Monthly Archives: October 2004

Little Lies, Big Lies

We’re liars, all. We may call it a white lie or one told to spare someone’s feelings, but we all lie. I’ve lied many time about small things – and some big ones. Sometimes, I’ll embellish a harmless story for comedic effect. But I usually feel so guilty about it, I’ll mention my exaggeration once I’ve gotten the laugh, just to keep the record straight.

But George Bush lies differently. He lies needlessly. When someone lies so thoughtlessly and so regularly and in print, you’ve got to wonder when he ever tells the truth.

When Mr. Bush pumped up the intelligence on Iraqi W.M.D., his exaggerations reflected the overriding truth as he saw it – that Saddam Hussein was a menace. I think Mr. Bush considered himself truthful, even when he wasn’t factual.

If Mr. Bush were a private citizen, I would admire his tenacity, just as I respect Barry Goldwater, Red Sox fans and Flat-Earthers. But for a president, I wish we had a clear-eyed thinker who understood the difference between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein

Lazy Cowards? Ouch

Much is written about the lack of substantive coverage during election campaigns. I’ve certainly done so before.

Now the Village Voice has a piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates with the headline “Lazy Bums.”

Aly Colón, leader of an ethics group at the Poynter Institute, says he’d like to see stories that balance coverage of the competition with some analysis of what the campaigns represent. “Both approaches can be done, even if it seems that the horse-race approach is the norm,” says Colón. “It doesn’t mean that a story couldn’t provide more coverage, in addition to that horse-racing aspect, to create a fuller picture of how the candidate might act in office.”

Of course this would require more work, more research, and more sourcing. “We’re lazy,” says [William Saletan, chief political correspondent for Slate]. “We’re really, really lazy. First of all, we’re cowards because we are afraid of being not objective. We’re also just lazy. There may be two reporters in the country who understand tax policy. The rest of us are talking to our friends and reading each other in the paper.”

Well said.

Va. University Tries to Stop Showing of Fahrenheit 9-11

A few weeks back, George Mason University in Fairfax withdrew an invitation to Michael Moore to speak on campus. Now Christopher Newport University in Newport News [not Norfolk, as I incorrectly first posted] Va., is trying to thwart the showing of Moore’s film “Fahrenheit 9-11.”

A student bought the film on DVD and planned to show it free to others. But CNU President Paul Trible, a former GOP senator, has demanded the students pay a $500 licensing fee to show the film, according to an email Commonwealth Commonsense received from the CNU Young Democrats today.

CNU has a reputation for being very conservative. Some of those conservatives may also be intolerant.

Kerry/Edwards buttons ripped off bookbags, torn from windows and vandalized, protests during a voter-registration drive, curses from fellow students.

These are few of the things the Young Democrats at Christopher Newport University say have happened to their members since the start of the school year.

At least 10 of the 30 active group members have experienced some form of harassment, said Young Democrats President Erin Spicer, who noted that she has not been harassed.

“We expected it to be a close election, but we didn’t expect hostility,” she said.

Hilliary Turner, secretary for the Young Democrats, said she dealt with about four students who used profanity in referring to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry while in class. They demanded to know why she was voting for him, Turner said.

“I said, ‘I don’t have to answer your question when you’re calling John Kerry those names, and it’s none of your business,’ ” she said. Along with critical e-mail sent to the organization, “we’ve had people interrupt our officer meetings to complain about John Kerry,” Turner said.

You can donate to the CNU’s Young Dems to help them raise the funds. Click through here.

More Bad News

U.S. forces are claiming they’ve killed an Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, but provide no evidence.

“Recent strikes and raids targeting the Abu Musab al-Zarqawi network have severely degraded its ability to conduct attacks,” the U.S. statement said. It did not identify the slain al-Zarqawi aide.

So we don’t even know who it is. Meanwhile, the interim government is blaming last week’s mass executions on U.S. “negligence.”

Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi blamed U.S.-led coalition forces for “negligence” in their handling of security during the ambush.

“It was a heinous crime where a group of National Guards were targeted,” Allawi said. “There was great negligence on the part of some coalition forces

And how many of the Iraqi trainees can we trust?

Last week, a U.S. defense official in Washington described Iraq’s security forces as “heavily infiltrated” by insurgents, saying some Iraqi soldiers and police have developed sympathies and contacts with the guerrillas. In other instances, infiltrators were sent to join the security services, the official said on condition of anonymity.


Sorry about the lack of postings. Been traveling and otherwise occupied. But I should be back in the saddle this week.

Balance vs. Fairness

In a shameless bit of self-promotion (though I’m sure I was not alone) and a more altruistic call to others to write to The Washington Post’s Ombudsman Michael Getler, compare what I wrote about balanced journalism in a post Oct. 7, a copy of which I sent to Getler, and what he wrote in his Oct. 17 column.

I wrote:

Today’s article about the charges John Edwards made in the debate against Dick Cheney is headlined “Halliburton Charges Jumbled by Edwards And Denied by Cheney.” The lede and second graph:

In the debate with Vice President Cheney on Tuesday, Sen. John Edwards referred to allegations of wrongdoing by Halliburton Corp. several times and raised questions about the Bush administration’s handling of government contracting in Iraq.

But in doing so, Edwards occasionally jumbled or oversimplified the complex details of the company’s role as a contractor and of its ties to Cheney, who served as Halliburton’s chief executive from 1995 to 2000.

But then the 559-word article charges only that

…the Democrat conflated two contracts, the second of which is a troop support arrangement awarded to Halliburton before the war, after a competition. That contract helped make Halliburton the top government contractor in Iraq. The Pentagon has considered — but has not acted on — several suggestions from auditors to withhold 15 percent of future payments because of questions about the company’s billing.

The rest of the article essentially confirms Edwards’ charges are accurate.

Getler wrote:

The Post, on Oct. 6, produced a solid “For the Record” fact-checking story that was headlined “Misleading Assertions Cover Iraq War and Voting Records.” Yet you could argue fairly, as I thought some did, that the largest and most important part of this story was the job it did challenging Cheney’s statement before a huge television audience that “I have not suggested there’s a connection between Iraq and 9/11.” But the headline and first paragraph gave no powerful clue about that, or about the fact that when you read through the piece most of it is spent challenging statements by Cheney.

The next day, a fact-checking story carried the headline “Halliburton Charges Jumbled by Edwards and Denied by Cheney.” This was also solid reporting, but the thrust of the article essentially backed up and explained most of Edwards’s charges. Yet the one instance of a “jumbled” reference by Edwards to two contracts got the second paragraph of the story and the headline.

Polishing my nails aside, the encouraging thing for all of us is that Getler listens. The question is do the Post writers and editors? Take a look at this morning’s Howard Kurtz’s piece (one of three with his byline this morning; does this guy sleep?). Having largely ignored the imbalance between Bush’s lies and Kerry’s positive ads until late in the campaign, Kurtz now decides it’s time to sort this out. Of course, only because Kerry has decided to respond in kind.

From March through August, Bush tried to bury Kerry under a blizzard of attack ads, some of them based on misleading charges, while the Massachusetts senator aired mainly positive ads. Even after turning negative in September, Kerry has pushed the factual envelope less often than the president — until recently.

Even the lede on this story first twice cites a Kerry misrepresentation before citing a Bush one.

As the presidential campaign careens toward the finish line, John F. Kerry is denouncing deep Social Security cutbacks that President Bush has not proposed. And Bush is slamming “government-run” health care that Kerry has refused to embrace.

Kerry says the president could bring back a military draft, despite Bush’s vociferous denials. Bush suggests Kerry regards terrorism as a “nuisance” when the senator merely said his goal is to reduce it to that level.

Still, fact checking, thanks in large part to the blogoshere and the candidates pushing the boundaries, might be here to stay. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll find some true balance and objectivity in reporting, with the help of ombudsmen such as Getler.

Fired Sinclair Reporter Says His Criticism Not New

Fired Sinclair Reporter Says His Criticism Not New
Jon Leiberman, the Sinclair reporter who was fired for speaking out against his employer’s plan to air the anti-Kerry documentary, said he has complained before to his bosses about the companies biased TV news reporting.

“It was the daily struggle to get fair news on the air,” he said. “I’ve been raising red flags for months. I didn’t just fly off the handle. … This is an agonizing process.”

… By last winter, Leiberman said he was privately complaining to his bosses about the blurring of the line between the company’s news stories and the conservative, pro-Bush editorials of Mark Hyman. It came to a head when Hyman and Leiberman were sent to Iraq in February to find positive developments missed by the rest of the mainstream media, which Sinclair executives said were focusing too narrowly on the unstable conditions there.

“Our mission really is to tell stories we think local news viewers aren’t getting throughout the country,” Leiberman told The Sun at the time.

Cameramen accompanied Leiberman, who was to report stories, and Hyman, whose assignment was to tape editorials about conditions in Iraq under the U.S.-led occupation. But the difference between the two became tough to discern, Leiberman said. “The commentaries were being presented as news,” he said.

In separate interviews, two former Sinclair producers – Lisa Modarelli and Dana Hackley – gave similar accounts of Leiberman’s struggles with his news bosses, in Iraq and back at home.

“Mark Hyman had his own agenda, which was to [produce] stories that he envisioned to be commentaries but that the average viewer would see as news,”said Hackley, who has since left the company for a job at a Pittsburgh university.

By late spring, Leiberman was thoroughly disillusioned. (He provided copies of e-mailed correspondence this week to The Sun to bolster his account.) In early May, he forwarded to DeFeo, the news vice president, a copy of a complaint from a viewer who said that the company’s newscast was biased. Leiberman added a note saying he agreed.

Hackley said Hyman and Smith routinely gave story ideas to news executives, who usually sought quick reaction by reporters.

On June 10, Leiberman asked to be released from his contract with Sinclair. In an e-mail to DeFeo, Leiberman wrote: “I am miserable in this position. We don’t have the resources to cover the news, and the resources we are given are always driven toward conservative agenda stories. We are not balanced and I have a problem with it.”

DeFeo responded soothingly, according to the correspondence given to The Sun: “I like having you on board with me as we build this. We will, and have, made some mistakes in this complex process.”

Leiberman complained to DeFeo and Carl Gottlieb, managing editor of Sinclair’s corporate news division, about a series of story selections. They were skewed toward stories that would make Kerry look bad, he argued. Many of them were defensible on their own terms, Leiberman said. But at a time when the bureau was typically producing one story a night, story selection was everything.

In response to one such lament, Gottlieb replied by e-mail, “Jon, all news is agenda driven.”

“All news is agenda driven.” Sad to say, Gottlieb is right. The agenda may be conservative or liberal politics. Or it may be audience ratings- or ad dollars-driven. But there’s usually an agenda that has nothing to do with honest journalism.

Meanwhile, Sinclair says it has decided not air the anti-Kerry film, “saying it would air only portions of the movie in an hour-long special scheduled for Friday.”

The company says it never planned to air the whole documentary. Atrios refers us to a citation that suggests that’s not true, as if we needed one. But none of the reports I’ve read have made clear why what they plan to air is substantively different or potentially less damaging to Kerry has the full documentary would have been. But clearly, the blogosphere has won another big one. The lesson: Hit them in their pocketbook.

Sinclair’s stock has dropped more than 15 percent since the controversy erupted 10 days ago. Alan G. Hevesi, the Democratic comptroller of New York whose state pension fund holds 257,000 shares of Sinclair, questioned in a letter to the company yesterday whether airing the movie would further depress the shares.

The Sinclair announcement came hours after Deborah Rappaport, a major Democratic donor with her husband, Andy, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, said they had offered to buy one hour on Sinclair stations. This would finance a 42-minute version of a pro-Kerry documentary, “Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry,” by George Butler. Rappaport said she was “deeply, deeply outraged” by Sinclair’s action and was offering $1 million more than the company’s usual ad rate in response.

Adding to the pressure on Sinclair, a group of institutional investors alleged yesterday that Smith’s three brothers, who serve on the company board, sold millions of dollars in Sinclair shares late last year just before the stock began its decline. Prominent shareholder lawyer William S. Lerach said the family would face a lawsuit unless the company is repaid.

Lerach, who has led investor lawsuits against Enron Corp., Time Warner Inc. and other corporations, is a noted Democratic fundraiser. But he said his involvement is not political, spurred instead by institutional investors who have watched Sinclair’s stock slide from a high of $15 per share in late December to its close of $6.26 yesterday.

Lerach noted that Frederick, Robert and Duncan Smith sold about 1.4 million shares of stock for almost $19 million as the stock was peaking at the turn of the year. The attorney, whose clients include a New York pension fund for health care workers, said the plan to air “Stolen Honor” has further hurt the company by driving down the stock price. He said Sinclair executives “should be focusing on creating shareholder value — not pressing a controversial personal political agenda at shareholders’ expense.”