Monthly Archives: October 2004

Stewart Rides Again

I’m probably the only blogger who hasn’t yet directed his readers to the Jon Stewart visit with “Crossfire.” But in case you haven’t seen it, take a look.

Stewart calls Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala “partisan hacks.”

I love Stewart. He’s brilliantly put himself in the position of deflecting all criticism by saying “I’m a dancing monkey,” so you can’t compare what he does with real journalism. But the truth is he’s impacting the debate as much as any journalist writing today.

Objective Reporting Must Be ‘Hard Work’

Kurtz was asked a number of times during his online chat today about his column this morning. (See earlier post.) He ignored my question asking his opinion. But in the end, he says that reporting that candidates lie is just too hard for working scribes.

It’s much harder to crawl out on a limb and say, I have studied what the two campaigns have said on issue X and here is my factual analysis of where the truth lies. You take a lot of heat when you do that, as opposed to “President Bush and Senator Kerry traded charges today on whether the senator is soft on terrorism…” It also happens to be good journalism to try to untangle the competing claims and counterclaims.

Balanced and Biased

Looks like the press is catching up with me and others who have long contended (and as recently as two weeks ago) that fair, objective and balanced doesn’t mean that the press should weigh each article or general coverage by whether it equally criticizes or congratulates candidates for their representations on the stump.

In today’s Washington Post column Howard Kurtz cites what could be a hopeful trend.

In articles, columns and one internal ABC News memo, some journalists have argued that the president has engaged in far more serious distortions than John Kerry has, and that media outlets should blow the whistle on these falsehoods.

“Your instinct is that if we say bad things about one side you have to say bad things about the other side,” says Adam Nagourney, the New York Times’s chief political reporter. “You want to give equal scrutiny to both sides, but I don’t think you should impose a false equivalence that doesn’t exist.”

…At issue is how far reporters should go in analyzing the candidates’ attacks and ads, especially if one side is using a howitzer and the other a popgun. Mark Halperin, ABC’s political director, fueled the debate with a memo that leaked to the Drudge Report.

“Kerry distorts, takes out of context, and [makes] mistakes all the time, but these are not central to his efforts to win,” Halperin wrote. While both sides should be held accountable, “that doesn’t mean we reflexively and artificially hold both sides ‘equally’ accountable when the facts don’t warrant that.” Complaints by the Bush camp, Halperin said, are “all part of their efforts to get away with as much as possible with the stepped-up, renewed efforts to win the election by destroying Senator Kerry at least partly through distortions.”

The skipped over graph in the preceding citation reveals the reason truly objective reporting is so hard to come by.

The Bush team, which issued a release slamming a recent Nagourney story, is pushing back. “The Bush campaign should be able to make an argument without having it reflexively dismissed as distorted or inaccurate by the biggest papers in the country,” says spokesman Steve Schmidt.

Conservatives for decades have been “pushing back.” It’s what has led many enterprising reporters to state what now is to many the obvious. There is a conservative bias in the press. It’s not just Fox News. That’s so blatant anyone can see it. It is the subconscious impact the conservatives have had on the mainstream press, pushing reporters and editors to see balance where there is none. The press is fearful that true fairness would mean retaliation by a conservative administration and a lack of access to sources, which it sees as a competitive disadvantage. Finally, some thoughtful journalists are pushing back.

The key question is one of magnitude. Kerry had been saying the war in Iraq has cost $200 billion; that is the current estimate, but the price tag so far is $120 billion. (Kerry adjusted his answer in the final debate.) Bush keeps charging that Kerry is pushing a “government-run” health care plan, even though nearly all analysts and journalists have concluded that it builds on the existing system of private insurance. That would seem a more fundamental misrepresentation. (Bush repeated the charge in the Arizona debate, and when Kerry cited network reports challenging the claim, the president questioned whether “it’s credible to quote leading news organizations.”)

Charges are often technically true but still misleading. One Bush ad said Kerry supported a 50-cent gas tax under which “the average family would pay $657 more a year.” Kerry briefly expressed support for such a tax in 1994 but changed his mind and never introduced or voted for such a bill.

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank was the lead writer on a May 31 story (to which this reporter made a minor contribution) that recited a litany of Bush charges, saying they “were all tough, serious — and wrong, or at least highly misleading.”

The Oct. 8 Times piece by Nagourney and Richard Stevenson attributed to “several analysts” the idea that “Mr. Bush pushed the limits of subjective interpretation and offered exaggerated or what some Democrats said were distorted accounts of Mr. Kerry’s positions on health care, tax cuts, the Iraq war and foreign policy.”

Says Nagourney: “People who work for the larger papers and networks are more able to withstand attacks and have an added obligation to be out front on this.”

Paul Krugman, the liberal Times columnist, writes that while Kerry might use “loose language,” Bush’s statements are “fundamentally dishonest. . . . Journalists who play it safe by spending equal time exposing his lies and parsing Mr. Kerry’s choice of words are betraying their readers.”

If we’re betrayed, we need to speak up. The first chance is at noon today when Howard Kurtz has his weekly online chat. Let’s try to get him to come clean on his view, which is impossible to discern in the column, perhaps because he’s often guilty of the forced balance Nagourney and others have challenged.

Update: Kevin Drum cites the Post’s ombudsman article arguing the same point.


Some say Virginia is not a lost cause but winnable. A new site, November Surprise, says the latest Zogby poll has Bush leading by just over two points in the Old Dominion, within the 3% MOE. Check out the site to see what you can do to help make Virginny the “November surprise.”

No More a McNewspaper

A memo from the editor of USA Today to his staff is posted on the Poynter web site.
In the memo, Ken Paulson tells the staff that the paper should strive for uniqueness.

That unique content comes, to some extent, from scoops; the kind of exclusive news content that our industry has always chased. But it also means taking a fresh look at old subjects and approaching stories with a fresh eye.

In the past, I had joined the snobs who dismissed USA Today as the McNewspaper. I’m still a little frustrated that some of the paper’s stories leave me hungry for more. But no one can dismiss USA Today any longer. In fact, many times USAT trumps its highly respected competitors.

Which leads me to a couple of stories that I found compelling earlier this month. Indeed, the writers and editors took “a fresh look at old subjects and approach[ed the] stories with a fresh eye.” I had meant to comment on them before, but it’s never too late because this series of stories are a “must read” for anyone who cares about the “big issues” facing us in this election season.

One of the biggest issues is the deficit. Both candidates have blinders on about it. USAT puts the issues in stark and accessible terms.

A USA TODAY analysis found that the nation’s hidden debt — Americans’ obligation today as taxpayers — is more than five times the $9.5 trillion they owe on mortgages, car loans, credit cards and other personal debt.

This hidden debt equals $473,456 per household, dwarfing the $84,454 each household owes in personal debt.

But it’s really not our debt.

“The baby boomers and the Greatest Generation are delivering an economic disaster to their children,” says Laurence Kotlikoff, a Boston University economist and co-author of The Coming Generational Storm, a book about the national debt. “We should be ashamed of ourselves.”

Here’s what it would take to “pay the obligations of federal, state and local government:”

*All federal taxes would have to double immediately and permanently. A household earning $100,000 a year would see its federal taxes double from an average of about $20,000 to $40,000 a year. All state taxes would have to increase 20% immediately and permanently.

*Or, benefits for Social Security, Medicare and government pensions would have to be slashed in half immediately and permanently. Social Security checks would be cut from an average of $1,500 per month for couples to $750. Military pensions would drop from an average of $1,782 per month to $891. Medicare spending would fall from $7,500 to $3,750 annually per senior. The Medicare prescription-drug benefit enacted last year would be canceled.

*Or, a combination of tax hikes and benefit cuts — such as a 50% increase in taxes and a 25% reduction in benefits — would avoid the extremes but still require painful changes that are outside the scope of today’s political debate. Savings also could come in the form of price controls on prescription drugs, raising retirement ages and limiting benefits to the affluent.

One issue that has intrigued me is the history of social security. In his message to the Congress in 1934, FDR said “[W]e are compelled to employ the active interest of the Nation as a whole through government in order to encourage a greater security for each individual who composes it . . .”

That sounds to me that, as the USAT article states, “Social Security was created in 1935 to help the elderly avoid poverty during the Great Depression.” “Avoid poverty” are the key words for me. But is that true? Was it sold as help for the indigent or was it an entitlement?

Maybe no one ever thought about it because “[w]hen the government set 65 as the retirement age in the 1930s, most people didn’t live that long. But life expectancy for women has increased from 66 to 80 since 1940 and for men from 61 to 75.”

Should Social Security and Medicare be means tested? The next day’s USAT article briefly (maybe USAT falls victim to its brevity here) explores the alternatives.

All in all, the articles and sidebars are worth reading. No, they’re required reading, making USAT no more a McNewspaper but often an accessible, thorough and compelling read.