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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Influence Being Peddled!

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 14, 2005; 2:51 PM

It was hard to miss the front-page headline in yesterday's Washington Post: "Big-Money Contributors Line Up for Inauguration."

The lead anecdote: The Nuclear Energy Institute has kicked in $100,000 to the president's festivities "to show its thanks" for his support for building more nuclear power plants.

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The list of well-heeled, favor-seeking supporters goes on: "Wall Street investment firms seeking to profit from private Social Security accounts; oil, gas and mining companies pushed the White House to revive a stalled energy-subsidy bill; and hotels and casinos seeking an influx of immigrant labor."

And there was this: "Practically all the major donors have benefited from Bush administration policies."

Oh, and by the way: The Washington Post Co. forked over $100,000.

Not to worry, the company has an explanation: "We make clear to one and all that all we want is tickets to the balls for our major corporate advertisers," Post Co. Vice President Patrick Butler, who is quoted in the piece, told me. "If we could get them on eBay, we would have done it." The money buys a grand total of 50 tickets. The company, which made similar donations in 1993, 1997 and 2001, passes up the other perks, such as "dinners with all kinds of high and mighty," said Butler.

Courting advertisers may be the motivation, but the appearance is awful. After all, the practice is deemed unsavory enough to warrant a Page 1 piece in The Post Co.'s newspaper.

The company has business interests that are affected by administration policies. It owns a bunch of television stations that have FCC licenses, for example. So are we being asked to believe that the Bush administration will not notice that The Washington Post Co. was neighborly enough to cough up 100K for the inaugural bashes? We -- meaning journalists who work in the newsroom -- don't believe that other corporations and trade associations give such contributions without expecting anything in return. In fact, we write about this sort of thing all the time, including yesterday.

And our corporate parent is now playing the same game.

By the way, The Washington Post just got an interview with the president for publication this weekend.

(What? No! Of course there's no connection to the hundred thousand. We have to beg for these interviews like everyone else! But imagine, say, some blogger writing the lead: "The Washington Post, which recently donated $100,000 to President Bush's inaugural, was granted rare high-level access yesterday in the form of a coveted presidential interview. A spokesman insisted there was no connection, but one grizzled media observer, who requested anonymity so he could still submit op-eds to the paper, said: 'Let's face it, the whole thing reeks.'")

Actually, the president has been giving a whole lot of interviews lately (what, he's trying to drum up interest in his second term?) First there was the Wall Street Journal. Then the Washington Times and USA Today. And this chat with Barbara Walters.

"I felt like we would find weapons of mass destruction, like many, many here in the United States, many around the world."

It wasn't just me, Barbara!

Cut to: "Saddam was dangerous and the world is safer without him in power."

It was a good line during the campaign, so why not keep using it?

Concerns About Paying Pundits

Here's the USA Today interview(no, I don't know if Gannett contributed or not):

"President Bush says future retirees won't necessarily see smaller Social Security checks if Congress approves his plan to allow younger workers to invest part of their payroll taxes."

More interesting, at least to me:

"He has 'serious concerns' about the Education Department's decision to pay pundit Armstrong Williams to promote his policies. Bush said his Cabinet should prevent a recurrence. 'There needs to be a clear distinction between journalism and advocacy,' Bush said. 'I appreciate the way Armstrong Williams has handled this, because he has made it very clear that he made a mistake. All of us, the Cabinet, need to take a good look and make sure this kind of thing doesn't happen again.'"

Forgive me, but if there needs to be a clear distinction between journalism and advocacy, why are several of Bush's departments and agencies, including Education, sending out these totally bogus video news releases that are prepackaged propaganda ("I'm Karen Ryan reporting") made to look like real news? Is the president equally concerned about that?

Separating Church and State?

Andrew Sullivan objects to this quote from the Washington Times interview:

"I fully understand that the job of the president is and must always be protecting the great right of people to worship or not worship as they see fit. That's what distinguishes us from the Taliban. The greatest freedom we have or one of the greatest freedoms is the right to worship the way you see fit. On the other hand, I don't see how you can be president at least from my perspective, how you can be president, without a relationship with the Lord." (My italics)

"Now notice that Bush is explicitly qualifying his defense of religious freedom (or the freedom to have no religion at all) by saying that the presidency, in his view, should nevertheless be reserved for people with a relationship of a personal nature with 'the Lord.' He isn't simply saying that he doesn't see how he could have endured the presidency without faith; he is asserting that he cannot see how anyone could be president without a 'relationship with the Lord.'

"Now I can see how this might be simply a slip of the tongue: just a projection of his own experience with nothing more to be inferred from it. But given how this administration has consciously eroded the distinction between church and state -- fusing the two with federal funds, using religious groups as its political base, incorporating religious leaders into policy-making, and defending public policy decisions on purely religious grounds (calling civil marriage licenses 'sacred,' for example) -- this is worrying. To put it bluntly, on the separation of church and state, I don't trust these guys."

Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum jumps on this Bush town-hall-meeting quote from an LAT story (which everyone else carried as well):

" 'At your age,' he said, Social Security 'will be bust by the time it comes for you to retire.' . . . . 'If you're 20 years old, in your mid-20s, and you're beginning to work, I want you to think about a Social Security system that will be flat bust, bankrupt, unless the United States Congress has got the willingness to act now,' Bush said.

"Now, these are obviously lies designed to convince young people that they will get no Social Security benefits at all when they retired -- something that every serious analyst knows to be flatly false. Even in the worst case scenario beloved of Republicans, Social Security will never be bankrupt. It will merely pay out reduced -- but still substantial -- benefits starting 40 or 50 years from now.

"So what's the right thing for the press to do? Obviously they have no control over what the president says. And like it or not, they really do have to report what he says. He's an important guy, after all. And if he says stuff like this over and over, the press is pretty much obliged to report it over and over.

"And despite the sterling example of the liberal blogosphere, it's equally obvious that reporters can't preface every quote from the president with, 'In yet another attempt to deceive the public, George Bush said today . . . .' In this particular case, the LA Times took the usual tack of quoting a couple of Democrats who 'responded' to Bush's statement -- in the 12th paragraph of the story. That's page A14 in the print edition, for readers keeping score at home. In other words, practically no one saw even that much of a response to Bush's plain misstatement.

"So what's the answer? What should a responsible press do when faced with a president who baldly lies over and over about stuff like this in a blatant attempt to scare the hell out of people? Somebody needs to figure it out, because people like George Bush have no incentive to stop lying if the press lets them get away with it."

It's official: Everyone is now comparing CBS's National Guard screw-up to Bush's Iraq defense. The blogger Poor Man has a chart. Example: Number of invasions launched on bad information -- Bush 1, CBS 0.

A New Generation

The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan picks up on the Howard Fineman theme (that we yakked about yesterday) that the mainstream media's day is fading:

"When I worked at CBS a generation ago I used to receive those letters [from viewers]. Sometimes we read them, and sometimes we answered them, but not always. Now if you see such a report and are enraged you can do something about it: You can argue in public on a blog or on TV, you can put forth information that counters the information in the report. You can have a voice. You can change the story. You can bring down a news division. Is this improvement? Oh yes it is.

"Some think bloggers and internet writers of all sorts are like the 19th century pamphleteers who made American politics livelier and more vigorous by lambasting the other team in full-throated broadsides. Actually, I've said that. And there are similarities. But it should be noted that the pamphleteers were heavy on screeds and colorfully damning the foe. The most successful bloggers aren't bringing bluster to the debate, they're bringing facts -- font sizes, full quotes, etc. They're bringing facts and points of view on those facts that the MSM before this could ignore, and did ignore. They're bringing a lot to the debate, and changing the debate by what they bring. They're doing what excellent reporters would do.

"They will no doubt continue to be the force in 2005 that they have been the past few years. Meantime the MSM will not disappear. But it will evolve. Some media organs -- Newsweek, Time, the New York Times -- will likely use the changing environment as license to be what they are: liberal, only more so. Interestingly they have begun to use Fox News Channel as their rationale. We used to be unbiased but then Fox came along with its conservative propaganda so now just to be fair and compete we're going liberal."

The Trouble With Harry

Here's a heavy dose of Royal Damage Control involving the Prince Harry stupidity:

"A furious Prince Charles blasted his son yesterday for goose-stepping over the line by wearing a Nazi uniform to a party," says the New York Post.

"Charles called Prince Harry onto the carpet in a confrontation at the royal residence at Highgrove," the Sun newspaper reported. . . .

"According to the Sun, Harry's unamused father:

"*Ordered the rogue prince to make a private visit to Poland's infamous Nazi death camp Auschwitz.

"*Told him to watch Steven Spielberg's Holocaust epic, 'Schindler's List.'

"*Even directed his royal wrath at Harry's older brother, Prince William, for failing to stop his sibling from choosing the offensive outfit. William, 22, was at the costume shop with his 20-year-old brother, the paper said."

The Trouble With Getting Paid

Coming back to the Armstrong Williams flap, Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page has some thoughts:

"Unfortunately payola is wrong, even when you're being paid to do something you would have done for free anyway.

"Williams probably understood this when he conveniently failed to tell his audiences or hardly anyone else at his many jobs and public appearances about his cozy contract. When it became a Page 1 story, he shifted into full-PR mode. He confessed to bad judgment, apologized to his audiences and promised never-ever! to conflict his interests again. But he refused to return the money his firm was paid.

"Tribune Media Services, which distributed his column (and distributes mine) nationally, dropped him. No problem, he said. He plans to syndicate himself and keep all of the money this time. That's Armstrong. Always the entrepreneur. Of course, that's where his conflicts began. He's not a journalist, but he likes to play like he's one. . . .

"Now that the media are holding him up to the ethics standards of conventional journalists, Williams said, in what sounded like full spin mode, that he will change his ways. 'I'm not going to advocate for anybody or any of the issues that I talk about on television,' he vowed. 'Either you're going to be a journalist or out hustling for money. I want to be a journalist.'

"Thanks, Armstrong, but I'll believe that when you give up your public relations business."

Thanks to InstaPundit for this nugget: Zephyr Teachout, a former Howard Dean staffer whose blog is called Zonkette, talks about paid blogging, including by Markos Zuniga, better known as Kos:

"On Dean's campaign, we paid Markos and Jerome Armstrong as consultants, largely in order to ensure that they said positive things about Dean. We paid them over twice as much as we paid two staffers of similar backgrounds, and they had several other clients."

Kos disclosed the relationship in January 2003 this way:

"My approach to writing will remain unchanged. I won't turn this into a rah-rah for Dean site. That's just not my style."

Adds Jeff Jarvis: "The campaign used these guys. The campaign knew that. But the bloggers didn't. The bloggers thought their wisdom was being sought out; they were paid to consult. No, they were paid to market, to flack."

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