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September 12, 2008

Angry? Or Just Shamefaced?

The media's self-beclowning continues apace. As I noted earlier this week the press, while maintaining they are objective, non-partisan and unbiased, have been acting as gatekeepers between the news and the American public. Up until now their control over what most voters see and hear has been virtually unchallenged. But as Howard Kurtz and Mickey Kaus both noted, the increasing power of blogs and the Internet have forced open the gate. The media can't always control which stories break into the open:

Model One: There's the press, and the public. The press only prints "facts" that are checked and verified. That's all the public ever finds out about. The press functions as "gatekeeper."

Model Two: Model One broke down with the rise of blogs, which (along with tabloids and cable) often discuss rumors that are not "verified." The public finds out about these rumors, as rumors. And it turns out that blogging obsessively about rumors is a pretty good way to smoke out the truth (see, e.g., Dan Rather).

But in Model Two, the rumors still don't get reported in the "mainstream media"--the respectable print press, the non-cable networks--until they are properly confirmed. Blogs and tabloids are a sort of intermediate nethersphere between public and the elite MSM that serves as a proving ground where the truth or falseness of the "undernews" gets hashed out. Stories that are true then graduate to the MSM.

Model Three: I thought Model Two would be a workable model for years, until either the MSM itself went totally online or until almost all voters stopped paying attention to it. I was wrong! The Edwards scandal did Model Two in. For months, the MSM failed to report the increasingly plausible rumors of John Edwards' extramarital affair even as it became the widespread topic of conversation in blogs, in the National Enquirer, and among political types. The disconnect turned out to be painfully embarrassing for the MSM, especially when the rumors were finally "verified" with Edwards' confession. A lot of what we are seeing now is the MSM not wanting to go through another Edwards experience.

Kaus' model breaks down when he tries to pretends only "true" stories graduate to the mainstream media. The same bias sneaks into Kurtz' article today:

The media are getting mad.

Whether it's the latest back-and-forth over attack ads, the silly lipstick flap or the continuing debate over Sarah and sexism, you can just feel the tension level rising several notches.

Maybe it's a sense that this is crunch time, that the election is on the line, that the press is being manipulated (not that there's anything new about that).

News outlets are increasingly challenging false or questionable claims by the McCain campaign, whether it's the ad accusing Obama of supporting sex-ed for kindergartners (the Illinois legislation clearly describes "age-appropriate" programs) or Palin's repeated boast that she stopped the Bridge to Nowhere (after she had supported it, and after Congress had effectively killed the specific earmark).

The McCain camp has already accused the MSM of trying to "destroy" the governor of Alaska. So any challenge to her record or her veracity can now be cast as the product of an oh-so-unfair press. Which, needless to say, doesn't exactly please reporters, and makes the whole hanging-with-McCain-on-the-Straight-Talk era seem 100 years ago.

Before I address any of Mr. Kurtz' claims, let me point out the kind of blatantly asymmetrical news coverage that rightly provokes complaints from both conservatives and the McCain campaign:

John notes that the Washington Post seems to be downplaying the McCain-Palin rally in its backyard. But the bigger crime may be how the Washington Post article on the rally was written. Let's just do a by numbers comparison:

Number of paragraphs in the Washington Post story: 14

Number of paragraphs about pro-Obama protesters: 8

Number of McCain-Palin supporters present: 23,000

Number of Obama protesters: about 30

You do the math.

This arrantly partisan nonsense is par for the course with the Post.

Deborah Howell has already documented the Post's pro-Obama news slant, but this is hardly the first election where that has been the case.

During the 2004 election, I attended the KerryLied rally in downtown Washington, DC. I was frankly astonished that the Washington Post, my hometown paper, completely ignored this large event, which was well attended by Vietnam veterans and several well known speakers. I'm sure their inexplicable lack of coverage had nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that the rally was sponsored by the Swift Veterans (who at the time mysteriously could not get a single inch of column space in any major newspaper). I remember this well because I complained about it week after week. They held press conferences which were attended by reporters, who then retired back to their papers and wrote.... nothing. Not. A. Word.

America heard absolutely nothing about the Swift Vets until their book was published and the mainstream media was literally forced to admit their existence. Once that happened, the media responded with a smear campaign that literally took my breath away. The New York Times published a frankly silly list of "ties" to 527s that makes me laugh to this day, virtually ignoring the far larger and more extensive George Soros-related 527 fund raising ties that were utilized to try and get John Kerry elected.

A second example is the stunningly dishonest Vanity Fair Sarah Palin "authoritative timeline" I discussed here. It almost defies belief that any credible "journalist" would publish such transparent and easily disprovable lies. Howard Kurtz actually defended the fact that journalists contacted the McCain campaign to ask if Sarah Palin was planning to take DNA tests to refute online rumors about who fathered her youngest child.

But anyone with access to Google, or at least anyone who cared to find out the truth, could quickly discover how the supposed "facts" in the timeline weren't based on anything "factual" at all. Since when is a family photo taken in 2006 evidence of a Bristol Palin pregnancy that supposedly terminated in 2008? And online photos of Gov. Palin looking pregnant in 2008 were not hard to find. But how many people bothered to fact check Vanity Fair? Looking at the vote totals, not many.

Yet oddly, Howard Kurtz angrily maintains that the press are best suited to tell us what the "truth" is and furthermore, that the McCain campaign is trying to get them to lie to the American public. As Betsy Newmark points out, there are a few problems with that narrative:

As Jim Geraghty points out, McCain's ad is correct about the Obama education bill. And John Hinderaker has demonstrated that both the Anchorage Daily News and the Alaska Democratic Party have credited her with blocking the Bridge to Nowhere.

Until John McCain selected her as his running mate, it never occurred to anyone to deny that Palin stopped the bridge. That's certainly what the Anchorage Daily News reported on February 8, 2008:

Let's count how many things Gov. Sarah Palin's predecessor did that she's undone.
It's quite a list.

The state-owned jet: Sold.

The proposed Gravina Island "bridge to nowhere" and a pioneer road to Juneau: Won't be funded.

And again on March 12, 2008:

Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens is aggravated about what he sees as Gov. Sarah Palin's antagonism toward the earmarks he uses to steer federal money to the state. ... A common target for earmark snipers is the so-called "bridge to nowhere" plugged by Alaska Rep. Don Young into the five-year transportation bill in 2005. Congress stripped the earmarks directing the spending but let the state keep the money to use on the bridge if it wanted. Palin ruffled feathers when she announced - without giving the delegation advance notice - that the state was killing the Ketchikan bridge to Gravina Island, site of the airport and a few dozen residents.

I don't know how it could be any clearer: as the McCain ad says, Palin killed the bridge.

It's enough to make one how well the media really do their jobs. For instance, one of my readers and a blogger in her own right (Elise) compiled a fantastic post on allegations that Governor Palin tried to ban books from her local library. The sad thing is that, like the work of most bloggers, it is based completely on the already extant work of professional journalists. As I've said over and over again, bloggers are almost completely dependent upon the media. We could not do what we do without them. Mostly what a good blogger does is read, research, assemble and analyze research the media have already performed. What we supply, more often than not, if we are successful is a degree of completeness and the ability to cross reference and question the work of the media that is all too often lacking in a newspaper article. This is what Elise did so effectively here:

... that is the third factor I weighed: no books were ever banned from the Wasilla City Library. Given that fact, I don’t think this story has much basis.

There is one other aspect of this story that deserves attention: Anne Kilkenny. She appears to be driving the narrative that Palin tried to fire Emmons because Emmons wouldn’t ban books from the library. Kilkenny is the author of the August 31, 2008, “About Sarah Palin” email which specifically ties the attempted firing to the censorship issue without explaining the timeline. She also implies Palin had specific books in mind to be banned (emphasis mine):

I found this fascinating because Kilkenny not only contradicted her other published accounts of the same event, but also that of the librarian (whom one would think would know if specific books were to be banned) regarding the material fact at issue. Read in context, the entire account places Kilkenny's email in rather a different light. This is exactly my problem with so many drive-by news stories: the lack of context. When you have a more complete picture with all the details, a very different picture begins to emerge.

Glenn Reynolds links to another Vanity Fair piece bemoaning the media's inability (though Lord knows they've tried) to get Barack Obama elected:

In the voting booth on November 4, it’s likely that most members of the media will pull the lever for Barack Obama. Whether or not they put aside their professional standards and actively try to get him elected is another matter. But because conspiracy theories are fun (see VF.com’s Trig Palin parentage timeline ), let’s assume for a moment that they do. Is there any way they could effectively accomplish it? Let’s review what they’ve tried so far:

1. Fawning coverage of Obama (the candidate with a halo-like glow around him on the covers of Newsweek, Time, and Rolling Stone; Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews gushing so embarrassingly that they had to be removed from MSNBC’s anchor desk)

2. Digging dirt on Obama’s opponents (The Times’s innuendo-laced piece about McCain’s ties to lobbyist Vicki Iseman; the poorly fact-checked stories about Palin’s supposed book-banning and secessionist proclivities)

3. Tough but fair investigations into McCain and Palin’s various lies, bad decisions, and questionable policies
Those are pretty much the only weapons in the media’s arsenal, and so far none of them have really worked.

It's arguable that Barack Obama wouldn't be where he is today without the media's support. But perhaps none of these strategies have really worked to the extent the media hoped, because journalists have lost the trust of the public they purport to serve. Even the world's largest megaphone is not much use if their intended audience automatically discounts 80% of what they have to say due to perceived bias:

....Voters from both parties...are skeptical of media bias in general. Eighty-six percent (86%) of Republicans think reporters try to help the candidate they want to win, and a plurality of Democrats (49%) believe that, too. Seventy-four percent (74%) of unaffiliated voters agree.

Only 21% of voters overall say reporters try to offer unbiased coverage....

Among all voters, 57% believe Obama has received the best treatment by the media, while 21% say McCain has been treated best.

Howard asks:

Does anyone seriously believe that Barack Obama was calling Sarah Palin a pig? What about the fact that McCain has used "lipstick on a pig" before? What about the book by that title by former McCain aide Torie Clarke? Never mind: get the cable bookers to line up women on opposite sides of the lipstick divide and let them claw at each other!

As hard as it may be for him to believe, an awful lot of people do think he did it on purpose. I happen to be agnostic on the subject, but I also think the remark was a huge gaffe given the popular currency of her hockey mom/lipstick quip, and it's really inexcusable for the press not to point that out. When they start making foolish arguments like "McCain said 'lipstick on a pig too'"!!!! when we all know that was said in a different context with no possible connection to Governor Palin (and no crowd chanting "NO PIT BULLS!" in Obama's presence right after he made that remark) it only causes people like me who are inclined to give Senator Obama the benefit of the doubt to wonder if there is anything the press won't do to cover for him?

Question for Howard Kurtz: are the media really angry? Or just feeling defensive and shamefaced now that their relentlessly one-sided coverage of this election is being brought out into the open where everyone can see it? That media spotlight can be damned uncomfortable, can't it?

And how about that Annenburg Challenge story? We're still waiting.

I won't hold my breath.

Posted by Cassandra at September 12, 2008 07:21 AM

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What I liked about Kaus' model was how perfectly it fit the interests of the media. The John Edwards story? We were ignoring it -- not because he was a Democrat! -- but because it was merely the National Enquirer making it happen.

The Sarah Palin rumors? We couldn't afford to ignore them, after the John Edwards story! The fact that she is a Republican is purely a coincidence.

The model is not untestable. You mention the CAC story, which has been ignored by everyone but Stanley Kurtz, who was met with a concerted effort by the Obama campaign to silence him on WGN radio.

Yet that is far from the only potentially damaging story about Sen. Obama that the media has simply ignored. He hasn't released a host of basic records that we would demand of a job-seeker for any entry-level position at a Federal bureaucracy -- his transcripts from college, for instance. His scholarship is nonexistent, either because he never produced any or because it's vanished (like his final paper at Columbia -- oops!).

This is the same media that ripped apart dumpsters hoping for some 30-year-old document from George Bush's TANG days. Yet the Obama campaign can say, "No, we won't be releasing any of this basic information," and that's OK. They can openly field surrogates to shut up journalists who do try to do the research, and that's OK. Nobody is alarmed; it's just fine that he wants to be secretive. Kurtz is the bad guy here.

Isn't that obvious?

Posted by: Grim at September 12, 2008 09:52 AM

For some reason I was unable to load Clarice's most recent Pajamas Media article. I wanted to link to that one.

In it, she mentions something about the fact that virtually NO records of Obama's are available - it's really eerie. Yet there is NO media scrutiny on this score. Of course, we will see nothing from the Post or Times about this. Or better yet, one scant article on E17.

Posted by: Princess Leia in a ... oh nevermind at September 12, 2008 09:58 AM

The other thing I liked about this post is that it cites the Kurtz piece. 'The media is being treated so badly by McCain-Palin!' And to prove it? Lots of posts from liberal bloggers.

Finally, on page three, we get a couple of conservative bloggers -- agreeing that the McCain campaign was wrong. Finally, to balance this uniformity of opinion, Powerline is cited to express uncertainty over the McCain message, but to assert that Obama isn't doing well anyway.

So, really, there's no opposition at all? Everyone -- liberal, conservative -- agrees the media is being mistreated, and McCain-Palin are to blame?

That's what Kurtz would have you believe.

Posted by: Grim at September 12, 2008 11:44 AM

Well, Kurtz isn't writing a news article, he's writing a position piece. He isn't going to weaken his argument by presenting the opposing viewpoint (unless he's ready to show why that viewpoint is wrong). Therefore, he's not going to present the other side unless it puts his points in a better light.

If this was meant to be a scholorly article or news story, then he really ought to be fired (for incompetence), but I don't believe that to be the case.

Posted by: MikeD at September 12, 2008 12:25 PM

You know, I wrote Howard Kurtz a week or so ago, asking him to think about this issue.

In all the years I've been writing, I've hardly ever written anyone from the media. I just assume they won't listen to me. That bothers me, because I listen to them, and I do try to be fair, and to consider their arguments.

I can see how they think that the McCain ad is not "fair". But what campaign ad is "fair"? They are intended to be adversarial: to put their candidate in the best light and the other in the worst. They all shade the issues in one way or another.

But to brand them "lies" when the fact is the the fact-checking sites do the same with Obama's ads (IOW, grade them as half-true, or biased - helloooooooo!!!! ) is just plain silly. And these are supposed to be professional journalists? Why are they having a hissy fit?

This education ad. I've seen it. It's just not remarkable in any way, shape, or form. This has GOT to be the single most overblown thing since the Palin lipstick brouhaha. And I had no trouble admitting no one could prove Obama intended to call Palin a pig, though I still think the remark is too slick by half given the context. Obama's no fool.

I am just so uncomfortable with this whole "lies" crap. The press are openly substituting their opinion for fact, and they ought to be ashamed of themselves.

It's bad enough when they constantly report only parts of a story to give a misleading impression, but when they do so and then call their political opponents "liars" when they get called on it, I get real heartburn.

Posted by: Cass at September 12, 2008 12:45 PM

Well, gosh golly gee whiz.

Somebody wasn't fair. In the press? This just shows how bad it really is for the poor dears trying to report the news. Perhaps they should all take some aspirin and lie down. Let's call Dr. Phil.

Cowboy up, lads and lassies. There's many a day to go before the election, and this ride's gonna get rougher.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at September 12, 2008 01:09 PM

I'm in love with Peggy Noonan, and I don't care who knows it.

Right now only Mrs. Palin can hurt Mrs. Palin. Messrs. Obama and Biden can't do it and shouldn't try. And the media can't, because more than half the country won't listen to them on this subject now, and for a while. The media could get videotape of Mrs. Palin saying, "We should invade Mars and it will be easy because Mars is hidden inside my hair!" and people would say, "Stop sliming Sarah!"

The mainstream media may themselves come down on Mr. Obama. They like him, but if he doesn't come back and make this a race, he'll embarrass them. They just might be on the edge of getting angry, having been left exposed. Forget what Mr. McCain and Mrs. Palin can do to Mr. Obama: If he embarrasses the media, they'll kill him.

Posted by: spd rdr at September 12, 2008 01:22 PM

The last paragraph was also Peggy's and should have been blocked italics as well.

And I also should have posted the link.


Other than that, the story was fairly accurate.

Posted by: spd rdr at September 12, 2008 01:24 PM

Well, please do not elope with her or anything sudden-like. We would miss you around here.

That middle section was dead on, spd - thanks for posting the link.

Posted by: Cass at September 12, 2008 01:48 PM

"In all the years I've been writing, I've hardly ever written anyone from the media. I just assume they won't listen to me. That bothers me, because I listen to them, and I do try to be fair, and to consider their arguments."

Well, there's the problem. I mean, seriously, who do you think you are? The New York Ti...uh, the Washington Poo...the National Enquirer? Geez, womyn, get a grip.

Posted by: DL Sly at September 12, 2008 02:34 PM


I suppose that *was* presumptious of me. After all, I'm just one of those rabble bloggers - a remora riding on the underbelly of my betters :p

Posted by: Cass at September 12, 2008 02:43 PM

It's just cuz Peggy Noonan is Irish. If she had red hair, Mr.rdr just might run off for a weekend of wild....discussion?

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at September 12, 2008 03:41 PM

Och aye, Don me laddie. 'Tis true, mair's the pitie.
We puir Scots lassies canna compete!

Posted by: Cassie at September 12, 2008 04:09 PM

Trust me, Don, if she was twenty, or thirty, or forty, or even fifty years younger, I wouldn't care what color hair she had. As it is, I'm in love with her wit and sense of language.

Posted by: spd rdr at September 12, 2008 04:43 PM

Wow. They're not kidding about it being tough for the fairer sex to find love once we reach 'a certain age'.

You might want to rethink that last. If Ms. Noonan were 50 years younger mr rdr, you'd be in jail.

Eight year olds, I'm pretty sure, are considered off limits, regardless of hair color :p

Posted by: Cass at September 12, 2008 04:54 PM

Leave his poor self alone, Cass. Kurtz, this one at least, isn't the most brilliant star in the sky, you know. Have some mercy.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at September 12, 2008 05:10 PM

They can openly field surrogates to shut up journalists who do try to do the research, and that's OK. Nobody is alarmed; it's just fine that he wants to be secretive. Kurtz is the bad guy here.

That's one of the powers of having an insurgency in your pocket. They don't have to directly contest control of a town with the occupation or status quo forces. They don't have to use violence to get what they want. A nice little bit of intimidation and collusion does the job equally as well.

Therefore, he's not going to present the other side unless it puts his points in a better light.

The editors of the news stories believe in the same thing. And they act on it by ordering reporters to do the exact same thing.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at September 12, 2008 05:18 PM

Personally, I am elated that more and more folks are copping to the fact that the media is biased.

But that's me...

Posted by: camojack at September 12, 2008 05:22 PM

Eight year olds, I'm pretty sure, are considered off limits, regardless of hair color :p

Not to four-year olds!

Posted by: spd rdr at September 12, 2008 06:10 PM

The media aren't biased. Being biased towards one issue over another is no sin nor dishonor.

Slicing off the fingers of a man hanging unto the last shred of hope for his family and allies, however....

Posted by: Ymarsakar at September 12, 2008 06:56 PM

I know this is so un-cool, but I think I might print this off and frame it.

Posted by: Elise at September 13, 2008 12:50 PM

Number of paragraphs about pro-Obama protesters: 8

Number of McCain-Palin supporters present: 23,000

Number of Obama protesters: about 30

The pro-life movement has fought this kind of bias for years. I have talked with pro-life activists who were at demonstrations where the tiny number of pro-abortion counter protesters received more air time that the thousands of pro-life attendees.

Posted by: tyree at September 14, 2008 10:52 AM