September 2009 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

September 2009

The Wall Street Journal, Re-invented

    It’s Rupert’s Journal now.

    The big question twenty-two months ago, when Rupert Murdoch bought The Wall Street Journal for $5 billion from the Bancroft family, was how long he would wait before he started to transform the business newspaper of record in his own image.

    For many decades before Murdoch acquired the Journal, news aficionados revered the paper as the only national news outlet in America where special interests of any kind never seemed to interfere with the news pages.  (The hard-right editorial page was always another matter altogether.)  Of the three publications where FCP worked as a staffer--The New York Times, Newsweek, and the Journal–the Journal was the only one where there was never any evidence of anyone tampering with my copy to satisfy someone else’s prejudices.

    Since Murdoch had never owned any news organization with that kind of reputation, the consternation over the paper’s future was understandable.

    The first font dropped just five months after his purchase was completed when Marcus Brauchli was pushed out of the managing editor’s slot, and replaced by Robert Thomson, a News Corp veteran who started his career as a copy boy at Murdoch’s Herald in Melbourne in 1979.  Before coming to the Journal, Thomson was the editor of Murodch’s Times of London, where he drove the paper’s content relentlessly down market (and obliterated much of its reputation for factual accuracy.)

    When Brauchli left the paper (he later became executive editor of The Washington Post), one Journal staffer told Politico, “This is a clear sign that it’s over—the Dow Jones culture is dead.”

    Now that trend seems to be accelerating.

    When Teddy Kennedy died last August, the Journal posted a lengthy and balanced obituary on its website by Naftali Bendavid.  But when the same article appeared on the front page of the newspaper   the next day, the piece had a new seventh paragraph which hadn’t been there before:

    Blasting what he called “slobbering media coverage” of Mr. Kennedy’s death that ignored his past “bad behavior,” conservative talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh on Wednesday said Mr. Kennedy was a politician who “uses the government to take money from people who work and gives it to people who don’t work.”

    Journal reporters immediately started complaining to their friends at other newspapers that the Limbaugh paragraph had been inserted at the insistence of editors in New York.  Naftali Bendavid and Journal Washington Bureau Chief John Bussey both  refused to comment when asked by FCP about the change.

    A former top Journal editor told FCP that he saw evidence of ideological meddling “seeping into the paper all the time.   I heard that story about Kennedy, and I hear they’re under pressure to be tougher on Obama all the time.  I also heard the labor reporter in Washington was told her stories were too pro-labor.”

    Contacted by FCP, Journal labor reporter Melanie Trottman declined to comment.

    Although it may be becoming more common, ideological tampering within the news columns is still relatively rare.   The trouble is, because of the identity of the new owner, news professionals are constantly questioning the way the paper plays stories in ways that they never would have before.

    “I find myself now almost dismissing a story,” said another former top Journal editor.  “When they were way ahead on the Denver terrorist story, my presumption was, this was the Fox News filter–when in fact they were just doing a really great job on the story.”

    But the biggest difference between the old Journal and Rupert’s Journal is a sharp shift toward more general interest stories, and away from the in-depth business coverage which was always at the heart of the paper’s franchise.

    “I read the paper all the time thinking how incredibly different it is,” said a former Journal reporter who wrote for the paper at home and abroad for more than a decade.  “The  editing is a different thing now.  First of all, there’s less of it.  It used to be so buttoned up.  Now there are weird attributions, and graphs toward the end where you can tell they cut out two graphs and just left the last one.”

    “There’s also a sense of campaigns,” the former reporter continued.  “Remember the private aircraft fleet for Congress?  That was a big story, a legitimate story, but they rode it like a campaign trying to stir up the readers.  That’s something the old Journal never did.  It would pat itself on the back, but it wasn’t that sort of campaigning style.  That’s  a Murdoch formula–although not unique to Murdoch.”

    “The news judgment is bizarre,” said a veteran Washington Post editor.  “They’re throwing away the franchise on sophisticated business stories.   They don’t make as much of them or devote as much space to them.  It’s become a very chatty and much more informal enterprise.”

    Another Journal veteran said, “They now have the news judgment of  The Sydney Daily Telegraph.  It’s not the judgment of The [more serious] Australian.” 

    Finally, there’s the problem of tips from Rupert.  A former Journal staffer said he had frequently heard from current Journal reporters that those tips work like this:    

    “It’s always the same thing.  Rupert has an idea, and because it comes from him, he doesn’t want people called to see if it’s true.  So you can’t confirm it, but you have to treat it as a fact because it came from him.  There are good things and bad things about that.  He’s plugged in, and  he has excellent news judgment.  But then there is this presumed god-like quality to what he says. So you’re not supposed to follow up on what amount to rumors, in a way that you would if it came from anyone else.”

    The most famous instance of a Murdoch tip being “too good to check” was John Kerry’s “choice” of Richard Gephardt as his running mate in 2004.  An unequivocal report of that nonexistent event ended up as the wood on the front page of Murdoch’s New York Post, after the owner insisted upon it.  Afterwards, “senior editors warned that those who discussed the Gephardt gaffe with other news organizations would lose their jobs,” according to The New York Times.

    So far, none of Murdoch’s tips to the Journal have led to a disaster of those proportions.

    John Bussey, the Washington bureau chief, told FCP he had forwarded all of my inquires about each of these issues to Alix Freedman in New York, who last year was given “expanded authority as a defender of the paper’s ethical and journalistic standards” by Robert Thomson.

    There was no response from Freedman.


Time Magazine Loves Glenn Beck (Again)

   Last month FCP discussed the revolting tendency of “liberal” publications like The New York Times and The New Yorker to publish gushing profiles of repellent public figures like Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage and, especially. Glenn Beck.   This week the trend accelerated as David von Drehle profiled Beck for the cover of Time magazine.

    Von Drehle’s piece is so humiliating on so many levels, it’s hard to know where to begin.   But at least the web version of the piece carried a headline which FCP thought posed a reasonable question: “Is Glenn Beck Bad for America?”

    Trouble is, after reading the piece, it was still impossible to know how Von Drehle might answer that query.  So FCP telephoned the Time writer to find out more. 

   “I haven’t seen the layout on the web,” Von Drehle said, “So [that question] is news to me.  I personally wouldn’t take one guy and say he’s bad for America.”

    You see, even though Von Drehle’s piece was–ostensibly–a profile of a media figure–von Drehele  is not interested in writing “media journalism,” the kind in which you actually try to evaulate the person you’re writing about.

    “I do not want to give every single person a score card,” Von Drehle told FCP.  There has obviously been no “shortage of rants against Glenn Beck,” so rather than give an intelligent appraisal of what Beck actually says each night, von Drehele wrote a story which focuses on the fact that “this is is a big business and a lot of people are making a lot of money.”

    Von Drehle’s total lack of interest in actual facts is briskly displayed in the very first paragraph of his profile, describing the tea party in Washington last weekend, which was largely the result of Beck’s six-month-long on-air organizing effort for what he called his “9/12 project.”

     “If you get your information from liberal sources, the crowd numbered about 70,000, many of them greedy racists,” Von Drehle wrote.  “If you get your information from conservative sources, the crowd was hundreds of thousands strong, perhaps as many as a million, and the tenor was peaceful and patriotic.”

    Members of the Washington, D.C., Fire Department will no doubt be delighted to be identified as a “liberal source,” since they originated the crowd estimate of  70,000 people.   As for the higher crowd estimates, the biggest one, of 1.2 million, was simply invented by Matt Kibbe, president of Freedom Works, one of the protest’s main organizers.  Kibbe announced from the stage that ABC News had reported the 1.2 million figure.   This led to an e-mail to news outlets from ABC, very shortly thereafter, pointing out that the network  had never done any such thing–but instead had relied on those “liberal” firemen who offered the lower 60,000 to 70,000 figure.  But you would never know any of that from reading Time.

    Jamison Foser of Media Matters does his own fine dissection of Von Drehle’s drivel here.   In an e-mail exchange with FCP, Foser listed some of the other lies from the organizers of the Washington protest: “they invented a Park Service spokesperson, they used a quote from an actual Parks Service employee saying it was the biggest gathering ever – a quote that was actually about the inauguration;  they made up that ABC report that never happened, and they claimed that photos of the Promise Keepers march were photos of last Saturday’s protest, in order to substantiate their claims of massive crowds.  Time, however, thinks their ‘estimates’ are just as valid as those of the ‘liberal’ DC Fire Dept.”

    Foser also highlights Von Drehle’s hideous tendency to draw utterly false equivalencies throughout his piece, like this one: “Between the liberal fantasies about Brownshirts at town halls and the conservative concoctions of brainwashed children goose-stepping to school, you’d think the Palm in Washington had been replaced with a Munich beer hall.”  Which leads Foser to ask:

    “What in the world is Time talking about?   Conservatives have been yelling about President Obama being a secret Kenyan bent on sending granny to the Death Panel, comparing him to Hitler and Mao and Stalin and who-knows-who-else – and that, apparently, is matched in intensity and paranoia by liberals pointing out this unhinged behavior? Insane.”

   Von Drehle seemed to be more eager to point out to FCP all the nice things Beck says on his show: “work hard; love your country; be kind to each other; spend more time with your kids.”

    “What about comparing Obama’s non-existent death panel to Nazi eugenics?”  FCP asked.

    “That probably would classify as not productive in my book,” the Time writer replied. 

      These are some of the other lovely things Von Drehle  managed to say about his subject:

*  He is the hottest thing in the political-rant racket, left or right. A gifted entrepreneur of angst in a white-hot market.

*  A man with his ear uniquely tuned to the precise frequency at which anger, suspicion and the fear that no one’s listening all converge.

* Beck is 45, tireless, funny, self-deprecating, a recovering alcoholic, a convert to Mormonism, a libertarian and living with ADHD.

* He is a gifted storyteller with a knack for stitching seemingly unrelated data points into possible conspiracies — if he believed in conspiracies, which he doesn’t, necessarily; he’s just asking questions. He’s just sayin’.

*Beck describes his performances as ‘the fusion of entertainment and enlightenment’— and the entertainment comes first. “

* “Beck is a “radio nostalgic,” in love with the storytelling power of a man with a microphone.

    After all those glowing tributes, I guess David just didn’t have enough space left for Glenn’s most memorable sound bites–like his declaration that we “at least in this country [need to] start having the necessary discussion of, do we want communists in the United States government”–a question asked in a segment which was bolstered by actual sound bites of some of Joe McCarthy’s finest moments at the Army/McCarthy hearings.

   Von Drehle also forgot to mention that in 2005, Beck said, “you know it took me about a year to start hating the 9/11 families.  I don’t hate all of them.  I probably hate about ten of them.  But when I see a 9/11 family on television, or whatever, I’m just like, ‘Oh shut up.’  I’m so sick of them because they’re always complaining. And we did our best for them!”  (To which Stephen Colbert memorably added: “Good point! [Beck’s] 9/12 project is not for people directly affected by 9/11–just for people building their careers on it.”)

   Unfortunately, Beck’s mock poisoning of House Speaker Pelosi on air and his comparison of the Holocaust museum shooter to Thomas Jefferson also managed to escape the Time writer’s attention.   (Jamison Foser has the whole list of omissions here.)

    Von Drehle does mention in passing that Beck is currently the object of one of the most successful advertizer boycotts in history, sparked by Beck’s assertion  that Obama is a racist who harbors “a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.”

   Von Drehle identified the boycott as “a boon” to Beck’s ratings; but he didn’t say that it now includes more than sixty corporations, including Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway and Procter & Gamble.   

    FCP asked Von Dehele if sixty wasn’t a rather large number–one perhaps worth mentioning in his piece.  “Well,” he replied.  “There are millions of companies.”

    Von Drehle also seems to think that the progressive hosts on MSNBC are really just like the right-wing crazies on Fox.  But when FCP pressed him about that, he admitted that had no basis whatsoever for making any comparison: 

   “I haven’t seen Keith Olbermann for at least a year and a half,” the Time writer said.  “And I’ve never seen Rachel Maddow.  I have four children and a wife.  I don’t sit around watching cable TV.  I don’t understand why anybody watches any of these shows.  I know what these opinions are based on: they’re based on nothing.”

    Of course, Olbermann’s and Maddow’s opinions are actually all relentlessly fact-based–the real kind, not the sort routinely invented by Limbaugh, Beck and their scores of imitators.  And Maddow is easily the most intelligent addition to television in the last five years.  But Von Drehleis too busy raising his children to have noticed any of that.

    Perhaps it would help if Time  had chosen someone who actually watches cable TV to profile such an important cable personality?

    Probably not.  The magazine’s delightfully post-modern TV critic, James Poniewozik, has already written several hard-hitting assessments of the Beck oeuvre, including this one: “Sure, he may be selling a sensationalistic message of paranoia and social breakdown. But politics, or basic responsibility, aside, he has an entertainer’s sense of play with the medium of TV that O’Reilly, or perpetual sourpuss Neil Cavuto, don’t.”

    So why do magazines like Time put glowing profiles of Beck on their covers, while newspapers like The Washington Post invite him to lead chats on their websites?  

    For the very same reason that Beck tells disgusting lies on his program so frequently: there is money to be made.  News stand sales for Time as Beck’s fans gobble up copies of the magazine, and web hits for the Washington Post.

    And that, frankly,  is the most disgusting fact of all.


   Once again, it falls to Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart to do the real journalism on this subject.  To find out what Beck actually does, see two of Colbert’s finest contributions to the Glenn Beck story,  here and here. 

   Stewart’s are here and, four days ago, describing America’s “favorite bi-polar” TV personality, here.


 Update: The indispensable Scott Horton has another vintage Beck performance here.  Horton also links to an extremely sane and sensible piece by ex-George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum.  The headline:  Gop Surrenders to Beck’s Mob Rule. Frum’s bottom line:  “Glenn Beck is not the first to make a pleasant living for himself by reckless defamation. We have seen his kind before in American journalism and American politics, and the good news is that their careers never last long. But the bad news is that while their careers do last, such people do terrible damage…We conservatives are submitting our movement to some of the most unscrupulous people in American life. This submission disgraces conservatism, discredits Republicans, and damages the country. It’s beyond time for conservatives who know better to join us at NewMajority in emancipating ourselves from leadership by the most stupid, the most cynical, and the most truthless.”  

Frum’s great piece was posted one week before Von Drehle’s; and yet, Time managed to ignore  this article of sanity as well.


Above the Fold: Where Are the Editors?

    One of the main arguments for preserving the mainstream media is the idea that highly paid reporters supervised by highly paid editors are bound to produce stories that  are more sophisticated and more accurate than anything you are likely to read from the typical blogger.   However, three recent stories in The New York Times and The Washington Post were so egregious, they only make it easier to argue that accuracy, thoroughness and judgment are often strangers to our most “serious” journalistic institutions.

    The first one was written by FCP’s old friends Scott Shane and Mark Mazzetti, the alliterative twins in the Washington bureau of The New York Times who have embarrassed themselves so often by acting as shills for their C.I.A. sources instead of behaving like objective reporters.

    Shane’s previous triumphs in the torture department include a Week in Review piece in which he found The Army Field Manual (which specifies how to interrogate a prisoner without torturing him) wanting because it had never “been updated to reflect decades of corporate analysis of how to influence consumers.”

    But the latest Shane-Mazzetti effort is so idiotic, it boggles the mind that none of the editors who read it before it was published noticed how flawed it was.   After noting that other reporters analyzing the most recently released torture memos focused on things like “threats of execution by handgun or assault by power drill; a prisoner lifted off the ground by his arms, which were tied behind his back; [and] another detainee repeatedly knocked out with pressure applied to the carotid artery,”  Shane and Mazzetti proceeded to focus on what was the real news here for them–and, just coincidentally, of course, for all the C.I.A. officials who are still terrified that they will be prosecuted for the war crimes that they committed.

    According to the Washington Bureau of The New York Times, what matters here is that these memos show that the Bush administration kept really, really careful records of the crimes they were committing:

   “Managers, doctors and lawyers not only set the program’s parameters but dictated every facet of a detainee’s daily routine, monitoring interrogations on an hour-by-hour basis…The required records, the medical supervisors said, included “how long each application (and the entire procedure) lasted, how much water was used in the process (realizing that much splashes off), how exactly the water was applied, if a seal was achieved, if the naso- or oropharynx was filled, what sort of volume was expelled, how long was the break between applications, and how the subject looked between each treatment.”

    The obvious comparison that springs to mind here is to the splendidly detailed notes kept by Dr. Mengele’s acolytes when he was conducting his own ground-breaking experiments during World War II.   But that is very far indeed from  what Messrs. Shane and Mazzetti have in mind.

    After assuring themselves of what their editors apparently consider “balance” by quoting a couple of actual opponents of torture, the reporters get around to the real raison d’être of their piece: “…Defenders of the program say the tight rules show the government’s attempt to keep the program within the law. ‘Elaborate care went into figuring out the precise gradations of coercion,’ said David B. Rivkin Jr., a lawyer who served in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. ‘Yes, it’s jarring. But it shows how both the lawyers and the nonlawyers tried to do the right thing.’”
    Note to Shane and Mazzetti: when you commit an established war crime like waterboarding, following “tight rules” does not suddenly place your actions “within the law.”  And keeping careful records of your crimes should actually make you more likely to be prosecuted, rather than less.  Could anything be more obvious than that? 

    Not to The New York Times.

    To their credit, the reporters did manage to write one intelligent paragraph in their piece.  It was this one: “The records suggest one quandary prosecutors face as they begin a review of the C.I.A. program, part of the larger inquiry into abuse cases ordered Monday by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. Any prosecution that focuses narrowly on low-level interrogators who on a few occasions broke the rules may appear unfair, since most of the brutal treatment was authorized from the White House on down..”

    Over at The Washington Post, one of two journalistic felonies was committed by Peter Finn, Joby Warrick and Julie Tate, which, as Glenn Greenwald pointed out, could just as easily have been penned by Dick Cheney.

    Basing their account entirely on anonymous sources, Finn, Warrick and Tate wrote a full-throated defense of torture.  “After enduring the CIA’s harshest interrogation methods and spending more than a year in the agency’s secret prisons, Khalid Sheik Mohammed stood before U.S. intelligence officers in a makeshift lecture hall, leading what they called  terrorist tutorials.

….These scenes provide previously unpublicized details about the transformation of the man known to U.S. officials as KSM from an avowed and truculent enemy of the United States into what the CIA called its  preeminent source  on al-Qaeda. This reversal occurred after Mohammed was subjected to simulated drowning and prolonged sleep deprivation, among other harsh interrogation techniques.”

    Greenwald gets to the heart of the matter here: “What makes the Post’s breathless vindication of torture all the more journalistically corrupt is that the document on which it principally bases these claims – the just-released 2004 CIA Inspector General Report – provides no support whatsoever for the view that torture produced valuable intelligence, despite the fact that it was based on the claims of CIA officials themselves.  Ironically, nobody has done a better job this week of demonstrating how true that is than the Post’s own Greg Sargent – who, in post after post  – dissected the IG Report to demonstrate that it provides no evidence for Cheney’s claims that torture helped obtain valuable intelligence.”

    New Yorker writer and Dark Side author Jane Mayer has made a whole career out of compensating for all of the inadequacies of the torture reporting in the Times and the Post.  Here is what she told Keith Olbermann about Khalid Sheik Mohammed:
“There is nothing but a mass of claims that they got information from this individual and that individual, many from KSM, who apparently has been the greatest fount of information for them, but there’s absolutely nothing saying that they had to beat them to get this information. In fact, as anybody knows who knows anything about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, he was dying to tell the world, when he was interviewed by Al Jazeera before he was in US custody, about everything he knew and everything he did. He was proud of his role as the mastermind of 9/11. He loves to talk about it. So there’s no evidence that I see in this that these things were necessary. I spoke to someone at the CIA who was an advisor to them who conceded to me that “We could have gotten the same information from tea and crumpets.”

    FINALLY, WE COME TO the most disgusting story of all, a worshipful portrait by Monica Hesse in the Washington Post of Brian Brown, a leading crusader against marriage equality.   The catastrophe here begins with the headline: “Opposing Gay Unions With Sanity & a Smile.”

    It continues with beautiful aperçus like these:

* “this country is not made up of people in the far wings, right or left. This country is made up of a movable middle, reasonable people looking for reasonable arguments to assure them that their feelings have a rational basis. Brian Brown speaks to these people.”

 * “He shoulders the accusations of bigotry; it’s horrible when people say that your life’s mission is actually just prejudice.”

* “The reason Brian Brown is so effective is that he is pleasantly, ruthlessly sane.”

*  “The racial bigot comparison is the most troubling part of the argument,  Brown says. It’s horrible, offensive, deliberately incendiary. He thinks it is  irrational,  a word he uses often.”

* ” It is irrational when the opposition points to polls suggesting that most young people support gay marriage.  People mature,  he says. Their views change. It is irrational when people believe that the legalization of same-sex marriage is an inevitability:  We have the people. We have not had such an organized force  before, Brown says.”

    And so on.  Of course, Ms. Hesse did not quote a single representative of any gay organization to provide an iota of balance to any of these idiotic assertions.

    The trouble is, the truth here is quite simple: you cannot oppose marriage equality without being a bigot. The “racial bigot comparison” is entirely appropriate.  There is nothing “sane” or “sunny” about bigotry.  And there is nothing “irrational” about pointing out that every new generation of Americans is more tolerant of sexual diversity than the one that preceded it–and that most Americans under 30 recognize that opposition to gay marriage is as repugnant as it is antediluvial. 

   Because equal treatment of all men and women under the law is the most American value of all.

   Mr. Brown is actually part of that large and loathsome contingent of Americans who has decided to make a living based entirely  on hatred and irrational fear.  The only interesting things in Hesse’s piece are the quotes from Mr. Brown’s wife, which suggest that she might actually understand that.

    Writing a piece like this is the equivalent of going down to Mississippi in the early ‘60’s, and writing a worshipful portrait of Governor Ross Barnett, who devoted himself to an unsuccessful effort to prevent James Meredith from integrating Ole Miss.  Such a piece would have focused on Barnett’s charming demeanor, his fine works as president of the Mississippi Bar Association, and so on.   And it would have pointed out how Attorney General Bobby Kennedy was hopelessly out of step with centuries of wonderful southern traditions like slavery and segregation. 

    Why is it so hard for mainstream editors to understand this? 

    Mostly it’s the result of a willful effort to remain woefully uninformed about gay issues, from marriage equality to gays in the military.   FCP has learned Ms. Hesse is considered a rising young star at the Style section of the Post.  If its editors had any judgment, a piece like this would permanently derail her career.

    The only truly useful thing Mr. Brown has ever done was to produce an anti-marriage equality ad that was so inane and offensive, it inspired Stephen Colbert’s single finest piece of satire of 2009.  Watch it here.

   Happy Labor Day.

Special thanks to FCP contributors John Flannery and AN.