One thing about the media biz these days is that you careen from one overheated story to the next, trying to avoid vertigo.
One day it's stem cell research, the next the Jacko verdict.
Take my day yesterday, for instance. Please. I dealt with important matters of war and peace -- involving the Downing Street Memo -- and perhaps the craziest and silliest story to grip the news business this years, the runaway bride saga.
Of course, I pursued both with the utmost professionalism.
The Downing Street story (we'll excerpt both below) traces how liberal groups have managed to push the widely neglected memo story into the MSM, much as conservative activists have banged the drum for their causes in recent years. One difference: It took the left nearly six weeks to get some media traction.
On the Jennifer Wilbanks tale, we have the strange tale of Judith Regan snatching up her life story after offering big bucks for not just the movie rights but the first news interview with the newly reunited couple. Which, as it turns out, was just conducted.
Equally strange -- or maybe not, in our insta-celebrity society -- is that a woman who put her family and the country through hell with her phony tale of abduction now stands to profit hugely by selling her story.
But I want to lead with something else entirely (just so you feel like you're getting your money's worth. Oh, that's right, you're not paying to read this. Well, consider it a freebie.) Before the Downing Street Memo, before Deep Throat's outing, before Newsweek and the Koran, before the runaway bride, before the pope's death, there was the Terri Schiavo melodrama, which absolutely transfixed the media world to the point of paralysis.
Now the autopsy has finally been released, and bloggers are using Bill Frist as a pinata.
Heart surgeon Frist, you may recall, who also works as Senate majority leader, injected himself into the Schiavo debate just as Congress was injecting itself into the family's dispute over whether the brain-damaged young woman's feeding tube should be removed.
Well, the doctors said the autopsy showed that Schiavo's brain was half the size of a normal one and that she was blind. But Frist had challenged the diagnosis of "persistent vegetative state" based on his review of some video footage, saying at the time:
"She certainly seems to respond to visual stimuli."
The autopsy results didn't stop the usual talking-head cast ("You killed her!" "She was already brain dead!") from resuming their debate. Facts are just another ingredient in the great cable stew.
"An exhaustive autopsy found that Terri Schiavo's brain had withered to half the normal size since her collapse in 1990 and that no treatment could have remotely improved her condition, medical examiners said on Wednesday," the New York Times | http://nytimes.com/2005/06/16/national/16schiavo.html?hp&ex=1118894400&en=581db1e4a2b7cae2&ei=5094&partner=homepage reports.
"The autopsy results, released almost three months after Ms. Schiavo died after the court-ordered removal of her feeding tube, effectively quashed allegations by her parents that she had been abused by her husband. Yet the findings also questioned the prevailing theory that an eating disorder had prompted Ms. Schiavo's collapse, stating there was not enough hard evidence.
"The report generally supported the contention of Ms. Schiavo's husband, Michael, accepted by judges in six courts over the years, that she was unaware and incapable of recovering. And it countered arguments by her family, who badly wanted to win custody of Ms. Schiavo, that she was responsive and could improve with therapy."
The Los Angeles Times | http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-schiavo16jun16,0,2678098.story?coll=la-home-headlines lead is similar:
"During Terri Schiavo's final days, when her fervent supporters said she was alert, responsive and trying to speak, she was massively and irreversibly brain-damaged, blind and oblivious to what surrounded her, a medical examiner's findings revealed Wednesday."
Daily Kos | http://www.dailykos.com declares:
"Someone should review Frist's medical license. . . . Not that wingers have any respect to 'science' and 'reality', but Michael Schiavo has more ammunition to use against the hordes of idiots who viciously slandered him during the emotional battle."
Andrew Sullivan | http://www.andrewsullivan.com also calls Frist to account:
"In her final days, Terri Schiavo was blind and her brain was about half its expected size. She wasn't in a PVS? Please. Bill Frist needs to acknowledge his reckless political opportunism at the time. The attempts of the fringe, theocon right to allege that her husband abused her have also been exposed as malicious falsehoods. Remember the lies that were told, the junk science that the theocons came up with, the endless slanders and misrepresentations? It's rare that we get an objective resolution of a fiercely disputed matter. We have now. And it ain't pretty."
Musing's Musings | http://musing85.typepad.com/blog/2005/06/schiavo_autopsy.html:
"Don't you just hate it when the facts get in the way of your preconceived notions? Frist wanted to use Terri Schiavo to advance his own nefarious political agenda. He was rightly smacked down by the courts, and the autopsy findings should be the wooden stake driven through the heart of this particular ghoul."
Capitol Buzz | http://capitolbuzz.blogspot.com/2005/06/now-we-know-why-frist-is-for-medical.html:
"Now we know why Bill Frist is such an ardent backer of medical malpractice reform: In March, Dr. Bill Frist argued that Florida doctors had erred in diagnosing Terry Schiavo as in a 'persistent vegetative state' because he had determined from reviewing a video of her that she 'seem[ed] to respond to visual stimuli.' Today, we learn that Schiavo was blind. Frist wants to keep himself from being sued. At the very least, he should be fired."
The GOP standing up to Bush, despite a veto threat, again?
"Illustrating a reservoir of concern even among Republicans, the House on Wednesday voted to roll back a provision of the USA Patriot Act that, at least in theory, enabled terrorism investigators to check out the reading habits of patrons of libraries and bookstores," says the Los Angeles Times | http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-patriot16jun16,0,1882486.story?coll=la-home-headlines . Thirty-eight Repubs joined 199 Dems.
Will the 42nd president, the ultimate television performer, be shifting to a new medium? The New York Post | http://www.nypost.com/news/nationalnews/25179.htm found this:
"Bill Clinton could soon be battling his old nemesis Rush Limbaugh for air supremacy as the ex-president reportedly considers hosting his own radio show.
"According to Clinton's old Hollywood pal, director Harry Thomason, the former president has talked with radio giant Clear Channel about starting a new show.
" 'There's definitely a place for [Clinton] on radio at some point,' Thomason told Business Week in the June 20 edition."
At least he won't have to share the microphone with Bob Dole.
Before we move on, here's what television would call a "tease" for my runaway bride report | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/06/15/AR2005061502569.html :
New York superagent Judith Regan has bought the rights to the life stories of runaway bride Jennifer Wilbanks and her fiance after offering them $500,000 for a package that -- in an unusual twist -- included the first news interview with the couple.
NBC anchor Katie Couric interviewed the couple last weekend for an hour-long prime-time special to air Tuesday, but the network's news and entertainment divisions say NBC isn't paying Wilbanks and John Mason a dime. A deal memo to the couple's spokesman, written by a Regan staffer, specified that an interview would be part of the agreement. . . .
A June 3 e-mail dictated by Doug Grad, senior editor at ReganMedia, says: "$500,000 -- To be paid after the completion of the FIRST INTERVIEW with both Jennifer Wilbanks and fiance, John Mason. (This will also be the FIRST TV INTERVIEW for Jennifer Wilbanks.
And, neither party will provide any other interviews for any other entity until this Interview airs.)"
Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum | http://www.washingtonmonthly.com offers an intriguing timeline:
"Seven days ago: 'President's George Bush's decision not to sign the United States up to the Kyoto global warming treaty was partly a result of pressure from ExxonMobil, the world's most powerful oil company, and other industries, according to US State Department papers seen by the Guardian.'
"Also seven days ago: 'A White House official who once led the oil industry's fight against limits on greenhouse gases has repeatedly edited government climate reports in ways that play down links between such emissions and global warming, according to internal documents. . . . The official, Philip A. Cooney, removed or adjusted descriptions of climate research that government scientists and their supervisors . . . had already approved.'
"Five days ago: 'Philip A. Cooney, the chief of staff to President Bush's Council on Environmental Quality, resigned yesterday, White House officials said.'
"Wednesday: 'Philip A. Cooney, the former White House staff member who repeatedly revised government scientific reports on global warming, will go to work for Exxon Mobil this fall, the oil company said yesterday.'
"Philip Cooney: hardworking White House staffer or bought-and-paid-for shill for the oil industry? Or is there a difference?"
National Review's Myrna Blyth | http://nationalreview.com/blyth/blyth200506150752.asp says the Jacko trial never really caught fire:
"In contrast to the pro-Michael, anti-Michael cable brawls, the network news until the end had largely ignored the trial. News analyst Andrew Tyndall who tracks such things has reported that the three evening newscasts devoted 43 minutes a week to the Simpson case over 37 weeks, while they aired a total of only 39 minutes for the entire 14 weeks of testimony during the Jackson trial.
"I think that's because until Monday afternoon's verdict there had been almost no surprises. For example, the fact that an apparently zonked out Michael was weird enough to arrive at the courthouse in pajamas surely didn't surprise anyone. Besides the networks now have reality shows on back-to-back featuring their own newly minted weird people.
"Possibly, they didn't need competition from a real pro."
Much-traveled MSNBC man Keith Olbermann | http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6210240/ explains why he is returning, part-time, to a former employer:
"So maybe you heard. I'm going back to ESPN.
"Not full-time, mind you. Countdown will continue. But after eight years of what some might call estrangement (and others might call thermonuclear conflict), I will be joining my old SportsCenter tag-team partner Dan Patrick one hour a week on his ESPN Radio Show.
"See? You can rebuild burned bridges. Or, in my case, a burned river.
"Let me make it clear (as I wrote nearly three years ago in my old Salon column ) that I assume full responsibility for the unpleasantness. In retrospect, I was entitled to my opinions about the place, but I'm not exactly sure where I got the impression that every one of them needed to be expressed publicly. This time, I'm following a new policy: I'm going to always remember to let ESPN run ESPN."
This is also Olbermann's second stint at MSNBC, proving that sometimes, at least, you can go home again.
And now, as promised, the memo story.
For many liberals already frustrated with the media's coverage of President Bush, it has become a rallying cry over the past six weeks: What about the Downing Street memo?
Their anger, amplified by left-wing advocacy groups, columnists, bloggers and some Democrats in Congress, has gradually forced the mainstream media to take a second look at a document that received spotty coverage after it was reported May 1 by London's Sunday Times.
Journalists offered various explanations for the scant attention paid to the July 2002 British memo, which, in recounting a meeting of Prime Minister Tony Blair and his top aides, said that the Bush administration had "fixed" the intelligence on Iraq and that war was inevitable. They said the memo was old, that the U.S. mobilization for war was widely reported at the time, that there was an initial distrust of a British press report. Some maintained that the memo didn't prove anything.
But Peter Hart of the liberal group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), which sent out several "action alerts" urging members to contact news organizations, said, "Any story that reminds readers that the political and journalistic establishments spectacularly failed on Iraq is a difficult story for the media to report." Now, he said, in conjunction with groups such as MoveOn.org, "activists have pushed this into the media, much to the chagrin of reporters, who have no love for getting e-mails constantly telling them to do the story."
For the past 15 years, conservatives have used their outlets -- in talk radio, right-leaning news operations, editorial pages and, more recently, blogs -- to pressure mainstream journalists into covering stories that might otherwise be ignored. And they have had striking success, from allegations about President Bill Clinton's personal life to CBS's questionable documents on President Bush's National Guard service to the Swift Boat Veterans' attacks on Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) in last year's presidential campaign.
Now the left can claim a similar success.
Bob Fesmire said his wife, Gina, a Silicon Valley Web designer, and two others she met on the liberal blog Daily Kos, put together the site DowningStreetMemo.com, which uses the slogan "Awaken the Mainstream Media!" Boosted by a mention last month in Paul Krugman's New York Times column, the site has logged close to 500,000 visits.
After other liberal commentators accused the media of "cowardice," as the Nation Editor Katrina vanden Heuvel put it, for neglecting the Downing Street memo, some Democrats became more vocal in their criticism.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) said it was "shocking when you see how easily they fold" under pressure from the White House and urged journalists to get some "spine." Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who plans a forum on the memo today, began writing about it on Arianna Huffington's new blog.
"After the abject failure of the media to expose the myth of WMD and Iraq, the cheerleading coverage of 'embedded' reporters, and the transmission of propaganda to the American people . . . aren't we owed some good, sustained and thorough reporting on this?" Conyers wrote.
Critics, however, note that the memo by Richard Dearlove, then head of British intelligence, offered no specifics about any cooking of the intelligence books and could easily have been drawn from ongoing news accounts about the administration gearing up for war. In February 2002, for example, the Los Angeles Times reported that "serious planning is underway within the Bush administration for a campaign against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein" that could include military action. In August 2002, shortly after the memo was written, The Washington Post reported that "an increasingly contentious debate is underway within the Bush administration over how to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, with the civilian leadership pushing for innovative solutions using smaller numbers of troops and military planners repeatedly responding with more cautious approaches that would employ far larger forces."
But the long and bitter debate that followed the war created a climate in which the memo would be seized upon by critics of the administration.
On May 2, the day after the story hit Rupert Murdoch's Sunday Times, the New York Times dealt with the memo in a dispatch from London on the final days of Blair's reelection campaign, beginning in the 10th paragraph.
Asked why the paper did not follow up for weeks, Washington bureau chief Philip Taubman told the Times's public editor, or ombudsman: "Given what has been reported about war planning in Washington, the revelations about the Downing Street meeting did not seem like a bolt from the blue."
John Walcott, Washington bureau chief of Knight Ridder Newspapers, co-authored a substantial story about the memo on May 6, although some of the chain's papers, such as the Philadelphia Inquirer, did not run it.
"We thought it was newsworthy that the British government interpreted their meetings with members of the administration this way and took from it that an attack on Iraq was virtually inevitable," Walcott said. While some in the press "obviously felt this was old news," he said, the question remains "whether the information provided to the American public at the time was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth."
The Los Angeles Times published a story on the memo May 12, citing "growing indignation among critics of the Bush White House." The Washington Post ran one on May 13, and the Chicago Tribune gave the controversy front-page play four days later.
Marjorie Miller, foreign editor of the Los Angeles Times, said she is "a little mystified" at the criticism of the press over the Downing Street memo and a related one written before the Blair meeting.
"I find the memos historically interesting in filling in some of the connective tissue between what was public and what was being discussed privately," she said. "But they still remain Britain's view of the U.S. It's not a smoking gun or anything. And for that reason, I don't think we underplayed it." Miller noted that her newspaper and others were reporting in 2002 "that there was a real likelihood that we would go to war."
Glenn Frankel, The Post's London bureau chief, said he could not initially confirm the memo's authenticity and "didn't really see that there was anything new in it." He said that the paper "should have taken note of it in some form" but that he viewed it as a campaign story and concluded that "its impact here was very limited." Unlike in the United States, Frankel said, "the blogosphere has yet to penetrate the discourse" in official London.
Post ombudsman Michael Getler, saying he was deluged with e-mail prompted by such liberal groups as FAIR and Media Matters for America, wrote that he was "amazed that The Post took almost two weeks to follow up" on the London Times report.
The White House press corps seemed uninterested in the memo for weeks, asking spokesman Scott McClellan only two questions about it out of about 940 queries, according to Salon magazine. That changed on June 7, when Blair visited the White House and Steve Holland of Reuters asked Bush about the memo at a news conference.
USA Today did not mention the memo before the Blair visit. Jim Cox, senior assignment editor for foreign news, told his paper that the staff could not obtain the memo or confirm its authenticity, and was concerned about the "timing" of the leak four days before the British elections.
Some newspaper editors said they were stymied by the Associated Press's lack of coverage of the memo.
Deborah Seward, AP's international editor, said in a statement, "There is no question AP dropped the ball in not picking up on the Downing Street memo sooner."
The network newscasts ignored the memo until the Blair visit, and cable news channels carried only occasional reports or discussions. George Stephanopoulos asked Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) about the memo May 15 on ABC's "This Week," and Tim Russert, NBC's Washington bureau chief, raised it with Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman on "Meet the Press" Sunday.
"This was an issue that was widely debated in the presidential campaign of 2004, whether the intelligence was fixed or embellished," Russert said.
"But this was new information to me." Asked about the slow response by NBC and other news outlets, he said, "One thing I've learned is when you see something from the British press, you have to vet it."
Jeffrey Dvorkin, National Public Radio's ombudsman, said the story "went under the radar of a lot of media organizations. This seemed like confirmation of what is already known in the United States, but it's still an extraordinary memo."
When he asked NPR executives why they didn't do more, Dvorkin said, "there was a kind of silence."