When Senate Democratic whip Dick Durbin used a Nazi analogy to describe incidents of prisoner abuse at Guantanamo Bay, it wasn't much of a story at first.
Even when White House spokesman Scott McClellan called Durbin's remarks "reprehensible," "NBC Nightly News" gave the matter three sentences and the other network newscasts ignored it. The NBC and ABC newscasts covered Durbin's tearful apology last week, but the "CBS Evening News" took a pass.
"I just don't think it's that big a deal," says CBS anchor Bob Schieffer, adding that the Illinois senator's apology got squeezed out on a heavy news day. "He said he went too far and I take him at his word. We don't cover every apology by a politician who says he didn't mean things quite that way."
The Durbin controversy has been fueled by a chorus of outrage from conservative columnists, bloggers and radio hosts, turning widely overlooked remarks into a full-scale furor for a lawmaker who initially refused to apologize. In that sense, it is the mirror image of the Downing Street memo, the British document questioning the Bush administration's march to war in Iraq, which drew even less media attention until liberal advocacy groups and bloggers spent six weeks berating journalists for burying the story.
For decades, the establishment media were like a walled village, largely insulated from the outside world. But technology has produced so many cracks in the wall that previously ignored stories can seep in -- sometimes in a trickle, sometimes a flood -- when partisans and pressure groups make enough waves.
In the old days, writes New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, "if the press ruled against you, you just weren't news." Now, he says, aggrieved parties "go into Supreme News Court and say: 'The press denied us, but we have a case.' "
Bloggers first made their influence felt in 2002 when the media downplayed Trent Lott's praise of Strom Thurmond's segregationist presidential campaign. The fierce debates over CBS's Dan Rather, CNN's Eason Jordan and right-wing blogger Jeff Gannon were fueled by ideological critics.
Durbin made his remarks on the evening of June 14 to a virtually empty Senate chamber. Citing an FBI account of how prisoners at Guantanamo Bay had been chained in extreme temperatures and deprived of food and water, Durbin said such tactics were reminiscent of the Nazis, Soviet gulags and Cambodian despot Pol Pot.
Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham denounced Durbin after her producer Lee Habeeb saw the remarks on C-SPAN, the Chicago Tribune noted. Rush Limbaugh accused the media of circling the wagons around Durbin because "they share his contempt for George W. Bush."
The next day, June 16, the Washington Times splashed the story on its front page and McClellan ripped Durbin at the White House. Sean Hannity said on his Fox News program that the senator's remarks were "insidious" and "repugnant." MSNBC's new conservative host, Tucker Carlson, called the comments "outrageous" and "factually wrong." On CNN, National Review's Kate O'Beirne accused Durbin of "a stunning premeditated slander of American troops."
On June 17, however, the New York Times ran a three-paragraph story. The Washington Post carried a seven-paragraph account. The Orlando Sentinel ran a two-sentence wire. USA Today and the Los Angeles Times published nothing. The Tribune put its home-state senator on the front page, while an editorial called him "desperate for attention."
In the next few days, as Republicans rejected Durbin's tepid statement of regret, conservative bloggers ripped Durbin, and Fox debated the issue on one show after another. "The question for us is not whether we overplayed it," says Fox News Senior Vice President John Moody. "The question for everyone else is, did you underplay it?"
Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol said Democrats should ask Durbin to step down as their No. 2 leader. The Washington Times kept the story on Page 1 while running critical editorials ("Durbin's Slanderous Drivel") and columns by Newt Gingrich ("Durbin's Slanderous Charge") and Frank Gaffney ("Dustbin Durbin").
Still, network television lagged behind. Jon Banner, executive producer of ABC's "World News Tonight," says Durbin's apology "gave it a significance that it lacked. It took a certain level for us to say, 'Okay, now's the time we can legitimately do the story.' "
Steve Capus, an NBC News senior vice president, says Durbin's remarks "were pretty strong" and the apology "equally strong," and he is "comfortable with the amount of attention we devoted to it."
After his apology Tuesday, Durbin told The Post that conservatives "are extremely well organized" and "inevitably, they drag the mainstream media behind them."
By contrast, the conservative media machine largely ignored the high-level British memo from July 2002 -- disclosed May 1 by London's Sunday Times -- charging that the Bush administration had "fixed" the intelligence on Iraq. Newspaper coverage was spotty for weeks, sparking anger among left-wing bloggers, activists and some Democrats.
Georgia Logothetis, 22, a Chicago law student who wants to impeach President Bush, helped start the Web site DowningStreetMemo.com. "My job is not to investigate the president," she says. "That's actually the media's job, and they weren't doing their job."
The network evening newscasts ignored the memo until June 7, when CBS and NBC mentioned that Bush had been asked about it at a news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. "While I found it interesting at the time," Schieffer says, "I didn't find it all that new. A lot of people had been making that charge."
ABC's Banner says his network has been "pilloried" for its skeptical reporting on the march to war "and I don't know that we felt, quite honestly, that this added a tremendous amount." NBC's Capus says the memo "didn't seem like it was much different from a lot of the reporting we had done. I can't tell you how many stories we did questioning the prewar planning."
Unlike the Durbin flap, the memo got little traction on cable. According to a database search, CNN first mentioned it May 12 in an "Inside Politics" segment on how bloggers were buzzing about the issue. "It certainly did spark my interest," says CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer. "Were we slow in getting off from the start? I suspect we probably were."
Actor Tim Robbins brought up the memo May 25 on MSNBC's "Hardball," while liberal Fox host Alan Colmes raised it on May 11. Fox's Moody says the memo initially had a greater impact on British politics than in America, and that "for our audience, the amount of attention and timing of our stories has been about right."
There was no such media reticence when Karl Rove said Wednesday that liberals wanted to offer the attackers of Sept. 11 "therapy and understanding." With Democrats castigating the White House adviser, major newspapers (including The Post) and the NBC and ABC newscasts jumped on the story.
Clearly, both the left and the right have been selective in agitating for greater coverage of their causes. But both sides are having an impact on a news business that has grown hypersensitive to charges of bias.
Popular, to a Point
Despite mounting criticism, at least three in four people still view media organizations favorably, although approval ratings for cable news have dropped from 88 percent to 79 percent in the last four years, and for national newspapers from 74 percent to 61 percent.
The Pew Research Center also found local TV news getting the highest rating -- 61 percent -- for being "mostly facts" (as opposed to "mostly opinion"), compared with 53 percent for network evening news and 45 percent for cable news and major national papers.
Partisan differences are stronger than ever. Two-thirds of Republicans, and just a quarter of Democrats, say the press is too critical of America. And 54 percent of Democrats say coverage is too easy on the Bush administration, up from 39 percent last year.
Correction of the Week
"Michael Schiavo is not suffering from a debilitating medical condition. Due to an editing error, Derek Melot's June 21 column assigned a condition to Michael Schiavo actually suffered by his wife, Terri."
-- the Lansing, Mich., State Journal
Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program.