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At Full Tilt on The 'News Bias' Merry-Go-Round

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 5, 2007

As an experience in vertigo, it's hard to beat sitting down with Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann in the space of 24 hours. The bitter cable rivals are both sharply critical of news organizations -- but appear to be living in parallel universes.

On his Fox News show, O'Reilly routinely denounces "the corrupt media," filled with leftists who "despise the Bush administration." When I appeared recently, he called the network newscasts "obsolete dinosaurs" and demanded: "What newsman at CBS or NBC is conservative?"

Journalists, of course, aren't supposed to be openly conservative or liberal. But a common view at Fox is that mainstream reporters hide their liberal sympathies, while commentators at the fair-and-balanced network are upfront about their views.

"I think the traditional Americans have walked away" from the networks, O'Reilly said. "You know, I saw a promo on NBC News today. You know who the promo was from? The San Francisco Chronicle thinks they're great. Why not get the Beijing Daily Sun? All right? Come on!"

O'Reilly never mentions Olbermann by name, but Olbermann loves to taunt his 8 p.m. rival, as he did with me on MSNBC's "Countdown." More important, he assailed the media from the left. Olbermann said that after 9/11 "we" -- meaning journalists -- "suspended our disbelief on behalf of what we thought was best for the country" and failed to challenge the administration during the run-up to the war.

"Why did we have to wait until the war's problems were pretty much apparent in '05 and last year," he asked, "when we depend on high-powered journalism to be the official question-raiser and the red-flag throwers often in front of public opinion, not behind it?"

It was a fresh reminder, as if any were needed, that nearly everyone in America has a highly opinionated view of the media -- not just talk-show hosts who provoke and pronounce for a living, but viewers, listeners, readers and Web surfers as well. Some think mainstream journalists are biased to the left; others view them as patsies for the Bush White House; and still others find them arrogant, celebrity-obsessed or just plain irrelevant. But are many of these folks simply viewing the news business through their own ideological lens?

As the author of a new book on the network news wars, "Reality Show," I got a whirlwind tour of media fault lines while making the chat-show rounds.

On "The Daily Show," Jon Stewart worked up a head of steam challenging my argument that the anchors had framed the Iraq story in a way that helped turn public opinion against the war. To him, they were just delivering the facts, not making editorial judgments.

"Let's say 20 people are killed in a bombing," he said. "How do you not report on that? In what world is that not a kind of big story?"

As I explained that the daily body count had become so depressingly familiar that the anchors had searched for other ways to underscore and emphasize the carnage, Stewart argued that such basic reporting was, quite simply, their job. Our allotted time had expired, but Stewart kept going for several more minutes -- which he knew would never be aired -- venting about the media's inability or unwillingness to get at the "truth." The crowd, of course, loved it.

Some interlocutors even disputed my premise that Brian Williams, Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric, with their combined nightly audience of 25 million, still mattered. "Evening news is dead," declared Glenn Beck of CNN's Headline News.

Beck went on to blast the broadcasts from the right, saying they "line up at the daily trough to get their news from the New York Times," which, he said, "is not in touch with most of America." Indeed, I argue in the book that the Times has a disproportionate influence on the newscasts, but are its reporters -- who at least try to be fair to both sides -- more out of touch than wealthy cable news hosts?

It's not that these hosts don't have valid points. The networks, along with most major news organizations, largely failed to bring their usual skepticism to the president's war pitch about Saddam Hussein's illegal weapons in 2002 and 2003. Earlier on the night of my "Daily Show" stint, Stewart replayed some of the networks' prewar promos, complete with flashy graphics and scary music: "Showdown Iraq." "Target Iraq." "The Showdown With Saddam." In retrospect, it sure sounds as though they spent more time packaging the impending war than questioning it.

In my research, I also found instances in which network stories tilted to the left, but they were isolated examples. When the anchors -- despite considerable pressure from the administration -- hammered home how badly the Iraq conflict was going in 2005 and 2006, was it because they are antiwar? Anti-Bush? Pushing an agenda? Not in my book. Their Baghdad correspondents were consistently reporting on the U.S. military casualties and civilian deaths inflicted by an insurgency deemed by Vice President Cheney to be in its last throes. They painted an accurate picture of sectarian violence spiraling out of control. Even the administration now admits that its previous strategy wasn't working, which is why Bush sent more troops this year.

And how are the networks handling that? When Couric went to Iraq in September, she reported that the surge was making modest progress in some areas of the country -- leading MoveOn.org to denounce her for parroting "Bush talking points."

Last month, when U.S. officials said troop deaths had declined for the fourth straight month, and Baghdad said civilian deaths had fallen by half the previous month's, Gibson made the figures the lead story on ABC's "World News." Most other news organizations paid scant attention, so, clearly, not all journalists are reading off the same script.

Television and radio hosts aren't the only ones slinging opinions about the media. When I appeared on Diane Rehm's public radio show, the talk turned to Dan Rather's 2004 story charging that President Bush had received favorable treatment from the National Guard.

A woman named Kim e-mailed to ask "why the media . . . continue to do such a hatchet job on Dan Rather. His entire report was questioned on the basis of one small component" and "to this day it has not been disproved." That small component, of course, was a batch of purported 30-year-old Guard memos from a wacky source that CBS later admitted could not be authenticated. But Kim said, "The messenger was targeted for character assassination because his underlying report was too close to the truth for the comfort of the administration and his own bosses."

Moments later, Bill in Fort Lauderdale called the Rehm show to say: "Dan Rather totally let down the United States and anybody who'd ever watched him. . . . I won't watch CBS ever again for that one reason." I don't know Kim or Bill, but I suspect that their feelings about George W. Bush colored their diametrically opposite views of Rather.

Which brings me back to the question of "truth," the elusive goal that Jon Stewart so strongly wants journalists to attain. Did the National Guard give Bush favorable treatment as a congressman's son? Maybe, but the CBS report didn't come close to proving it. What is the truth of whether the surge is working? Well, it's complicated. Violence is down, but political reconciliation among Iraqis seems as distant as ever. Reality, unfortunately, is sometimes murky.

Bobbing along on this swirling sea of opinions, I became increasingly convinced there is a place for newscasts that at least attempt to provide viewers with a straight set of facts. To be sure, these programs make subjective judgments, sometimes miss the boat and appeal to a demographic keenly interested in all those segments on back pain and hip replacements. But it would be a shame if, in an age of infotainment, the new generation of anchors can't find ways to keep their broadcasts vital as well as balanced. Without them, after all, there would be fewer targets for "The Daily Show" to mock.

Too Good to Check?

It sounded like a great gotcha story: the Hill newspaper accusing Hillary Rodham Clinton of failing to show up for a Senate hearing on nuclear waste disposal that she herself had requested. And Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) was quoted as criticizing the Democratic presidential candidate.

But it turned out that Clinton was there -- and Inhofe's quotes were taken from a July press release -- prompting an embarrassing correction. "Any mistake is regrettable," says Hugo Gurdon, the Hill's editor, "but it's more painful when it negates the story entirely."

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