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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Searching for Buzz

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 3, 2005;

In my job, I get plenty of complaints from reporters who say they wrote a particular story and no one noticed until it was picked up (without credit) by some larger organ, which then reaped the journalistic glory.

It's happened to me, and just about everyone else in the business, at some point in their professional lives.

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The Private Bush (washingtonpost.com, Feb 23, 2005)
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Why do some pieces generate lots of buzz while others are greeted with silence? Fortunately, the Net is starting to change that. If something gets picked up by InstaPundit or Romenesko or Drudge or The Note, even from a small or obscure magazine, it can make a big noise in a hurry.

(By the way, I'm stealing this idea, but I shall give credit momentarily.)

The latest case study comes from a three-part L.A. Times series on economic risk by reporter Peter Gosselin. One piece begins with the story of a man who made almost $200,000 the previous year, but this followed a nearly two-year period where the man was unemployed and his income dropped by two-thirds. Another piece leads off with a Salvadoran-born dishwasher and her partner who are working several jobs but barely staying above the family poverty line of $18,810.

"Starting in the late 1970s, the nation's leaders sought to break a corrosive cycle of rising inflation and stagnating output by remaking the U.S. economy in the image of its frontier predecessor -- deregulating industries, shrinking social programs and promoting a free-market ideal in which everyone must forge his or her own path, free to rise or fall on merit or luck. On the whole, their effort to transform the economy has succeeded.

"But the economy's makeover has come at a large and largely unnoticed price: a measurable increase in the risks that Americans must bear as they provide for their families, pay for their houses, save for their retirements and grab for the good life.

"A broad array of protections that families once depended on to shield them from economic turmoil -- stable jobs, widely available health coverage, guaranteed pensions, short unemployment spells, long-lasting unemployment benefits and well-funded job training programs -- have been scaled back or have vanished altogether."

I look at the L.A. Times Web site every day and peruse the national edition on weekdays, and I missed the series. (The LAT definitely suffers from an East Coast bias. Had the same series appeared in the New York Times, seen by all the TV execs, the networks would have ripped it off in a heartbeat.)

Now comes Columbia Journalism Review to tell us the series is getting a second life:

"Gosselin, who works in the Times' Washington bureau, spent a year gathering data and speaking with economists, statisticians, benefits experts, and workers and their families who unexpectedly had the financial rug pulled out from under them. Their stories provided a starkly different picture of an "ownership society" than the portrait drawn by President Bush.

"By Gosselin's own account, despite the Los Angeles Times' daily circulation of over one million, the stories generated almost no response for months. That is, until he recently sent out a link to them to a handful of liberal bloggers, including Kevin Drum, who writes the widely read 'Political Animal' blog on WashingtonMonthly.com. Drum's post, in turn, generated several other blog mentions, including one from J. Bradford DeLong. . . .

"Gosselin is caught off-guard by the fact that his series has caught fire so long after it appeared in print to little effect. '[T]he idea seems to be racing from cutting edge to conventional wisdom with no intervening steps,' says the bewildered author."

Speaking of buzz, John Tierney, who once dressed up as a bank robber for a column, is sure to get some now that he's been named to the NYT op-ed page.

My profile is here:Slate's Jack Shafer is still going after the abuse of unnamed sources:

"Journalists traditionally defend anonymous sourcing with vague assurances that blind comments 1) provide readers with valuable news unobtainable by any other means or 2) give the public a deeper understanding of the issues of day. But for all the promises of red meat, newspapers mostly serve hair balls. I baited an anonymice trap by querying Nexis for all stories containing the words 'senior administration official' and 'President Bush' over the past week from America's top dailies. As you may recall, the president toured Europe last week and met with state leaders.

"I figured a Nexis dump would trap a few of the contemptible rodents, and I was right. The worst offender over this interval was the Los Angles Times, followed by the New York Times, the Washington Post (owned by the company that owns Slate), the Chicago Tribune, and the Boston Globe. The good news is that I found no infested clips in USA Today, which is more vigilant than most papers in eradicating anonymice, and none in the Wall Street Journal via its subscription site."

If someone would just quote a junior administration official, that person would avoid Shafer's trap.

Newspapers are finding every way they can to signal that Bush's SS plan is in dire straits, such as this New York Times report:

"President Bush's drive to overhaul Social Security is in trouble, and while it is far too soon to declare it doomed, it faces obstacles on all sides.

"After a week at home listening to constituents on the issue, Congressional leaders of Mr. Bush's own party have returned to Washington and immediately begun playing for time, suggesting that they may not meet his goal of passing legislation this year.

"Democrats, apparently feeling little political pressure to come up with a plan of their own or work across the aisle, remain remarkably united against the main element of Mr. Bush's plan: his call for private investment accounts to be carved out of Social Security payroll taxes."

The Washington Post goes even harder with the story, with a lead headline saying the vote may have to be postponed until 2006.

The Note isn't playing taps on SS, but it's warming up:

"We were going to type 'The President's efforts to fundamentally reshape the Social Security system are not dead,' but the mere act of saying that the patient lives could suggest to some that the patient is very, very sick and it is only a matter of time.

"Certainly by the standard ways the Gang of 500 measures such things -- to continue the metaphor -- the patient is in a hospital bed, with all sorts of tubes inserted in every natural and human-made orifice, with CW doctors sweeping in and out of the room, speaking in hushed, knowing, and somber tones.

"We would be fighting the obvious critical mass of this news cycle if we reported to you anything but that Republicans remain skittish and tactically divided; Democrats remain united and pumped up; and many Gang members are fundamentally skeptical that anything will happen."

The New York Post, meanwhile, seems more excited about the Michael Jackson trial:

"A trembling Michael Jackson quietly wept in court yesterday as prosecutors at his kiddie-sex trial played a controversial video in which he openly talked of sleeping with young boys.

"As Jacko dabbed at his eyes with a Kleenex and then used the tissue to cover his entire lower face so that it left him peeking over the top to watch the explosive footage, one of his lawyers leaned over to comfort him, patting him on the shoulder."

At the Boston Phoenix, Dan Kennedy fires back at one of his critics over the Jeff Gannon business:

"A former Oliver North associate named Cliff Kincaid attacked me for doing exactly what he's been doing: criticizing left-leaning bloggers for engaging in a sexual witch hunt over the matter of Jeff Gannon, the pseudonymous male prostitute caught servicing the Bush administration at White House press briefings.

"Kincaid is the editor of Accuracy in Media Report, published by Accuracy in Media, the far-right media-watchdog group founded by the late Reed Irvine. Kincaid writes:

"The Boston Phoenix, a counter-culture publication, has taken the anti-Gannon campaign to a new low, citing a left-wing blog as reporting 'rumors' about an unnamed "high-ranking, married White House aide who may or may not have had a homosexual affair with Gannon" and who 'may or may not' have provided Gannon with a confidential document about CIA employee Valerie Plame. There is no evidence cited for any of this, but that doesn't seem to matter at this point.

"Kincaid is quoting from my column in this week's Phoenix. Here is what I actually wrote:

"Readers of the Web site Raw Story . . . know that there are rumors involving a high-ranking, married White House aide who may or may not have had a homosexual affair with Gannon, and who may or may not have provided Gannon with a confidential document concerning the investigation into who leaked the identity of former covert CIA operative Valerie Plame to syndicated columnist Robert Novak and other journalists.

"This is piling rumor upon rumor. And in any case, Gannon told Anderson Cooper that reports about his having claimed to have seen the Plame document were based on a misunderstanding. In fact, he said he'd only seen a Wall Street Journal article describing the document."

Kennedy then quotes me as arguing against running "such unsubstantiated crap without being able to pin down the facts."

"Could Kincaid have got it any more wrong? You see what's happening here. I took Raw Story to task for rumor-mongering. Then Kincaid came along, twisted my words out of context, and then took me (or, rather, the 'counter-culture' Boston Phoenix) to task for - yes - rumor-mongering! Thus does Kincaid contribute to the notion of a monolithic left, trying to bring down George W. Bush because one of his favorite reporters likes to pose naked on the Internet."

In the same vein, Dick Polman recently wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer: "Some political analysts who monitor President Bush's relations with the media insist that Gannon...should not be viewed as an isolated case. Rather, they contend that Gannon is symptomatic of a broader White House strategy to undermine the traditional media by disseminating the Bush message in creative new ways."

Which prompted this response from Jeff Gannon on his blog:

"The Old Media still doesn't get it. Dick Polman, a political analyst for the Philadelphia Inquirer promotes the idea that Gannongate is part of a larger conspiracy by the Bush administration to manipulate the news. In "White House stirs debate on media tactics," Polman demonstrates that those of his ilk who have dominated the media for decades cannot grasp that there could be possibly be an independent, conservative journalist. Is that because those on his side are unabashed operatives themselves?"

How much do people in L.A. care about politics? Check out this Los Angeles Times piece:

"Viewers who were hoping to tune in to a live broadcast Monday night of the last Los Angeles mayoral debate before the March 8 election were instead treated to hoopla of a different sort. More than two months after announcing plans to sponsor the debate and air it live, KCBS-TV (Channel 2) decided at the last minute to tape the 90-minute forum and delay its broadcast by a day."

The reason? To avoid preempting the post-Oscars edition of "Entertainment Tonight."

I'm heavy on the LAT today, but it's worth looking at this bit of entertainment "reporting":

"As Brad Grey takes the helm of historic Paramount Pictures today, there's at least one person who hasn't been blowing air kisses his way: KTLA-TV Channel 5 entertainment reporter Zorianna Kit.

"'Now, interesting choice in hiring Brad Grey since his film credentials are extremely limited,' Kit reported on Channel 5's 'News at 10' on Jan. 6, the day Grey's hiring was announced. 'Has anyone seen 'View From the Top' with Gwyneth Paltrow?' Kit continued as a clip rolled. 'Well, that's just one of the flops that he produced. And this is the guy who'll be greenlighting movies? Hmm, good luck, Paramount.'

"What Kit did not disclose to the 164,000 households tuning in that night was that her husband, writer-producer Bo Zenga, had lost a bitter lawsuit he had filed against Grey over profit from the hit film 'Scary Movie.' Both Zenga and Grey were executive producers of the comedy." Kit's response to a fellow journalist? She had no comment.

Newspapers always draw flak by refusing to run controversial comics, and ThinkProgress unloads on one major paper for spiking Boondocks

"Once again, the Chicago Tribune decided to censor a Boondocks comic strip. Why? Aaron McGruder's hard-hitting strip dared to comment on the recently released tapes in which President Bush implied he had smoked pot.

"It's not the first time the Chicago Tribune has decided Boondocks might harm the ever-so-delicate sensibilities of its readers. In July 2003, the Tribune also refused to run the strip because it attacked President Bush for his taunt to Iraqi insurgents to 'Bring it on.'

"At the time, the paper's ombudsman, Don Wycliff, explained the decision by redefining the concept of censorship, saying, 'The very fact that readers could find the strips elsewhere indicates that they were not censored.'

"In lieu of an actual explanation, the paper told readers it decided not to run the strip because 'Today's original Boondocks strip presents inaccurate information as fact.' (No word on the veracity of statements made today by Garfield or Family Circus's Jeffy.) Note to the editors of the Chicago Tribune: Political cartoons by their very nature are meant to be provocative and to hold the feet of administration officials to the satiric fire. It's time for the Chicago Tribune to grow a spine."

Check out the cartoon for yourself.

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