“Liberal Media”

Media Gives Points for Spin

Michael Kinsley hits it on the head:

What the press seems to value is successful spin. As gaffes and the phony umbrage that follows them gradually swallow up our politics, the press has taken on a bizarre role like that of judges in a figure-skating competition, as opposed to referees in a hockey match. What counts is the artistry. Figures in the news get points for successful spin (whether true or not), for a positive image (whether deserved or not), and for avoiding gaffes (that is, for not telling the truth.)

And, the GOP being better at spin, or at least more successful at getting people to believe lies (“death panels” anyone?), gets a better shake from the Fourth Estate than Democrats.

Predictable Attack on “Left Wing Media”

Andrew Breitbart has done his job.  He’s offered to donate $100,000 to the United Negro College Fund to anyone who can provide proof that black Congressmen were called “nigger” during the days of the House debate on healthcare reform, thereby starting the narrative that charges of racism against members of the Tea Party folks are unfounded.

This is a typical right-wing attack on the media:  raise doubt about one incident and thereby cause the mainstream media to adopt the position that all all racism charges against the right-wing are unfounded.  If Breitbart can convince mainstream media that the right-wing has been wronged on one occasion, the media will sheepishly avoid the issue or write stories that always include the disclaimer that they are “alleged” charges or “never proven.”

But there are other charges of racism that are documented, including a voice message left (view clip below) on Congressman John Lewis’s (D-Ga.) voice mail.  If someone was willing to do that, it’s not a stretch to believe that someone in the crowd that day hurled such epithets. 

Breitbart has enlisted Washington Post ombudsman Andy Alexander in his campaign.

If there is video or audio evidence of the racial slurs against Lewis and Carson, it has yet to emerge. Breitbart insists they "made it up." If so, they’re good actors.

Roxana Tiron, a reporter for the Hill newspaper, said she was talking with a congressional staffer inside a House entrance to the Capitol when a "trembling" and "agitated" Carson said he and Lewis had just been called the N-word by protesters outside. "He literally grabbed me by the arm and . . . said ‘You need to come out with me,’ " imploring her to step back outside to listen to the taunts. Post reporter Paul Kane was nearby and witnessed Carson’s reaction. "It was real. It was raw. It was angry. It was emotional. And he wanted it documented," recalled Kane, who said U.S. Capitol Police prevented them from going outside. Carson later told the Associated Press the protesters had chanted the N-word "15 times." Breitbart told me the "phantom 15 words" is "beyond absurd."

Through spokesman Justin Ohlemiller, Carson stands by his assertion. The spokeswoman for Lewis, Brenda Jones, insists he and his chief of staff heard repeated uses of the N-word. They are declining interviews, she said, because they don’t want to "fan the flames of destructive language."

Breitbart’s $100,000 challenge may be publicity-seeking theater. But it’s part of widespread conservative claims that mainstream media, including The Post, swallowed a huge fabrication. The incidents are weeks old, but it’s worth assigning Post reporters to find the truth. After all, a civil rights legend is being called a liar. That aside, there’s serious money at stake.

Perhaps The Post will try to ferret out the truth about the charges at the rally.  The proof Breitbart wants is a video.  It is unusual but not impossible that no video existed.  This was not a planned event at which there were many cameras.  How many, I’m not sure, but the lack of videotape doesn’t not mean it didn’t happen.

What happens when a print reporter quotes someone, most likely without video and possibly without an audio tape?  Is that quote then subject to video proof? 

At the end of the day, the right may get its wish by raising doubt about just one incident of racism to disprove any charge of racism.  It will be interesting to see how the MSM reacts to the right’s broadside.  If past is prologue, look for a meek MSM to cower.


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McDonnell Must Love Washington Post’s Confederacy Proclamation Story

As most folks in my business would probably tell you, the most important parts of a newspaper story are, in roughly this order, the photo (if any), the headline, the lede and the last sentence.  More folks will see the photo and read the headline than will read the story.  A few more will read the first few graphs, maybe to the jump, and then abandon it.  The fewest will read the entire piece, and the last impression you give them in the story (the close) will have an impact.

With that in mind, I offer Anita Kumar’s story today in The Washington Post.  There are slights of writing that impact the readers’ perceptions.

In the dead-tree version, the story is in the upper left of page one, a fitting placement.  The proclamation by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell of “Confederate History Month” created a national furor and, of course, it’s a homegrown story.

The headline is “McDonnell admits a ‘major omission.’”  That’s pretty accurate.  He didn’t apologize for celebrating Confederate History Month, but only that he did not refer to slavery.  (Which is like referring to the oppression of the Jews in WWII without mentioning that that oppression was more than hurling epithets.)  Note that in the online version the headline is different but also accurate:  “Virginia governor amends Confederate history proclamation to include slavery.”

The lede, however, is another issue.

After a barrage of nationwide criticism for excluding slavery [emphasis added] from his Confederate History Month proclamation, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) on Wednesday conceded that it was "a major omission" and amended the document to acknowledge the state’s complicated past.

The criticism was not just about “excluding slavery” from the proclamation; it was about the proclamation itself.  Why do we celebrate traitors to this country?  Why do we celebrate a movement that sought to preserve the most despicable of human institutions?

I’ll admit that some of the chatter I saw, heard and read the last two days  was a little wishy-washy on this issue.  Liberals, especially elected officials, didn’t want to go all the way there for fear of alienating Southerners who continue to cling the notion of the noble confederate.  But I think it’s fair to say that many people, especially those who’ve had little contact with the South, are baffled by this sanitized view of the Civil War.  Were there other issues besides slavery, for example, states rights?  Yes, but they stemmed from the issue of slavery; they were not separate and apart.  Why, those folks ask, do Southerners celebrate the Confederacy?

McDonnell and his supporters must be happy with the next two paragraphs as they give his original rationale for omitting slavery and his rectification of the mistake.  In fact, the entirety of the story before the jump is favorable to McDonnell—a man taking responsibility for his action and graciously calling two key critics.

After the jump, we see another headline:  “Despite apology, criticism of McDonnell continues.”  So where’s the evidence that criticism continues (though I’m sure it does)?  After a graph that details the changes to the proclamation, we have this curious graph:

But his decision to declare April Confederate History Month continued to cause a firestorm Wednesday, with national media descending on Richmond and Democrats and African Americans accusing the new governor of ignoring the state’s role in slavery.

Was the firestorm before or after McDonnell’s mea culpa?  If after, as is the logical interpretation, despite the lede, there is a firestorm over not just the omission of slavery in the proclamation, but the proclamation itself.  OK, where’s the evidence in the story?

From the point of the above graph, we have Sheila Johnson’s critical statement—made before McDonnell’s change of heart.  State Sen. Don McEachin, as Johnson an African-American, says he accepts McDonnell’s apology

…but said he was disappointed that the state had to undergo the embarrassment and national scrutiny that followed the proclamation. "It’s a black eye," he said.

That doesn’t criticize the proclamation but suggests that if it had included words about slavery it wouldn’t have been scrutinized.  Of course, there’s no way of knowing that.

Kumar then gives a little history of the proclamation and includes a statement by former Virginia Gov. and now Democratic Party chairman Tim Kaine that also seems to criticize McDonnell on the basis of the omission not the proclamation itself.

"Governor McDonnell’s decision to designate April as Confederate History Month without condemning, or even acknowledging, the pernicious stain of slavery or its role in the war disregards history, is insensitive to the extraordinary efforts of Americans to eliminate slavery and bind the nation’s wounds, and offends millions of Americans of all races and in all parts of our nation," he said.

So where is the voice to continued criticism?

Kumar then turns over the last five graphs to the Sons of the Confederacy, the group that requested the proclamation.The story ends with a quote that makes the group appear reasonable.

"All we’re looking for is an accurate history, which we don’t get in schools anymore or in the media," [Sons of Confederate Veterans national board member Brag] Bowling said. "The idea is to promote education in Virginia and tourism. Hopefully, we can still do that."

McDonnell and his allies must be pleased.  The article and jump headline allude to continued criticism but give no voice to it.  Meanwhile, the sons of traitors get to whitewash history and attack the media for not picking up a paint brush with them.

UPDATE:  The Post’s Robert McCartney has a thoughtful column on this issue, though I disagree with his conclusion that it’s justified to honor Confederate “heritage” because of Robert E. Lee’s “brilliant generalship.”

Cross posted on Commonwealth Commonsense.

Black Journalists: Wanted! Needed?

The Washington Post ombudsman Andy Alexander thinks the paper doesn’t have enough minority reporters.  He makes a good case.  But he buries the lead.  In his blog post today, he narrows in on the key problem:  Not talk, but story decisions.

Some minority staffers have told me they have considered leaving The Post because they feel that white assignment editors too often won’t embrace their story ideas. They believe the reason often is that the white editors simply don’t buy into the coverage idea because it’s on a topic that isn’t familiar to them or is uncomfortably outside their cultural environment.

Bobbi Bowman, a former Post reporter and editor who now is a diversity consultant to the American Society of News Editors (disclosure: I sit on its board), said it’s a problem in newsrooms. Frustration often builds among minority staffers “because they don’t think anyone listens to them” when they propose story ideas or new areas of coverage. In rejecting these ideas, she said, assigning editors often are saying to themselves: “This hasn’t happened to me, so it isn’t ‘news.’” The remedy, she said, is for editors to think outside their cultural comfort zone and be more willing to “accept other people’s definition of news.”

That becomes easier as newsroom diversity grows and minorities move into supervisory positions where they can shape news coverage. But in the current financial climate, when the Post is still struggling to return to annual profitability, expanding diversity is an extra challenge because staffing levels are being further trimmed.

All the more reason to expand newsroom conversation around the issue. Talk is cheap, but critically important.

Talk isn’t a bad idea.  And in this way and at this level, it may not be cheap.  But at the end of the chat, it takes a newspaper’s commitment to cover the stories of minorities, which will include stories about depravation, hopelessness and prejudice as well as inspiring ones about overcoming the challenges or the experiences of those who’ve inherited a leg up.  In any case, a newspaper making that commitment must come first.

That’s hard to do in today’s news environment, especially if The Post sees itself as the newspaper of political record.  You can’t have reporters investing time to find out what’s happening in minorities communities and explaining why it’s important, if you’re assigning “he said, she said” stories and covering or covering tea party rallies.

And what would that change in focus bring?  Before anything else, charges of “liberal media!”  Are the Post editors ready take the heat, or will they stick to stories of Clarence Thomas  clones?

Not only is it safer to be the stenographer of the political elite arguments, it’s cheaper.  Plopping a reporter in the White House briefing room or sending one to a Congressional press conference costs less that sending a reporter into a community to enterprise stories, for which even the minority reporter requires time to build trust among communities that don’t necessarily crave news coverage—and return with the best stories. 

So before they count face colors in the newsroom, they’ll need to decide whether it will make a difference.

UPDATE:  Seems like Politico is catching flak about the predominance of white men at the top.

Brauchli’s Troops Advance on Liberals

A couple of weeks ago, Washington Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander wrote that he thought the newspaper was tone deaf to conservatism.  He cited both the ACORN story about the prostitution imposters and the firing of Van Jones after allegations that he once thought Bush knew in advance of the 9/11 attacks.  Alexander said The Post ignored the stories for too long.

One explanation may be that traditional news outlets like The Post simply don’t pay sufficient attention to conservative media or viewpoints.

It "can’t be discounted," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. "Complaints by conservatives are slower to be picked up by non-ideological media because there are not enough conservatives and too many liberals in most newsrooms."

"They just don’t see the resonance of these issues. They don’t hear about them as fast [and] they’re not naturally watching as much," he added.

Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli said he worries "that we are not well-enough informed about conservative issues. It’s particularly a problem in a town so dominated by Democrats and the Democratic point of view."

To guard against it, he said, "I challenge our reporters and editors with great frequency to look at what is going on across the political spectrum . . . at the extremes, among the rabble-rousers, as well as among policymakers." He said he pressed the National desk this week to provide more ACORN coverage.

Conservatives are getting their payoff from Brauchli.  Today we have two stories, one about the labor union SEIC.  The planned attacks on SEIC were discussed last week on the Rachel Maddow show.

Now, both SEIU and ACORN – they find themselves under attack, both from Republicans, as we documented on last night‘s show, painted a bull‘s-eye on ACORN as soon as ACORN started registering large numbers of likely Democratic voters and from corporate interests who aren‘t crazy about things like minimum wage hikes, corporate interest that‘s gin up suspicions of groups they don‘t like by funding PR efforts to destroy those groups, PR efforts run by guys like Rick Berman, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbyist who we talked about on this show before. 

Brauchli, perhaps afraid as are many journalists of being accused of being liberally biased, assigned a reporter to follow the SEIC story, no mOrly Taitzatter how thin it might be.

But at least you could make an argument that there was some news value there.  The Style section has a front page story and big photo about Orly Taitz, the woman obsessed with proving Obama wasn’t born in Hawaii.  The photo shows her as a dentist, giving her argument a patina of credibility.  It’s one thing to make the right wing echo machine your assignment editor; it’s quite another to give legitimacy to an issue with no credibility.  The Post expended nearly 2,500 words on this discredited woman.

It’s little wonder that The Post is going under.  Its top editors are cowards.  Perhaps they should heed the advice of one judge who had to deal with a frivolous lawsuit she brought before his court.

In September, U.S. District Judge Clay D. Land dismissed a Georgia case that Taitz brought on behalf of a military doctor, Connie Rhodes, which held that Rhodes should be spared deployment to Iraq because Obama is not constitutionally qualified to be commander in chief. More than just rejecting it, he excoriated it.

"Unlike in Alice in Wonderland, simply saying something is so does not make it so," Land wrote scathingly in his order dismissing the action. Singling out Taitz for criticism, he accused her of using the legal system to further a political agenda.

But no, Brauchli and his malleable ilk will continue to prostrate themselves to the echo machine.

The doubters have put themselves on the public’s radar. Eight in 10 Americans in a July Pew poll said that they had heard "a lot" or "a little" about the contention that Obama was not born in the United States and is ineligible for the presidency.

Hearing relentlessly about a charge, even if it’s been disproven, is enough for some in the media to reverberate it.  They also must bear some responsibility for what they enable.

At a minimum, organizations who monitor extremist groups say that the fantasy of Obama’s ineligibility is now a central tenet. "The birther conspiracy itself is now totally widespread among military and paramilitary [militia] groups and new, what we would call quote-unquote ‘patriot’ groups, which are groups that are virulently anti-government," says Heidi Beirich, director of research at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In oh so many ways, Brauchli played right into her hands.

And although she criticizes the mainstream media, she calls after the interview to see when this article will run. So she can flag it on her Web site.

“Liberal Media”

The historian Rick Pearlstein has some insight on the media’s acquiescence to the conservative echo chamber in his interview with CJR’s Campaign Desk.  It’s in response to Washington Post Ombudsman Andy Alexander’s column Sunday where he argues that The Post doesn’t adequately take into consideration the conservative point of view.  He cites as evidence the delay in The Post’s picking up the ACORN story.

One explanation may be that traditional news outlets like The Post simply don’t pay sufficient attention to conservative media or viewpoints.

It "can’t be discounted," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. "Complaints by conservatives are slower to be picked up by non-ideological media because there are not enough conservatives and too many liberals in most newsrooms."

"They just don’t see the resonance of these issues. They don’t hear about them as fast [and] they’re not naturally watching as much," he added.

Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli said he worries "that we are not well-enough informed about conservative issues. It’s particularly a problem in a town so dominated by Democrats and the Democratic point of view."

This mea culpa by Brauchli is not surprising.  But would he have admitted that coverage during the first Bush administration was biased because the government was controlled by Republicans?

In the comment section of a follow-up to this column in Alexander’s blog, someone, referring to the section of the column where Alexander points to surveys that show most reporters consider themselves liberal, argues, quite rightly I think, that though reporters are liberals, publishers are not.  Big media is owned by big business.  First and foremost, there interests will rump those of the peons.

But I don’t think that goes far enough.  Reporters, even those powerful enough to resist publishers’ prejudices, are thin-skinned.  And given that liberals are so open-minded they won’t even defend their own arguments, it’s not surprising that reporters bend over backwards to prove they aren’t liberal, thus leaning right more than providing objective and fair reporting.

Pearlstein insights are useful.

I read what Brauchli said, and what he was paraphrased as saying, and it almost suggests to me that Matt Drudge is becoming his assignment editor. I mean, why would a newspaper like the Post be training its investigative focus on ACORN now? Whether you think well or ill of ACORN, they’re a very marginal group in the grand scheme of things—and about as tied to the White House as the PTA.

The real story is that millions of Americans don’t consider a liberal president legitimate, and they’re moving from that axiom to try to delegitimize the president in the eyes of the majority. And one of the ways they do that is, frankly, by baiting the hook for mainstream media decision-makers who are terrified at the accusation of liberal bias. It really looks like Brauchli is falling for that.

He then cites ACORN’s work in 2004 for a ballot initiative to raise minimum wage.

In the conservative imagination, the idea that ACORN is working on a ballot initiative and that it might increase turnout for a Democrat is taken as prima facie evidence that ACORN and the Democratic Party are working hand-in-glove to distort the electoral process. But the Kerry campaign didn’t even seem to be aware of ACORN’s effort in this case.

So if Brauchli wants to do an investigation of ACORN, he should be able to justify it to the extent that they’re important in the grand scheme of things. And they’re important in the grand scheme of things now because the Republicans are yoking them to a narrative about the legitimacy of the president—that is the story, that is the event that brings ACORN to the forefront. Compare, say, the Chamber of Commerce’s ties to the Bush Administration—Bush’s head of the Consumer Products Safety Commission was a former executive with the Chamber of Commerce—to ACORN. Has an ACORN staffer ever made it anywhere near an executive position in the Obama administration? The scale of connection is infinitesimal.

So that’s the story, how these false equivalences get struck.

And then puts into perspective, Republicans’ efforts to smear ACORN during the 2008 elections.

In 2008, when the election was going on, conservative activists and Republican politicians were able to drive discussion of ACORN in the following way: they said that ACORN was aiding and abetting election fraud, and as evidence they gave all these false voter registration forms handed in by ACORN. You had to be an extremely alert news reader, you had to be an extremely informed member of the public, and you had to be very patient to be aware that it was actually ACORN that had discovered the fraud, and that law requires them to turn in every voter registration form they receive, even the ones that are fraudulent. In actual fact, they went above and beyond the law and flagged the ones they believed were fraudulent. So actually they were fighting electoral fraud, not creating electoral fraud.

And yet that became part of the narrative about the 2008 election, that there’s this group called ACORN, and they are working to abuse the American electoral process. How can you tell the story about what’s going on now with ACORN without leading with the idea of a conservative campaign to smear and vilify a group using any means, fair or foul? To me, that’s what happened last week. When it comes to this video, The Washington Post is completely letting the tail wag the dog.

…Everything has to be understood in historical context. Unless you grasp the history of conservatives attempting to appeal to newspaper editors’ guilt about being liberal—which has been around since Spiro Agnew—then you can’t tell these kinds of stories, because all that is part of the story. And unless you look at the repeated pattern of smear-driven narratives in presidency after presidency—which turn out, in the end, not to implicate anyone—then you’re not telling the story.

Honoring the perspectives of conservative citizens is an absolute imperative for any newspaper; honoring the perspectives of liberal citizens is an absolute imperative for any newspaper. But there are ways of honoring people with conservative politics without serving the agendas of conservative politicians.

…I would say that journalists’ job is not to see the world through the same prism as the conservative movement, or a different prism than the conservative movement. It is to tell the truth without fear of favor. And if the truth makes conservatives look bad, devil take the hindmost. And if it makes liberals look bad, devil take the hindmost. It’s just too easy—and if you read my work, it’s been too easy for four decades—for conservatives to exploit their ability to create a sense that the media are biased in favor of liberalism in order to manipulate the media, in order to get the stories they want told told in the way they want. It’s a strategy—you can see the memos in which people lay it out. And unless that strategy is reported on, and treated as part of the story, then you are not reporting on what’s actually happening in the real world.