Bad Press

By

There's nothing quite like a serial fabricator to get the attention
of journalistic scolds. Even if a movie about my former friend and
colleague Stephen Glass weren't coming out this week, the big minds
of journalism might still be talking about Jayson Blair, The New
York Times reporter unmasked as a fabricator earlier this year.
And, if they weren't talking about Glass or Blair, they might be
talking about The Boston Globe's Mike Barnicle and The Washington
Post's Janet Cooke, whose journalistic frauds brought shame upon
their own respective institutions. "Unfortunately, we can go on and
on with such examples," E.R. Shipp wrote in The Washington Post
this spring, after rehearsing the now-familiar litany of media
malfeasance. "All of these journalists got ahead by appearing to
play the game better than the rest--but only, it turns out, by
violating the rules of the game."Famous journalistic malefactors are a perfectly worthy topic for
introspection, since they undermine the credibility of all
reporters. It's also perfectly worthy--in fact, utterly
necessary--for institutions to change policies and procedures to
thwart future scandals, as the Times did this week when it hired
its first-ever "public editor," who will act as an internal
journalistic watchdog and reader advocate. But, while horrifying and
compelling, fabricators tell us little about the overwhelming
majority of reporters who don't make up characters, invent quotes,
or pretend to be places they never were. Most journalists really do
report the facts--or at least make a good- faith effort to do so.

Unfortunately, these good-faith efforts don't always produce good
journalism. And nowhere is this more true than in Washington.
Thanks to a handful of bad habits, some good intentions gone awry,
and a new breed of politicians adept at exploiting these
vulnerabilities, today's political reporters routinely provide the
public with misleading, sometimes wholly inaccurate coverage of
public policy and the officials who make it. Everything from the
future of Social Security to the war on terrorism depends on
accurate political reporting. Yet this epidemic of bad political
coverage has sparked little soul-searching within the national news
establishment itself--perhaps because the trouble isn't that
journalists are getting the facts wrong, it's that they're getting
the story wrong.

BIAS

The most common (and familiar) complaint against political reporters
is also the most misunderstood: that the press has an inherently
liberal bias. The accusation goes back at least 30 years to Richard
Nixon, who believed (not entirely without reason) that the elite
press was out to get him. Since then, the right has created its own
set of media outlets to counter the perceived tilt left. Last year,
Bernard Goldberg's book Bias, an extended diatribe on this very
subject, rose to the top of The New York Times best-seller list and
was seen tucked under President Bush's arm as he walked across the
White House lawn. The tenet that the media are unfairly liberal
remains a defining belief of contemporary American conservatism.
Just this month, for example, when newspapers were carrying
articles about Arnold Schwarzenegger's groping of women, Rush
Limbaugh's addiction to painkillers, and the Bush administration's
apparent outing of a CIA agent, Washington Post media reporter
Howard Kurtz summed up conservatives' reaction thusly: "For the
Right, Bad News Day Or Media Bias?; Conservatives See More Than
Coincidence in Recent Scoops."

It's undeniably true that reporters' personal views tend to be
liberal. A 1996 poll, for instance, showed 89 percent of Washington
reporters voted for Bill Clinton in 1992. What's not so clear is
how these biases affect coverage. Most journalists insist their
commitment to evenhandedness--a gospel spread by the likes of
Washington Post editor Len Downie, who refused even to vote because
it affirmed partisan feelings--makes their personal philosophies
irrelevant. Conservatives, in turn, scoff at this notion, saying
that liberals could never put aside their own predilections so
easily.

The likely truth is that liberal bias does affect news coverage, but
not always in the ways conservatives suspect. For one thing, the
elite media are not merely liberal. They're, well, elite. They
share the priorities of the educated classes--liberal on social
issues but not necessarily on economics. So, while reporters are
more likely to portray anti-abortion or anti-gay rights activists
as out of the mainstream than pro-choice or pro-gay rights
activists, they dismissively characterize enormously popular
programs like Medicare and Social Security as "entitlements" and
portray politicians who defend them from cuts as practicing
"demagoguery." (As Newsweek asserted in 2000, "The Democrats' most
tried-and-true weapon was to demagogue Social Security.")
Similarly, when Democrats complain about inequality, mainstream
reporters and pundits frequently describe it along the lines that
Tim Russert did in 2002, when he posed a question about "the whole
class warfare issue that's being raised by the Democrats"--a term
they would never use to describe any Republican policy, even one
that very clearly advantages one class over another.

Another surprising thing about liberal bias is that it manifests
itself not so much in outright hostility toward
conservatism--although there's some of that--but as simple
bewilderment that, in turn, fosters misleading coverage. If you're
an Ivy League-educated reporter or an editor living in the Boston-
Washington corridor--in other words, if you're part of that class of
people who set the tone for political coverage--you probably don't
know many true conservatives. Indeed, conservatism may strike you
as a completely alien ideology.

Over the years, conservatives have learned to take advantage of this
confusion. And nobody has done it better than George W. Bush. From
the day he began running for president, Bush and his handlers
grasped the superficiality of the national press corps. "I do think
[the media] are biased against conservative thought," he told
National Review in 1999, "and the reason is that they think
conservative thinkers are not compassionate people ... that's one
of the reasons I've attached a moniker to the philosophy I
espouse." And Bush didn't simply call himself a "compassionate
conservative"; he tried to act like one, constantly professing deep
concern for the poor and surrounding himself with minorities.

From the perspective of the right, there's nothing strange about an
affable conservative who cares about the poor. Nor should there be;
for plenty of conservatives, the sentiment is genuine. But
reporters treated such traits as evidence that Bush didn't actually
support very conservative policies-- something he very clearly did.
Bush would, as USA Today put it, "govern from the center, rejecting
the shrill conservative absolutism that turned off swing voters
after Republicans won control of Congress in 1994." Of course, this
was precisely what the Bush campaign hoped to do: It was trying to
convey the impression that it wouldn't depart too dramatically from
the popular policies of the Clinton administration. But the media
was (unintentionally) complicit in Bush's ideological sleight of
hand.

STORYLINES

Once the news media has settled on a perception of a political
figure, it becomes nearly impossible to dislodge. One reason is
that the evidentiary standards for a piece of "news" drop if that
news seems to fit a preconceived pattern. In 1988, for instance,
reporters decided that GOP vice-presidential nominee Dan Quayle was
stupid. Quayle certainly was not a brilliant man, but plenty of
politicians with equally mediocre minds do not have their intellect
savaged the way Quayle did. Part of the reason Quayle couldn't shake
his reputation was that any tiny gaffe he committed became national
news. In 1992, famously, he instructed a student at a spelling bee
to add an "e" to the end of "potato." This incident was emblazoned
in the public mind as a symbol of Quayle's stupidity. Few reporters
noted, however, that when he uttered the fateful phrase, Quayle was
looking at an instruction card that spelled the word "potatoe."

Sometimes reporters reinforce perceptions that they themselves
created, and sometimes they merely act as conduits for political
attacks generated by the opposition. Earlier this year, rival
campaigns attacked Democratic candidate Wesley Clark for having
praised Republicans. Once that storyline had been established,
anything that came remotely close to confirming it was deemed
newsworthy--even if a cursory examination revealed otherwise. Last
week, Time magazine breathlessly reported that Clark had praised
Bush in January 2002 for his handling of the war in Afghanistan.
Never mind that every major Democrat supported the war in
Afghanistan and that, four months after September 11, 2001, most
were trying to retain a united front with Bush on foreign policy.

One presidential election ago, it was the early attacks on Al Gore's
veracity--attacks, for the most part, without basis--that turned a
perfectly reasonable statement into a politically damaging
mini-controversy. A month before the election, The New York Times
took Gore to task because he seemed to invent a story about school
crowding: "Mr. Gore stood by his decision in the debate to
illustrate the problem of school crowding by speaking of a 15-year-
old girl in Sarasota, Fla., who had to stand in class. In fact,
school officials have said, the girl was without a desk for only
one day." The truth is that Gore was citing a newspaper article
about classroom crowding that was true when it was written, but the
problem had been subsequently rectified by school officials. But,
days later, there was the Times duly reporting on the controversy
over Gore's truthfulness--"As the nominees prepare for their
encounter in Winston-Salem, N.C., it is Mr. Gore who faces the most
scrutiny as he tries not to say or do anything that will cement an
image that he puffs up stories and is not to be trusted"--as if the
"scrutiny" had somehow appeared on its own.

President Bush, too, has suffered from established media storylines.
Only because Bush has an image of being indifferent--if not
downright hostile--to the environment did it become front-page news
when he postponed a regulation raising the allowable amount of
arsenic in water. The merits of the arsenic regulation were highly
debatable: A paper by the Brookings Institution and the American
Enterprise Institute estimated that the regulation would cost an
astronomical $65 million per life saved.; Reporters "are evenhanded
to a fault, presenting every side of an argument as equally valid,
even if one side uses demonstrably false information and the other
doesn't...."

OBJECTIVITY

For all the talk about the importance of objectivity, reporters are
surprisingly willing to express their opinions openly when it comes
to matters of pure politics. In 1997, when Gore defended
fund-raising calls he made from the White House by explaining the
technical aspects of campaign finance laws, The New York Times
reported that Gore's defense was "widely derided as self- righteous
and unconvincing." Other news outlets offered similar accounts, yet
it's not clear exactly who was widely deriding it, other than the
Republicans, of course, and journalists themselves. Apparently,
because something like Gore's performance is a matter of subjective
interpretation, reporters feel relatively free to state their own
views as fact.

Yet, when it comes to real matters of fact--that is, things that
involve figures, dates, actual events--reporters frequently take
the opposite approach. They are evenhanded to a fault, presenting
every side of an argument as equally valid, even if one side uses
demonstrably false information and the other doesn't. Bush has
exploited this tendency ruthlessly, most memorably in 2000, when he
described his tax cut as consuming a mere quarter of the projected
budget surplus. "I think it's right that one-quarter of the surplus
go back to the people who pay the bills," he said in September of
that year. Bush's own figures showed his tax cut would reduce the
estimated $4.6 trillion surplus by $1.6 billion, or about a third.
But reporters failed to point this out, let alone weave it into a
narrative of Bush's mendacity.

During the same period, Democrats cited analyses--using models
developed by nonpartisan economists at the Treasury
Department--showing that Bush's tax cut would give more than 40
percent of its benefits to the wealthiest 1 percent of taxpayers.
Bush responded with an analysis of his own showing that his tax cut
would give a mere 22 percent to the top 1 percent. But Bush's
analysis--or, more precisely, his economic flunkies'
analysis--arrived at this number by excluding the elimination of
the estate tax and the top income tax cuts, the very elements that
most benefited the rich. In other words, Bush's "analysis" was a
deliberate and obvious sham. But the press treated it as legitimate.
As The New York Times reported, "the richest 1 percent of taxpayers
would get between 22 percent and 45 percent of the tax benefits,
depending on how the calculations are done."

This bizarre approach to policy reporting effectively rewards
dishonesty. What's the point of a politician telling the truth if
even the elite press will simply throw up their hands and fail to
distinguish between truth and falsity?

IMAGE CONSCIOUSNESS

Political coverage is also hampered by the assumption that there is
some relationship between the emphasis a politician gives to an
idea and its actual importance. President Clinton took great
advantage of this during his second term, when he proposed a series
of micro-initiatives with enormous popular appeal. Issues like
school uniforms and giving cell phones to neighborhood patrols all
garnered strong support in polls and helped bolster Clinton's
popularity, even though they affected few people and committed only
symbolic levels of government money. The media had to cover these
issues when Clinton spoke about them, invariably making them seem
larger and more important than they really were.

Bush has elevated this trick to new heights. He bolsters his image
as a "compassionate conservative" by regularly proposing
moderate-sounding initiatives. His support for higher levels of
federal education spending, allowing low-income families to deduct
charitable contributions from their taxes, and boosting funding for
global aids efforts gobbled up widespread press coverage. When he
unveiled his budget in 2001, for example, a front-page New York
Times headline blared, "first bush budget proposes to raise aid for
education"; his promise of more aids funding during the 2003 State
of the Union won Bush headlines like "aids advocates praise bush's
$15 billion proposal" from USA Today. Later, though, it turned out
Bush was proposing to increase education funding by only half the
11.5 percent he'd promised. Instead of asking Congress for $3
billion in aids money, as he'd vowed to do, he actually requested
just $2 billion--then fought efforts by Congressional Democrats to
fulfill the original promise. And, while Bush continues to talk up
the role of charity, he quietly allowed the charitable tax
deduction to die so he could use the money instead for other tax
cuts.

It's true that when Bush breaks his promises, the press duly reports
it. But Bush's words command far more attention than his deeds.
Part of the reason for this is mechanical. A Bush announcement is
the province of the White House press corps, whose reportage is
generally deemed the most newsworthy. Legislative arcana is the
turf of less prestigious congressional reporters. So, when Bush
announces a new, "compassionate" initiative, the story makes a big
splash on the evening news. When it dies in Congress, the story ends
up in the back pages of the newspaper. As a result, if Bush wants
to portray himself as prioritizing education, the media usually
complies, regardless of how clearly his subsequent actions
undermine the storyline.

MONEY AND POLITICS

One of the most important domestic political stories in Washington
over the past decade has been the Republican Party's efforts to pry
U.S. business from its role as a bipartisan influence (for good or,
more often, for ill) and turn it into a full-fledged partner of the
GOP. The policy goals of the Republican Party and U.S. business are
now synchronized to an extent not seen since the Progressive
era--in part because leading Republicans, like House Majority
Leader Tom DeLay, have threatened interest groups that continue to
pursue good relationships with both parties. As Nicholas Confessore
wrote in a long, reported piece for The Washington Monthly this
summer, Republicans now expect lobbyists to support them all the
time, even on issues of ancillary concern. In return, Republicans
will take unpopular positions on issues like the environment and
health care that benefit those same lobbyists.

Yet this enormous shift, which impacts much of the domestic agenda,
has not been woven into the narrative of political journalism. That
omission, too, stems from the strange conventions of Washington
reporting. It's not that journalists fail to report on business
influence; it's just that such reportage tends to get segregated.

One place it lands is the lobbying beat. Earlier this month, The
Washington Post ran an incisive story explaining the links between
Wall Street--which has donated enormous sums to Bush's reelection
campaign--and administration policies, such as cutting the dividend
tax, which benefit those donors. Yet, when the dividend tax itself
was being debated, such links barely rated a mention in the Post or
anywhere else. It's not that the press is shilling for Wall Street
fat cats. It's that money in politics is its own, distinct beat
with its own, dedicated reporter (or set of reporters). And so
stories about politics and policy read as if Washington were
unsullied by money and advocates of ending the dividend tax pushed
the idea through by force of reason alone.

Another enclave of superb, but underexposed, coverage about the
relationship between lobbyists and policy is the financial press.
The Wall Street Journal, for example, has covered the nexus between
K Street and the GOP particularly well. And shortly after the 2002
elections, the Post business section ran a terrific piece observing
that "it's payback time for the distributors and other business
groups whose pent-up demands for policy changes, large and small,
will soon burst into public." The reason financial reporters can be
so blunt, and therefore accurate, is that they could not do their
job--conveying information about which businesses are succeeding in
winning legislation that will impact their bottom line--if they
didn't convey the unvarnished truth. Political reporters play by a
different set of rules. If a story like that ran on page one, it
would have to be filtered through the lens of "evenhandedness"--
"Democrats charge that Republicans are carrying water for their
donors; Republicans disagree"--even if one side were demonstrably
wrong. That's why the practice of unbiased reporting, as
journalists understand it, can actually impede the truth.

It may seem predictable that a liberal would suggest that the
deficiencies of the media coincide so often with the p.r. triumphs
of George W. Bush. Yet there is a reason for this. Unlike Ronald
Reagan, Bush came to office at a time when the voters preferred
most Democratic positions on domestic policy. (In a spring 2000
poll asking how they would like to divvy up the budget surplus,
cutting taxes finished fourth with a mere 14 percent, behind shoring
up Social Security, spending on other federal programs, and paying
down the national debt. ) Bush has aligned himself with a small but
powerful economic minority, relying on its financial muscle to
compensate for its lack of a popular mandate. That Bush lacks
support for his economic agenda doesn't make him wrong--to be
popular is not to be virtuous. But the brutal fact is that the
success of Bush's agenda depends upon the media failing to convey
it to the public in a clear-eyed way. It's not the media's job to
warn the public of the dangers posed by Bush--that's for his
opponents to do. It is, however, the job of the media to impart the
truth. Their failure has been his victory.

But this is the sort of failure few in the media wish to
investigate. Journalistic self-flaggellation is easier when the
culprits are a few extravagant malefactors. It's harder when the
problem is the basic conventions of political journalism itself.

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