Should Fox News keep relying on a political reporter who privately mocked John Kerry as a well-manicured "metrosexual"?
Should MSNBC continue to use a pollster who has worked for prominent Republicans?
Should the Wall Street Journal deploy an Iraq correspondent who privately described the situation there as "a foreign policy failure"?
Should the Nashville Tennessean keep publishing a columnist who accused journalists of distorting news in Iraq without any proof?
Political passions are running high these days, and plenty of media people are feeling under siege. In an era of partisan Web sites and attack e-mails, what might once have been dismissed as a minor misjudgment or harmless joke becomes, in the eyes of some critics, a capital offense.
Although the temperature is hottest for CBS over its botched story about President Bush's National Guard service, other journalistic brush fires have broken out across the country.
Officials at other networks say their reporters would be barbecued if they pulled the kind of stunt that Fox's Carl Cameron did in making fun of Kerry -- and would certainly be yanked off the campaign. Angry Fox executives made no attempt to defend their chief political correspondent, with a spokesman saying he has been reprimanded for his "stupid mistake." The New York Daily News says Cameron should be put in the "hoaxer hall of shame."
No one is defending Cameron's poor judgment, but his satire wasn't intended for public consumption. He had sent it to a producer, and someone at FoxNews.com mistakenly posted it as a story. If every journalist who privately ridiculed a candidate had those remarks broadcast, there would be plenty of red faces in America's newsrooms.
Frank Luntz's situation is far different. No one at MSNBC has questioned the pollster's work. But the network refused to carry his planned focus groups two days before the presidential debates began amid complaints that he is viewed as a GOP partisan.
Luntz, who once helped Newt Gingrich sell the "Contract With America," initially told The Washington Post he had taken on no Republican clients since 2001. He said last week he had forgotten that he worked for California gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon in 2002 and for the effort to recall Democratic Gov. Gray Davis last year.
Asked how this squared with his MSNBC role, Luntz said he was working only for the network during the 2000 and 2004 campaigns. "If they want to identify me as a Republican, I don't care," Luntz says. "I just want to do the work. . . . Where in the work is there a bias?" He said he sometimes speaks to Democratic groups as well as Republican ones. "I will present information to anyone who seeks it," Luntz says.
One person he has briefed is Kerry senior adviser Tad Devine. "I certainly have no complaints about Frank," Devine says. "I've always found him to be a very smart guy, insightful, doing a straight-up job in terms of research." For the moment, though, Luntz is sidelined at MSNBC.
Farnaz Fassihi of the Wall Street Journal has written a moving account of life in Iraq -- in an e-mail to friends that got splattered across the Web. Noting that a recent car bomb blew out the windows in her house, she says life in Baghdad "is like being under virtual house arrest. . . . Despite President Bush's rosy assessments, Iraq remains a disaster. If under Saddam it was a 'potential' threat, under the Americans it has been transformed to 'imminent and active threat,' a foreign policy failure bound to haunt the United States for decades to come. . . .
"One could argue that Iraq is already lost beyond salvation. For those of us on the ground it's hard to imagine what if anything could salvage it from its violent downward spiral."
Too opinionated for a newspaper reporter? "As a human being, you make observations and form opinions," Fassihi says by e-mail. "But what distinguishes good journalists is their ability to separate opinion from fact. I've done that through out my career and plan to continue doing it, and would never cover any story where my mind isn't open to new facts and new ideas." Managing Editor Paul Steiger calls her work "a model of intelligent and courageous reporting."
Does anyone really want journalists so robotic that they have no views about life in a war zone?
Tennessean columnist Tim Chavez has plenty of opinions as well. Chavez, who has twice interviewed Bush, believes the media are siding with Kerry by ignoring much of the good news in Iraq.
After one attack, Chavez quoted an e-mail from a Marine lieutenant colonel in Iraq -- who was quoting his "intelligence guys" -- as saying that NBC's footage of nearby kids being carried into a hospital "was staged and probably old footage." NBC dismisses the charge as absurd.
Chavez also quoted the lieutenant colonel as saying that after a battle in Najaf, the media ignored the fact that "HUNDREDS of dead women and children were brought out" from a shrine. Chavez added: "That's bad journalism -- by a news media acting in concert with Kerry."
All of this brought an artillery blast from New York Times reporter Alex Berenson, who was in Najaf and calls the account "entirely false." In a letter posted on Jim Romenesko's media Web site, Berenson asks whether the officer could "really think that the correspondents on the scene would have covered that up, or that the Iraqi government and the American military would not have broadcast that fact around the world? . . . We didn't report it because it never happened."
Chavez apologized last week "to the journalists I impugned with an unnecessary political message." He says in an interview that he belongs to a Marine family support group and wants "to be real gung-ho for them. . . . I want to help our troops over there. I've been trying to give them an unfiltered forum."
But doesn't Chavez have a responsibility to verify his facts first? "There's no way for me to check it out because I'm not in Iraq," he says. Some would call that bad journalism.
Fox's Sean Hannity was peppering John Kerry adviser Michael Meehan with questions last week: What about Kerry backing a nuclear freeze? Opposing the death penalty? Missing committee votes?
"Why don't you just talk, Sean, and I'll yield my time back," a frustrated Meehan said.
Next Hannity had the Bush-Cheney campaign communications director, Nicolle Devenish, ask Meehan a question. During a commercial break, Meehan walked out.
"I didn't get much of a chance to finish the answers," Meehan says. "I figured if Hannity wants to turn the show over to the Bush debate side, I didn't need to be there. Usually you get to have at least a noun and a verb strung together."
Says Hannity: "I was asking him some simple yes-or-no questions and all he wants to do is give me the talking points. He couldn't take the heat. He can spin it any way he wants but that's baloney."
"U.S. Report Finds Iraqis Eliminated Illicit Arms in 90's" -- Thursday's New York Times.
"Saddam Worked Secretly on WMDs" -- Thursday's Washington Times. (A smaller subhead did add: "But no trace of weapons found.")
On the other hand, The Washington Post's headline -- "U.S. 'Almost All Wrong' On Weapons" -- required a correction. The quote came not from the report's author on Wednesday, as the story said, but from his predecessor last January.