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When politicians get caught, it's the media who catch the blame

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 31, 2010; C01

In her moment of utter humiliation, exposed on videotape by a journalistic impersonator, Sarah Ferguson didn't blame the press.

That's a rarity these days.

The Duchess of York could have railed against the lying media after a News of the World reporter posed as a businessman brandishing $40,000 in cash, a down payment for Ferguson's promise to introduce him to her ex-husband, Prince Andrew. Instead, she apologized for her clumsy attempt at influence-peddling.

But other public figures keep trying to shift the blame from their own missteps to the news outlets that report on them -- a time-honored tactic designed mainly to get them off the hook.

Rand Paul, the GOP Senate nominee in Kentucky, spent nearly 20 minutes with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow talking about his objections to the part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that affects private businesses. Maddow is an unabashed liberal who was taking on a "tea party" champion, but she gave her guest one opportunity after another to explain his position, with minimal interruption.

Even when Maddow asked "how about desegregating lunch counters?" Paul offered philosophical musings rather than flatly backing a concept that has been settled law in this country for nearly half a century:

"Well, what it gets into is, is that then if you decide that restaurants are publicly owned and not privately owned, then do you say that you should have the right to bring your gun into a restaurant, even though the owner of the restaurant says, 'Well, no, we don't want to have guns in here'?"

When Paul talked to conservative radio host Laura Ingraham the next day -- and issued a statement backing off his position -- he accused Maddow of "wanting to make this an issue of you supporting abhorrent practices, which I don't support. . . . They conflate things, want to say, 'Oh, you believe in beating up people that were trying to eat in restaurants in the 1960s.' . . . She went on and on about that."

Paul later told WHAS-TV that he had been "tortured" by Maddow, though he conceded the interview had been fair. And fed up with the mainstream media, he soon canceled an interview on "Meet the Press."

Sarah Palin picked up the theme on "Fox News Sunday," saying Paul had run into "a media personality who has an agenda, who may be prejudiced. . . . They're looking for that 'gotcha' moment." Leaving aside that her own network employs people who are just as ideologically committed, the lengthy Maddow interview was the opposite of "gotcha" -- and, in fact, Paul had made essentially the same point to the Louisville Courier-Journal a month earlier. (Most of the national press just missed it.)

It's true, though, that MSNBC jumped on the story and drove it for days, as Fox sometimes does with controversies involving liberals.

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal refrained from launching a frontal attack on the New York Times after the newspaper revealed that he had not served in Vietnam, as he had claimed on numerous occasions. But Blumenthal made clear that he felt the media were taking "a few misplaced words" and using them to "impugn my record of service to our country."

The so-called misplaced words, however, amounted to outright deception when the Democratic Senate candidate said, for example, that "I wore the uniform in Vietnam."

Blumenthal also said he "can't be held responsible for all the mistakes in all the articles" about him, although his staff could easily have asked for corrections. Nearly a week after the initial Times article, Blumenthal finally told the Hartford Courant he had "made mistakes and I am sorry."

The Times reporting had flaws. The paper should have acknowledged that Blumenthal's Republican opponent, former wrestling executive Linda McMahon, had provided some of the negative information, as she was happy to boast once the piece was published. Readers deserved to know the source of some of the opposition research. And the Times should have posted the full video of an instance in which Blumenthal said he had served in Vietnam, which included an earlier -- but not contradictory -- reference to having served during Vietnam. On balance, though, the article was accurate.

Fox's Sean Hannity, while interviewing McMahon, said he is "always suspicious when the New York Times breaks a story on a Democrat because they don't do that very often." Perhaps he missed the paper's reporting that prompted Eliot Spitzer to resign and his successor, David Paterson, to withdraw from the governor's race.

In the recent London sting, Fergie was caught so red-handed by the News of the World's "Fake Sheik" that she made no attempt to spin her way out of the mess. (She'll seek forgiveness on Oprah's couch this week.) But the British media have largely given Rupert Murdoch's tabloid a pass for engaging in deceit, saying that nailing a minor royal and ex-Weight Watchers spokeswoman was worth it.

But where is it written that journalists get to decide when to give themselves permission to lie? If it's all right to pose as a businessman, what about a doctor? A lawyer? A soldier? (Most American news organizations now avoid the practice, immortalized when the Chicago Sun-Times set up a bribe-dispensing bar in 1977, although some television programs still do hidden-camera investigations.)

Those who say the ends justify the means sometimes adjust their views depending on the target. When conservative activists James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles posed as pimp and prostitute while secretly taping ACORN staffers, commentators on the right praised them as heroes and liberals challenged their tactics. (O'Keefe pleaded guilty last week to unlawfully entering Sen. Mary Landrieu's office during another ruse.)

The Brits have had a bloody good time mocking Fergie. But the reaction was very different a week earlier when the Mail on Sunday reported that Lord Triesman, chairman of the Football Association, had accused Spain and Russia of planning to bribe referees in this summer's World Cup. The paper got that story from a secretly recorded conversation that the 66-year-old Triesman had with a 37-year-old former aide who claims they had an affair.

The Mail was besieged by criticism as Triesman resigned. Former soccer star Gary Lineker quit his column at the paper, saying that "the Mail on Sunday has made a gross error in judgment in treating Lord Triesman like this."

The reason so many were kicking the tabloid: The sting was blamed for jeopardizing Britain's bid for the 2018 World Cup.

Media morsels

-- There's more than one way to move the ratings needle: Last week's "Nightline" interview with Jesse James, the cheating husband of Sandra Bullock, drew 6.8 million viewers -- the highest figure for the ABC program in seven years .

-- The Tribune Co. may be slogging through bankruptcy, but as the Wall Street Journal reports, that hasn't stopped the company from asking for a third round of executive bonuses, and the $43 million being sought would bring the total to $115 million since last year. What, exactly, are these top honchos being rewarded for?

-- Glenn Beck apologized Friday for making fun of President Obama's 11-year-old daughter, whom the president said had asked him, "Did you plug the hole?" in the gulf oil spill. Beck, mocking Malia's voice, had her asking, "Daddy, why do you hate black people?" In a statement, the radio host said he had made a "stupid mistake": "In discussing how President Obama uses children to shield himself from criticism, I broke my own rule about leaving kids out of political debates."

-- Oops: Atlantic blogger and editor Daniel Indiviglio wrote last week that Bill Clinton's "onetime special prosecutor" had "engaged in some bad behavior of his own"-- charged with running a $30 million Ponzi scheme. Actually, that would be Kenneth I. Starr, an investment adviser to the stars and most definitely not the man who investigated Monica Lewinsky, as Indiviglio acknowledged in an apology. Hasn't this fellow ever heard of Google?

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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