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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

An Opinionated Network

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 14, 2005; 7:05 AM

In covering the Iraq war last year, 73 percent of the stories on Fox News included the opinions of the anchors and journalists reporting them, a new study says.

By contrast, 29 percent of the war reports on MSNBC and 2 percent of those on CNN included the journalists' own views.

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These findings -- the figures were similar for coverage of other stories -- "seem to challenge" Fox's slogan of "we report, you decide," says the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

In a 617-page report, the group also found that "Fox is more deeply sourced than its rivals," while CNN is "the least transparent about its sources of the three cable channels, but more likely to present multiple points of view."

The project defines opinion as views that are not attributed to others.

Last March, Fox reporter Todd Connor said that "Iraq has a new interim constitution and is well on its way to democracy."

"Let's pray it works out," said anchor David Asman.

Another time, after hearing that Iraqis helped capture a Saddam Hussein henchman, Asman said: "Boy, that's good news if true, the Iraqis in the lead."

Fox legal editor Stan Goldman challenged Amber Frey's hiring of attorney Gloria Allred, saying: "If you want to keep a low profile, Gloria is not the lawyer to represent you."

In an interview, Fox's executive daytime producer, Jerry Burke, says: "I encourage the anchors to be themselves. I'm certainly not going to step in and censor an anchor on any issue . . . You don't want to look at a cookie-cutter, force-feeding of the same items hour after hour. I think that's part of the success of the channel, not treating our anchors like drones. They're number one, Americans, and number two, human beings, as well as journalists."

CNN spokeswoman Christa Robinson says the study "reaffirms what anyone watching CNN already knows: CNN's reporting is driven by news, not opinion." MSNBC declined to comment.

The project, a Washington-based research group, offers a three-part breakdown of cable journalists voicing their opinions. From 11 a.m. to noon, this happened on 52 percent of the stories on Fox, 50 percent on MSNBC and 2.3 percent on CNN. Among news-oriented evening shows, journalist opinions were voiced on 70 percent of the stories on Fox's "Special Report with Brit Hume," due in part to its regular analysts' panel at the show's end; 9 percent on MSNBC's "Countdown with Keith Olbermann," and 9 percent on CNN's "NewsNight with Aaron Brown."

As for the most popular prime-time shows, nearly every story -- 97 percent -- contained opinion on Fox's "O'Reilly Factor"; 24 percent on MSNBC's "Hardball with Chris Matthews"; and 0.9 percent on CNN's "Larry King Live." King devoted nearly half his time to entertainment and lifestyle topics, twice as much as O'Reilly and more than three times as much as Matthews.

The project describes cable news reporting as pretty thin compared to the ABC, NBC and CBS evening newscasts. Only a quarter of the cable stories examined contained two or more identifiable sources, compared with 49 percent of network evening news stories and 81 percent of newspaper front-page stories.

This, says the study, is in part because cable leans heavily on live reports, 60 percent of which are based on only a single identifiable source ("the White House said today," etc.). What's more, cable news is far more one-sided than other media outlets, with only a quarter of the stories involving controversy making more than a passing reference to a second point of view. By contrast, says the report, the network morning shows, PBS and newspaper front pages were more than three times as likely to contain a mix of views.

Cable networks "have gravitated, particularly as Fox has surged in the ratings, toward programs and somewhat less toward reporting," says Tom Rosenstiel, the group's director. He says opinion-laden journalism "probably is part of Fox's identity, but it's not true of all the programs."

As for the tone of Iraq coverage, 38 percent of Fox stories were positive, compared to 20 percent on CNN and 16 percent on MSNBC, the report says. But Fox war stories were about as likely to be neutral (39 percent), and more likely to be neutral at CNN (41 percent) and MSNBC (28 percent).

Despite its 24 hours of available air time, cable isn't exactly bursting with new news. Seven in 10 reports involve recycling of the same subject matter, with only 10 percent adding meaningful updates. "The time required to continuously be on the air seems to take a heavy toll on the nature of the journalism presented," the report says.

On the broadcast front, journalists offered no opinions on 83 percent of the evening news stories, 89 percent of the morning news reports and 97 percent of the pieces on PBS's "NewsHour." The biggest exception: campaign stories, where nightly news correspondents felt comfortable offering horse-race and other opinions 44 percent of the time.

One interesting contrast among the nightly newscasts: CBS was 50 percent more likely than NBC and twice as likely as ABC to air reports on disasters and other unexpected events (Dan Rather loved hurricanes). The "CBS Evening News" was also twice as likely to carry feature stories unconnected to breaking news (citing such examples as the ethics of using high-tech duck decoys or rising credit card debt).

The morning shows, which run at least two hours, still covered major stories less than the evening newscasts, the project says, devoting much of their time to Martha Stewart, Laci Peterson and other crime, lifestyle and celebrity topics. The morning programs were also more upbeat in their Iraq coverage, with positive reports 31 percent of the time and negative 19 percent.

The project, which examined 16 newspapers -- from the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post to the Bloomington, Ill., Pantagraph -- praised them for offering longer and more deeply sourced stories. Overall, 7 percent of stories contained anonymous sources, down from 29 percent in 2003. But the figure was 20 percent for front-page stories at the biggest papers, compared to 7 percent at the smallest. Stories about the Iraq war were more likely to be negative (31 percent) than positive (23 percent), but just as likely to be neutral in tone (33 percent).

The newsweeklies continued a drift toward softer and broader coverage, the report says. Newsweek did six celebrity and entertainment covers last year to Time's one, while Time did two covers on sports, two on history and one on the environment (the thinner U.S. News & World Report took a more traditional hard-news approach). Newsweek ("The Secret Lives on Wives") and Time ("Low Carb Nation") also ran a number of covers on what the project says might be called "faux trends."

Speaking of Fox, a Detroit News story last week called it "consciously biased" -- without attribution -- and quoted onetime Fox producer Dan Cooper as saying: "In the morning, everyone is told what today's key issues are and how those issues are viewed by Fox News. The entire staff understands how the organization feels about them."

Cooper, whose job was eliminated weeks after the channel launched in 1996, says the quotes were "fabricated" and he "never said anything like that." He says his other, more neutral quotes were accurate -- except for one likening Fox to "talk radio" -- but complains that reporter Tom Long used the disputed comments after this loaded sentence: "But the clear bias of Fox News troubles many."

"I love Fox News," he says. "I watch Fox News all day long."

News Editor Mark Silverman told Cooper by e-mail that after checking Long's notes, "we believe his story accurately portrayed what you said to him" and "there is nothing for us to correct." Silverman offered Cooper either a letter to the editor or a longer op-ed piece, as long as it didn't criticize Long's article.

Why did Vanity Fair allow freelancer Sally Horchow to write a puffy item on a Hollywood group called the Proscenium Club? As MediaBistro.com noted, Horchow is one of the cofounders of the club, a support group for Los Angeles County's Music Center. Horchow gradually told her editor of her role, says spokeswoman Beth Kseniak, and "in retrospect we wished we had disclosed it."

The Washington Times has a tantalizing headline on Condi: "2008 run, abortion engage her politically."

But then when you read the story, she's not exactly engaged by '08:

"Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday pointedly declined to rule out running for president in 2008, and gave her most detailed explanation of a 'mildly pro-choice' stance on abortion.

"In an interview with editors and reporters in the office of the editor in chief at The Washington Times, she said she would not want the government 'forcing its views' on abortion.

"She seemed bemused by speculation that a Rice candidacy could set up an unprecedented all-woman matchup with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, who is widely expected to seek the presidency. 'I never wanted to run for anything -- I don't think I even ran for class anything when I was in school,' she said. 'I'm going to try to be a really good secretary of state; I'm going to work really hard at it.'

"When pressed to make a Shermanesque denial, Rice said only: 'That's not fair.' "

Oh, and how's this for a fair and balanced comment from the Washington Times staff: "You could save us from Hillary."

Remember that Susan Estrich vs. Michael Kinsley battle I wrote about last week? Now the LAT has its own version. New factoid: Estrich has hired a lawyer to consider suing the paper's editor for accusing her of malice against Kinsley.

Maureen Dowd also weighs in on what it's like to be the only female columnist at the NYT, and reveals that she almost gave it up after six months because of frayed nerves. She also whacks Susan Estrich for "a crazed and nasty smear campaign" against Mike Kinsley.

"Guys don't appreciate being lectured by a woman. It taps into myths of carping Harpies and hounding Furies, and distaste for nagging by wives and mothers."

And bloggers are rising up against the prospect of government regulation, urging readers to sign this petition to the FEC.

Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum is suffering psychological damage because of Capitol Hill:

"I've been in a rotten mood lately, a feeling that I blame on the 109th Congress. Here's a summary of their first few weeks of activity:

"Passed: A tort reform bill that makes it harder for ordinary citizens to sue corporations who harm them.

"Coming soon: A bankruptcy bill that will make it harder for distressed workers to declare bankruptcy and will increase credit card company profits by an estimated $1 billion.

"Coming soon: A transportation bill that adds two unpaid hours onto the work days of short-haul and long-haul truckers.

"In progress: Changes to Social Security that will almost certainly include benefit cuts for current workers.

"In progress: Making permanent a set of tax cuts that primarily helps the upper class.

"And it's only the middle of March. Can anyone name even one thing the Bush administration has done this year -- or is proposing to do -- that would benefit ordinary workers? Do they even pretend to care any more?"

I suppose the administration would point to prescription drugs, No Child Left Behind, etc., but Drum's litany is likely to form the basis of a new liberal critique.

In fact, it already has! Here is Salon's Joe Conason on the same subject:

"Watching the behavior of Republican politicians during the past several days, we are learning the true meaning of 'compassionate conservatism.' Not the public-relations version promoted by George W. Bush and his party propaganda apparatus, but the core philosophy enunciated by the deep thinkers of the religious right.

"With legislative maneuvering designed to punish and deprive the least fortunate among us -- working people at the lower end of the American economy and their children -- the Republicans don't seem to be upholding the caring Christian ideals often proclaimed by the President. They're pushing down wages, snatching away tax credits and food stamps, slashing Medicaid and children's health insurance, and removing bankruptcy protections from families that suffer medical catastrophes. But they're extending tax cuts on dividends and capital gains, and making sure that those bankruptcy laws still protect the richest deadbeats.

"In short, they are stealing bread from the mouths of the poor and stuffing cake into the maws of the wealthy.

"The bankruptcy 'reform' currently pending in the Senate, for instance, would compound the misery of Americans already ruined by enormous medical expenses, which is what drives most filers to seek legal protection. The sponsors of this punitive act, which will further inflate the profits of credit-card companies, rejected every amendment to discourage deceptive and extortionate lending practices, as well as every amendment to soften the impact on destitute veterans and others whose misfortune might ordinarily stir feelings of compassion."

American Prospect Co-Editor Robert Kuttner bucks the recent tide of Bush-Must-Be-Right-About-Iraq-Liberals-Concede pieces:

"Wow! If this picture is true, let's nominate George W. Bush for the Nobel Peace Prize.

"The only trouble is, the picture isn't true.

"For starters, each of these events has its own dynamics. The new Israel-Palestine reality reflects the death of Yassir Arafat and Ariel Sharon's decision to seize the moment, defy his party and do a "Nixon to China" by dismantling some Israeli settlements in Arab lands. This shift has nothing to do with Bush or Iraq. Indeed, the Bush administration has been less active in promoting a Palestine settlement than any in memory.

"(Watch out, when Fidel Castro finally dies of old age and democracy comes to Cuba, Bush will take credit for that, too.) "Saudi Arabia remains a dictatorship (and intimate ally of the Bush administration.) The prospect of genuine democracy breaking out there soon is laughable. Egypt, a place where the CIA sends highly sensitive prisoners to be tortured, is a similar story. If Iran is negotiating about its nuclear ambitions, it is thanks to European diplomacy and over U.S. objections.

"A week ago, the storyline on Lebanon was that the people were rising up and demanding that Syria exit. Now, it turns out that Hezbollah, the largest party representing Shiites, and ally of the Syrians, is dominant. And the Bush administration is reluctantly embracing the French view (!) that Hezbollah should be worked with and, one hopes, perhaps, domesticated."

The Pentagon distorting reality on the Saddam spider-hole story? Here's one such report (via Slate), from Rochester's WHAM-TV:

"A former U.S. Marine who participated in capturing ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein said the public version of his capture was fabricated.

"Ex-Sgt. Nadim Abou Rabeh, of Lebanese descent, was quoted in the Saudi daily al-Medina Wednesday as saying Saddam was actually captured Friday, Dec. 12, 2003, and not the day after, as announced by the U.S. Army.

" 'I was among the 20-man unit, including eight of Arab descent, who searched for Saddam for three days in the area of Dour near Tikrit, and we found him in a modest home in a small village and not in a hole as announced,' Abou Rabeh said. 'We captured him after fierce resistance during which a Marine of Sudanese origin was killed,' he said."

Could such a tale really have been kept under wraps for more than a year? Dread Pundit Bluto (great name, if nothing else) isn't buying:

"Rabeh's story would be more credible if he weren't currently residing in Lebanon, and if the Dread Pundit Bluto hadn't personally talked to a member of the capture team (who had photos) about a month after the capture. Also, Rabeh claims that the capture team had twenty members, none of whom have come forward to back up his tale."

Neither is OpinionJournal's James Taranto:

"Elements of it are easily checkable, and they don't check out. This site lists all U.S. combat fatalities in Iraq. On Dec.12, 2003, two men were killed in action: Jarrod Black and Jeffrey Braun. Both were soldiers, not Marines; and neither one has a Sudanese-sounding (i.e., Arabic) surname. Nor were any Marines or any servicemen with Arab-sounding names killed on Dec.10 or 11.

"As CNN noted at the time, Saddam was captured by the Fourth Infantry Division, and it's not clear why Marines would be along on an Army operation. There is little doubt that both [Saudi daily] al-Medina and UPI have fallen for a hoax."

The Weekly Standard's Bill Whalen has done the seemingly impossible -- found a new Hillary angle:

"FEAR NOT: this isn't another column about Hillary Clinton fashioning herself into a pragmatic, centrist force to be reckoned with in 2008, or how America always loves a good makeover -- be it a toned-down junior senator from New York, a slimmed-down homemaker currently under house arrest, or a 'big fat actress' looking to jump-start her career on Showtime.

"The real story that bears watching is why Hollywood, after treating the former first lady rather unceremoniously throughout the last decade, is all of sudden enamored by the thought of a Clinton candidacy -- so much so that one network is willing to put a pseudo-President Hillary on prime-time television.

"Last week, ABC announced that Geena Davis will star as the nation's first female president in the one-hour drama pilot Commander in Chief. For Mrs. Clinton, it's a moral victory of sorts in that it's a step up from those '90s movies in which the first lady was easily disposable."

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