The WHCD: ‘Arianna Huffington Wore Nanette Lepore’

Online and off, the magazine called POLITICO sets the standard for political reporting in the U.S.A.  It doesn’t set the standard very high, mind you, but by its signature amalgamation of horse race journalism, rumor and innuendo, POLITICO represents a model of sorts for wannabe political reporters everywhere.

Thus it is that one dare not neglect to pay attention when the magazine focuses on Things That Really Matter … like, for instance, the White House Correspondents Dinner.

Once a year this affair provides a backdrop for every other political reporter’s fantasy: a stage on which all the people who count (stars and starlets, politicians and reporters) can rub elbows, see and be seen.

This year’s dinner, held just last weekend, was no exception.  Some examples, as chronicled in a few of the numerous stories in POLITICO:

“Star Strut – Scenes from the Red Carpet,” a “minute-by-minute” account of “the events leading up to DC’s biggest night,” complete with a photo of Bob Schieffer and a blond woman in a red dress.

“Seth Meyers Skewers DC,” on the “SNL” head writer’s remarks, wherein it’s revealed that “outgoing Commerce Secretary Gary Locke (soon to be ambassador to China) admitted to POLITICO that he’s been a huge fan of Meyers for years.” 

“What the Stars Wore” – “FLOTUS wears Halston to dinner.”  “On the red carpet, CBS’s Lara Logan, a very early arrival, wore cobalt blue Badgley Mischka." “Arianna Huffington wore Nanette Lepore.”  And Matthew Morrison (?) (I don’t know, you tell me) said: “I’m wearing Calvin Klein underwear.”

In other words, everything was perfect! The glamour, the wit, the very essence of it all.  Of course there are probably some cranks, mindful of those Americans who gave their lives last week in the Middle East, or of the millions more who are now facing the imminent prospect of abject poverty, who may be less than thrilled by the spectacle.

But hey, at a time when, according to a 2010 Gallup poll, mainstream journalists still outrank organized labor in the confidence people have in them, why worry, right?


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

One Toke Over the Line

I know the law won’t be forgivin’,
But that’ll be the choice I made,
I used to farm for a livin’,
And now I’m in the growin’ trade.
— Levon Helm/Larry Campbell, “Growin’ Trade”

California’s Proposition 19, formally known as the “Regulate, Control & Tax Cannabis Act,” was a ballot initiative that would have legalized diverse kinds of marijuana-related activities and permitted local governments to tax the sale of the drug.  Despite early poll results showing that a majority approved of the initiative, it was rejected by voters on election day last week, 54 to 46 percent.

Contrary to the prevailing meme that everything political in the United States is predictably conservative or liberal, red state or blue, the story of Prop 19 is the story, among other things, of unexpected alliances and media diversity, and proof that complex issues can be covered in ways that do justice to that fact.

Powerful arguments, both pro and con, can be and were made in the debate over the initiative.  Those who favored it argued that it would yield an important new source of revenue in a state that is on its financial uppers; that it would result in significant savings due to the smaller number of individuals incarcerated for marijuana-related offenses; and that it would do damage to the Mexican drug cartels that provide much of the marijuana used by Californians and others.

Those who were opposed to Proposition 19 argued that it would not yield the financial benefits advertised; that it would greatly increase marijuana consumption with concomitant ill effects all around; and that it was made unnecessary by the earlier passage, and signing into law, of S.B. 1449, which decriminalized the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana.

Further complicating the matter, and an aspect of the initiative used in argument by the opposition, is the fact that, whatever California law might be on the subject, federal law makes possession a crime, thereby conjuring up an image of California cops looking the other way as federal agents continue to make arrests in the state.

Which is just to say that much of the debate about Prop 19 turned on the perceived strengths and weaknesses of specific aspects of the initiative, rather than on the larger question of whether citizens could or should be allowed to grow and use marijuana at all – a perspective perhaps mooted by the fact that a great many Californians are growing and using even now.

As drafted, the initiative would have allowed Californians to cultivate, for their personal use, 25 square feet of marijuana in their back yards, but enforcement, regulation, and taxation would be left up to the state’s 478 cities and 58 counties.  What confusion might result, some wondered, when abutting jurisdictions had different laws and regulations?  If, for instance, the standard was 25 square feet in one town but 30 in another, might this not make matters confusing for law enforcement?  Not only would they need to know at all times the different marijuana laws of abutting jurisdictions, but in busting the perps they’d need tape measures as well as guns and handcuffs.  Or what about the guy who scoped out his marijuana garden while using the product, such that it came out not to 25 square feet but 25 square yards?  (Well, that dude could just kiss his sweet cannabis goodbye.)

So anyhow, in this as in other ways, it isn’t easy being a Californian.  Their difficulties were compounded not just by the complexities inherent in Prop 19, but also by the unfamiliar alliances. Much of the state’s Democratic Party organizations (and all of the Libertarian organizations) came out in support of the initiative, but all of the major party candidates for statewide office – Republican and Democrat – opposed it.  (Even in San Francisco, for instance, Nancy Pelosi opposed the measure, while her Republican opponent supported it.)

Happy to report, this strange-bedfellows phenomenon extended even to the state’s leading newspapers.  Though there were some, like the San Diego Union, which editorialized in familiar ways (“No to ganja madness”), there were many who took what might seem like unexpected positions on the subject.  The conservative Orange County Register, for instance, though never taking an official position on the initiative, twice ran editorials that clearly leaned in favor of Prop 19.

Meanwhile, the more liberal Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle, along with the Sacramento Bee and the Mercury News, came out in opposition to the measure.  In all events, though, the truly encouraging thing about the media coverage is the thoroughness of it.  Despite the many complexities and competing views, the state’s newspapers did a good job of providing their readers with a comprehensive understanding of the nature and potential consequences of the initiative, intended and unintended alike.

That the vote went the way it did is a subject about which honest people can disagree, but there is something deeply refreshing about media coverage of a complex issue in which journalists and editorialists provide a window on all points of view, and illuminate the best arguments of the competing parties.  Were that the standard practice with respect to media coverage of all complex issues, journalism would enjoy a spike in its reputation and the nation would be better served.

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not necessarily of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

Squirrels: They’re Not Just for Breakfast Anymore

The lugubrious data just keep pouring in.  Despite interest rates at zero, the economy is barely moving.  Unemployment is high and seemingly intractable.  The national debt and federal deficit are at all-time highs.  States and municipalities are on the cusp of bankruptcy.  Housing prices are flat or declining.  And the price of gold, that uncaring indicator of calm or calamity, has now risen to a new high.  In the year 2000 it sold for $300 per ounce.  Last week it closed at $1,275.

It’s against this background that we can be grateful that there are journalists in our midst who have both the assignment and the knowledge to write informatively about our national travail.  I refer, of course, to financial journalists.

As mentioned in earlier posts, however, these  reporters are mainly to be found in business publications, or the “business” sections of general interest publications, and to that extent are walled off from the general public.  And the reason this is a problem is because most of today’s political reporters don’t know enough to write informatively about things economic.

There are, of course, opinion writers who have knowledge of such matters – Paul Krugman and Robert Samuelson come to mind – but the great need for those of us trying to understand the nature of our crisis, and the way forward, is for coverage of these issues by news reporters.

Today’s economic problems, after all, transcend the arcane worlds of finance and macroeconomics; they are the reason for the unprecedented fear and anger afoot in the land.  Indeed, they have led to the spontaneous creation of the powerful Tea Party movement.

Given the stakes in all of this, one would like to think that the mainstream news media would see the need for more reporters with economic backgrounds.  In the meantime, though, here’s a salute (listed alphabetically so as not to show favorites) to all those “ink-stained wretches” who ply their trade, in coverage of commerce and finance, at the following: Barron’s, Business Week, The Economist, Financial Times, Forbes, Fortune, Investor’s Business Daily, and The Wall Street Journal.

May all of you survive and prosper. The nation needs you more than ever.


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not necessarily of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

‘Interest Groups’ and the News Media

From the Pew Research Center/Project for Excellence in Journalism comes the welcome report that newspaper editors and TV news directors are not eager to be, or to be seen as being, wards of the state.  This wholesome sentiment will not come as a surprise to most people, but it has to be disconcerting to the “media reform” crowd, which has been clamoring for direct government subsidies or tax breaks for the news media.

According to the study, 75 percent of the respondents, drawn from the ranks of members of ASNE and RTDNA, had “serious reservations” about direct subsidies from the government, and approximately half had such concerns about tax credits for news organizations.  (Note: These figures do not indicate how many of the respondents had “reservations,” only those who had “serious reservations.”)

It’s in the matter of non-governmental support, of the sort that issues from “interest groups” or nonprofit organizations, that the picture becomes a little murky.  According to the report, a whopping 78 percent of the respondents had serious concerns about accepting donations from “interest groups that engage in advocacy of some kind,” while a little over half expressed either serious or “some” reservations about funds issuing from nonprofit foundations.

Buts what about those groups, like the investigative news organization ProPublica, that are funded and led by people with extensive, and clearly defined, political profiles?  Is ProPublica an advocacy group or just a nonprofit news group?  The question takes on a practical significance in light of the Pulitzer recently awarded to ProPublica and The New York Times for their collaboration on a piece published in the New York Times Magazine.

As reported here, the founder, chairman, and principal financial backer of ProPublica is billionaire Herbert Sandler.  Since selling his interest in the bank (Golden West Financial) through which he made his fortune, Herbert and his wife, Marion, have become big-time philanthropists, with substantial sums going to “progressive” organizations like the Center for American Progress and Acorn.

Along the way the Sandlers acquired an interest in bankrolling a news organization that would create “journalism in the public interest,” as ProPublica calls itself, and hired Paul Steiger, then the managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, to act as editor-in-chief.

As reported in The New York Times, Steiger, who was then nearing the WSJ’s mandatory retirement age, didn’t know the Sandlers well but regarded them as “civic-minded people who were kind of partial to lefty or progressive causes.”

From its inception in 2008, ProPublica has proclaimed its independence and impartiality — a claim that is undermined by its avowed goal of producing journalism that “shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong,” and by the looming presence of Mr. Sandler who, rather than donate his money as a lump sum and walk away, installed himself as chairman and is parceling out his contributions over time.

At a recent conference of the American Bar Association, the general manager of ProPublica who, like Mr. Steiger, was formerly with the Wall Street Journal, defended the organization against criticism of Mr. Sandler’s role by suggesting that ProPublica, like the WSJ, is capable of producing journalism that is independent of the political views of management.  Unfortunately, this is an inapt analogy.  In fact it’s worse than that — it positively undermines the argument it’s meant to buttress.

This, of course, because the reason that the Wall Street Journal, or any commercial news organization, can produce news stories that are not a reflection of the political views of management is because they, like all for-profit organizations, operate on the principle of maximizing returns to the shareholders, rather than as a forum for the expression of management’s political or ideological views.

But contrast this dynamic with the very different operating principle of ProPublica, or any nonprofit enterprise.  As Slate’s Jack Shafer asked at ProPublica’s launch, “What do the Sandlers want for their millions? … How happy will they be if ProPublica gores their sacred Democratic cows?  Or takes the ‘wrong’ position on their pet projects: health, the environment, and civil liberties?”

In fairness, most of the reports produced by ProPublica to date do not suggest an organization that is marching in lockstep with the progressive agenda.  For the most part they are ideologically value free.  But that’s only half the story.  The real issue with a group like ProPublica is not the kind of issues it does cover but the kind it doesn’t.  As Jack Shafer asked, what kind of investigative pieces will ProPublica do — not counting the rare expose that proves the rule — that discomfit progressives?  That will be the true test of its independence from its benefactor, and of its suitability as a partnering organization with mainstream news organizations.

In the meantime, close your eyes and try to imagine the kind of reception that would have come to Paul Steiger and ProPublica if, instead of Mr. Sandler, the group’s founder, chairman, and bankroller had been someone who, politically, was Mr. Sandler’s polar opposite — someone who had supported conservative or libertarian causes and organizations.  How do you think that would have gone down with the J-schools, journalism reviews, and grant-giving foundations?

The American Samizdat

Back in the bad old days, “samizdat” was the name given to that body of politically forbidden literature that was clandestinely published and circulated in the Soviet Union.  In 2010, the Internet serves as an American samizdat, to the advantage of conservatives of one shade or another.

The Internet advantages “conservatives” more than “liberals” not because there are more or better conservative websites, but because of (1) the larger numbers of conservatives; and (2) the failure of the legacy media to portray conservative views and concerns.

No issue better illustrates this phenomenon than the extraordinary revelations of fraud and abuse in the “global warming” debate.  Despite the steadily growing number of Internet stories challenging the findings and practices of such as the IPCC and the East Anglia CRU, the mainstream U.S. media (the broadcast networks, newsweeklies, wire services, the Washington Post and New York Times) have shown little or no interest in these stories.

Instead, most of these news outlets continue to print or broadcast reports that are oblivious to the damage done in recent weeks to the claim of anthropogenic global warming (AGW).  And even where they have made mention of this development, they’ve often done so in a way that’s calculated to minimize the impact of the exposes.

A good example is the story published in the Washington Post by Julia Eilperin and David Farenthold.  Under the headline “Series of missteps by climate scientists threatens climate-change agenda,” the authors offer a perfunctory rundown of the many allegations that have recently been made against AGW literature, while repeating, mantra-like and in virtually every other paragraph, some variation on the claim of a scientific consensus that “climate change is happening.”

The contrast between this kind of coverage, or non-coverage, by the MSM, and the multitude of critical stories available on the Internet, many of them links to articles published in major British newspapers, is startling.  But news aggregators like the Drudge Report aren’t the only example of the way the Internet is empowering conservative voices re this and other issues.

The online comments sections of the MSM themselves are proving to be fertile soil for conservative opinion.  In fact, one sometimes wonders what the MSM’s reporters make of the comments that follow publication of their pieces online.  As of the time this piece is being written, for instance, the Eilperin/Farenthold story has attracted about 200 comments, perhaps 70 percent of them critical of the reporters for whitewashing, or failing to mention in sufficient detail, the “Climategate” revelations.

Other examples of the ways in which the American samizdat is facilitating right-of-center news and opinion can be seen in the widespread circulation of important stories similarly ignored until late in the news cycle, like the Acorn scandal, and more recently of exposes of the role of public employee unions in the deteriorating financial condition of so many states and municipalities.

There was a time, not so long ago, when news coverage by the MSM could set the agenda, and prosper, whatever its slant.  No more.  The issue today is how much longer the MSM will continue to practice center-left journalism in a center-right country.  At a time when their business models are in disarray, and the economy on its uppers, how long before the MSM come to believe that this is just bad business?

The MSM: In a Horse Race to Irrelevancy?

Perhaps because of their declining prospects, much of the mainstream media are acting very hinky these days.  On the one hand we have the spectacle of such as the Associated Press and Newsweek openly adopting opinion as their journalistic motif.  While on the other we see newspapers, like The New York Times and The Washington Post, awash in the kind of political reporting that reduces even the most important policy issues to the banalities of “horse race” journalism.

This latter development has become all the more insufferable in the current nightmarish environment, where every current and proposed law or regulation should be more carefully analyzed for its effect on the economy than for its impact on politicians and political parties.

Coverage of the health care debate has been singularly inadequate for precisely this reason.  For every news and feature story that has delved into the effects, say, of the “public option” or the “employer mandate,” a hundred have dwelt on the chances of legislative passage, or on the political winners and losers.

Comes now the leaked e-mail  messages from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia, just days before an important environmental summit in Copenhagen, and the question is whether the MSM, in the wake of it, will finally treat the subject of global warning with the care and objectivity that such a complex subject demands.

Even without so-called cap-and-trade legislation looming on the congressional horizon, the many national and international environmental laws that are now being implemented or considered require that global warming be closely scrutinized for its scientific findings, and for the impact and efficacy of any public policies as may be pursued in consequence.  The unseemly aspects of the CRU correspondence simply adds fuel to what should be a brightly burning subject even without it.

Consider, for instance, the critical linkages that have to be established and explained if “global warming” is to be understood by people generally (as distinguished from “warmists” or “skeptics”), as a subject they should care about.

First, it has to be clear that warming is happening, and that it is man-made, a subject about which there was, in fact, debate even before the CRU debacle.  Then it has to be determined that said warming is of such peril something needs to be done about it.  (Again, the subject of debate.)  Then, of course, it has to be shown that there is something that can be done about it.  And finally, we have to know that what we do won’t have negative consequences (like, for instance, on the economy) that are worse than the effects of the warming itself.

Seen in this way the opinions of climatologists are just one element, and not even the most important one, that needs to be considered and fully examined.  But is that happening in the coverage of this issue by the MSM?  Doesn’t look like it.  Instead, as with their coverage of health care reform, news stories about global warming tend to be either (1) preposterously opinionated, and wrapped in the familiar blather of political correctness, or (2) woefully superficial, a consequence of their horse-race aspects and focus not on substance but on the political sideshow.

Hardly a day goes by without someone, somewhere, lamenting the prospective demise of journalism, by which they mean, even if they don’t say so, what we have come to call the mainstream media – the broadcast networks, big-city papers, the newsweeklies, the wire services.  But as shown in their coverage of global warming and health care reform, today’s MSM appear to be adrift, and operating apart not only from their traditions, but also from what is in their own, and our, best interest.

Cross-posted in Huffington Post, here.

News and Opinion

It’s not often that a parenthetical aside is the most notable part of a speech or written document, but that’s exactly the case with an opinion piece published in today’s Washington Post by that paper’s columnist Robert Samuelson.

Writing, and brilliantly as always, about health care legislation, Samuelson takes The New York Times and The Washington Post to task not just for what he sees as their mistaken characterizations of this legislation, but for their inclusion of these mischaracterizations in the papers’ news pages.

Thus does his piece, titled “Obamacare: Buy Now, Pay Later,” contain these words: “[Obama’s] health care plan is not ‘comprehensive,’ as Obama and The New York Times (in its news columns) assert, because it slights cost control….  If new spending commitments worsen some future budget or financial crisis, Obama’s proposal certainly won’t qualify as ‘reform,’ as the president and The Washington Post (also in its news columns) call it.”

To fully appreciate the gravamen of this parenthetical charge, you have to appreciate the lengths to which newspaper editors will go to insulate themselves from charges of editorial bias, part and parcel of which being their frequent assertions that opinions are confined to the editorial and op-ed pages.

That this criticism issues from someone with such sterling journalistic credentials is also noteworthy.  Far from being an outside critic, Samuelson is very much a part of the journalistic establishment, and for him to fault the papers’ journalistic judgment — particularly when it was extraneous to the subject of his piece — is sure to be noted by his editors and colleagues.

Which is just to say that it was a brave thing he did, and something that he probably would not have done had he not been seriously exercised by the subject, and the papers’ treatment of it.

That frustration resonates in these parts because, like Samuelson, The Media Institute too is closely allied with media companies — most notably by the fact that they provide virtually all of our operating support — and yet we have felt the frequent need these days to be critical of their journalistic performance.

Many years ago I co-authored a content analysis of The New York Times and published the results in National Review.  The article was titled “Is It True What They Say About The New York Times?” and much to the dismay of many of NR’s readers, we found that the paper’s public affairs reporting, on its news pages, was balanced, and contrasted sharply with the opinions on the editorial and op-ed pages.

Hard to imagine anyone writing such a piece today, about the Times or the Post

Commissioner Michael Copps and Media Ownership

Owing to his earnest and mild-mannered (if intellectually scruffy) ways, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps has rarely inspired anger.  No matter how wrong-headed his views – and he’s been wrong about virtually everything for the whole of his time as a Commissioner – he’s been accorded that kind of tolerance that people bestow on those seen to be sincere and to mean well.

That’s about to change.  In the midst of the worst economy – and potentially fatal problems for that part of the economy occupied by American newspapers and broadcasters – Copps is saying and doing things that infuriate.

The most recent, and onerous, examples occurred just yesterday and today when, according to stories in Broadcasting & Cable, Copps demonstrated, yet again, how insulated he is from the world of fact and logic.

Presiding (alone) over an FCC workshop convened to hear the views of academics on the subject of media ownership on Monday, “Copps warned against putting too much stock in the doom and gloom scenarios about the health of TV and newspapers, suggesting that trying to ‘save’ the media should not translate to a lighter re-regulatory hand.”

Then today, at yet another workshop, Copps expressed the opinion (as reported by B&C) that “if the FCC can’t rejuvenate shuttered newsrooms, put the brakes on ‘mind-numbing "monoprogramming"’ and otherwise turn the tide … of consolidation, then ‘maybe those who want the spectrum back have the better of the argument after all.’”

And so there you have it.  The parlous state of the TV and newspaper industries, according to Michael Copps, is nothing to be worried about.  It’s just a rumor.  No need to lighten the regulatory load.  In fact, if broadcasters don’t start programming the way Copps would like, maybe we’ll just take their spectrum away from them.

The series of workshops in question have one more day to run. Plenty of time, in other words, for Copps to give us the benefit of even more of this stuff.

Fox News and Its Critics

Criticism of the Fox News Channel by the Obama Administration is neither inexplicable nor unprecedented.  But the response to this flap by the press is all of that and then some.  From the near-total silence of most, to the blinkered and self-righteous response of a few, the affair casts an unflattering light on the mindset and pretenses of much of the Washington press corps.

Take, for instance, Jacob Weisberg (please).  Here’s a gentleman who, when not inflicting his shrill and politically marginal opinions on the three or four people who still read Newsweek, presides over Slate, an online magazine that counts, among its reporters and editors, precisely one (out of 57) who voted for John McCain in the last presidential election.

It’s with these credentials that Weisberg wrote the following on Oct. 17: “Whether the White House engages with Fox is a tactical political question.  Whether we journalists do so is an ethical one.  By appearing on Fox, reporters validate its propaganda values and help to undermine the role of legitimate news organizations.  Respected journalists … should stop appearing on its programs.”

The very idea that “respected journalists” might advance journalistic ethics by ostracizing another media company solely because of the perspective that company brings to the news of the day — as though other news organizations were value-free vessels of the purest objectivity — is hundred-proof claptrap.  That this corrosive idea is the brainchild of a journalist says much more about him, and about journalists generally, than it does about the facts at issue.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the great disconnect in our national dialogue (and the reason for the popular success of Fox News) is that the press corps, and the journalism they produce, skew center-left in a country that is overwhelmingly center-right.  It is (fortunately) true, as Marxist and other leftist critics are wont to complain, that the media are to the right of them.  However, the media are most assuredly not to the right of the electorate, but to the left, and that’s a problem — first for the country, and also for media companies themselves.

Still, it’s one thing to have mainstream journalists who are out of sync with, and resented by, millions of people, and another thing entirely to have journalists who are unwilling to rally around a news organization under assault by this or any White House.  Worse still, of course, are those, like Weisberg, who actually join the assault and invite others to do likewise. 

The AP and Joshua Bernard

The decision made by the Associated Press to publish a photograph of a mortally wounded Marine in Afghanistan has been condemned by many, including the slain soldier’s family and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

The photo itself is both horrifying and heart wrenching, as it shows Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard clinging to life as he lay in the mud, one leg completely severed and the other badly mangled, the result of a rocket-propelled grenade fired during a Taliban ambush.

Though the photo was taken on Aug. 14, the AP didn’t release it until Sept. 4, after the slain soldier’s burial, and after having shown several photos from the scene to Bernard’s family.

The view from here is that the AP did the right thing.  What, after all, do we imagine?  That when a U.S. soldier dies on foreign soil his passing is like that of a stateside family member, sedated against pain and surrounded by loved ones?

Lance Corporal Bernard paid a terrible price — the ultimate price — in service to his country, and for us not to be able to look his death in the face is not only cowardly and intellectually dishonest, it robs Bernard’s sacrifice of any meaning, as though he just wandered off peacefully somewhere, a quiescent statistic.

To express such an opinion is not to utter a single word either for or against the war in Afghanistan.  That is another issue.  Rather, the point here is that, when it comes to matters of life and death in direct consequence of government policy, we owe it to those in harm’s way, and to ourselves, not to sugar coat or sanitize the brutal results.

In recent months the AP has made some serious mistakes in judgment, most recently in the decision to distribute so-called “investigative news stories” paid for by nonprofit organizations with a political agenda.  But the decision to publish the photo of Joshua Bernard was not a mistake.  It was, instead, exactly right.