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Sam Smith: The Glass Wall Of Media Coverage

The Glass Wall Of Media Coverage

By Editor Sam Smith

Dana Milbank's snotty attack on critics of White House behavior as revealed in the Downing Street memos illuminates a carefully concealed truth about the media: its definition of objectivity stops at the edge of anything left of center. Standard Democratic policy is okay, even a liberal quote or two, but anything further to the left is simply excluded from coverage unless - as in Milbank's case - it is there to ridicule.

Milbank's dislike for the left began long ago and writes of it in a style that might be called unmaturated preppie. For example, in September 2000 the Washington Post reporter said one of the presidential candidates, Ralph Nader, that his "only enemy is the corporation." Skull & Bonesman Milbank also described Greens as "radical activists in sandals." Since your editor was soon to speak with Nader at an event in Washington, I brought along a pair of sandals so Milbank's description would not be totally false. Of course, he didn't show up because Nader and the Greens fell into that classic media category: important enough to scorn but not important enough to cover.

Being among the last progressive journalists in the capital I am conscious of the massive disinterest of the rest of the media in anything left of center. When I started in 1964, my work was appealing enough to mainstream journalism to be offered jobs at the New York Times and the Washington Post. I was frequently called by journalists wanting to know what was going on in the civil rights or anti-war movement. These calls were seldom hostile: the left was a reality that needed to be covered and even the Post had some good reporters on the case. I tried, then as now, to serve as an helpful interpreter rather than as a rhetorical advocate and even developed a few friends along the way.

But these days I rarely get calls from the conventional media. Jim Ridgeway of the Village Voice, down the hall from my office, reports a similar phenomenon. Two guys with decades of history and background about progressive politics that is considered totally irrelevant by establishment Washington. The left, progressive movements, and social change are simply not thought to be worthy subjects by the corporate media - or by NPR for that matter.

Being a stat freak, I have some proof of this. I keep a record of every interview or call from a journalist. In the early 1990s the number of these calls began to increase, peaking in 1998 at 98 for the year. The following year, the calls dropped by a third, in part, I suspect, because I had been included (among a number of others) in the Clinton do-not-call list given to friendly reporters. (I had already been blacklisted by CSPAN and banned from the local NPR morning show). By 2001 - with the inauguration of a GOP president - the calls were down two-thirds from three years earlier, dropping to a mere 16 last year.

This is only a minor example of a major phenomenon. Every day, for example, I check about 75 websites. From the NY Times to Wonkette, the left is considered just not worth mentioning.

Worse, the exception is that it is generally presumed amongst the media that progressive are fair targets for mockery. In a recent article in the faux hip Vanity Fair on Jeff Gannon, David Margolik and Richard Gooding offered as a positive that Gannon "balanced off some of the left-wingers in the room such as Russell Mokhiber, editor of the Corporate Crime Reporter, and a Naderite, who once asked McCellan whether, given the administration's support for the public display of the Ten commandments, President Bush believed that the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' applied to the U.S. invasion of Iraq."

The fact that the authors considered that a stupid question tells much about the sorry state of Washington journalism. Further, Russell Mokhiber often tells more important truths in one column than Vanity Fair does in a whole issue.

The trend is also confirmed by Harry Jaffe of the Washingtonian who has published a list of a score of political blogs that DC journalists like. Not one is to the left of Democratic Party liberalism, which these days means saying, "right on" to whatever conservative Democrat is in charge. Of the 20 sites, only two are on my list - the libertarian Hit & Run and the poll-heavy Real Politics. The common characteristic of many of the others is their utter predictability.

Put simply, the media doesn't like the left, social change, Greens, or progressive thought. It deals with them by ignoring them or mocking them, in either case excluding them from its own perverted definition of objectivity.


MICHAEL GETLER, WASHINGTON POST OMBUDSMAN - The overwhelming majority of e-mails I received last week seemed to have been prompted by a write-in campaign sponsored mostly by Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, a liberal, self-described media watchdog organization. Their target this time was a column by Post staff writer Dana Milbank on June 8 in which the term "wing nuts" was used. Many of the e-mailers said the reference disparaged the real concerns of many people that the administration misrepresented the situation that led the country to war. . .

Milbank's column was about the June 7 Bush-Blair news conference in Washington and it reported that ", a group of left-wing activists" had sent e-mails offering a "reward" for anyone who could get an answer from Bush about the report that intelligence had been "fixed" around Iraq policy. Later in the column, Milbank wrote that a reporter who did ask such a question, and who had no idea of the activists' e-mails, "wasn't trying to satisfy the wing nuts.". . .

[Question for Getler: where does an organization go to get officially described, so it won't have to suffer the favorite Post snipe of being "self described?"]


GREG MITCHELL, EDITOR & PUBLISHER - Dana Milbank of The Washington Post, in a column on Friday, suggested that the congressional forum the previous day on the Downing Street memos was something of a joke. In his opening sentence he declared that House Democrats "took a trip to the land of make-believe" in pretending that the basement conference room was actually a real hearing room, even importing a few American flags to make it look more official.

Oddly, he seem less interested in the far more serious "make-believe" that inspired the basement session: the administration's fake case for WMDs in Iraq that has already led to the deaths of over 1,700 Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis. No, Milbank used the valuable real estate of the Post--its only coverage of the event--to mock Rep. John Conyers, who arranged the meeting, and his "hearty band of playmates."

This fun-loving "band" included a mother who had lost her son in Iraq.


JOHN NICHOLS, NATION - There is painful irony in the fact that, during the same month that the confirmation of "Deep Throat's" identity has allowed the Washington Post to relive its Watergate-era glory days, that newspaper is blowing the dramatically more significant story of the "fixed" intelligence the Bush administration used to scam Congress and U.S. allies into supporting the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Last week, when the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, Michigan Democrat John Conyers, chaired an extraordinary hearing on what has come to be known as the "Downing Street Memo" -- details of pre-war meetings where aides to British Prime Minister Tony Blair discussed the fact that, while the case for war was "thin," the Bush administration was busy making sure that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy" -- the Post ridiculed Conyers and the dozens of other members of Congress who are trying to get to the bottom of a scandal that former White House counsel John Dean has correctly identified as "worse than Watergate."

Post writer Dana Milbank penned a snarky little piece that, like similar articles in the New York Times and other "newspapers of record," displayed all the skepticism regarding Bush administration misdeeds that one might expect to find in a White House press release.

To his credit, Conyers hit back.

In a letter addressed to the Post's national editor, the newspaper's ombudsman and Milbank, the veteran House member was blunt.

"Dear Sirs," Conyers began, "I write to express my profound disappointment with Dana Milbank's June 17 report, 'Democrats Play House to Rally Against the War,' which purports to describe a Democratic hearing I chaired in the Capitol yesterday. In sum, the piece cherry-picks some facts, manufactures others out of whole cloth, and does a disservice to some 30 members of Congress who persevered under difficult circumstances, not of our own making, to examine a very serious subject: whether the American people were deliberately misled in the lead up to war. The fact that this was the Post's only coverage of this event makes the journalistic shortcomings in this piece even more egregious."



Survey Finds Editorial Treatment of 'Downing Street Memo' Mixed

EDITOR & PUBLISHER - A survey of editorial pages of American newspapers produced a mixed picture of their treatment of the so-called Downing Street Memo, a secret 2002 British intelligence memo suggesting that the Bush administration manipulated intelligence to support its case for war in Iraq.

The liberal Web site Media Matters for America found that editorials in four of the five largest U.S. newspapers -- USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times -- "have remained conspicuously silent about the controversy surrounding the document."

But the group's survey of U.S. newspaper coverage from May 1 to June 15 found at least 20 editorial pages across the country that addressed the memo, from large-circulation papers such as The Dallas Morning News to smaller papers such as the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette. It said 18 of the 20 "emphasized the importance of the document, many calling for further investigation into the explosive questions it raises. The dissenters were editorials in The Denver Post and The Washington Post, both of which claimed that the memo merely reinforces what was already known from other sources and argued that U.S. attention is best focused on how to win the war in Iraq."

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