This was the best panorama of media reaction to the ABC-hosted Democratic debate in Philadelphia:
The Democratic debate in Philadelphia last night was dominated by a wall of stupid painstakingly constructed by ABC’s moderators, Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos.
Their obsession with trivia and avoidance of substance submerged this affair from its opening introduction. It’s hard to say it much better than Washington Post critic Tom Shales who leads off by saying that “Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos, turned in shoddy, despicable performances,” and then proceeds to say what he really thinks.
And he’s not alone…
Tom Shales (Washington Post) – “For the first 52 minutes of the two-hour, commercial-crammed show, Gibson and Stephanopoulos dwelled entirely on specious and gossipy trivia that already has been hashed and rehashed, in the hope of getting the candidates to claw at one another over disputes that are no longer news. Some were barely news to begin with.”
Will Bunch (Philadelphia Daily News) – “By so badly botching arguably the most critical debate of such an important election, in a time of both war and economic misery, you disgraced the American voters, and in fact even disgraced democracy itself.”
Greg Mitchell (Editor and Publisher) – “In perhaps the most embarrassing performance by the media in a major presidential debate in years, ABC News hosts Charles Gibson and George Stephanopolous focused mainly on trivial issues as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama faced off in Philadelphia.”
Andrew Sullivan (The Atlantic) – “The loser was ABC News: one of the worst media performances I can remember – petty, shallow, process-obsessed, trivial where substantive, and utterly divorced from the actual issues that Americans want to talk about.”
Joanne Ostrow (Denver Post) – “Wednesday’s televised candidates’ debate from Philadelphia, tape delayed in Denver, got around to issues eventually. But the first round– devoted to pettiness and word obsession and gaffes– was more revealing.”
Joe Klein (Time) – “The ABC moderators clearly didn’t spend much time thinking about creative substantive gambits. They asked banal, lapidary questions, rather than trying to break new ground.”
Michael Grunwald (Time) – “At a time of foreign wars, economic collapse and environmental peril, the cringe-worthy first half of the debate focused on such crucial matters as Senator Obama’s comments about rural bitterness, his former pastor, an obscure sixties radical with whom he was allegedly “friendly,” and the burning constitutional question of why he doesn’t wear an American flag pin on his lapel.”
Richard Adams (The Guardian) – “A stinker, an absolute car crash – thanks to the host network ABC. It was worse than even those debates last year with 18 candidates on stage, including crazy old Mike Gravel.”
Noam Scheiber (New Republic) – “The first half of the debate felt like a 45-minute negative ad, reprising the most chewed over anti-Obama allegations (bittergate, Jeremiah Wright, patriotism) and even some relatively obscure ones (his vague association with former Weatherman radical Bill Ayers).”
Daniel Rubin (Philadelphia Inquirer) – “We’ve revisted bitter. We’ve gone back to Bosnia. We’ve dragged Rev. Wright back up onto the podium. We’ve mis-spent this debate by allowing Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos to ask questions that skirt what in my mind is what we need to know now. What would they do about the mess they’d inherit? The war. Health care. The economy. Stupid.”
Cathleen Decker and Noam N. Levey (Los Angeles Times) – With the moderators and Clinton raising assorted questions about Obama’s past for the first half of the debate, issues received relatively short shrift. Not until 50 minutes in was a policy issue — Iraq — asked about by the moderators. More than an hour went by before a question was asked about what Stephanopoulos called “the No. 1 issue on Americans’ minds” — the economy.”
Stephanoupolos defended himself by saying that voters are concerned with “…experience, character [and] credibility. You can’t find a presidential election where those issues didn’t come into play.”
The problem is that you can’t find a but a trace of questions in this debate where those issues did come into play. The moderators had obviously decided that they were going to chase petty controversy and ratings by focusing on tabloid trivialities. Their cynical smugness and conceit are a sad commentary on the state of journalism and politics.
MoveOn has started a petition to ask the media to “stop hurting the national dialogue in this important election year.”
My favorite, in terms of being a pure, unadulterated, over-the-top, self-righteous indignate hissy-fit, was Will Bunch’s “An Open Letter to Charlie Gibson and George Stephanapoulos.”
http://www.truthout.org/docs_2006/041708B.shtml. You can almost feel the tears striking the keyboard as you read it.
A paraphrase from Shakespeare always goes a long way: “Methinks thou dost protest too much.”
If Will Bunch had become as livid when John McCain’s character was needlessly assaulted by the New York Times on the flimsiest of stories (notice how that whole female lobbyist story went away?), and had he similarly become this angry when President Bush was assaulted with charges of dodging service in the Vietnam War – complete with forged documents waved by CBS’ Dan Rather as proof of the crime – maybe I’d buy the “righteous” part of Bunch’s indignation.
But I’m afraid I smell the rabid rodent of liberal media bias.
I remember the craziness that followed CBS’ Bernard Goldberg’s 1996 Wall Street Journal op-ed.
As Goldberg related what happened in his book “Bias,” he received an angry phone call from a friend who had just watched the 8 February 1996 CBS EVening News. “Did you see that ‘Reality Check’ story? You got too many snippy wise guys doin’ the news.”
Goldberg asked his friend what the problem was. “You get a tape of the news and watch it. Then you tell me if there’s a problem.”
When Goldberg watched the news, he was shocked. Ostensibly, it was a story about presidential candidate Steve Forbes’ flat tax. In Goldberg’s own words, “But the more I watched the more I saw that this wasn’t simply about a presidential candidate and a tax plan. It was about something much bigger, something too much of big-time TV journalism had become: a showcase of smart-ass reporters with attitudes, reporters who don’t even pretend to hide their disdain for certain people and certain ideas that they and their sophisticated friends don’t particularly like.
I begin quoting Goldberg’s book Bias from page 21:
“Dan Rather introduced [CBS Washington correspondent Eric] Engberg’s piece with the standard stuff about how it would “look beyond the promises to the substance” of the Forbes flat tax…
Engberg’s voice covered pictures of Steve Forbes on the campaign trail. “Steve Forbes pitches his flat-tax scheme as an economic elixer, good for everything that ails us.”
Scheme? Elixer? What the hell kind of language is that, I [Goldberg] wondered. These were words that conjured up images of con artists, like Doctor Feelgood selling worthless junk out of the back of his wagon.
But that was just a little tease to get us into the tent. then Engberg interviewed three different tax experts. Every single one of them opposed the flat tax. Every single one! Where was the fairness and balance Rather was always preaching about? Wasn’t there any expert – even one – in the entire United States who thought the flat tax might work?
Of course there was. There was Milton Friedman and Merton Miller, both of the University of Chicago and both Nobel Prize winners in economics. There was James Buchanan of George Mason University, another Nobel laureate. There were also Harvey Rosen of Princeton, William Poole of Brown, and Robert Barro of Harvard. All of them were on the record as supporting the flat tax to one degree or another.
Engberg could have found a bunch of economists to support the flat tax, if he wanted to. But putting on a supporter of the flat tax would have defeated the whole purpose of the piece, which was to have a few laughs at Steve Forbes’ expense.
There was absolutely no way – not one chance in a million – that Engberg or Rather would have aired a flat-tax story with that same contemptuous tone if Teddy Kennedy or Hillary Clinton had come up with the idea.
But even if you opposed the flat tax, even if you thought it was a bad idea that helped only the wealthiest Americans – fat cats like Steve Forbes himself – what about simple journalistic fairness? What about presenting two sides? isn’t that what Rather was always saying CBS News was about: objectivity, fairness, balance?
And then Engberg crossed that fuzzy line that’s supposed to separate news from entertainment. He decided it was time to amuse his audience…
Which is why Eric Engberg decided to play David Letterman and do a takeoff of his Top Ten list.
“Forbes’ Number One Wackiest Flat-Tax Promise,” Engberg told the audience, is the candidate’s belief that it would give parents “more time to spend with their children and each other.”
Wacky? This was a perfectly acceptable word in the United States of Entertainment to describe, say, a Three Stooges movie. Or Hamlet, starring Jerry Lewis. Or My Fair Lady, with Chris Rock playing Professor Higgins.
But “wacky” seemed an odd word to describe a serious idea to overhaul America’s ten-trillion page tax code that enables lobbyists to donate tons of money to politicians who then use this same Byzantine tax code to hand out goodies to the very same special interests that just gave them all that money. If anything is “wacky,” it’s the current tax system, not an honest attempt to replace it with something new.
Besides, what Forbes meant is that since many Americans – not just the wealthy – would pay less tax under his plan, they might not have to work as many hours and might actually have more time to spend at home with their families. Maybe it’s true and maybe it isn’t, but is “wacky” the fairest and most objective way to describe it?
Can you imagine, in your wildest dreams, a network news reporter calling Hillary Clinton’s health care plan “wacky”? Can you imagine Dan Rather or any other major American news anchorman allowing it?
And, finally, the coup de grace, the knife to Steve Forbes’ throat as Engberg went on camera to end his story. The “on camera,” as we call it in the TV news business, is when the reporter gets to look the viewer in the eye and deliver a sermonette. This is when the reporter, if he hasn’t been slanting the news story up to this point, will often give you a little editorial just to make sure you know how you’re supposed to think about the subject at hand. Eric Engberg ended his little vaudeville act thus: “The fact remains: The flat tax is a giant, untested theory. One economist suggested, before we put it in, we should test it out someplace – like Albania.” Engberg flashed his signature smirk and signed off – “Eric Engberg, CBS News, Washington.”
There is junk science and junk bonds. This was junk journalism.
“…The left routinely uses words like “scheme” instead of the more neutral “plan” to describe tax cuts that favor “the wrong people.” Sometimes they put the word “risky” before “scheme” to make it sound really scary. Al Gore did precisely that, about a hundred times a day, when he was running for president against George W. Bush. I understand why Al Gore and other liberals call something they don’t like a “scheme.” Politicians and partisans are allowed to do that. But should supposedly objective people like news reports, people like Eric Engberg, use that kind of loaded language? Should a journalistic enterprise like CBS News – which claims to stand for fairness and objectivity – allow words like “scheme” and “wacky” in what is supposed to be a straight news story about a legitimate candidate running for president of the United States?
Engberg’s piece – its strident, mocking tone, its lack of objectivity, its purposeful omission of anyone who supported the flat tax – was like a TV commercial paid for by Opponents of the Steve Forbes Flat Tax.
From top to bottom the Engberg piece was breathtaking in its lack of fairness. So how could CBS have put it on the air?
Bernard Goldberg tried to talk to a number of executives at CBS before finally deciding to write his now famous op-ed. As he put it, “The way I saw it, I wasn’t taking on Engberg or Rather or CBS News for airing one snooty story about some politician’s tax plan. For me, this was about a nagging problem that none of the big shots would take seriously. It was about the liberal biases that overwhelm straight news reporting.”
Goldberg points out that “Jerry Kelly from Enterprise, Alabama [the friend who'd told Goldberg about the story] spotted the bias in the Engberg report. Jerry Kelly spotted the wise guy tone and the one-sidedness. And Jerry Kelly is a general building contractor, not a newsman.
Who didn’t find anything wrong with Engberg’s piece? First off, Engberg didn’t. His producer in Washington didn’t. The Evening News senior producer in Washington didn’t. Jeff Fager, the executive producer of the CBS Evening News in New York, didn’t. His team of senior producers in New York didn’t. Andrew Heyward, the CBS News president and Harvard Phi Beta Kappa, didn’t. And finally, Dan Rather, the anchorman and managing editor of the CBS Evening News, didn’t.
Not one of them spotted anything wrong with a story that no one should have let on the air in the first place” (29).
Had the story remained at this point, it would have at best remained a single sorry episode of bias. One story among thousands. But Goldberg – after trying in vain to get somebody, anybody, to focus on a very real problem – got his dander up and decided to take the initiative and go outside of his network to expose this incredibly blatant case of bias and thus focus attention on a national issue that went far beyond CBS.
So Goldberg wrote his op-ed piece: http://www.opinionjournal.com/extra/?id=95001668
The resulting media firestorm over a senior award-winning network news journalist writing about bias in the media was enormous – and nearly universally painted Bernard Goldberg in a negative light. Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings joined Dan Rather in attacking Goldberg. A lot of media power-players dialed a lot of numbers from their media roledexes and got a lot of airtime and ink condemning Golderg’s character and integrity as well as his objectivity. Rather than seriously examining the facts of Goldberg’s case, the focus quickly became Bernard Goldberg himself.
“Bob Schieffer, the chief Washington correspondent for CBS News, told the Washington Post, “It’s just such a wacky charge, and a weird way to go about it… I don’t know what Bernie was driving at. It just sounds bizarre” (39).
Wacky. Weird. Bizarre. There were those words again.
Dan Rather – who would, in 2004, show America just what it looked like to REALLY be a political hack, labeled Goldberg “a political opportunist” (36). In another interview, Rather claimed Goldberg was trying to intimidate him into reporting the news his way (38). It was pure, over-the-top paranoia.
Andrew Heyward, the president of ABC News, told Goldberg that writing his op-ed amounted to “an act of disloyalty” and “a betrayal of trust.” And when Goldberg pointed out that he could have quoted Heyward himself to have essentially agreed with him that the news was biased, Heyward screamed in his face, “That would have been like raping my wife and kidnapping my kids!“
Which is why I read all these over-the-top media rants I listed above and think, “Yep. I’ve heard this before.”
One of The New York Times’ heaviest hitters, veteran political analyst R.W. “Johnny” Apple, said on CNN’s Reliable Sources, “He [Goldberg] has simply stabbed this guy [Engberg] in the back” (41).
Goldberg points out that “whistleblowers” are always sacred cows for news organizations – unless they’re trying to expose the news media. Then they get downright mean. He pointed out that the media – unlike any other enterprise, looks into everyone else’s business for a living, and that therefore it is entirely reasonable and necessary that they permit an examination of themselves (and in fact blatantly hypocritical NOT to permit an examination of themselves). But they won’t. Goldberg writes, “Liberals in the media – who would have come down with the vapors if a conservative CEO had so much as given a reporter a dirty look – didn’t flinch when CBS News executives took me off the air and suggested I might be fired because they saw me as a whistle-blower, which, the bst I could figure, made me the first whistle-blower in history who wasn’t turned into a national hero by the media.”
The way the media circled the wagons, the way they ganged up on Goldberg and did everything they could to trivialize his revelation by turning away from his substance to personal attacks displayed just how radically biased the media was.
And still is.
Also in 1996, the Freedom Forum and the Roper Center released the results of a now famous survey of 139 Washington bureau chiefs and congressional correspondents (the epicenter of the media world – the heartbeat of journalism, if you will. Both the Freedom Forum and thand Roper Center had attained a solid reputation for independence. “No way that the data are the fruit of right-wing press bashers,” as journalist Ben Wattenberg put it. The results were stunning.
* 89% of these significant journalist said they voted for Bill Clinton in 1992, compared with just 43% of nonjournalist voters.
7% of the journalists voted for George H.W. Bush, as opposed to 37% of the general electorate.
* 50% said they were Democrats. Only 4% said they were Republicans.
* When asked to characterize their political orientation, 61% said “liberal” or “moderate to liberal.” Only 9% said they were “conservative” or “moderate to conservative.”
As Goldberg puts it, “89% voted for Bill Clinton. This is incredible when you think about it. There’s hardly a candidate in the entire United States of America who carries his/her district with 89% of the vote. This is way beyond mere landslide numbers. The only politicians who get numbers like that are called Fidel Castro or Saddam Hussein.” … The Washington Post’s Sally Quinn said “The Washington press corps is not some monolith… We all work for different organizations. We all think differently.” [But] “The same journalists that Sally Quinn tell us do not constitute a “monolith” certainly vote like one” (129).
And the 1992 election was no fluke. A 1972 poll showed that of those reporters who voted, 70% went for McGovern, the most liberal presidential candidate in memory, while 25% voted for Nixon – in a landslide year when Richard Nixon carried every single state in the country except Massachusetts.
In 1985 the Los Angeles Times conducted a nationwide survey of about 3,000 journalists and the same number of people in the general public to see how each group felt about the major issues of the day:
* 23% of the public said they were liberal; 55% of journalists described themselves as liberal.
* 56% of the public favored Ronald Reagan; 30% of the journalists favored Reagan.
*49% of the public was for a woman’s right to have an abortion; 82% of the journalists was for such a right of a woman to choose abortion.
* 74% of the public was for prayer in the public schools; 25% of the journalists were in favor of prayer in public schools.
* 56% of the public was for affirmative action; 81% of the journalists were in favor of affirmative action.
* 75% of the public was for the death penalty; 47% of the journalists were in favor of the death penalty.
* 50% of the public was for stricter gun control; 78% of the journalists were for stricter gun control.
More recently, Fox News’ Britt Hume ran a story titled “Cash Coverage.” I will quote Britt Hume’s report, but provide the link to John Lott’s 31 March 2008 article itself:
“University of Maryland senior research scientist John Lott Jr. says news coverage of the economy is slanted. Lott writes, “Over 78 percent more negative news stories discussed a recession when the economy — under a Republican president was soaring than occurred under a Democrat when the economy was shrinking.”
Lott — who researched 12,500 newspaper and wire service articles from 1985 through 2004 — also found that Democratic presidents got positive headlines 15 percent more of the time than Republican presidents for the same economic news.
Of his findings Lott writes, “The media’s focus on the negative side of everything surely helps explain people’s pessimism… Indeed, research has indicated that media bias is real.”
Yesterday, I got in an argument with a man I know who works at Wal Mart. He claimed that the economy is far worse than it ever was under Clinton. I pointed out that this is simply not true. He claimed that its harder to find a job than ever before. Today (April 19) I can point to a Press Enterprise story (titled “Area trims more jobs”) by Josh Brown that at 7.1% unemployment, the Inland California region is suffering its worst jobless rate since… July 1995, when Bill Clinton was president. But due to biased coverage, no one seems to be able to remember that.
Indeed, a study of the unemplyment rate (http://www.miseryindex.us/urbymonth.asp) through October 2007 shows that – Despite inheriting a Recession from the Clinton Administration (http://archive.newsmax.com/archives/articles/2001/3/20/190717.shtml), being forced to manage through a series of corporate scandals with roots in the Clinton years, and having to recover from the 9-11 attacks that crippled the US economy, the average monthly unemployment rate during the Bush years now bests the Clinton years: 5.2049 to 5.2052.
Here’s a quote from Professor John Lott’s article:
“Indeed, research has indicated that media bias is real. Kevin Hassett and I looked at 12,620 newspaper and wire service headlines from 1985 through 2004 for stories on the release of official government releasing numbers on the unemployment rate, number of people employed, gross domestic product (GDP), retail sales, and durable goods.
Even after accounting for how well the economy was doing (e.g., what the unemployment rate was and whether it was going up or down), there was still a big difference in how positive or negative the headlines were. Democratic presidents got about 15 percentage points more positive headlines than Republicans for the same economic news.”
Here are links to recent, significant studies that show that the media continues to trend way over to the left of the general public. The first study comes from the Center for Media and Public Affairs and the second comes from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press:
James Glassman once put it this way on the Washington Post. “The people who report the stories are liberal Democrats. This is the shameful open secret of American journalism. That the press itself … choses to gloss over it is conclusive evidence of how pernicious the bias is.”
So I look at the media’s reaction to the tough questions directed at Hillary Clinton and (mostly) at Barack Obama, and I understand the plainly visceral reaction against the questions by Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos.
I remember that it took a Saturday Night Live sketch – set in a debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama – that displayed for all the world to see a caricaturization of the gross, one-sided, nearly adoring coverage that the media gave to Barack Obama in lopsided manner. Hillary Clinton, in the ones of one editorialist, was learning what it was like to be treated like a Republican.
Whether the media goes after every political candidate’s “negatives,” or whether they refuse to go after any candidate’s “negatives,” I really don’t care. What I do care about is that they are objective and fair in their coverage. What I have bee seeing since the Democratic debate in Philidelphia, is what appears to be a media campaign of a screaming, ranting, crying frenzy being directed over negative questions being raised against Barack Obama in an effort to stifle any future questions that reflect poorly on him.
In my view, Gibson and Stephanopoulos recognized that the media was simply not going after the Democratic candidates (Obama especially) on the campaign trail, and forcing them to answer tough, legitimate questions. Thus the Wright scandal, the “bitter… clinging” remark, the “flag pin” (and, by the way, the picture that shows every Democratic candidate with hand over heart except Barack Obama, whose hands are clasped at his groin-level), and the “Bosnia sniper fire” were all fair game for an objectively fair debate.
Some Bernard Goldberg article references: