The 'Liberal' Media, Revisited
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 24, 2004; 8:38 AM
More than half of those surveyed say the media haven't been tough enough on President Bush.
Nearly half say reporting is increasingly sloppy and filled with errors.
And almost half say journalists often let their ideological views color their work.
Media bashers? Disaffected Democrats? No, these negative views are being expressed by journalists and executives at national media outlets. And local journalists aren't far behind in their criticism.
A joint project by the Pew Research Center and Project for Excellence in Journalism reveals a darkly pessimistic view of the profession among its own members, often echoing the criticisms of the public at large.
The 55 percent of national journalists, and 37 percent of local ones, who see the media as soft on Bush may well be reflecting their own views of the president. At national outlets, 34 percent describe themselves as liberal, 54 percent as moderate and 7 percent as conservative. (The local split was 23-61-12.) Nearly 7 in 10 of the liberal national journalists criticized the Bush coverage.
"You'd expect the minority who say they have a liberal point of view to be more critical of the press when it comes to Bush," says Pew director Andrew Kohut, whose organization interviewed 547 journalists. But he noted that 44 percent of the self-described moderates also hold that view.
Tom Rosenstiel, the project's director, says the growing proportion of self-identified liberals in the national media -- and the fact that "conservatives are not very well represented" -- is having an impact. "This is something journalists should worry about," he says. "Maybe diversity in the newsroom needs to mean more than ethnic and gender diversity."
The survey confirmed that national journalists are to the left of the public on social issues. Nine in 10 say it is not necessary to believe in God to be moral (40 percent of the public think this way). As might have been inferred from the upbeat coverage of gay marriage in Massachusetts, 88 percent of national journalists say society should accept homosexuality; only about half the public agrees.
In a related finding, 31 percent of national journalists now have a great deal of confidence in the public's election choices, compared with 52 percent at the end of the Clinton administration. The clear implication is that many media people feel superior to their customers.
Asked to identify a media outlet they view as especially conservative, 69 percent of national journalists chose Fox News. As for an especially liberal organization, 20 percent named the New York Times. (The Washington Post was the runner-up at 4 percent, followed by CBS, ABC, CNN and NPR at 2 percent each. On the conservative question, Fox was followed by the Washington Times, named by 9 percent, and the Wall Street Journal at 8 percent.)What the report calls a "crisis of confidence" permeates the findings. Two-thirds of national media staffers, and 57 percent of the locals, believe that profit pressures are seriously hurting news coverage. Nearly half of national journalists say the press is too timid. Almost two-thirds say there are too many cable talk shows.
But despite the Jayson Blair scandal at the Times and the Jack Kelley debacle at USA Today, only 5 percent of national journalists (and 6 percent of locals) see ethics or a lack of standards as the biggest problem in the business. About three-quarters say plagiarism is being exposed more often but hasn't increased.
And there's a definite generation gap. Only 1 in 10 journalists under 35, but a third of those over 55, say credibility is the industry's biggest problem.
What's going right? Broadcast journalists were most likely to mention the speed of coverage, while print journalists focused on the quality of stories and the media's watchdog role.
Major national newspapers got the highest grades from 92 percent of national journalists and 80 percent of local ones. As for network and cable news, 43 percent of national staffers gave them top marks. Local TV news finished last, garnering top ratings from 21 percent of national journalists and 32 percent of the locals.
One interesting split: While 57 percent of media executives say the profession is headed in the right direction, 54 percent of reporters say things are on the wrong track.
"Journalists definitely seem more divided from the bosses," Rosenstiel says. "They think economics that are beyond their control are doing more damage than they did five years ago."
The bottom line, says Kohut: "The press is an unhappy lot. They don't feel good about our profession in many ways."
Reuters reported last week that U.S. soldiers beat three Iraqis working for the wire service and subjected them to sexual and religious taunts while they were detained in Iraq in January. The story also said that that an Iraqi journalist working for NBC, arrested at the same time, had been beaten and mistreated.
Which raises an intriguing question: Why did this take so long to become news?
Reuters published four stories that were primarily about the incident in January and February, and put out a press release, but they attracted little U.S. media coverage. (The story was picked up by some British papers and Toronto's Globe and Mail.) The likely reason: The Reuters dispatches referred only to the "arrest and mistreatment" of the staffers -- who say they were deprived of sleep, kicked and hit, had bags placed over their heads and were sexually taunted -- but not the chilling details.
"We certainly would have been willing to do that, but our employees didn't want that to happen," says Reuters spokesman Stephen Naru. "They were very shamed by it. . . . We respected their wishes."
Reuters executives were frustrated that the mistreatment didn't draw more media attention, Naru says. "It wasn't for lack of trying. . . . Frankly, not a lot of people have cared until now."
One earlier Reuters piece said: "A Reuters spokesman declined to give further details pending a response from U.S. authorities."
A brigadier general said at the time that guerrillas posing as journalists had fired on American paratroopers near Fallujah, where a U.S. helicopter had been shot down. The four men were released after 72 hours.
Even after the story of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib exploded, Reuters held its fire, waiting for the results of a military inquiry. The Pentagon told Reuters last week -- in a letter dated March 5 -- that there was no evidence the employees had been tortured or abused. This "infuriated" the staffers into agreeing to describe their ordeal, says Naru, who noted that investigators had never even interviewed the men. "The Reuters personnel did provide statements with the allegations about their detention," says Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman.
NBC Vice President Bill Wheatley says its stringer, the brother of one of the Reuters crew, was also reluctant to go public. "There was some sense of humiliation on his part, and we were waiting for a report from the Pentagon," he says, adding that "we went back to our guy" after the Reuters staffers agreed to divulge details. But NBC still hasn't reported the news on its own, except briefly on MSNBC.
Moving right along, Bush makes a major speech tonight in an effort to galvanize support for his Iraq policy. Meanwhile, the liberal group MoveOn kicks off an ad asking why Rummy hasn't been fired.
Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times sees Bush getting one more chance on the world stage:
"From Rome to Istanbul, President Bush faces a diplomatic gantlet in June that could burnish his image as an international leader or provide new ammunition for Sen. John F. Kerry's charge that he has isolated the U.S. in the world.
"With anxiety over Iraq dominating the presidential race, an unusual concentration of international summits offers Bush probably his best opportunity before election day to highlight his credentials as a world leader on a stage unavailable to Kerry, his presumptive Democratic challenger.
"But next month's events -- a commemoration of the 60th anniversary of D-day in France; a gathering of leaders of the world's top industrialized nations on Sea Island, Ga; U.S.-European Union talks in Ireland and a NATO summit in Turkey -- also present Bush with unusual risks, many analysts agree. If the meetings do not produce much tangible help on Iraq or reveal continuing tension with traditional allies, they could reinforce Kerry's central foreign policy argument against Bush: that he has alienated too many other nations, leaving the U.S. bearing too much of the burden in Iraq."
Quite a victory dance.
D.C. gossip blogger Wonkette isn't a fan of Kerry's latest line:
"How many rough drafts do you think the Kerry team went through to come with the campaign slogan, 'Let America be America again'? It takes a lot of work to boil down an entire political platform into a single phrase of such astonishing meaninglessness. We'll give them this: It does capture the essence of Kerry's rhetorical style -- stilted, yet empty.
"Maybe Kerry himself provided an early version, something like, 'To be sure, I would like it to be known, that who among us does not want this great country, America, to return to a state of being that country which it was and shall be again.'"
In Salon, Dave Gilson savages one radio host:
"Michael Savage doesn't get out much. The hardcore conservative radio host of 'The Savage Nation' has always been a relatively reclusive figure. He doesn't do book tours or publicity stunts. He's not exactly approachable either: He claims to carry a gun with him at all times, and he doesn't like nosy journalists asking for interviews.
"Not that he's the shy, retiring type. Lately, as the Iraq torture scandal has dominated the headlines, he has taken to calling Arabs 'non-humans' and has called for the U.S. to kill 'thousands' of Iraqi prisoners and nuke a random Arab capital. Deciding whether to pay attention to Savage has always been tricky, though. It's never clear whether he really believes what he says in his tirades or if they are simply ploys for public outcry. His is currently the third-most-popular radio program in the nation. Nonetheless, it may be hard for Savage to sit by and watch the FCC's crackdown against fellow jock Howard Stern effectively lift Stern's profile even higher into the stratosphere. But Savage's outbursts are often so unhinged, so vicious, that ignoring them seems irresponsible, especially when so many Americans apparently are nodding in agreement. So when I learned that Savage would be making his first public appearance in three years Saturday night, it seemed worth checking out, if only to see who was paying attention to him and why.
" 'Savage Uncensored,' as the event was called, marked the end of what's been a crummy year for the once-hot Savage. Last March, MSNBC gave him a weekly program only to cancel it after four months when he labeled a caller a 'sodomite' and told him to 'get AIDS and die.' Then the San Francisco radio station that gave him his first big break dumped him and rubbed salt into the wound with billboards that depicted Savage morphing into Sean Hannity, beneath the slogan 'Out With the Old, In with the New.' When a couple of anti-Savage Web sites started a boycott of his advertisers, his syndicator, Talk Radio Network, tried to revoke their domain names. When that failed, it tried to sue them for $1 million. That failed too.
"Savage's star may have faded, but it's still too early to write him off, with 'The Savage Nation' pulling in 6 million listeners a week. His latest screed against fifth columnists such as liberals, gays and atheists, 'The Enemy Within,' debuted at No. 8 on the New York Times nonfiction list."
I seem to have kicked off a debate with my column last week on how journalists in Iraq are being extremely (and understandably) cautious and limiting their movements. Says Jeff Jarvis of the Buzz Machine:
"American reporters in Iraq are pretty much prisoners inside the cloistered confines of the green zone because it's too dangerous to venture out to where the people -- and the news -- are.
"So here's a suggestion, guys: Start reading -- and quoting -- Iraqi bloggers.
"You should be doing that anyway, since these folks give us a perspective you big-time reporters simply are not giving us. But you should be doing this especially now that you can't get out and report the news.
"Of course, these aren't 'real journalists.' That means they don't have suits and expense accounts. But they have eyes and ears and keyboards and they give us a viewpoint we need to see. So you can issue caveats aplenty.
"But then read them. Quote them. Share them."
He's got the links.
Jay Rosen of PressThink wonders about what we're getting from Iraq:
"So a press that is there to report on events in all of Iraq is now confined to the American military's green zone in Iraq. Having accepted certain dangers as part of the assignment, the correspondents are facing dangers that may destroy the assignment. Without freedom of movement, is there really a free press operating in Iraq?
"Reporters in war zones and lawless situations call it 'going out,' as in, 'has anyone been going out?' To go out is to leave the green zone or its equivalent (the press hotel) and that means leaving the capital, the fortified center, for travel in more dangerous country, usually with a driver who knows the roads, a translator who knows the language, perhaps a photographer and in television news a 'fixer,' a local who knows a lot and can solve problems. This is relevant because a correspondent can endanger others by going out at the wrong time. It's never a one person show.
"If they're not going out in Baghdad, but sticking to quarters, then reporters cannot really cover what they are there to cover-- the ongoing war, the re-building of Iraq, the emergence of a new Iraqi state and its politics, and the changing situation on the ground.
"A confined press can rely on stringers. Or it could, as Jeff Jarvis recommended, sign up Iraqi bloggers to help. There are other improvisations, no doubt. But the reality Kurtz describes--journalists pushed back and pinned down, dependent for protection upon the government they are trying to hold accountable--not only tells us something about dangers in Iraq. It forces us to understand the American military effort, and the American press effort as one thing."
Michael Rubin, in National Review, is appalled by the raid on Ahmed Chalabi's house:
"Iraqis -- fans and foes of Chalabi alike -- saw the raid as another sign of the contempt the CPA shows for ordinary Iraqis. By sending forces to break into Chalabi's house and then by holding a Governing Council member at gunpoint, Bremer sought to humiliate Chalabi. Bremer has not learned from the Abu Ghraib scandal. Humiliation backfires.
"Simultaneously, the inside-the-beltway rumor mongering made clear both the irrational contempt and ignorance that many professional pundits feel for any proponent of Arab democracy. Those academics, pundits, and commentators who have never met Chalabi reserve for him the greatest vitriol.
"One expert claimed that U.S. forces raided Chalabi's house because of evidence that he was planning a coup. Unclear is with what. Chalabi did gather a force of 700 men shortly before Iraq's liberation. They were largely successful. While U.S. commanders allowed looting across Iraq; Chalabi's militia kept order in Nasiriyah. But, last June, the militia dissolved.
"The allegations against Chalabi grow more bizarre. A journalist asked me to confirm an intelligence source's allegation that Chalabi's (nonexistent) militia was behind the Abu Ghraib interrogations. The confidence of journalists and academics in anonymous intelligence sources is bizarre."
Finally, how excited is Fox anchor Neil Cavuto about having interviewed George Bush? He writes:
"Remember the other day I told you that nerds rule?
"Now, proof, from no less than the president of the United States, that they're also very influential. You don't believe me? Look where I'm standing! . . .
"I just wish my old pals in high school could see me now: Neil the nerd, now Neil-the-invited-to-the-White-House nerd standing on the same hallowed ground as Fox super cool guys Wendell Goler, Jim Angle and James Rosen.
"Take that, football team captain. Take that, all you cheerleaders who dismissed me as some freak of nature. Still a freak, but now a force of nature freak."
Sounds like Neil the nerd had a rough adolescence. We're glad he's recovered.
© 2004 washingtonpost.com