I think the revolutionary peer connection tool would have been invaluable in shaming journalists into doing their jobs when so many failed to. (Keller later admitted the invasion was a "monumental blunder.")
Twitter could have helped puncture the Beltway media bubble by providing news consumers with direct access to confront journalists during the run-up to the war. And the pass-around nature of Twitter could have rescued forgotten or buried news stories and commentaries that ran against the let's-go-to-war narrative that engulfed so much of the mainstream press.
Considering the central role the lapdog media played in helping to sell President Bush's pre-emptive invasion, I wonder if Twitter could have stopped the Iraq War.
On March 12, the New York Times published an article on Google's acknowledgement of privacy violations during their Street View mapping project that quoted "consumer watchdog" Scott Cleland attacking the online search giant. When you're talking about issues having to do with online content, calling Cleland a "consumer watchdog" is a tough sell given that he's paid by the companies that provide broadband internet services to advance their interests.
Here's the Times' characterization of Cleland:
Complaints have led to multiple enforcement actions in recent years and a spate of worldwide investigations into the way the mapping project also collected the personal data of private computer users.
"Google puts innovation ahead of everything and resists asking permission," said Scott Cleland, a consultant for Google's competitors and a consumer watchdog whose blog maintains a close watch on Google's privacy issues. "But the states are throwing down a marker that they are watching and there is a line the company shouldn't cross."
It's true that Cleland is a for-pay Google critic and much of his time is spent attacking the online giant. But a "consumer watchdog"? Cleland is the chair of NetCompetition.org, a group that, per its mission statement, promotes "competitive Internet choices for consumers." Among the members of NetCompetition.org: Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Verizon, AT&T -- basically every big provider of fixed or mobile broadband.
Cleland may wrap himself in the cloak of consumer advocacy, but that doesn't necessarily make it so. He's on the payroll of broadband companies to argue for policies that best reflect their interests. He is an industry advocate, one of the many axe-grinders and hired guns in the broadband policy arena looking to earn their keep by getting themselves quoted in the paper advancing the argument for their side. And that's fine, so long as the paper in question informs the reader of the interests backing the sources they quote.
Reading what has now become a cavalcade of Beltway pundits, led by New York Times writers, denouncing President Obama for failing to avoid the drastic budget sequestration, and berating him for not "leading" by getting Republicans to abandon their chronic intransigence, I keep thinking back to the earliest days of Obama's presidency when the press concocted new rules regarding bipartisanship.
Specifically, I recall a question NBC's Chuck Todd asked at a February 2009 press briefing as the president's emergency stimulus bill was being crafted in Congress. With the country still reeling from the 2008 financial collapse, and the economy in desperate need of an immediate stimulus shot in the arm, Todd asked if Obama would consider vetoing his own party's stimulus bill if it passed Congress without Republican support.
Todd wanted to know if Obama would hold off implementing urgent stimulus spending in order to a pass different piece of legislation, one that more Republicans liked and would vote for, because that way it would be considered more bipartisan.
I mention that curious Todd query because only when you understand the warped prism through which so much of the Washington D.C. press corps now views the issue of bipartisanship does the current blame-Obama punditry regarding sequestration begins to make sense, even remotely.
And remember, most of the pundits currently taking misguided aim at Obama on sequestration are part of the supposedly "liberal media" cabal, the one that conservatives insist protect Obama at any cost.
The New York Times announced late Friday that it will discontinue its Green blog, less than two months after dismantling its environment desk. The paper insists that despite these changes it will "forge ahead with our aggressive reporting on environmental and energy topics," but coverage of crucial environmental stories is likely to suffer.
When The Times closed its environment desk in January, many expressed concerns that the quality and quantity of the paper's environmental coverage would be compromised. Managing editor Dean Baquet reassured them that this was purely a structural change, and that the Green blog would remain so long as it had "impact and audience." Bora Zivkovic, Blog Editor at Scientific American, said that eliminating the environment desk made the Green blog "much more essential" as a gathering place for environmental reporters and interested readers. But the Times has decided to eliminate the blog to "devote resources elsewhere," which Columbia Journalism Review's Curtis Brainard called "a horrible decision." Brainard noted that the blog provided "a crucial platform for stories that didn't fit into the print edition's already shrunken news hole" and enabled reporters to expand on stories that did make the paper.
Indeed, the Green blog's environmental coverage has often proved to be more thorough than the print edition's. For example, a Media Matters report found that several mainstream media outlets -- including the New York Times print edition -- ignored an October 2012 report on the rapid decline of the Great Barrier Reef, but the Green blog covered it. In November, a World Bank report warning of the calamitous effects of climate change went unnoticed by the New York Times print edition, but not by the Green blog. Since the closure of the environment desk, the Green blog has accounted for 64 percent of the paper's climate change reporting.* And since January 2012, the Green blog has devoted nearly twice as much coverage to the threat of ocean acidification.**
If the past is any indication, it seems Brainard is correct that "without the Green blog, there's no way that these topics are going to get as much attention as they once did."
Media ignored economists in their reports leading up to the initiation of the economically damaging across-the-board spending cuts commonly known as sequestration.
If Congress fails to act by midnight, across-the-board spending cuts of up to $85 billion in 2013 alone will take effect. While sequestration is inherently an economic issue, media are ignoring the last chance to have economists weigh in on the consequences.
Media Matters reviewed news coverage leading up to the sequestration deadline, specifically the February 28 evening news broadcasts; March 1 reports from The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and New York Times; and the March 1 morning news programs on the major cable and broadcast networks. We found that economists have been almost completely shut out. Of 122 total guests and quoted figures appearing in a total of 43 articles or television segments, one lone economist was mentioned, Wells Fargo senior economist Mark Vitner in a report from the Journal.
A group named Donors Trust has been funneling far more money than ExxonMobil ever did to climate denial groups, but because the source of the funds remains largely hidden, the public has been unable to pressure the donations to stop as they did with Exxon. A small portion of Donors Trust's funding was recently revealed by the Center for Public Integrity, yet even that small portion has significant ties to the Koch brothers and other fossil fuel interests.
Between 2008 and 2011, Donors Trust doled out over $300 million in grants to what it describes as "conservative and libertarian causes," serving as "the dark money ATM of the conservative movement." Donors Trust enables donors to give anonymously, noting on its website that if you "wish to keep your charitable giving private, especially gifts funding sensitive or controversial issues," you can use it to direct your money.
One of the "controversial issues" that Donors Trust and its sister organization Donors Capital Fund have bankrolled is the campaign to cast doubt on the science of climate change and delay any government action to reduce emissions.* The following chart created by The Guardian based on data from Greenpeace shows that as ExxonMobil and the Koch Foundations have reduced traceable funding for these groups, donations from Donors Trust have surged:
Several of these organizations have sown confusion about the science demonstrating climate change. The Heartland Institute, which The Economist called the "world's most prominent think tank promoting skepticism about man-made climate change," received over $14 million from Donors Trust from 2002 to 2011, making up over a quarter of Heartland's budget. in 2010. In 2012, Heartland launched a billboard campaign comparing those that accept climate science to The Unabomber, Charles Manson, and Fidel Castro. Several corporate donors distanced themselves from the organization, but Donors Trust made no comment. Heartland removed the billboard soon afterward but refused to apologize for the "experiment."
Meanwhile, The Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT) received over $4 million from Donors Trust from 2002 to 2011, accounting for over 45 percent of CFACT's budget in 2010. The highest-paid member of CFACT's staff is Marc Morano, who runs a website that pushes misleading attacks on climate science. Morano defended Heartland's billboard and said that climate scientists "deserve to be publicly flogged." Despite Morano's sordid background, CNN twice hosted him to "debate climate change and if it is really real" without disclosing that he has no scientific training and is paid by an industry-funded organization. CFACT lists the Forbes columns of Larry Bell, who calls global warming a "hoax," as "CFACT research and commentary." The organization is advised by several prominent climate misinformers, including Lord Christopher Monckton and Willie Soon.
The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) has revealed the sources of approximately $18.8 million of Donors Trust's funding from 2008 to 2011, culled from Internal Revenue Service filings. That leaves over $281 million in anonymous funds during that period, assuming that the organization gives out approximately as much as it takes in each year.
While the individuals and corporations funding Donors Trust remain largely hidden, we know that at least five separate foundations connected to Koch Industries have given over $3.8 million to Donors Trust in recent years. Koch Industries, owned by brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch, is the largest privately owned company in the U.S. and controls several oil refineries and pipelines.
Conservative media are attacking President Obama for supposedly criticizing scheduled across-the-board cuts, known as the sequester, while not proposing alternatives to avoid them. In reality, Obama has proposed a plan to replace the sequester that includes over $930 billion in spending cuts and $580 billion in new tax revenue.
A New York Times article presented a completely one-sided discussion of President Obama's proposal to raise the minimum wage, citing a single conservative source who claimed an increase would exacerbate joblessness while ignoring economists who have said increasing the minimum wage would have little or no impact on unemployment.
The Times reported that President Obama spoke about his proposed increase in the minimum wage to $9 an hour at the first stop of his tour promoting U.S. manufacturing jobs. After stating that minimum wage increases even in good economic times "have been heavy political lifts," the Times cited a Republican argument against increasing the minimum wage:
Republicans swiftly rejected Mr. Obama's latest attempt, saying it would only exacerbate the jobless rate.
''I've been dealing with the minimum wage issue for the last 28 years that I've been in elected office,'' House Speaker John A. Boehner said to reporters on Wednesday. ''And when you raise the price of employment, guess what happens? You get less of it.''
But the Times article doesn't note the evidence that minimum wage increases don't lead to increased joblessness.
A 2011 report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that increasing the minimum wage has no "discernible impact" on the employment of low-wage workers. And according to economist Heidi Shierholz at the Economic Policy Institute, claims of job losses for teenagers from a minimum wage increase "simply do not comport with the evidence."
Conservative media have denigrated solar energy by denying its sustainability, ignoring its successes, and arguing the U.S. should simply cede the solar market to China. Yet this booming industry has made great strides, and with the right policies can become a major source of our power.
Now that the Obama administration and Congress are engaged in a debate over immigration policy, a Media Matters review of major news outlets has found that when it comes to immigration coverage, anti-immigrant commentator Mark Krikorian continues to be the media's preferred conservative voice. Krikorian heads the Center for Immigration Studies, a group associated with notorious nativist John Tanton and whose research has been called into question -- but these facts are routinely ignored in coverage of his remarks.
An analysis by the Checks & Balances Project finds that 60 major newspapers frequently quote fossil fuel-funded think tanks on energy and environmental issues without disclosing their industry ties. Further research by Media Matters finds that the Wall Street Journal's lack of disclosure has been especially glaring.
The Checks & Balances Project found that between 2007-2011, industry-funded organizations like the Heartland Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation were cited or quoted over 1000 times in 60 publications, often to attack environmental regulations or renewable energy technology. Their ties to fossil fuel interests were disclosed only 6 percent of the time, despite the fact that 17 percent of mentions promoted fossil fuels. The analysis concluded that "a transactional relationship of contributions in exchange for national media traction is playing out" between these groups and their corporate benefactors.
Expanding on these results, Media Matters found that the Wall Street Journal cited, quoted or featured these think tanks on energy issues more than 100 times between 2007-2011 -- more than any of the other other major papers evaluated by Checks & Balances. But the Journal -- which has a history of failing to disclose fossil fuel ties - mentioned the funding sources for these groups just under 4 percent of the time, slightly worse than the average disclosure rate for the other 60 publications.
Members of the media have been quick to push the myth that the National Rifle Association can remove politicians from office who support new gun violence prevention measures in the wake of the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. The influence wielded by the NRA has been overblown by the media for years, a fact further evidenced by the organization's poor showing during the 2012 elections.
A New York Times article on Michigan's "right-to-work" law adopted a right-wing framework by portraying union dues as "mandatory" and "compulsory" without explaining that labor leaders say those dues are necessary to avoid free-riders, who benefit from union-negotiated contracts while depleting those unions of resources. In contrast, a Times editorial provided the full context on this issue, including problems with possible "free riders."
The Republican-controlled Michigan government is in the process of passing a so-called "right-to-work" law. Conservative media are hyping the law using false arguments that the law would benefit Michigan workers and the state's economy, and that it's required to avoid "forced-unionism" at work places.
A New York Times article on Tuesday repeatedly highlighted the "mandatory" and "compulsory" aspect of union dues in states that have not adopted "right-to-work" laws, while ignoring a key reason unions negotiate those fees with employers as part of the collective bargaining process. A Wall Street Journal editorial previously framed this issue using similar conservative rhetoric, saying that unions "coerce" workers into paying union dues.
Economist Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, explained that unions are obligated to represent every worker -- even non-union members -- who is part of a collective bargaining unit that the union is recognized to represent, and that "right-to-work" laws simply ban the requirement that all workers who benefit from this union representation pay for the cost of maintaining it:
Right-to-work laws prohibit contracts that require that all the workers who benefit from union representation to pay for union representation. In states without right-to-work laws unions often sign contracts that require that all the workers in a bargaining unit pay a representation fee to the union that represents the bargaining unit.
The logic is straightforward. When a union is recognized as representing a bargaining unit it legally must represent every worker in that unit, whether or not a worker opts to join the union.
This means not only that non-members get the same wages and benefits that the union negotiates with the employer, but the union is also obligated to represent any non-member individually if that worker gets in a dispute with the employer over an issue covered in the contract. For example, if a non-union member is threatened with a discipline action or firing, the union must defend this worker's rights just the same as if they were in the union.
Right-to-work laws prohibit workers from being required to pay for this union representation. What right-to-work laws actually guarantee is the ability for a worker to benefit from union representation without having to pay for union representation.
The Times' loaded reporting on the issue is made more problematic in comparison to an editorial the paper published on the same day that laid out the purpose of these union dues (emphasis added):
These measures are misleadingly known as "right to work" laws, and their purpose is no less deceptive. Business leaders say workers should not be forced to join a union against their will, but, in fact, workers in Michigan can already opt out of a union. If they benefit from the better wages and benefits negotiated by a union, however, they are required to pay dues or fees, preventing the free riders that would inevitably leave unions without resources.
Major papers, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, are hiding compromises in a White House proposal on federal spending and budgets, claiming that the proposal was "loaded with Democratic priorities" and lacking in cuts. In fact the White House plan made many compromises, such as $400 billion in savings to entitlement programs that many progressives have opposed.