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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The New York Times reported on a dangerous legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) brought by officials in states who refuse to implement their own healthcare exchanges, which has been widely trumpeted in right-wing media. But these lawsuits are based on a far-fetched theory that the law only authorized essential tax credits in state exchanges, not federal ones, a counterintuitive claim that has been widely discredited.
New York Times columnist Joe Nocera called recent asbestos litigation a "scam" and complained that "tens of thousands" of asbestos cases are "bogus" and "phony," despite no evidence of widespread fraudulent asbestos claims.
Nocera dedicated his most recent column to attacking victims of asbestos exposure and their attorneys. Not only does Nocera significantly overstate the problem of fraudulent asbestos claims, he accused asbestos litigants of falsely attributing lung cancers to asbestos exposure to obtain damage awards.
From Nocera's December 2 column:
It's hard these days for smokers to sue tobacco companies because everyone knows the dangers of cigarettes. Instead, [Rep. Carolyn] McCarthy has become part of a growing trend: lung cancer victims who are suing companies that once used asbestos.
With asbestos litigation well into its fourth decade -- the longest-running mass tort in American history -- you'd think the plaintiffs' bar would have run out of asbestos companies to sue. After all, asbestos lawsuits have bankrupted more than 100 companies. Yet McCarthy has found more than 70 additional companies to sue, including General Electric and Pfizer. Asbestos litigation, says Lester Brickman, a professor at Yeshiva University and perhaps the most vocal critic of asbestos lawsuits, "is a constant search for viable defendants." Because asbestos was once such a ubiquitous product, there is always somebody else to sue.
Let me stipulate right here that exposure to asbestos can be deadly. The worst illness it causes is mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer that essentially suffocates its victims to death. If it were only the real victims of asbestos-related diseases who sued, there would be no issue. That's how the tort system is supposed to work.
But, over the years, plaintiffs' lawyers have brought tens of thousands of bogus cases. They took doctors on their payroll to industrial sites, where all the employees would be screened for signs of an asbestos-related disease. They found some real cases, of course -- along with many that could never have stood up in court. Nonetheless, by bundling real cases with phony ones -- and filing giant lawsuits -- they took down one company after another.
Nocera is disturbed by the fact that McCarthy, a smoker, has opted to sue asbestos manufacturers instead of tobacco companies. But regardless of the individual merits of McCarthy's suit (which hasn't been decided yet), it is wholly irresponsible for Nocera to use it as evidence of "tens of thousands" of other bogus claims -- especially since there's no concrete evidence of widespread asbestos litigation fraud. When Congress asked the United States Government Accountability Office to audit these trusts (set up at the asbestos companies' initiative), the GAO reported that audits had not "identified cases of fraud."
On a seemingly never-ending hunt for bad news about Hillary Clinton and her political prospects, the New York Times recently published a front-page article about how the former first lady is busy trying to mend fences between herself and African-Americans, "the constituency that was most scarred during her first bid for the presidency."
Under the headline, "Eye on 2016, Clintons Rebuild Bond With Blacks," the Times claimed the turbulent Democratic primary from 2008 left deep wounds and assumed Hillary Clinton's appearances before black audience this year represented a pointed effort to fix that.
Usually when trying to assess a voting community's perception of a politician or public figure, reporters consult polling data. In this case the Times did not. Certain that Hillary needed to "rebuild" a "bond" with black voters, the Times chose to ignore all the polling data that indicates she currently enjoys extraordinary support among black voters. Indeed, including polling results in the article would have completely undercut the premise. (Why would you "rebuild" a bond that's amazingly strong?)
Instead, the Times omitted any reference to a Quinnipiac poll from this summer that found 88 percent of black voters view her favorably. The Times also ignored the recent NBC/WSJ poll that found in a hypothetical match-up against New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Clinton would receive 83 percent of the black vote, versus Christie's four percent. As Political scientist John Sides noted, "Among black voters, any negative feelings about Hillary Clinton were erased long ago."
As for Bill Clinton, a Fox News poll from this year revealed that 90 percent of "non-whites" view the former president favorably.
The Times piece seemed to be little more than an attempt to pick at a five-year old political wound, while glossing over the fact that the abrasion's been healed for years. It was the Times trolling around in search of a conflict and justifying the creation of a dedicated beat devoted to the former secretary of state when, in this case, no conflict exists. (What's next for the daily, a look at how Clinton has to "rebuild" her bond with middle aged women?)
The baffling Times article was just the latest, and perhaps the most egregious, example of a new school of commentary that's cropped up around the Clintons, and specifically around speculation regarding Hillary's presidential plans in 2016. Not content with what-if columns, articles and panel discussions, the press increasingly spends significant time and energy conjuring up what could go wrong if Clinton ran.
Despite Clinton's enviable position with regards to her sky-high name recognition, a proven ability to fundraise, and her strong favorable ratings, the starting point for much of the Clinton coverage lately is She Might Be Doomed. (The New Yorker's Amy Davidson has already declared Clinton's 2016 campaign to be a "predestined" "train wreck.") Does anyone remember two years worth of He Might Be Doomed coverage for George W. Bush when he emerged as the clear Republican front runner well before the 2000 campaign?
That's not to suggest that Clinton is off limits from tough, skeptical coverage and commentary. She's not. But pretending she has to rebuild a relationship that's not broken? That's not skepticism, that's just spin.
After weeks of highlighting negative aspects of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), media outlets have largely underreported the law's success in helping slow the growth of health care costs.
The New York Times has produced less environmental news coverage overall since dismantling its reporting team and blog devoted to this issue area earlier this year, the newspaper's public editor said.
In her November 23 column, New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan reported that environmental coverage and investigative projects decreased significantly since the newspaper disbanded its issue-specific team in January and discontinued the Green blog in March. This decision drew wide criticisms and concerns, which were substantiated by a corresponding drop in coverage on environmental issues, including the omission of two major climate stories in August. The decrease came despite assurances from editors that "they were not abandoning the subject -- just taking it out of its silo and integrating it into many areas of coverage," Sullivan reported:
Times editors emphasized that they were not abandoning the subject -- just taking it out of its silo and integrating it into many areas of coverage. The changes were made for both cost-cutting and strategic reasons, they said, and the blog did not have high readership. Readers and outside critics weren't buying it. They scoffed at the idea that less would somehow translate into not only more, but also better.
While current events may develop and influence a media outlet's news agenda, the loss of environmental coverage from the New York Times after the changes went into effect was noticeable and immediate. Specifically, climate change coverage dropped by one-third to 242 articles from April to September this year, compared to 362 articles during the same time period in 2012, Sullivan reported, citing work from the University of Colorado's Maxwell T. Boykoff. Similarly, the New York Times only ran three front-page articles that delved into climate change between April and September, versus nine stories produced during the same time period in 2012. Sullivan highlighted that "[w]ith fewer reporters and no coordinating editor, what was missing was the number and variety of fresh angles from the previous year."
Super Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines, sweeping the island nation with near-record winds and a towering storm surge. There are many scientific uncertainties around the factors contributing to storms such as Super Typhoon Haiyan, but scientists know that rising sea levels driven by manmade climate change worsen the damage caused by these storms. Yet an analysis of Typhoon Haiyan coverage in television and print media finds that less than five percent of stories mentioned climate change.
After hyping an alleged "pause" in global warming, mainstream media have entirely ignored a groundbreaking study finding that warming over the last 16 years has actually proceeded at the same rate as it has since 1951 with no "pause" compared to that time period.
The study, published in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society by Dr. Kevin Cowtan of the University of York and Robert Way of the University of Ottawa, found that the average global surface temperature has warmed 0.12 degrees Celsius between 1997 and 2012 (see the bold "Global" line in the graph above) -- two and a half times the UK Met Office's estimate of 0.05°C (see "Met Office" line). According to the new estimate, over the last 16 years the globe has warmed at the same rate as it has since 1951.
Writing about the study at the scientific blog Real Climate, climate scientist Stefan Rahmstorf concluded that the public debate about the "pause" has "become"completely baseless" and that any speed bump in warming is "not surprising" with natural variability:
The public debate about the alleged "warming pause" was misguided from the outset, because far too much was read into a cherry-picked short-term trend. Now this debate has become completely baseless, because the trend of the last 15 or 16 years is nothing unusual - even despite the record El Niño year at the beginning of the period. It is still a quarter less than the warming trend since 1980, which is 0.16 °C per decade. But that's not surprising when one starts with an extreme El Niño and ends with persistent La Niña conditions, and is also running through a particularly deep and prolonged solar minimum in the second half.
An earlier Media Matters analysis found that mainstream media mentioned the alleged "pause" in nearly half of coverage of a major international climate report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). However, media have often been reluctant to cover data contradicting that narrative, including a study finding that heat may have been stored in the intermediate depths of the ocean, where warming has proceeded 15 times faster than in the past 10,000 years, rather than in the atmosphere.
As for claims that global warming has "stopped" or that global warming is "[o]ver," the study found with 94 percent probability that there has been some warming over the last 16 years. Dr. Cowtan wrote that "the hypothesis that warming has accelerated ... is four times as likely as the hypothesis that warming has stopped."
Why were previous estimates off?
Media figures are comparing the troubled rollout of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to the Bush administration's botched response to Hurricane Katrina. This comparison ignores a crucial difference: Nobody has died because of problems with HealthCare.gov, whereas at least 1,833 people died as a result of Katrina.
The media have repeatedly referred to crises during the Obama administration as "Obama's Katrina."
On November 13, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Unite Here v. Mulhall, a case that could make it even more difficult for unions to organize workers. One of the issues in the case is whether a "neutrality agreement" -- where management agrees to remain neutral during a union organizing campaign in exchange for union concessions -- is illegal under a labor statute that prohibits employers from giving unions a "thing of value."
In an editorial, The Wall Street Journal glossed over the fact that these are voluntary agreements, instead claiming that they are the result of union intimidation and collusion. Moreover, the WSJ ignored that neutrality agreements have been an increasingly useful tool for both unions and employers during organization campaigns since a wave of Republican anti-union legislation has placed obstacles between workers and union representatives and disrupted opportunities for workplace productivity.
From the November 13 WSJ editorial:
With their membership declining, unions have become more politically creative and one of their tactics has been to cut deals with management to replace bottom-up organizing on the shoproom floor. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on whether so-called neutrality agreements between Big Labor and business are collusion that infringes on the rights of employees.
Martin Mulhall (Unite Here v. Mulhall) is a groundskeeper at the Mardi Gras greyhound racetrack in Florida, where he has worked for 40 years. In 2004, Unite Here's Local 355 struck a deal with the company to grease the skids for unionization.
Mr. Mulhall didn't want to join a union and objected to the company entrapping him in a unionized workplace. He sued, arguing that Mardi Gras's collusion with Unite Here is forbidden by the 1947 Labor Management Relations Act, aka Taft-Hartley. Under Section 302 of that law, employers are forbidden from giving any "thing of value" to a union that wants to organize its employees.
While unions typically win only 45% of secret ballot elections, they succeed in 78% of organizing efforts using card check, when the union needs merely to collect signed cards from 50% of the work force to automatically become the monopoly bargaining agent.
If the Justices agree that Mardi Gras's concessions represent a "thing of value," organizers will have a harder time getting companies to sign off on deceptive procedures like card check. Unions will have to spend more time convincing individual workers that they can provide a service worth having. That would be a real thing of value.
WSJ also says unions who bargain for neutrality agreements somehow "intimidate" management, even though in exchange for neutrality, management is assured that the union will not strike in the event of a dispute over the agreement.
Media fell for another misleading leak from the House Oversight Committee when they hyped allegations that the Obama administration ignored HealthCare.gov security warnings -- though the warnings were for a portion of the site that will not be operational until early 2014.
On November 11, a CBS News report cited selectively leaked partial transcripts from Affordable Care Act (ACA) opponent Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) to claim that "the project manager in charge of building the federal health care website was apparently kept in the dark about serious failures in the website's security." The network was criticized by Maddow producer Steve Benen when he found that the warnings referenced a function of the health care website that won't be active until early 2014 and has nothing to do with the parts of the website that are currently in use. A Democratic staffer Benen talked to also said that this part of the website "will not submit or share personally identifiable information."
CBS' faulty report aired just days after the network faced widespread criticism and was forced to apologize for failing properly vet an unreliable source that was prominently featured in the network's October 27 60 Minutes report on the Benghazi attack. But CBS wasn't the only outlet to promote misleading claims from the leaked Oversight Committee transcript.
On November 11, The New York Times reported that The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services' Henry Chao, "[t]he chief digital architect for the federal health insurance marketplace," was "not aware of tests that indicated potential security flaws in the system, which opened to the public on Oct. 1," citing excerpts released by Issa. The same day, FoxNews.com claimed that Obamacare security concerns had been "withheld," but never mentioned that its story was based on a partial transcript. CNN's New Day, and Fox News' America's Newsroom and On The Record with Greta Van Susteren all ran the story on November 12. The Associated Press repeated the claim "Chao was unaware of a memo earlier that month detailing unresolved security issues" as late as November 13 -- after contradictory reports had surfaced.
The media's failure to confirm the suggestions made by partial transcripts from the House Oversight Committee is a significant oversight, considering the committee chairman Darrell Issa's history of releasing misleading material the press.