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ONLINE NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO (Audio archive)

Media

Rather Anchors Final 'Evening News'

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Web Extra: Interviews with Heyward, Cronkite
 
 

The CBS Transition

Extended interviews with three interested observers:

 
Politics & Society

The White House's Use of Video Releases

Listen to this story... by  

All Things Considered, March 23, 2005 · Agencies under the Bush administration have long provided broadcasters with video news releases -- produced tapes that often pose as reported news stories. Some broadcasters have used them without attribution, inviting charges of government propaganda. The use of VNR's is not new, but critics say it is more extensive under the Bush administration.

All Things Considered, March 9, 2005 · Wednesday night is Dan Rather's last broadcast as anchor at CBS's Evening News. It marks Rather's 24th anniversary behind the desk of the broadcast.

Rather, 73, has covered almost every major news story of the last four decades, but a botched report on President Bush's military service record cast a shadow on the last months of his tenure.

Rather got his start in the 1950s as a wire service and radio reporter in Huntsville, Texas. The network hired him after seeing his exhaustive coverage of a hurricane bearing down on Galveston for the CBS station in Houston.

 

Media

CBS News Executives Fight Conclusion on Errant Report by  

All Things Considered, February 16, 2005 · Three CBS news executives are refusing to resign after being implicated in a botched story on President Bush's military service record. The three were asked to leave after an investigation concluded in January.

 

Politics

Conservative Reporter Resigns Amid Controversy

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All Things Considered, February 9, 2005 · A reporter for the conservative news site TalonNews.com resigns. The reporter, who went by the pseudonym Jeff Gannon, drew critical attention at President Bush's January 26 press conference when he referred in question to Democrats "who seem divorced from reality" on the issue of retooling Social Security.

Liberal bloggers have disclosed that Gannon, who has little previous journalism experience, was easily granted a coveted White House press pass -- even though he did not work for a traditional or established news organization. He also routinely asked "softball" questions at press conferences. There are also allegations that Gannon is linked to Web sites with homoerotic themes.

Gannon spoke with NPR's David Folkenflik the day before he resigned. He says he is open about his conservative point of view, but that he is just as valid a journalist as other reporters in the White House press corps.

 

 

NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO: Q&A: The CBS 'Memogate' Mess

NPR.org, January 12, 2005 · An independent review panel has scorched CBS News for a Sept. 8, 2004, report that purported to throw new light on President Bush's time in the Texas National Guard, based in part on memos whose authenticity has since come into question. The inquiry -- led by former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and former Associated Press CEO Lou Boccardi -- said a "myopic zeal" had produced a broadcast that could not be substantiated.

The report also detailed myriad cracks in CBS's vaunted news operation. The company responded by cleaning house: A star producer was fired, and three high-level executives -- including a senior vice president and the show's two top officials -- were forced to resign. A fourth was reassigned.

But even as the scandal spirals, it's still not certain that the documents at the center of the controversy were fake. And other news organizations have published reports that largely support the greater premise that President Bush cannot account for much of his time in the National Guard.

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik answers questions about the CBS "Memogate" mess.

Q. What was the original program about?

A: It was on 60 Minutes Wednesday, a middle-of-the-week 60 Minutes knockoff that features Dan Rather, among others, in between his anchoring duties. The segment was produced by a tough and successful CBS vet, Mary Mapes. (In broadcast news, the segment producer is essentially the "author" of the story, in this case, the lead reporter and writer.) On Sept. 8, Rather presented the story, which promised to put to rest to what young Lt. George W. Bush – whose father was a congressman and ambassador at the time -- actually did in the National Guard during the Vietnam War years.

Rather and Mapes landed some seemingly juicy gets:

1. They presented an interview with Ben Barnes, a powerful former Texas politician, who said he pulled strings to get Bush into the Air National Guard in 1968 -- and thereby helped him skirt the draft and combat service in Vietnam.

2. They also interviewed Robert Strong, an administrative officer in Bush's National Guard unit and a colleague of Bush's squadron commander, Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian. Strong said Killian felt Bush got special treatment. And he spoke of the highly politicized environment of the National Guard at the time.

3. Most explosively, CBS presented documents, said to be signed by Killian, in which he complained of pressure from his superiors to treat Bush lightly. Killian also wrote of grounding Lt. Bush, yanking his flight status, because he failed to appear for a physical, according to the papers obtained by CBS.

The White House didn't deny the allegations. And aides to Bush publicly released the documents, which CBS News had shared prior to the broadcast.

All three of the elements came under fire after the broadcast and were debunked in the independent report.

For example, Barnes, the influential politician, helped raise money for Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry early last year. And he says he has no idea whether his calls actually made the difference in getting Bush into the National Guard.

Strong's interview was also taken out of context. He was told that the documents were being authenticated -- so his comments were based on the assumption that they were real. And even so, he told CBS he was speaking generally about the climate of the National Guard -- not specifically about Bush's situation. That wasn't clear on the broadcast.

Q: And weren't those documents fakes?

A: That's the most controversial part of the whole thing. These days, CBS has been saying an emphatic, "We don't know.” The outside report says it cannot prove that they are forgeries.

Most other people in the known media universe currently wouldn't even trust the documents for use as packing paper.

Bloggers, those folks who write online journals, or Web logs, began questioning the documents shortly after the original broadcast -- and by shortly, I mean a few hours. Conservatives on talk radio picked up the refrain the very next day.

Within two days, major media outlets like the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times, NBC and ABC conferred with their own document experts. They almost uniformly said the papers looked as though they had been generated by computer-based technology -- word processors -- not the IBM Selectric typewriters in use three decades ago.

Q: How important were the documents to the story?

A: The larger story -- of Bush receiving gentle treatment in his military service -- appears to be sound. The Boston Globe's Walter V. Robinson, for example, reported in 2000 about gaps in Bush's military record.

And the same day as the September 2004 CBS report, the Globe published a fresh analysis that made the case that Bush may have failed to fulfill adequately his obligations in the National Guard -- and thus could have been subject to being shipped off for combat duty. (A link to that analysis can be found at left.)

Bush has always argued that his honorable discharge proves that he fulfilled his duties in the military. But it is essentially common wisdom that he cannot entirely account for what he did during those years; the matter has been routine fodder for late-night comics and editorial cartoonists.

But CBS, especially Mapes, thought the memos brought fresh relevance to the issue. It also came after weeks of criticism by conservatives of Democrat John F. Kerry's record in Vietnam, and at a time when Bush's decision to invade Iraq was a campaign issue.

Q: So how did CBS News respond to the initial criticism?

A: Not well. Rather, CBS News President Andrew Heyward and other executives within CBS News defended the story in its entirety. The network initially refused to reveal the source of its documents. In an on-air statement about the debate, Dan Rather reiterated that experts had vouched for the authenticity of the papers. But the network refused to identify them, saying they could be the target of abuse by supporters of the president. And off the air, CBS was sharply dismissive of the criticism, saying it had been stirred up by amateur bloggers and conservatives with an axe to grind.

The independent panel's report says that Rather's statement to viewers that experts had vouched for the documents was "inaccurate." Two of the four experts hired by CBS later said in interviews they had raised objections before the broadcast. In other words, CBS was compounding the broadcast of an untrustworthy story with an untrue defense.

Then things got worse: One of the network's document experts, Marcel Matley, was interviewed on the CBS Evening News in a story that defended the original report. Matley said skeptics couldn't honestly know the documents were forgeries because the copies used by the network -- and its critics -- weren't good enough to be able to tell.

Q: Wait -– so CBS' defense came to be that the reproductions of the documents were of such poor quality that they can't be disproved?

A: Exactly. Oddly, it's an argument that found surprising strength in some quarters. This month's issue of the Columbia Journalism Review has a long article dissecting some of the criticism aimed at CBS News, taking particular issue with the self-congratulatory reaction of bloggers who took credit for driving the CBS controversy.

Here's what the author, Corey Pein, wrote:

"Ultimately, we don't know enough to justify the conventional wisdom: that the documents were 'apparently bogus'… and that a major news network was an accomplice to political slander." (There's a link to Pein's full article at left.)

Jonathan V. Last, a writer with the conservative Weekly Standard, fired back: "The university's motto may still be "In lumine Tuo videbimus lumen," but over at the j-school they have a new slogan: You can't prove anything." (Last's story can be found in the Web resources section at left.)

One of the most damning things against CBS News -- and the logic to which even Heyward and Rather belatedly yielded, after nearly two weeks -- is that the National Guard report relied on documents that the network could not completely vouch for. Instead, their one analyst said critics could not prove they were faked.

That's a standard that no credible journalist would swallow. No reputable network would put a report on the air based on documents if its source had said, "I don't know whether these puppies are real, but no one's proved they aren't."

The report found that Mapes had argued in defense of the memos even after they were questioned. She told CBS News executives the preponderance of evidence fell on the side of the memo's authenticity. Senior executives said they were alarmed to learn -- after the fact -- that their certainty was so short of ironclad.

Q: What else did the independent panel's report say?

It detailed a wholesale breakdown in the procedures of a network that once served as the gold standard for broadcast news. Think Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite.

If you're not thinking about them, rest assured people at CBS News are, right now.

Mary Mapes comes out worst. Specifically, the report says Mapes got documents from a questionable source, retired Army National Guard Lt. Col. Bill Burkett. She failed to check carefully where he had gotten the documents, making only cursory efforts to track that down.

The night before the broadcast, associate producer Yvonne Miller told the inquiry board, "everything but the ceiling tiles" was falling down on Mapes.

But Mapes, and CBS, plowed ahead. Two of the document examiners hired to review the documents were sharply questioning their authenticity. The report says Mapes brushed aside their concerns. And she deflected the questions of the executives overseeing the show, who were ostensibly her superiors.

Q: How could that happen?

A: As Leslie Moonves, the Viacom co-president who runs CBS, told me in an interview, Mapes had star status from her ability to help Rather and CBS break the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal earlier last year.

Q. A lot of the cable news folks are charging that political bias drove the Sept. 8 report.

A: Rather has long been a lightning rod for the right -- ever since his coverage of Watergate and President Nixon in the early 1970s. The Thornburgh-Boccardi report (and remember, Thornburgh was attorney general for President Bush's father) found no direct evidence that political bias played a part in the story. But it ascribed two tone-deaf moves to Mapes: according to CBS News executives, she failed to flag that her source for the documents had been an outspoken critic of Bush. And she actually called the Kerry campaign before the story broke. Burkett, the source, was angry that the campaign had failed to dispatch questions raised about Kerry's military service in Vietnam by a group called the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Mapes asked if Joe Lockhart, a senior Kerry aide, would talk to Burkett for a few minutes. He did. And it gave Republicans a chance to charge collusion.

Q: What did CBS do after receiving the report?

Les Moonves fired Mapes outright, and asked for the resignations of three other execs --Senior Vice President Betsy West, 60 Minutes Wednesday executive producer Josh Howard, and Howard's deputy, Mary Murphy.

News president Andrew Hayward, who kept a low profile this week, didn't get dinged. Instead, Moonves praised him on two grounds:

The day before the broadcast, Hayward had sent an e-mail telling West and Howard that the story would be politically sensitive and that they shouldn't be steamrolled into putting it on the air. According to the report, Mapes steamrolled them nonetheless.

Two days after the broadcast, even as he was publicly defending the story, Heyward asked West to look into the substantive complaints against 60 Minutes Wednesday. She never did.

Q: And that's a good thing?

A. Depending on your point of view, Heyward was valiant and his subordinates failed him -- or he was utterly ineffective as a leader. Some people within CBS News -- though few by name -- are questioning how he held onto his job. Andy Rooney is a notable exception. He told USA Today that "the people most instrumental in getting the broadcast on escaped."

Q: And Dan?

Late last November, Dan Rather announced he would step down in March, on the 24th anniversary of his debut as anchor of the CBS Evening News. He'll stay on as a correspondent for 60 Minutes Wednesday -- the very show at the center of the storm.

According to people at CBS News, it was not a decision Rather would have made absent the scandal. But it means he did it on his own terms -- not because of the findings of that report. And Moonves said pointedly Tuesday that Rather's retirement was sufficient.

Q: Who's going to replace him?

No one knows. The CBS Evening News is in the ratings basement. Since broadcast news' viewing audience is steadily shrinking, it's not a good place to be. The company will probably play it safe and bring in a handsome and trustworthy face to lead a rebuilding department. On the other hand, CBS is now owned by Viacom, the people who bring you MTV, Survivor and Showtime. So you never know.

Even in third place, the evening newscast makes a millions of dollars for CBS. And it helps to justify the costs of correspondents who appear on other shows, such as the CBS Early Show, 60 Minutes -- and 60 Minutes Wednesday. So don't look for the newscast to disappear anytime soon.

Q. Is the controversy over?

A: Not a chance.

Related NPR Stories

Hear David Folkenflik's report on the firing of four CBS News staffers over the network's Sept. 8 report on Bush's National Guard service:


 

 

ALL THINGS CONSIDERED

Media

Newspaper Reports of Balco Testimony May Spark Legal Wrangling

All Things Considered, December 3, 2004 · The San Francisco Chronicle made headlines across the country this week by reporting details of grand jury testimony that is supposed to be kept secret. U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan has called for investigation on the leak, raising another possible battle between the government and the press over whether reporters can keep their sources secret. David Folkenflik reports.

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4201986

Folkenflik leaves 'The Sun,' Heads to NPR

By E&P Staff

Published: November 01, 2004
David Folkenflik is leaving The Sun in Baltimore behind for National Public Radio.
Folkenflik most recently served the Sun as TV/radio reporter. It is not known what his new title will be at NPR.
Regarded by Sun Editor Tim Franklin as one of the top national media writers in the newspaper business, Folkenflik officially left the Sun on Oct. 22.
Editor and Publisher

http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/elections/bal-te.to.sinclair19oct19,1,6004359.story
Election 2004: The media

Sinclair fires D.C. chief who spoke out

Political correspondent criticized network's plan to air anti-Kerry program



By David Folkenflik
Sun Staff

October 19, 2004

Sinclair Broadcast Group fired its Washington bureau chief yesterday after the reporter criticized plans for an hourlong program on 60 stations that will include incendiary charges against Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.

"I just think it's a shame that a journalist gets fired for telling the truth," said Jon Leiberman, who had been the Maryland-based media firm's chief political correspondent for more than a year.

In his initial remarks, published yesterday by The Sun, Leiberman called the Sinclair show "biased political propaganda, with clear intentions to sway this election."

In the interview, Leiberman condemned the unprecedented dedication of an hour by Sinclair to charges that Kerry's anti-war activism led to the renewed torture of U.S. prisoners of war in Vietnam. He said the decision to run the program reflected the conservative ideological bent of Sinclair executives intent on influencing voters as the Nov. 2 election nears.

"Everyone is entitled to their personal opinion, including Jon Leiberman," said Mark Hyman, Sinclair's vice president for corporate relations. "We're disappointed that Jon's political views caused him to violate policy and speak to the press about company business."

'Stolen Honor'

The Sinclair program, as yet untitled, draws from the documentary Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal, which includes allegations by some U.S. prisoners of war that Kerry's anti-war testimony before Congress in 1971 inspired their North Vietnamese captors to torture them further. Stolen Honor was produced by Carlton Sherwood, a prize-winning journalist with close ties to Bush administration officials.

"Viewers can judge Leiberman's opinion versus the reality when the finished product is aired," Hyman said, calling Leiberman a "disgruntled employee."

Later yesterday evening, Hyman issued an additional statement: "Jon Leiberman is no longer an employee of the company. We do not comment on personnel matters."

The show is planned for broadcast locally at 8 p.m. Friday on WBFF, Sinclair's Baltimore-based flagship. Sinclair owns or controls 62 television stations in 39 markets, reaching about 24 percent of the nation's population. Hyman said all but two of the stations - those that maintain only business arrangements with Sinclair - will air the show.

The Sun first interviewed Leiberman on Sunday after he told Joseph DeFeo, Sinclair's vice president for news, that he would not participate in preparing the program and that he objected to it being labeled news rather than commentary. Leiberman raised his objections at a mandatory meeting for all Sinclair corporate news staffers to help prepare the piece.

Leiberman was summoned yesterday afternoon to the company's Hunt Valley headquarters and fired by DeFeo for his remarks, he said last night. Leiberman said he was told that he was being fired for criticizing the company publicly and for revealing "proprietary information" by describing the Sunday meeting of the news staff. He was then escorted from the building.

DeFeo did not return telephone messages seeking comment.

Yesterday, Leiberman, 29, disputed Hyman's contention that political beliefs informed his criticisms of Sinclair. Leiberman said he is a registered Democrat but that he voted for George W. Bush, a Republican, in 2000. A search of federal and state databases found no political contributions by Leiberman.

"I have never, ever let politics frame the way I cover news," Leiberman said. "The reason I spoke out is because Sinclair Broadcast Group is not holding up the public trust."

'Ethical journalism'

Geneva Overholser, a former editor of The Des Moines Register and ombudsman of The Washington Post, praised Leiberman yesterday for what she termed his courage.

"I have a pantheon of heroes, and he's now among them," Overholser said. "He was willing to stand up and say what the news department has to do is stand for fairness and balance."

Lisa Modarelli, now a freelance journalist, was hired in June 2003 as a producer for Sinclair's nascent Washington bureau. She was its first employee and Leiberman its first chief. She said she never had any glimmer of Leiberman's political beliefs but saw that he was discouraged by the political tone coming from his bosses in Baltimore County.

"He was giving up, agreeing to do their stories and wasn't doing the kind of investigative reporting that he went there to do," Modarelli said yesterday. "The amount of spin they wanted to put in it really broke him down over time."

She said she left in August 2004 for two reasons. The pay was low compared with that of other news operations in Washington. But she also was frustrated by the fallout from another controversy that sparked national attention. In late spring, Sinclair blocked an edition of Nightline from its seven ABC stations because, executives said, Ted Koppel's plan to read the names of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq amounted to an anti-war statement. (Koppel denounced that contention.)

"Our sources didn't trust us anymore, even though we didn't make that decision," Modarelli said. "They didn't want to work with us anymore because whatever we did, the story would turn out biased."

She added, "For me, it's just about ethical journalism."

Leiberman said the company had largely treated him well - until yesterday.

"I am not a disgruntled employee. I have worked hard for Sinclair for more than four years," he said. "I love what I do, but I love doing news. ... And I just felt like nobody was listening."

Leiberman, a Baltimore native, has been promoted several times during his tenure at Sinclair. He returned to Baltimore in 2000 to become an investigative reporter at Sinclair's WBFF-TV after stints at local stations in Topeka, Kan., and Albuquerque, N.M. His duties at WBFF were expanded to include some supervisory duties for the station's investigative unit in 2002. Last year, he was promoted again, to head up the four-person Washington newsroom. He was sent by Sinclair to file stories from Iraq and Cuba, and also covered the two major political conventions this summer.

He said he has been upset by the role that Hyman, who is also the company's conservative editorialist, plays in making news judgments. Hyman pushed for Sinclair to create the program based on Sherwood's anti-Kerry documentary.

"This is nothing personal," Leiberman said yesterday afternoon. "This company has been good to me. Simply as a journalist, I think it's wrong for a commentator to have his hand in news - and other nonjournalists to have their hands in news."

Although he said he is passing along some ideas for the show, Hyman said his involvement in the Sinclair special has ebbed.

"This is a definite news event," Hyman said yesterday. "This has received significant media scrutiny as well as from outside groups."

The plans for the Sinclair program stirred a national firestorm earlier this month, with Democrats filing formal complaints with the Federal Election Commission, the Federal Communications Commission and Sinclair itself.

The chairman of the FCC, Michael K. Powell, has dismissed calls that the panel investigate the program before it airs. The FEC is not expected to take action before the election on the contention of the Democratic Party that the show constitutes an illegal "in-kind" corporate campaign donation.

Sinclair has invited Kerry, a Massachusetts senator, to appear on the show to respond to the allegations raised by the prisoners of war, but his campaign aides have rejected the offer as disingenuous.

Some liberal groups said they intend to challenge future efforts by Sinclair to renew broadcast licenses at its stations. Sinclair has benefited in recent years from deregulation, in which restrictions on the acquisition of stations by large media companies have diminished.

Copyright © 2004, The Baltimore Sun

http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/elections/bal-leiberman1019,1,933744.story

From Wednesday's Sun

Journalist finds himself on other side of the news

Jon Leiberman gained national attention when he was fired Monday for published comments about Sinclair Broadcast Group



By David Folkenflik and Stephen Kiehl
Sun Staff

October 19, 2004, 11:08 PM EDT

Jon Leiberman's world turned upside down Tuesday. A man used to asking tough questions found himself answering them. A man used to covering the news found himself making the news.

On Monday, Leiberman was fired from his post as Sinclair Broadcast Group's Washington bureau chief for criticizing as biased his company's decision to air a controversial news program based on allegations against Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee.

The comments brought national attention to the Westminster native who has wanted to be on television and in the spotlight since age 4. Now he is 29 and out of a job, after his remarks were published in The Sun. Leiberman said he finally spoke out after a painful, months-long journey of disillusionment with an employer that he said has strayed far from objective reporting.



"It was the daily struggle to get fair news on the air," he said. "I've been raising red flags for months. I didn't just fly off the handle. This is an agonizing process."

The Maryland-based corporation owns or operates 62 stations in 39 markets that reach about 24 percent of the American viewing public. In creating a centralized newscast for many of its stations, produced at its Hunt Valley headquarters, Sinclair sought a new tone to distinguish it from many of its local competitors. It was flashy and fast-paced. It was edgy.

But Leiberman said that tone took on a clear ideological bent, and it came directly from CEO David D. Smith and vice president and editorialist Mark Hyman: Stories had to be positive for conservatives and Republicans, he said, and negative for Democrats and liberals.

Last weekend, Sinclair executives began finalizing plans to air an hourlong special built around charges that Kerry's anti-war activism had led to the prolonged torture of U.S. prisoners of war by their North Vietnamese captors. After months of internal protest, Leiberman spoke out.

"I didn't do this for attention,"he said. "I didn't do this for my 10 minutes, because I know that in a week from now this will all be gone -- all the attention -- and I'll still have to live with my decision. I think I can do that."

Messages left Tuesday for four top Sinclair executives were not returned. But earlier in the week, Hyman called Leiberman a "disgruntled" employee who had violated company policy by criticizing Sinclair publicly and revealing its editorial processes.

Tuesday, Sinclair announced that it will air the program on one station per market; that means 40 of the company's stations will show the program. Sinclair said the special will focus in part on the role of documentary films in this year's election, in addition to allegations against Kerry.

In a statement Tuesday, the company's vice president for news, Joseph DeFeo, defended the program: "We are endeavoring, as we do with all of our news coverage, to present both sides of the issues covered in an equal and impartial manner."

Smith said in the same statement: "We cannot in a free America yield to the misguided attempts by a small but vocal minority to influence behavior and trample on the First Amendment rights of those with whom they might not agree."

Over the course of a 45-minute lunch in Baltimore Tuesday, Leiberman's cell phone rang five times -- but no job offers yet. Reporters and producers were looking to put him on the air to talk about his decision. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, and several local radio and television stations.

He also heard from his wife, Michele, a producer at WBAL- TV in Baltimore. She urged him to get hot tea and throat lozenges and told him, "If you lose your voice, you won't be able to get your message out."

An early start



Leiberman, an Owings Mills resident, learned how to get his message out a long time ago. When he was 4, his family would go to Sunday brunch at Baugher's Restaurant in Westminster. A precocious child, Leiberman would read the sports section to the diners. He loved being the deliverer of news, and he loved the attention.

In elementary school, he read the weather report over the public address system every morning. He was president of his class at Westminster High School and he interned at the local cable channel. While a student at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., he interned for CNBC. He later worked at local stations in Topeka, Kan., and Albuquerque, N.M., before returning to Baltimore in the summer of 2000. He quickly made his mark as an investigative reporter and last year was made chief of Sinclair's Washington bureau.

"In terms of being diligent about getting things right, he stood out early in his career," said Ava Greenwell, an associate journalism professor at Northwestern who is still in touch with Leiberman. She said his stand this week took courage, especially in an industry where young reporters are most concerned with their careers. "It's a hard decision to make when you're in his position."

But speaking out seems to run in Leiberman's family. His mother, Shelley Sarsfield, wrote letters to the editor of The Sun as a child. His stepsister, Jennifer Sarsfield, told police investigators about three Westminster High classmates who sold heroin to a 15-year-old who died of an overdose. She was forced to withdraw from school.

"I was determined that they would have the courage of their convictions," Shelley Sarsfield said of her children. She said she expected Jon, who was raised in the Jewish faith, to become a rabbi because he loved ceremony and speaking before the congregation. But he went into journalism instead.

"I think deep down he felt, why should he have an audience once a week, when he could have an audience every night?" his mother said.

History of complaints

During several recent interviews, Leiberman described the journey he took that led to his pointed remarks -- and his firing from Sinclair this week.

By last winter, Leiberman said he was privately complaining to his bosses about the blurring of the line between the company's news stories and the conservative, pro-Bush editorials of Mark Hyman. It came to a head when Hyman and Leiberman were sent to Iraq in February to find positive developments missed by the rest of the mainstream media, which Sinclair executives said were focusing too narrowly on the unstable conditions there.

"Our mission really is to tell stories we think local news viewers aren't getting throughout the country," Leiberman told The Sun at the time.

Cameramen accompanied Leiberman, who was to report stories, and Hyman, whose assignment was to tape editorials about conditions in Iraq under the U.S.-led occupation. But the difference between the two became tough to discern, Leiberman said. "The commentaries were being presented as news," he said.

In separate interviews, two former Sinclair producers -- Lisa Modarelli and Dana Hackley -- gave similar accounts of Leiberman's struggles with his news bosses, in Iraq and back at home.

"Mark Hyman had his own agenda, which was to [produce] stories that he envisioned to be commentaries but that the average viewer would see as news,"said Hackley, who has since left the company for a job at a Pittsburgh university.

By late spring, Leiberman was thoroughly disillusioned. (He provided copies of e-mailed correspondence this week to The Sun to bolster his account.) In early May, he forwarded to DeFeo, the news vice president, a copy of a complaint from a viewer who said that the company's newscast was biased. Leiberman added a note saying he agreed.

Hackley said Hyman and Smith routinely gave story ideas to news executives, who usually sought quick reaction by reporters.

On June 10, Leiberman asked to be released from his contract with Sinclair. In an e-mail to DeFeo, Leiberman wrote: "I am miserable in this position. We don't have the resources to cover the news, and the resources we are given are always driven toward conservative agenda stories. We are not balanced and I have a problem with it."

DeFeo responded soothingly, according to the correspondence given to The Sun: "I like having you on board with me as we build this. We will, and have, made some mistakes in this complex process."

Leiberman complained to DeFeo and Carl Gottlieb, managing editor of Sinclair's corporate news division, about a series of story selections. They were skewed toward stories that would make Kerry look bad, he argued. Many of them were defensible on their own terms, Leiberman said. But at a time when the bureau was typically producing one story a night, story selection was everything.

In response to one such lament, Gottlieb replied by e-mail, "Jon, all news is agenda driven."

Leiberman said he was crushed by that message and others like it: "They want to brand the product as being different -- but this message and this image comes from the top. I'm fine with being different -- but let's be fair about it. People joked in the newsroom that Sinclair was called 'GOP-TV.'"

On Oct. 11, he wrote to Smith, the CEO, beseeching him to reconsider the plans to run the excerpts of the anti-Kerry documentary Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal as part of an unprecedented hourlong special. He asked, again, to be allowed to search for jobs. "The problem is the public perception that we are the 'far right wing' media," he wrote to Smith. "I feel I can not be a true journalist in this capacity because our company is not viewed as fair by many of our subjects."

According to Leiberman, he never heard a response.

On Sunday, the reporter reflected, took a deep breath, told his bosses he didn't want to work on the project. And then he spoke out -- transforming himself, however fleetingly, from the reporter covering the news into the story itself.

Copyright © 2004, The Baltimore Sun

http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/elections/bal-te.sinclair18oct18,1,1814607.story

Sinclair employee decries planned program on Kerry

D.C. bureau chief calls it 'biased political propaganda'



By David Folkenflik
Sun Staff


October 18, 2004

The Washington bureau chief for Maryland-based Sinclair Broadcast Group's news division angrily denounced his employer last night for plans to air an hourlong program that is to include incendiary allegations against Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry for his anti-war activism three decades ago.

"It's biased political propaganda, with clear intentions to sway this election," said Jon Leiberman, Sinclair's lead political reporter for more than a year. "For me, it's not about right or left -- it's about what's right or wrong in news coverage this close to an election."

Repeated efforts to reach Sinclair officials for comment last night proved unsuccessful.

Sinclair sparked national headlines this month by ordering its 60 stations to broadcast a program that will devote significant time to charges that Kerry's nationally televised remarks in 1971 about atrocities committed by U.S. troops in Vietnam spurred the torture of American prisoners of war. (Sinclair has business relationships with two additional stations that are not scheduled to air the show.)

The broadcasting company's plan has drawn formal protests from Democrats for both the program's content and its timing -- less than two weeks before Election Day. It plans to pre-empt an hour of regular prime-time network programming for the special on each of the stations over a several-day period this week. While Sinclair has invited Kerry to respond to the allegations, campaign aides have dismissed that offer as insincere.

Sinclair reaches about 24 percent of American viewers, with a presence in 39 markets, most of them in smaller regions. But many of them can be found in pivotal political states such as Michigan, Missouri and Ohio.

Leiberman spoke out yesterday after a mandatory staff meeting attended by Sinclair's corporate news division at company headquarters in Hunt Valley.

"I have nothing to gain here -- and really, I have a lot to lose," Leiberman said. "At the end of the day, though, all you really have is your credibility."

Leiberman, 29, is a Baltimore native who has a degree in journalism from Northwestern University and has worked at stations in Topeka, Kan., and Albuquerque, N.M., as well as Sinclair's WBFF in Baltimore.

The program draws from a documentary called Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal, produced by Carlton Sherwood, a prize-winning journalist who has close ties to Bush administration officials.

Sinclair staffers were told the show would be presented as news, not opinion, Leiberman said.

Some industry analysts have decried Sinclair's plans. "People in the news business are supposed to present both sides of the story," said American University communications professor Jane Hall, a media critic for Fox News Watch. "They are not supposed to have an agenda. They are not supposed to want to affect the outcome of the election with something they label news."

Leiberman said he was anguished by his decision to speak out. But, he said, the influence of commentator Mark Hyman and Chief Executive David D. Smith has been devastating. "There is going to be a concerted effort on the part of my colleagues to make this as balanced a program as they can," Leiberman said. "But the selection of the material -- dumping it on the news department, and giving them four days, and running it this close to the election -- it's indefensible, in my opinion."

Leiberman said he told Sinclair's vice president for news, Joseph DeFeo, that he would not contribute to the program and that DeFeo suggested the reporter could lose his job.

DeFeo did not return messages seeking comment.

The Smith family, which controls Sinclair, has long been a financial backer of Bush and other Republicans, including Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Now, Leiberman said, the conservative bias of Sinclair executives is too palpable to ignore. "All I want is for them to address these issues," Leiberman said. "Let the journalists do what the journalists do -- cover the news."

Copyright © 2004, The Baltimore Sun

 

 

Media Man

 



By David Folkenflik
Sun Staff
September 25, 2004
There's a paradox at the center of our media-soaked age that is often overlooked. While the big media have little to say, they are desperate to say it as quickly and as widely as they can.

Lurching from celebrity trials to natural disasters to recycled political scandals - many news organizations fail to illuminate the world around us. Yet the media are finding ever more ways to deliver their version of the news and with more immediacy - around the clock, at home, at the office, online, in our cars, through our cell phones, in stores, elevators, airports, taxicabs.

Two recently released books hint why. Ken Auletta, a longtime chronicler of the news industry, offers an insightful treatment of the television magnate who founded the first 24-hour-a-day news channel in Media Man: Ted Turner's Improbable Empire (W.W. Norton. 187 pages. $22.95). An outgrowth of a New Yorker article, Auletta captures Turner's compulsive business genius and deep-seated insecurities - intertwined traits that figure in Turner's rise and his ultimate overthrow as corporate boss.

With a combination of bluff and vision, Turner transformed his father's billboard and radio company into an entertainment juggernaut. Most Americans, though, remember Turner for the creation of CNN, which confronted and ultimately confounded the lions of CBS, ABC and NBC. National news no longer had to wait until 6:30 p.m. As its ambition expanded, and that of its network competitors waned, CNN emerged as, by far, the most consistent sponsor of foreign coverage of any American television news operation.

As Auletta observes, "Turner understood, in a way that many corporate leaders did not, that building a brand can be expensive. He understood, before his contemporaries did, that audiences would want to consume news differently - would want to watch it unfold live."

Yet CNN's rise was often done on the cheap, in cost and in deed. There was - and is - a reflexive reliance on true crime stories, weather patterns and three-alarm fires in mid-sized American cities that caused few deaths but produced diverting visual footage. Meanwhile, the existence of CNN - and that of its younger competitors, Fox News and MSNBC - enabled network news divisions to rationalize their retreat from serious news. Web sites have proliferated that provide news up-to-the-moment, further rattling the establishment news outlets.

But the last new thing got swallowed up by the next new thing. Internet giant AOL took over Turner's parent company, Time Warner, to make the largest media conglomeration in history, promising Americans news and information faster, from a broader range of sources, from television, to magazines, to specialized Web sites. (After the Internet bubble burst, the Time Warner contingent wrested back control of the company and dropped the AOL name.)

If the march of human history represents clear-cut progress, well, then, all that consolidation would be swell. But it's hard to be buoyed by the current state of the media. Some innovations, even in the corporate press, are welcome. A broader array of political viewpoints are heard on television, thanks to the yak-and-attack shows on Fox, CNN and MSNBC - but they shed heat, not light. Time Warner's Entertainment Weekly shows that new titles can be profitable as well as smart - even if they focus attention on popular culture to the exclusion of all else. Meantime, mainstream news organizations, suffering from dwindling ratings and circulation, traffic in endless tales of celebrity suffering, true crime, health fads and can't-miss diets - all indulgences that, like empty calories, fill us up without giving sustenance. Many of the stories we might need to function as citizens - or might give pleasure, inspiration or unexpected pause - go undiscovered.

It is chilling to see how closely the values of the mainstream media verge on those of supermarket tabloids, at least as they are depicted in The Untold Story: My 20 Years Running the National Enquirer (Miramax. 314 pages. $24.95). Former Enquirer Editor in Chief Iain Calder's memoir spins tales of exploits as a scandal-chasing newshound who hungers for widespread respect.

When the right amount of money changed hands, Calder's staffers usually found a way to insinuate themselves into almost any celebrity circle. (The role that Tom Arnold played in leaking the details of the personal life of his wife-to-be, Rosanne Barr, is particularly astounding.) But Calder also ordered up pieces on heart-warming stories of human uplift, and the magazine sponsored (and publicized) charity drives so readers could feel good about the Enquirer, which became a runaway success.

Calder takes pains to denounce what he claims is the hypocrisy of his supposed betters. After recounting incidents in which CNN and CBS paid sources for videotapes, Calder writes, contemptuously, "These were the high-principled newsmen who criticized the Enquirer when we openly paid sources for exclusives."

Calder is far from a convincing narrator, but his influence is hard to miss against the backdrop of the larger media landscape. The Enquirer's news diet would fit seamlessly into many television newscasts and even on the front pages of many reputable newspapers today. And he sounds like an old-fashioned newsie when he laments the sale of the Enquirer to new corporate owners who just wanted profits.

Turner himself may have earned the final word on that topic. He is the nation's largest landowner, says Auletta, and a man who pursued vertical integration in the media landscape with a vengeance. But in an article in the July/August edition of the Washington Monthly, "My Beef With Big Media," Turner argues the government has failed to ensure that the explosion of new media outlets fosters more viewpoints.

"When all companies are quarterly earnings-obsessed, the market starts punishing companies that aren't yielding an instant return. This not only creates a big incentive for bogus accounting, but also it inhibits the kind of investment that builds economic value," he writes. "When CNN reported to me, if we needed more money for Kosovo or Baghdad, we'd find it. If we had to bust the budget, we busted the budget. We put journalism first, and that's how we built CNN into something the world wanted to watch."

Turner denounces the degradation of broadcast news. He could have been speaking also of the purchase of newspapers by large chains equally intent on the bottom line. Surely some news organizations were rescued from mediocrity by their purchase by larger companies with rigorous professional standards. But, judging from visits to cities across the country, not enough of them.

And it's a tough time to boast about those standards, given the recent run of journalistic scandals at the New York Times, USA Today, and, most recently, CBS News, with its discredited piece on President Bush's military record. At several major newspapers, such as Newsday, a Tribune Co. newspaper based in Long Island, the Chicago Sun-Times, and The Dallas Morning News, circulation levels were found to have been wildly inflated, leading to threatened lawsuits and causing losses of tens of millions of dollars in revenue for each paper.

Turner's words come from a man who desperately wanted to do well and wishes also to have done good. It may come as no surprise that he wields little influence at his old corporation's headquarters - now in New York City, rather than his hometown of Atlanta.

David Folkenflik covers media for The Sun.

Copyright © 2004, The Baltimore Sun

 

Americans say media less believable

Gallup Poll comes in wake of scandals



By David Folkenflik
Sun Staff

September 24, 2004

With scandals besetting some of the nation's most respected media outlets, why would anyone trust what they read in newspapers and magazines or what they see on television news programs?

Many Americans don't. A new Gallup Poll, based on surveys taken last week, found that media credibility rests at its lowest point in decades. Just 44 percent of Americans now say they are confident that U.S. news outlets are presenting the news accurately and completely. That's down from 54 percent a year ago -- about the same as it had been for seven years.

In the latest poll, released yesterday, 55 percent of respondents said they either have "not very much" confidence or "none at all" in the media's fairness and accuracy.

Who can blame them, asked Bill Kovach, a former editor at the New York Times and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "As a citizen -- divorcing myself from a lifetime in journalism -- I think I have every reason to be skeptical."

The Gallup study was conducted from Sept. 13 through Sept. 15 -- several days after challenges were lodged against a 60 Minutes story about President Bush's military record, but before CBS apologized and retracted its report. (On Sept. 20, CBS acknowledged it could not be sure of the authenticity of documents it cited in reporting Bush had received preferential treatment in the National Guard.)

But the CBS fiasco, which has some critics calling for the firing of anchor Dan Rather, the story's on-air correspondent, follows major crises at USA Today and The New York Times, both of which occurred within the past 18 months. Top editors at those newspapers were forced out after star correspondents -- Jayson Blair at the Times, Jack Kelley at USA Today -- were found to have plagiarized or fabricated sections of many stories.

And those highly publicized failings have taken their toll on public faith in news organizations.

"That's not just Jayson Blair or Dan Rather," said Carroll Doherty, editor of the Pew Research Center. "It's an erosion of trust in the media across the board."

"It's a very, very tough time," says Tom Johnson, former chairman of CNN and publisher of the Los Angeles Times. "All you have is trust. When you have something like this, it is shaken."

Johnson led CNN in 1998 when the news channel broadcast a highly promoted investigative report that alleged the U.S. military used sarin gas on Americans in Laos during the Vietnam War. It did not stand up to scrutiny.

"I will regret, all of my life, the mistakes that were made on my watch," Johnson said. "You can spend many, many years, building a reputation, but you sure can tear it down quickly."

CNN named noted first amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams to lead an inquiry into what went wrong. Two producers and celebrated correspondent Peter Arnett ultimately lost their jobs. Johnson offered his own resignation, but his bosses refused to accept it. And, he said, he instituted safeguards that ensure CNN's journalism is more rigorously scrutinized today than ever.

Similar inquiries occurred at USA Today and the Times. At CBS, Leslie Moonves, head of the network, and Andrew Heyward, the president of CBS News, earlier this week appointed former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh -- who served under President George H.W. Bush -- and former Associated Press CEO Louis D. Boccardi to investigate how the 60 Minutes story was prepared and approved for broadcast. Boccardi served on a similar panel at the Times. At the Times, reforms ensued, including the appointment of a public editor, who writes a regular column critiquing the newspaper's performance.

Kovach questioned why CBS had not offered more detail about how its inquiry would proceed.

"CBS has taken the first step -- but it's only the first step," said Kovach, who also was on the three-person panel that helped document Kelley's myriad instances of journalistic corruption at USA Today."

He said that inquiries at both newspapers found cultures that allowed a single driven person to be rewarded -- repeatedly -- for dishonest behavior. Warning signs were inevitably overlooked, Kovach said.

Other incidents outside the newsroom, but involving media corporations, also have damaged the industry's credibility. Both Kovach and Johnson pointed to this year's circulation scandal at the Long Island-based Newsday, a Tribune Co. newspaper (The Sun is also owned by Tribune). Newsday executives appear to have wildly inflated circulation figures to keep advertising rates higher. Their discovery has cost the company tens of millions of dollars. Similar circulation discrepancies have been found at Hoy, a Tribune Spanish-language newspaper, and at the Chicago Sun-Times and the Dallas Morning News.

CBS News makes up a modest fraction of the $10.3 billion in gross profits that its parent company, the entertainment conglomerate Viacom, took in last year. Still, Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone and the company's corporate board are closely monitoring the fallout from the botched CBS story, spokeswoman Susan Duffy said.

Conservative critics have long targeted Rather and CBS, claiming they betray a liberal bent. An e-mail campaign has been launched to pressure local CBS stations to call for Rather's resignation or firing. In southeastern Virginia, a local talk radio station switched from CBS to ABC as a direct result of the scandal, according to the Associated Press.

But ratings appear to have held steady on the CBS Evening News, for which Rather is the anchor. During weekdays between Sept. 13 and Sept. 17, the newscasts drew between 5.1 million and 5.8 million viewers each night -- slightly above average.

The scandal may already be affecting the news judgment of the network's executives.

To make room for the Sept. 8 national guard story, 60 Minutes producers decided not to air a report that had taken months to research, according to Newsweek.

The story would have explored how the Bush administration was duped by forged documents when it claimed that Saddam Hussein tried to purchase materials from Niger to make weapons of mass destruction. That link was used to help justify the invasion of Iraq.

Last night, the network announced that the story would be postponed until after the November elections. "We now believe it would be inappropriate to air the report so close to the presidential election," CBS News said in a statement released last night.

Copyright © 2004, The Baltimore Sun

 

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CBS News appoints 2 to conduct outside review of report on Bush

'60 Minutes' aired story based on Guard memos network now disavows



By David Folkenflik
Sun Staff

September 23, 2004

CBS News appointed a former U.S. attorney general and a retired chief executive of the Associated Press yesterday to investigate how a botched story about President Bush's military record was researched and approved for broadcast.

Network executives picked Richard L. Thornburgh, attorney general under President George H.W. Bush - the current president's father - and Louis D. Boccardi, a former president and CEO of the worldwide news service. The inquiry is scheduled to begin this week.

Senior network officials did not comment yesterday. But in a recent interview, CBS News President Andrew Heyward said he hoped the inquiry would take "weeks, not months."

The network is reeling from a cascade of criticism in the wake of a 60 Minutes report that aired Sept. 8, which alleged that the younger Bush received preferential treatment while in the Texas Air Guard during the Vietnam era. CBS anchor Dan Rather was the on-air correspondent for the story, which relied on memos allegedly written by Bush's squadron commander. The documents were quickly attacked as forgeries. Ten days later, CBS disavowed the memos after determining that the person who provided them, retired National Guard Lt. Col. Bill Burkett, lied about how he obtained them.

"You know you're not having a great week when you discover the best news is that someone lied to you," said Bob Schieffer, CBS' chief Washington correspondent.

The network's apology, delivered Monday by Rather, and the investigation, are important steps to reassure viewers, Schieffer said. "I hope they let the chips fall where they may. Credibility is our coin of the realm."

The choice of Thornburgh, a Republican who also served as governor of Pennsylvania, could appease critics who contend that the network has a liberal bias, Schieffer said.

"CBS has two problems - the first problem is the truth," said Richard Wald, former senior vice president at ABC News. "The second problem is that of public trust and public perception."

When a producer for Dateline NBC was found to have rigged a GM truck with explosives in 1992 to illustrate a report that its design was unsafe, that network appointed an outside panel to review the incident.

"The news division didn't suffer, because they had an investigation, they found out what went wrong, and they appropriately made strong moves to fix it," Wald said.

Among the moves was the firing of NBC News President Michael Gartner.

In the CBS case, some outside critics - including the editorial page of the Hartford Courant in Connecticut, a sister paper to The Sun - have called on Rather to step down. But it is the position of the 60 Minutes producer, Mary Mapes, that looks most tenuous. Mapes, a 15-year CBS veteran based in Dallas, works for the Wednesday edition of the program, on which the Bush story aired. She recently secured photographs that broke open the story of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib in Iraq.

"That was one of the biggest stories that CBS News ever broke," said her former boss, Jeff Fager, now executive producer of the Sunday edition of 60 Minutes. "She's got a remarkable record of work."

Mapes, 48, also arranged for the first television interview with Essie Mae Washington-Williams, the out-of-wedlock daughter of the late South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, for decades a white segregationist, and his family's black servant.

But Mapes' reliance on Burkett backfired.

Additionally, Joe Lockhart, a senior strategist for the presidential campaign of Sen. John Kerry, told reporters this week that Mapes had phoned to ask that he call Burkett. The retired Guard officer, a strong Bush critic, wanted to speak to someone senior with the Democratic campaign.

The Sun reported yesterday that Burkett had asked to be paid for his cooperation with CBS, a violation of network ethics policies. A friend said Burkett was angry that CBS did not pay him, though a network spokeswoman said Burkett was told he could not be paid.

"Something horribly wrong happened here," said Fager. "She's got some explaining to do."

Copyright © 2004, The Baltimore Sun

 

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CBS producer urged Kerry aide to call source of memos on Bush

CBS confirms contact, denies any payments to former Guard officer



By David Folkenflik
Sun Staff
September 22, 2004

CBS News producer Mary Mapes prodded a senior aide to Sen. John Kerry to speak to the retired National Guard officer who provided now-discredited documents on President Bush's military service, according to the Kerry aide and CBS.

In an interview yesterday, Kerry strategist Joe Lockhart said Mapes called him Sept. 4, four days before the report was broadcast on CBS' 60 Minutes. According to Lockhart, Mapes told him CBS was ready to "move the National Guard story forward" on Bush, whose service record includes significant gaps. Lockhart said she told him she had documents to back her story.

"She didn't tell me what was in them, and I didn't ask," Lockhart said yesterday. Lockhart said Mapes did give him the telephone number of a source on the story - retired Texas National Guard Lt. Col. Bill Burkett, a vociferous Bush critic - and told him that Burkett hoped to receive a call from the Democratic campaign.

Lockhart said he called Burkett the next day, Sept. 5, and got an earful about how the Kerry campaign had failed to fend off attacks by a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Kerry was put on the defensive in August by the group's accusations that he had inflated his combat record. The conversation lasted three or four minutes, Lockhart said, and it was typical of the comments of many veterans sympathetic to Kerry, the Democratic nominee for president. He said they did not speak of Bush's National Guard record or the documents.

Mapes did not reply yesterday to messages seeking comment, and Burkett, by e-mail, declined to comment.

The network conceded yesterday that Mapes had contacted Lockhart on Burkett's behalf.

In an interview with USA Today, Burkett said Mapes had promised to help him get in touch with the Kerry campaign as part of an arrangement.

CBS News President Andrew Heyward has announced that he will commission an outside inquiry into how the flawed story reached the air.

"It is obviously against CBS News standards, and those of any other reputable news organization, to be associated with any political agenda," said network spokeswoman Kelli Edwards. "To the best of our understanding, there was no deal, but this is one of many issues the independent review will be examining."

But the journalist's involvement in coordinating the call between Lockhart and Burkett could further damage public trust in the network's objectivity during a heated political campaign.

"I'm really heartsick she made that call. It has the air of some kind of conspiracy behind it to help Kerry," said Sandy Socolow, a former executive producer of the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather and his predecessor, Walter Cronkite. "She was trying to manipulate the political process in some way that's not clear to me."

Burkett had expected CBS to pay him for his collaboration on the Bush story, according to Dennis Adams, a retired lieutenant colonel who served with him in the Guard. Burkett was angered by what he saw as the network's failure to do so, said Adams, who said he spoke to Burkett on Sunday.

"He had a contract with them," said Adams, although he said he did not know whether it was a verbal or written agreement. "He's had to pay a lot of money out of his own pocket. He has felt that strong about what he was doing."

CBS said no such payments were made or contemplated. "From the start, it was made clear to Bill Burkett that we do not compensate - in any way - the source or the subject of an interview," Edwards said.

The report broadcast Sept. 8 alleged that Bush had received preferential treatment in entering the Texas Air National Guard in 1968 and in avoiding his military obligations in 1972 and 1973. Documents said to come from the personal file of Bush's squadron commander appeared to verify that he had been disciplined but was protected by pressure from powerful patrons in the Guard.

On Monday, CBS News and anchor Dan Rather apologized for relying on documents provided by Burkett. Rather told viewers he could no longer vouch for the authenticity of the records after Burkett acknowledged misleading the network on how he obtained them.

For the 10-day period leading up to that admission, CBS endured a barrage of criticism for relying on the memos. Experts interviewed by other mainstream news outlets picked apart inconsistencies in the memos which indicated that they had been created on modern computers, not typewriters in use at the time they were allegedly written.

Prior to its apology on Monday, however, CBS had vigorously defended the story. And Rather had been particularly dismissive of "partisan political operatives" whom he said were its chief critics.

White House aides stayed quiet on the subject yesterday, after several days of questioning whether the Democrats had been involved in putting together the 60 Minutes story. In comments to CBS, Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, suggested that there might be ties between the Kerry campaign and the network.

In yesterday's interview, Lockhart said he did not know Mapes before the call. Asked why he would call Burkett at her request, Lockhart said: "I would hate to wake up Nov. 15th" - two weeks after the election - "and find out this guy had had useful information."

Sun staff writer Ellen Gamerman contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2004, The Baltimore Sun

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CBS apologizes, says it can't vouch for military documents

'60 Minutes' story on Bush's Guard service relied on unsubstantiated material; Rather regrets 'mistake in judgment'



By David Folkenflik
Sun Staff

September 20, 2004, 10:24 PM EDT

CBS News retracted Monday much of a report on President Bush's military service, saying it had been deceived by a retired Texas Air National Guard official who presented documents seeming to show that Bush had received preferential treatment to avoid fulfilling his Vietnam War-era obligations.

The network and its chief anchor, Dan Rather, the on-air correspondent for the original Sept. 8 report, expressed "deep regret" and took responsibility for lapses in judgment that led to reliance on the documents now disavowed by CBS.

"There's no excuse," Rather said in an interview. "I made a mistake. We made a mistake. We clearly established the documents could have been authentic. But we did not prove they were authentic."

Rather said he was unaware before his story aired that at least two of the four experts asked by CBS to authenticate the memos had expressed reservations. But he said he took responsibility for those lapses, along with his colleagues.

The network announced Monday that it would launch an independent investigation of the breakdown of journalistic standards that allowed the documents said to be from Bush's squadron commander, Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, to form the basis of the recanted 60 Minutes report. CBS News President Andrew Heyward said he intended to name at least two people outside CBS to review its news-gathering process and to release a public report.

"This is something that's raised questions about our credibility," Heyward said in an interview. "The answer is that you're transparent about what you know and what you don't know. You look very candidly at your own institution. You take steps to shore up what mistakes you may have made. And you continue, day in and day out, to do good reporting."

Within hours of the Sept. 8 prime-time broadcast, Web loggers questioned the documents, skeptically reviewing features considered more common to modern-day word processors than typewriters in widespread use in the early 1970s. By Sept. 10, mainstream news organizations interviewed professional document examiners who pointed out a series of warning signs. But the network stood by its story, calling the source of the memos "unimpeachable." On the CBS Evening News on Sept. 10 and Sept. 13, Rather summarized the growing objections but offered a pointed defense.

Monday night reflected a near-total collapse of that stance.

Many conservative critics have long alleged that CBS has an ideological bias against Republicans -- a contention the network vehemently rejects. But White House spokesman Scott McClellan linked the discredited CBS report to a series of Democratic assaults on Bush.

Bill Burkett, the retired National Guard official who provided the documents to CBS, said Monday in an e-mail circulated to reporters that his contacts with Kerry allies were limited to deflecting attacks on Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry's combat service in Vietnam.

CBS News had gained momentum this year with a series of hard-hitting stories, including broadcast of pictures revealing the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and a recent report about a possible transfer of classified information from the Pentagon to the Israeli government.

CBS' missteps on the Bush National Guard story have damaged the network's credibility in the public eye, other journalists say. In previous debacles at NBC, The New York Times and USA Tuesday, senior figures lost their jobs.

"It's really a horror," said Lawrence K. Grossman, former president of NBC News and PBS. "I feel sorry for these guys, but it is a betrayal of people's trust in many ways.

"Someone's going to have to fall for it," he said.

Burkett, a retired lieutenant colonel, said last night on CBS that he had misled producers when he said a former Air Guard official gave him copies of the documents.

"You know, your staff pressed me to a point to reveal that source," Burkett told Rather. "I simply threw out a name that was, basically, I guess, to take a little pressure off for a moment."

But Burkett said he did not fake the documents and pointed to another source. CBS said it could not verify the identity of the second person.

Rather took pains Monday to express his personal regret. In remarks to The Sun, Rather said he first became convinced on Thursday that the network had erred. That's when the former national guard officer acknowledged lying to CBS about how he obtained the papers. Rather flew to Dallas to tape the interview with Burkett on Saturday.

Even before the original broadcast, Rather said, the story drew the active participation of much of the network's senior leadership, including Josh Howard, the executive producer of the Wednesday edition of 60 Minutes, CBS Senior Vice President Betsy West and Heyward, the news president. Through a spokeswoman, the story's chief producer, Mary Mapes, declined to comment. West and Howard could not be reached Monday.

The Sept. 8 report included an interview with former Texas House Speaker Ben Barnes, an influential Democrat who said he helped Bush enter the National Guard in 1968 at the bidding of a friend of Bush's father, who was then a congressman. Other former National Guard figures spoke of the climate of favoritism that they said enabled Bush to avoid required duties. Significant gaps in the record make it difficult to flesh out details of Bush's military service, especially in 1972 and 1973, when he was no longer flying. (White House aides point to Bush's honorable discharge to show he met his responsibilities.)

CBS has not retracted that part of the story.

However, it has disavowed the memos, supposedly from Killian, which described a disciplining of Bush for failure to comply with direct orders. In the memos, Killian, who died in 1984, also appeared to have complained of pressure from superior officers to go easy on Bush. While covering Hurricane Frances in Florida over Labor Day weekend, Rather said, he asked Heyward to step in to help review papers brought forward by Burkett.

Heyward would not offer specifics Monday, deferring to the inquiry he plans. "Throughout the reporting process and vetting process, obviously there were senior editors and executives involved," he said. "This story received a lot of attention."

But recent interviews suggest several key moments at which CBS News failed to save itself.

CBS asked four document examiners to scrutinize the memos, which it did not initially reveal to its viewers were copies, not originals. In defending the Sept. 8 story, the network said that "several" experts had vouched for their authenticity. But in interviews with The Sun, examiners Linda James and Emily Will said they had expressed doubts. CBS responded by disputing how vehemently they had objected, but said they were nonetheless "peripheral" to the review process. The network now acknowledges that it relied largely on one examiner, Marcel Matley, who has since then said publicly that he vouched merely for parts of the documents.

CBS failed to interview key figures such as Marian Knox, Killian's former secretary, who later declared the memos to be forgeries but consistent with his thinking. Neither did CBS interview retired Air Guard Col. Walter "Buck" Staudt, who was mentioned in the memo as interfering to protect Bush in 1973 but who was subsequently shown by The Dallas Morning News to have left the Guard more than a year earlier.

CBS also took the failure of the White House to object to the documents as a sign that they were genuine.

In circular fashion, the network's journalists took the information they had already gathered about Bush's record -- from Barnes and Killian's former colleagues -- to validate their belief the documents were real, and then used those papers to back their larger story.

"We shouldn't have done it," Rather said Monday, "but we offered the documents in support of what we knew to be true information."

Copyright © 2004, The Baltimore Sun

 

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CBS agrees to try to resolve document dispute

Republicans call for probe into papers in Bush story



By David Folkenflik
Sun Staff
September 16, 2004

Acknowledging crushing public criticism, CBS News President Andrew Heyward said yesterday that his network would seek to resolve questions about disputed documents relied on in a story a week ago to allege that President Bush had used well-placed connections to avoid fulfilling his military duties while in the Texas Air National Guard.

Some leading Republicans on Capitol Hill denounced CBS yesterday, calling on the network to characterize the unnamed source of the papers. Rep. Christopher Cox, a California Republican, called for a congressional investigation, saying there was a "growing abundance of evidence that CBS News has aided and abetted fraud."

The network continued to maintain yesterday that its documents are real based on a "preponderance of the evidence." But on the CBS Evening News last night, Heyward said: "Enough questions have been raised that we're going to redouble our efforts."

The original story, narrated by Dan Rather and broadcast Sept. 8 on 60 Minutes, featured an interview with Ben Barnes, a powerful Texas Democrat who said he intervened to secure a slot for Bush in the Texas Air National Guard. He said he was acting at the behest of a friend of Bush's father, then a congressman, to protect the younger Bush from serving in combat in Vietnam. But Rather told viewers new revelations were contained in "a number of documents we are told were taken from [Lt. Col. Jerry B.] Killian's personal file." Killian, then Lieutenant Bush's squad commander, complained that Bush had refused direct orders and used connections to avoid fulfilling his duties, according to the documents.

Elements of the story quickly came under withering fire. Independent document experts questioned the style and spacing of the type on the supposed memos. Family members of Killian, who died in 1984, said they doubted the memos were real. And Marion Carr Knox, Killian's former secretary, told newspapers and CBS that they were not genuine, although she said his reported feelings toward Bush had been reflected in similar documents that she had typed at the time.

Referring to the records obtained by CBS, Knox told Rather: "I know that I didn't type them. However, the information in those is correct."

Last night, CBS seized on Knox's characterization to bolster its case for the memos.

CBS also identified the four experts it had consulted to authenticate the Killian papers. In recent days, Linda James and Emily Will, two analysts who said they were asked by CBS to review the documents before the broadcast, have stepped forward to say they raised questions about the memos before the broadcast, but the network brushed their doubts aside. In a statement, CBS said that the two had misstated their involvement, adding that the two women "played a peripheral role in the authentication process" and had deferred to the judgment of San Francisco-based document examiner Marcel Matley, who has defended the authenticity of some aspects of the memos. A fourth examiner, James J. Pierce, also continues to support the documents, the network said.

But in interviews with The Sun, both women said they had not deferred to Matley.

"That is untrue," James said yesterday by telephone. "I did not authenticate them. This keeps on getting more and more involved."

Instead, James, a document examiner from Texas, said that she had been asked by CBS to look at several apparent Killian documents five days before the broadcast and that she made clear her reservations about them.

Will, a North Carolina-based documents consultant, said she was sent two copies of memos to review by the network three days before the broadcast. One, a document dated August 1972 that was used on the air, contained only initials, not a signature.

Before the broadcast, Will said, she told the network she could not vouch for the authenticity of the initials and also expressed reservations about some of the typewriting features - for example, a superscript "th" next to the number 111, which is more common to papers produced on modern word processors than typewriters of the early 1970s.

In an interview yesterday, Will said she called a journalist at CBS the night before the broadcast - she declined to name the person - to ask whether the network was pressing on with the story. When she learned it was, she repeated her concerns, telling them: "If you run that on the air Wednesday, you're going to have problems with people like me on Thursday."

Will said the network's reliance on photocopies made it difficult to speak with any certainty on the documents' validity.

CBS also produced two experts after the first broadcast who said it was possible such documents dated back to the early 1970s because typewriters with such features did exist. And the network also said that, in addition to the now-disputed papers, it relied on corroborating interviews from Killian's Air National Guard colleagues to support the depiction of his views.

Until last night, CBS had declined to release the names of the experts it relied on to review the documents. Will said that that confidentiality came at the direction of the network and that she felt they were abusing that agreement to misrepresent her stance.

"The statements they were issuing made it sound like they had no reason to doubt the documents at all - that the experts all backed them up," Will said. "Considering the things they were continuing to say, I felt morally released from that agreement."

Rather's involvement in the politically charged story has led some Bush allies to challenge the network's general credibility.

The conservative talk show host Sean Hannity questioned the legitimacy of photographs obtained by the same 60 Minutes producer, Mary Mapes, that led to the Abu Ghraib prison scandal this year. Yesterday, CBS called Mapes "a well-respected, veteran journalist whose credibility has never been questioned [and who] has been following this story [on Bush] for more than five years."

Some other observers argued that CBS has been too slow to respond.

"CBS was had," an editorial in the Los Angeles Times said yesterday. "Who fed a seeming ringer to CBS, and why did the network fall for it?"

Copyright © 2004, The Baltimore Sun

http://www.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/tv/bal-to.media14sep14,1,6216970.column

Gingerly handling Kelley's Bush book
Writer's sources a bit of a muddle


Media: David Folkenflik



September 14, 2004

According to Kitty Kelley, George W. Bush abused drugs while his father was president and George H.W. Bush was a philanderer.

These are among the claims made in The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty (Doubleday, 2004). It's the newest book by Kelley, an author known more for the best-seller status of her celebrity biographies than the precision of her reporting. Though the book is being released today, it already has been denounced by the White House. And it's already reached second place on Amazon.com's best-seller list.

Major television news programs, far from recoiling in disdain, have competed to snag Kelley for their shows. The resulting coverage resembles a smoke-and-mirror act in which the author's sensational charges materialize through mainstream media outlets without the news organizations themselves having to take responsibility for the reporting.

Yesterday, the most-watched morning show, NBC's Today, broadcast the first of three scheduled interviews with Kelley. And you can find her other places, too. She is supposed to appear on sister cable station MSNBC tonight and Sept. 20. CNN's NewsNight is also scheduled to feature her tonight. Newsweek, however, turned down a proposal to publish an excerpt from the book.

Max Frankel knows the dance all too well. He was executive editor of The New York Times in 1991, when the newspaper gave front-page advance treatment to Kelley's unauthorized biography of Nancy Reagan. The book portrayed the former first lady and Hollywood actress as duplicitous, scheming and unfaithful. The article reflected the thrust of the book - which relied extensively on anonymous sources. "I was very unhappy with that article," said Frankel, who said he had no role in the decision to run it. "I didn't see the evidence or the reliability of her sources in our story."

Want evidence? Watch Court TV. For second- or third-hand gossip with breathless dish about surpassing celebs - Liz Taylor, the Reagans, the British Royals, Jackie O - Kelley's the one. Kelley's publisher, Doubleday, insisted the new book could not circulate until today because it was "so explosive and re[v]ealing." But parts of it were leaked - first on Sept. 5 to a London tabloid, the Mail. Its slender account was soon picked up online by the Drudge Report and quickly relayed in other outlets, including the Boston Herald, The New York Times and The Washington Post. The Times, which looked at the Republican response, had obtained a copy of the book. The Post, which looked at the likely media coverage, had not.

"It may be some things that Kitty Kelley says about Bush will turn out to be true," said James Fallows, a former editor of U.S. News & World Report who is now a Washington-based correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly. But he said publishers often abdicate their presumed responsibility to verify that what they are publishing is true: "For better or worse, the difference between books and blogs" - the often ideological Web sites that traffic in rumor and speculation - "are disappearing."

For journalists, Fallows offered this advice: "Follow the leads that seem verifiable - then publish those."

In the book, Kelley does list literally hundreds of sources, but it is still difficult to determine the precise origins of her richly detailed anecdotes and allegations.

Kelley's publisher stands behind her reporting. "The book was vetted by four different lawyers. The legal review is comprehensive," said David Drake, a spokesman for Doubleday. "Fact-checking was certainly part of the editorial process, as well."

NBC's Matt Lauer yesterday challenged Kelley on her political leanings, her sources and her motives - though he didn't mention her multimillion dollar book contract. And he pinned her down on what has emerged as the most charged accusation - that President Bush snorted cocaine at Camp David while his father was president.

Kelley cites both Sharon Bush, the former wife of George W. Bush's younger brother Neil, as a source, as well as a second, unnamed person. Sharon Bush has denied recounting any such behavior, though her former publicist, who attended the interview, has confirmed the gist of her remarks. (NBC had an "exclusive" interview with Sharon Bush yesterday; CNN's Paula Zahn had one, too.) Kelley replied that her editor spoke with Sharon Bush and verified those remarks. But Lauer seemed skeptical that Kelley had not taped such a pivotal interview, as many of her interviews were taped.

"My standards are my standards," Kelley told Lauer. "I write the books the same way every good reporter writes books, and that is to abide by the laws of libel and the laws of invasion of privacy."

Not every reporter. Some journalists take exception to the way she translates what she gathers during interviews - recollections, suggestions, even gossip - into seeming fact on the page.

"Despite her wretched excesses, Kelley has the core of the story right. Kelley's problem is in the details," Newsweek's Jonathan Alter wrote in 1991 after the publication of her Nancy Reagan book. "Her account is a mishmash: something old, something new, something borrowed something true. Mostly, Kelley collates and embellishes the dozens of stray rumors and anti-Reagan stories that have floated around for years."

In a 1986 profile published by The Sun, the author conceded that she had based an anecdote about movie star Ava Gardner on a single quotation from the wife of a cameraman. In that account, Kelley alleged that Gardner, the former wife of Frank Sinatra, had said she had gotten an abortion because "I hated Frankie so much."

Toward the end, former Sun reporter Alice Steinbach asked: "So you really only had the say-so of one woman. And you accepted it at face value?"

Kelley: "Oh, no, no, no. I tried with Ava Gardner. I sent a letter with that part in it, among other things."

Steinbach: "But when you got no answer and couldn't corroborate the remark, you decided to go ahead and print it, trusting that the information given you by one source was true."

Kelley: "Yes, I did."

That was 18 years ago.

Bush's Republican allies last week sent out warnings to radio talk show hosts, trying to blunt Kelley's publicity drive by recounting problems with the facts as presented in her past biographies. But with each new book, Kelley re-enters the limelight - and even the skeptical coverage is coverage. Officials for NBC and the Today show would not comment for this article. But they did issue a brief statement that read, in part: "This was a very competitive interview that all the morning shows were after."

Copyright © 2004, The Baltimore Sun

Rather's doubters unmoved

Verifying papers at center of issue



By David Folkenflik
Sun Staff
September 13, 2004

Dan Rather's forceful defense last Friday of a CBS News story about gaps in President Bush's service in the Air National Guard does not appear to have assuaged those who doubt its accuracy.

The report relied upon documents whose authenticity was immediately challenged by Bush supporters. It also threw professional document analysts into an uproar and sparked intense debate among journalists about how CBS News handled both the report, which aired last Wednesday on 60 Minutes, and the ensuing furor.

"What steps did they use to authenticate the documents?" asked Brian Ross, chief investigative reporter for ABC News. "It's good reporting to show off how much you know."

In Wednesday's broadcast about Bush's military service, for which Rather served as the on-air correspondent, three main sources were cited:

  • An interview with former Texas House Speaker Ben Barnes. The long-time politician said that at the behest of a friend of Bush's father (then a congressman), he had pulled strings to ensure that Bush received a slot in the Air National Guard in 1968 to avoid combat duty in Vietnam.

  • Newly disclosed documents from Bush's squad commander in the Texas Air National Guard, Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, who died in 1984. In what CBS has characterized as coming from a "personal file," Killian described rebuking and suspending Lt. Bush from flight status in 1972 because he had refused a physical. In addition, in a memo dated 1973, Killian complained about being pressured by superiors to treat Bush lightly, CBS reported.

  • An interview with Robert Strong, an administrative officer with the guard unit and a colleague of Killian's. Strong said the memos reflected Killian's thinking and the politicized atmosphere of the time.

    On the air Wednesday, Rather said CBS News had the memos examined. "We consulted a handwriting analyst and document expert who believes the material is authentic," he said.

    However, 60 Minutes did not say how it obtained the memos - and did not characterize its source in any way. (The White House has not challenged the validity of the documents, but aides have said Bush's honorable discharge proves he fulfilled his obligations. )

    Any news organization broadcasting or publishing potentially highly charged reports - particularly in an election year - must make sure the information is accurate and that the public understands why it can be believed, said experienced reporters.

    "That's the kind of thing that you really have to do when you have a controversial topic - endless shoe-leather [reporting]," said Donald L. Barlett, half of a prize-winning investigative reporting team for Time magazine. "That kind of work just takes a lot of time. There are no shortcuts."

    There is a particularly heavy responsibility for news organizations that rely upon anonymous sources, reporters said. Typically, any news organization that grants anonymity to a source will then go to exceptional lengths to keep that promise. "We're going to protect our source, every way we can," CBS spokeswoman Sandy Genelius said yesterday.

    But the genesis of the information can provide valuable clues in evaluating its worth. "If this came from somebody who was inside the Pentagon records center and said, 'Here's some documents,' then it's better than somebody who's a partisan Democrat," said Ross of ABC. "Your level of skepticism would rise, the more a person has to gain."

    "I've never thought that simply relying on a source got you off the hook for your own credibility," said Brooks Jackson, a former investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal and CNN. Jackson now runs FactCheck.org, a Web site dedicated to reviewing claims made by politicians.

    According to Genelius, CBS stands by the story. The network interviewed "several" handwriting and documents experts on the record to ensure the memos' validity before last Wednesday's broadcast. None was interviewed in the Wednesday report. One was described on air to viewers - but not until last Friday when Rather was defending the network.

    Barlett of Time said yesterday that he and his partner, James B. Steele, had two rules of thumb when evaluating documents of uncertain provenance. First, he said, they consult, at minimum, three or four analysts with expertise in typewriting or handwriting. Second, they would not consider documents that were "10th generation" - that is, photocopied so many times that they could not be credibly examined.

    Marcel Matley, the analyst who was interviewed by Rather during Friday's broadcast, said that many who were skeptical of the validity of the Killian memos were led astray because they relied upon reproduced copies. But Rather acknowledged Friday that his network also was using copies, not originals, of the documents. "That's a real issue," Barlett said.

    Authenticating documents is not an academic exercise. Last year, the Christian Science Monitor apologized to a British Member of Parliament after it published a story based upon falsified papers. The story had alleged that the lawmaker had profited from humanitarian efforts to aid Iraqi civilians. And in 1997, ABC News planned a report based on documents that seemed to show that Marilyn Monroe had been paid to keep quiet about an affair with President John F. Kennedy. Experts hired by the network exposed the papers, provided by a consultant paid to help ABC, as a fraud.

    "Any time an investigative news operation puts something out like that, they're putting their own credibility behind it," said longtime investigative journalist Jackson. "It doesn't look good for CBS - at least at the moment."

    Copyright © 2004, The Baltimore Sun

CBS, Rather stand firm on Bush story as furor swells
Critics call into question cited memos' authenticity

By David Folkenflik
September 11, 2004

CBS anchor Dan Rather vigorously defended yesterday his reliance on memos that appeared to show President Bush avoided fulfilling his service obligations as a lieutenant in the Air National Guard in the early 1970s, even as a controversy intensified over the authenticity of those documents.

The original report, broadcast on Wednesday's edition of 60 Minutes, sparked a near-immediate backlash on conservative Web sites and radio programs. Forensic experts subsequently interviewed by other news outlets - including The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press and NBC News, among others - questioned the authenticity of the documents, pointing to typeface and spacing features more consistent with modern computer word-processing programs than IBM typewriters of the era. Also, the family members of the squad leader who reportedly wrote the memos and who died two decades ago denounced the story, saying they did not believe the memos are genuine.

"The 60 Minutes report was based not solely on the recovered documents but on a preponderance of evidence, including documents that were provided by unimpeachable sources, and interviews with former officials of the Texas National Guard," Rather said during a six-minute story on the CBS Evening News last night. "If any definitive evidence to the contrary of our story is found, we will report it."

The Dallas Morning News is reporting today that an official named in one of the disputed memos for pressuring an officer to "sugar coat" Bush's military evaluation apparently left the National Guard more than a year before the memo was supposedly written. Late last night, a CBS News spokeswoman said the network did not have a direct response to that development. "We stand by our story," said the spokeswoman, Kelli Edwards.

CBS fought challenges directly through the day, as Rather defended the 60 Minutes piece, first on CNN and again on his newscast. Additionally, the network issued statements that explicitly rejected Internet reports, on such sites as the Drudge Report, that it had launched an internal inquiry into the veracity of its account. Instead, during his newscast, Rather portrayed the criticism as "counterattacks" fueled in part by "partisan political operatives" seeking to distract attention from the wider foundation of his story. Although producer Mary Mapes had reported much of the story, Rather served as the on-air correspondent for the 60 Minutes report, and he conducted the interviews that appeared. No dissenting voices were heard in last night's newscast, though Rather summarized several objections.

The disputed report is the latest in a series of controversial charges over how the nation's two main presidential candidates conducted themselves during the Vietnam War era. Throughout the summer, Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry found himself defending his record as a Swift boat commander in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969 after a group of Navy veterans questioned his version of incidents that led to some of his combat medals. While those allegations have been largely discredited, they are widely believed to have contributed to Kerry's recent slump in the polls.

The White House and the Bush-Cheney campaign were willing to see the growing controversy cast doubt on the broader allegations that the future president had shirked his duties. "We are just watching the report unfold," campaign spokesman Reed Dickens said.

"We don't know whether the documents were fabricated or authentic," White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters yesterday morning. "CBS has not disclosed where the documents came from." As of last night, CBS had not revealed the identity or nature of its source.

The 60 Minutes report included an interview with Ben Barnes, a powerful Texas politician who said he pulled strings to get Bush into the Air National Guard unit so he could avoid the military draft and combat service. Barnes said he had been asked by a wealthy Texas oil executive to help the young man, whose father, future President George Bush, was then a Houston congressman.

Yesterday's CBS report followed the release this week of military records that were supposed to have been made public in February and that, like other documents, do not show conclusively that Bush fulfilled his duties. The Boston Globe also reported this week that a fresh analysis of Bush's record in the guard from 1968 to 1973 shows that he failed to meet his responsibilities under two contracts he signed - a lapse that the newspaper said could have resulted in his reassignment to combat duty.

Rather and 60 Minutes relied on memos said to reflect the contemporaneous thoughts of Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian of the Air National Guard. In one, apparently from May 1972, Killian recounts rebuking then-Lieutenant Bush for wanting to get out of his service requirements to work on the Alabama political campaign of a friend of his father. Another, from August of that year, seems to show that Bush had been suspended from flight status because he failed to meet requirements and refused to undergo a required annual flight examination. A third memo also suggested pressure from Col. Walter "Buck" Staudt - the official who The Dallas Morning News is now reporting had already left the service - to "sugar-coat" Bush's performance evaluations.

But attacks mushroomed online over the technical details of the documents, which the White House released to reporters without challenge. Critics, some claiming expertise, said that the typeface was a font common to word processors and was not available on decades-old typewriters. Addresses were centered on the page, rather than flush with one margin or another - an attribute of computer programs, these critics said. And, they said, the presence of a raised "th" next to ordinal numbers in the memos - as in a reference to the 111th Fighter Interceptor Squadron - was a dead giveaway. It's a complicated maneuver on typewriters, but computers often automatically elevate the "th" in such numbers, they said.

CBS directly combated several of those challenges yesterday. The typeface attributed to the documents by some skeptics has been available since 1931, according to CBS. And the elevated "th" could be found on military documents at least as early as 1968, the network said, reproducing one example in a record previously released by the White House. CBS also aired portions of two interviews with Marcel Matley, a document and handwriting analyst who vouched for the authenticity of the memos. On last night's broadcast, Matley argued that the repeated reproduction of the memos has corrupted their quality, preventing outside analysts from getting a clear look at them.

Copyright © 2004, The Baltimore Sun

 

http://www.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/tv/bal-to.abcnow03sep03,1,3736.story

ABC putting news at your fingertips

Network using Web to expand coverage of the conventions


By David Folkenflik
September 3, 2004

NEW YORK - Just before 7 p.m., Peter Jennings stands on the floor of Madison Square Garden and begins to speak into a hand-held microphone. As delegates to the Republican National Convention mill around him, a few snapping pictures, he offers a brief description of the day's news and foreshadows the speeches by backers of President Bush to come. As ABC's half-hour-long World News Tonight draws to an end, Jennings is appearing live before millions of television viewers.

A few seconds later, the dapper anchor, after smoothing invisible creases in his blazer and adjusting his trademark pocket square, faces the camera and starts to speak again. Now, Jennings can forget about the time, but his broadcast will reach only tens, or perhaps hundreds of thousands of Americans. It is part of ABC News Now, an experimental service that offers seemingly limitless political coverage to a select group of Americans - whenever, wherever, and even however they want to view it.

"I'm having a terrific time," Jennings says later, off the air. "It's a hugely important venture."

Indeed, ABC News Now is being hailed by some media professionals as the next big thing in delivering the news, a development potentially as significant as the emergence of cable news two decades ago.

Right now, ABC News Now can be seen only by those people who own digital televisions, subscribe to high-speed Internet services from AOL, Comcast or Yahoo, or own specialized cell phones from Sprint. Small hand-held Internet devices, such as BlackBerrys or Palm Pilots, are likely to carry it too someday soon - assuming ABC News Now survives past Election Day.

And that means, sometime in the near future, you may call up ABC News reports at your convenience as you wait for a doctor's appointment, ride a bus to a friend's house, or take a break from poring over spreadsheets at work.

"Listen, one of the reasons people don't watch television anymore is that they're nowhere near a television set when we come on," Jennings says. "If interesting political news and discussions are available to people on computers in their offices, or phones when they're sitting in a railroad station, we may encourage people to take more of an interest in politics."

Jennings himself has been disappointed by the way his network and its competitors cover politics. They're too stingy with their time, he says.

On Monday, the first night of the Republican convention that ended yesterday, none of the three major broadcast networks - ABC, CBS and NBC - carried any speakers live. Each network broadcast at least an hour of the nights that followed.

"I would think it a tragedy if the networks ever neglected the conventions," Jennings says. "The political importance of the conventions has been pre-empted by the primary season. We in television use free airwaves. There's absolutely no reason we shouldn't cover these conventions every year and consider it a privilege.

"This new technology enables us not only to do it, but bring to bear - in a way that I think we won't be able to in the newscasts anymore - the full expertise of our news team."

Drawing interest

The approach is drawing interest inside the media, even if the greater public is not yet wired for such multimedia fare.

"Clearly, this is a strategic investment in the future of always-on, digital, 24-hour on-demand media," says Andrew Nachison, director of the Media Center, a Reston, Va., think tank that studies the implications of technological innovation in the news industry. "ABC can point to its News Now experiment as a step forward - something that is technically and programmatically more ambitious."

But some critics suggest the creation of the service proves that the original networks simply aren't fulfilling their civic responsibilities to cover the news. "They're not getting the time that they think they deserve for important news coverage," says University of Miami broadcast journalism professor Sam Roberts, a former foreign editor for CBS News. "It's really too bad what's happening to the network news divisions. They're really a shell of what they used to be."

"It's a joke, an abrogation of their own public interest obligation," says Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, an advocacy group that opposes the granting of new digital channels to the networks. "They should be ashamed of it. They have a broadcast network they can put that on."

ABC News executives say, in response, that they are trying to respond creatively to the realities of the modern media world.

Because of greater competition from cable, Web sites and even video games, the big three broadcast networks are no longer assured of audience loyalty. As they look to sustain profits, network chiefs are increasingly reluctant to turn over prime-time terrain to such events as conventions, during which ratings sag and they often forgo advertising.

"You can say that's sad, but it's like saying gravity is sad," says David Westin, president of ABC News. "There are some things that we can talk about that we can change or even influence. And then there are some things that we have to recognize are larger than all of us."

In 1996, when ABC was in the process of being purchased by the Walt Disney Co., it froze plans to create a 24-hour cable news service to challenge CNN. While ABC hesitated, MSNBC and Fox News filled the niche.

As Westin and Jennings tell it, the anchor returned from Baghdad this summer and proposed a deal: He'd be willing to anchor gavel-to-gavel coverage of the two major political parties' conventions on the network's Internet site if Westin would publicize it.

Westin took the idea a step further, coupling Jennings' ambitions with his own for a multimedia initiative that would last through the election season. They kicked it off with the Democratic convention in July, and hope it will endure past November, a possibility Disney President Robert Iger has said is likely because of the service's relatively low cost.

Jennings isn't the only one seeking a greater reach for his coverage. NBC's Tom Brokaw could be seen during both parties' conventions popping up regularly on his network's sister cable channel, MSNBC. On Monday night, CBS' Dan Rather anchored coverage of former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's speech for a broadcast seen exclusively on WCBS-TV, that network's New York City station. Rather also filed entries in a Web journal on politics this week for CBSNews .com.

After the election

This week on ABC News Now, familiar faces such as George Stephanopoulos and Terry Moran cropped up with frequency, and Sam Donaldson took questions from AOL users. But after convention week, new shows will focus on entertainment, health and other topics. Online viewers can choose to view live pool feeds - such as political speeches and ceremonies - unencumbered by commentary. And they can call up earlier ABC news stories at their leisure.

"I want them to feel that they are snacking on information constantly," says Michael Clemente, executive producer of ABC News Now. "They can check in at any point of the day."

The images produced typically look crisp, but can vary depending on the quality of the connection. The Sprint phones receive only two or three video frames per second, so the telephone service gives only a flavor of what's being shown on television at any time. The audio component is more reliable.

So far, the measures of audience response available have been gratifying, according to network executives and their partners. Wednesday night, AOL received 600,000 visitors to its AOL Press Pass, which relies on ABC News Now's feed, and 1.2 million in the first three days of the Republican convention alone. That breaks company records, AOL spokesman Brian Hoyt says. The previous record, during coverage of Hurricane Charley, was 350,000.

Network newscasts typically receive between 6 million and 9 million viewers, while top-rated cable news shows attract audiences in the low millions.

"It's very satisfying to us as reporters," says Jennings. "Nobody has turned us down to have a conversation about politics, and about the country, even though they know they might be only seen by people on telephones."

Copyright © 2004, The Baltimore Sun

 

Director Moore stirs up delegates

Media: David Folkenflik


September 1, 2004

NEW YORK - Celebrity director Michael Moore, who was hired as a guest columnist by USA Today to write about the Republican National Convention, inspired headlines Monday night even before he had written a word. In so doing, the liberal documentarian made the kind of news the paper would have liked to avoid.

During a prime-time speech televised Monday night on all the major networks, Arizona Sen. John S. McCain singled out Moore, referring to him as "a disingenuous filmmaker." Moore is the creator and director of Fahrenheit 9/11, a documentary in which he offers a blistering critique of President Bush's decision to invade Iraq.

Delegates interrupted the speech to boo Moore, who was sitting in the press gallery above the convention arena floor. In an exchange captured by television cameras, the filmmaker smiled broadly and flashed his thumb and forefinger at the delegates in an "L" - a gesture popularized in the movie Jerry McGuire that means "loser."

Republicans present in Madison Square Garden seemed to relish the moment, and McCain repeated the line to rousing cheers. But USA Today editors yesterday chose to defend in print their decision to hire Moore as a commentator and held a staff meeting in New York to discuss the flap with employees.

The newspaper initially had hired two guest columnists to offer commentary about each political convention from a dissenting point of view. Ann Coulter, a well-known conservative writer whose work is distributed by the Universal Press Syndicate, was to report earlier this summer on the Democratic Convention in Boston. And Moore, who created a buzz this year when his documentary won the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, was to offer observations from New York City.

Neither idea panned out as planned. Coulter angrily withdrew from the arrangement before her first piece was published by USA Today because of disagreements with the paper's editors.

Brian Gallagher, the editorial page editor, wrote yesterday that he hired Moore, a committed critic of Bush, to offer a pointed counterpoint to the Republicans because political conventions "devolved long ago into little more than commercials." After Coulter's abrupt departure from the paper, Jonah Goldberg, of the conservative National Review, performed the same function from Boston about the Democrats.

From the get-go, Moore's presence at the convention sparked such intense interest - from wary security guards and star-struck members of the media - that it interfered with the ability of other reporters to file their stories.

According to several witnesses, Moore was holding court with a gaggle of reporters Monday evening even before entering the arena. The presence of a several-member personal security detail also drew intense scrutiny from the guards hired by Madison Square Garden.

Further confusion occurred because Moore did not have a pass that would allow him to sit in the largely empty, unassigned seats high above the floor. Guards instead directed him to sit in the press gallery, where USA Today reporters and their peers were working. As television crews raced to get footage of a left-wing critic inside the Republican convention, the media scrum surrounding Moore grew.

Because of the commotion, security guards prevented some credentialed reporters from reaching the press area, said Sandy Johnson, Washington bureau chief for the Associated Press. "When Michael Moore and his entourage of a dozen New York City cops showed up, it was terribly disruptive," she said. "Don't put him in the small amount of space set aside for the working press - which he's not."

USA Today editors said they did not intend - or expect - such a fuss.

"We would have discouraged Moore from going in [to the convention hall] if we had recognized that he would be a subject of controversy," USA Today Editor Ken Paulson said yesterday. "Our plan was to have him seated far from the podium and away from the camera lights - discreetly taking notes. You can never underestimate the power of celebrity."

Of all newspapers, USA Today should understand the power of celebrity's heat and fame, as its focus on the world of entertainment over its 22-year history has helped it become the nation's largest circulation daily. The predictable headline from yesterday's New York Post: "McCain rips Moore as celluloid zero." The New York Daily News: "McCain Mauls Moore." On Jim Romenesko's media Web site for the Poynter Institute: "USAT Guest Columnist Moore Comes Close to Disrupting RNC."

Moore did not return messages left for him with associates yesterday. But he told others that he would be a no-show at the convention for the rest of the week.

"He probably will not be there, given what happened [Monday] night," said Mark Benoit, a press aide to Moore. "It was a security and logistical nightmare."

Owen Ullmann, the deputy editorial page editor, said the decision not to return belonged to Moore. "He just said, in light of what happened [Monday], he thought it made sense to cover the convention without having to set foot in the hall," Ullmann said yesterday. "I don't think he would be the first person to do that."

Copyright © 2004, The Baltimore Sun

 

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Getting to the point
Conservative commentator Mark Hyman has always gone his own way, seeking positive stories in Iraq,
and this week, bringing his own spin to the GOP convention in New York.


By David Folkenflik
Sun Staff


August 31, 2004

NEW YORK - For the briefest of moments yesterday, Mark Hyman looked forlorn as he futilely made calls on a cell phone in a vacant hotel banquet room.

The conservative television editorialist for Sinclair Broadcast Group had just wrapped up a sit-down interview with Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. But he hasn't been able to secure time with Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine. And, during a weekend of major protests against this week's Republican National Convention, Hyman hadn't received even a single response to his telephone calls to the chief anti-war coalition.

He shook his head, and then shrugged. The senator and the protesters may know little about Sinclair and less about Hyman. But the joke is on them. If Sinclair's ratings figures are to be believed, roughly 1.8 million American adults watch Hyman every day. That puts him in the company of far-better known pundits, such as the right-of-center populist Bill O'Reilly or the conservative Sean Hannity on the Fox News Channel - and far more than Joe Scarborough on MSNBC.

In fact, that audience would make Hyman, based at Sinclair's Baltimore County headquarters, one of the most widely watched conservative television commentators in the country.

"My commentaries are my own alone," Hyman says. "I say exactly what I believe." This week, the deeply tanned former U.S. Navy intelligence officer - now a captain in the Naval Reserves - is contributing taped editorials for Sinclair from the Republican National Convention. Hyman, 46, resembles many of the delegates here. He has close-cropped, salt-and-pepper hair and was wearing a dark, pinstriped, three-button suit and an American flag pin with a Secret Service emblem on his lapel.

Hyman did much the same thing from Boston during the Democratic National Convention, contributing five editorials to his station's broadcasts. But there was one difference - each pummeled John Kerry or his Democratic allies for perceived shortcomings. Hyman's unlikely to criticize President Bush very hard, if at all - but then, as Sinclair's chief commentator, his strong point of view is his calling card.

"I'm pretty conservative, but I'm a pragmatic guy," Hyman says.

Hyman's daily editorials, called "The Point" last several minutes, unlike the hourlong shows of O'Reilly or Hannity (shared with Alan Colmes). "The Point" appears every night on most of the television stations owned or operated by Sinclair - the largest collection of stations in the country. Saturdays are usually reserved for viewers' letters.

Exact comparisons are tricky because of the way in which Sinclair gets ratings from Nielsen Media Research. The O'Reilly Factor, the top-rated show on all cable news, attracts about 2.5 million viewers nightly - over the age of 2. Hyman, according to aggregated Nielsen ratings estimates from February, draws about 1.8 million over the age of 18, although that figure includes rebroadcasts.

But his reach occurs well out of the national media spotlight. Sinclair, after all, has no stations in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington or any of the country's other top 10 markets. Instead, the company has built up an empire of lesser stations in small to mid-sized regions; the largest market in which it has a presence is Minneapolis, followed by Sacramento, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Baltimore - where Sinclair owns WBFF-TV, a Fox affiliate, and controls WNUV-TV, a WB affiliate. Smaller cities like Asheville, N.C., Flint, Mich., Cedar Rapids, Iowa and Charleston, S.C., are amply represented.

Different approach

"He's interesting and fun to watch, somewhat refreshing in his approach to things - in the sense that not all original thoughts originate in Washington. I like that," says John Bilotta, a media relations consultant with government clients who befriended Hyman when he was a foreign correspondent for United Press International in London in the late 1980s.

This year, Hyman traveled to Iraq to find "good news stories" that he said were overlooked and undertold by a media that is intent on showing the invasion and occupation in a bad light. Along with Sinclair's corporate leadership, Hyman made national waves earlier this year by condemning Ted Koppel of ABC News for reading a roster of U.S. service members who died in Iraq on Nightline.

It was, Hyman said, a blatant anti-war gesture by the network. And Sinclair pulled the program from the seven ABC affiliates it owns and runs. The move was denounced by many newspaper editorials - and by a number of lawmakers, including Arizona Sen. John S. McCain, a Republican who supports the war. McCain called Sinclair's stance "unpatriotic." Joe Conason, a liberal columnist for the New York Observer, dismissed Hyman as "a dull facsimile of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity."

He is sometimes a bit stiff in front of the camera, and he typically gestures at the camera at the end of each taped editorial as he says, "And that's the point." But Hyman appeared comfortable yesterday as he sat at the hotel in Midtown Manhattan and interviewed Ehrlich. There are probably two good reasons for that. Both are conservative - though Ehrlich is a bit more moderate. And Hyman worked for Ehrlich in the mid-1990s as a congressional fellow when the governor served in the House of Representatives. "I helped to create this monster," Ehrlich joked yesterday.

David D. Smith, the CEO and chairman of the Sinclair Broadcast Group, hired Hyman to become a corporate vice president and head of the company's lobbying and public affairs efforts. Hyman says he hasn't lobbied in Washington for nearly three years - since his first editorial, which followed soon after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. He's devoted himself instead to his daily appearances on the editorials that are broadcast on more than 40 of the 62 stations owned or controlled by Sinclair.

His easy relationship with Ehrlich echoes that of the Smith family, which controls Sinclair and has been a generous financial backer of Republican causes and candidates, including Ehrlich and Bush. This year, Hyman served as the chief speaker at a fund-raising dinner for Anne Arundel Republicans, at which Ehrlich was the featured guest. Hyman says he's willing to visit almost any group that invites him to speak - but that, for some reason, Democrats rarely do.

According to Carl Gottlieb, who joined Sinclair in 2002 from the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a Washington-based think tank, Hyman's editorials are a visible, familiar and often controversial element of one of Sinclair's most cherished initiatives. From its Baltimore County studios, Sinclair creates a newscast for 16 stations - the number is growing - by integrating locally generated stories into a highly stylized format of fast-paced news laced with edgy takes on politics and popular culture.

"We're not our here to be provocateurs or anything, but if we're not making a difference one way or the other, why do it?" says Gottlieb, Sinclair's managing editor for the standardized program, called News Central. "You can get bland, middle-of-the-road targeted news anywhere - I dare say, right here in Baltimore."

What Hyman does, Gottlieb says, "is so strong. Like everything else, there are people who love him and people who hate him." The commentaries are more heavily produced than the typical television editorial, integrating interviews - such as yesterday's with Ehrlich - and videotaped footage. Hyman sometimes passes story ideas along to Sinclair reporters. But both he and Gottlieb say he respects the distinction between news staff and those offering opinions.

Military background

Hyman lives with his wife and their two sons and two daughters just outside Annapolis. He came to journalism in a roundabout way. He was the son of a U.S. Air Force veteran and moved frequently, spending part of his childhood in Maryland. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and later became an analyst, determining threats to Navy fighters from North Africa and the Middle East. He also served as a weapons inspector to ensure arms reductions in former Soviet Bloc countries.

He says he often found himself in conflict with those Pentagon planners who said that the Soviet Union, and later Russia, remained a big enough threat to justify major - and expensive - weapons programs. Instead, he wrote studies for the Navy in the late 1980s and early 1990s about the potential dangers posed by smaller countries such as Libya and Iraq - before the first Gulf War.

Now, he sees himself taking on similar sacred cows nightly on "The Point." "You pick up a daily newspaper, they've got a give-and-take, a response, an editorial page," Hyman says. "It's embarrassing for our media that the print media has some engagement and response with its readers. Talk radio does that. For television it's virtually non-existent.

"We thought that stimulating viewers - getting them engaged was important. Whether they agree or disagree is less important."

Copyright © 2004, The Baltimore Sun

 

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Swift boat attention creating confusion
Controversy drowns out other news

Media: David Folkenflik
August 25, 2004

Until the past few days, the more I read and the I more saw about the charges of a group of Vietnam War veterans who say John Kerry inflated the bravery he displayed in combat, the less I understood.

I knew the members of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth didn't like Kerry, but I didn't fully understand why. I knew they were calling him a liar, but I didn't entirely understand on what grounds. And I didn't really understand quite what to make of their claims - or why, as a citizen, I should care.

Where's the media when you really need them?

Conservative commentators say that the press initially responded to the allegations of the anti-Kerry Swift Boat Veterans for Truth by paying scant attention. Here, for example, was columnist Jeff Jacoby in yesterday's Boston Globe: "Far from leaping on the charges that Kerry's Vietnam heroism had been greatly exaggerated, the mainstream media's initial reaction was to largely ignore them."

But that's not really true. Earlier in the year, the Globe itself had done deep spade work turning up old military records and interviewing several former comrades who contested how brave Kerry really was. When the Swift boat group held a news conference in May to unveil its initial allegations that Kerry had exaggerated his wartime record, a database search shows, the Globe devoted two front-page stories to the subject.

The Dallas Morning News, The Washington Post, Knight-Ridder newspapers, Scripps-Howard, Copley News Service, McClatchy newspapers, the Houston Chronicle, the Washington Times and United Press International were among those print news outlets that spent significant ink on the claims. Fox News Channel, CBS and MSNBC yielded significant air time to the Swift boat veterans group's contentions that Kerry wasn't under fire, really, and his wounds weren't terribly serious.

Other than the Globe, however, many of the reports relied heavily on the he-said, she-said straitjacket of conventional political reporting, and did little to shed light on the substance of the claims.

Some accounts failed to note that some of the impressively credentialed Kerry critics had no first-hand knowledge of the events in dispute. Several of the critics had earlier praised him for the same incidents. Many assertions were hunches, for which they had no proof, posing as fact. And ultimately, as many of the anti-Kerry veterans admitted, they were angered by his anti-war activism in the early 1970s - not his war record.

Conversely, some liberal observers argue there's no cause to scrutinize Kerry's war record so closely. After all, they say, he actually saw in combat in Vietnam, while President Bush was safely stowed in the Air National Guard in Texas and Alabama during the war years - and even then, the record is murky on whether he completely fulfilled his duties there.

But that's not right, either. In his run for the White House, Kerry placed his war service squarely at the center of his campaign pitch. His primary bid was resurrected after a seemingly disastrous winter when a Republican veteran surfaced to say Kerry had saved his life under fire. Many fellow Swift boat veterans have given testimonials to Kerry's character as a way of proving to demonstrate he's not squeamish about the use of force. And the group of veterans arrayed against Kerry include a retired admiral and several commanding officers. Their objections should have been heard - and then should have been given rigorous examination.

One of the consistently skeptical voices in all this was that of satirist Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central's The Daily Show. And, in fact, last night, that's where Kerry appeared to address his Swift boat critics in his first full interview on the subject. Stewart asked, as a mock anchor, the hard-hitting question: "I understand apparently you were never in Vietnam?"

Kerry replied, jokingly, "That's what I understand, too, but I'm trying to find out what happened."

Last week, three major newspapers made significant contributions to sorting through the historical record. Michael Dobbs of The Washington Post secured old Naval records showing some inconsistencies in Kerry's accounts over the years - but nothing that backed the anti-Kerry veterans' claims that he had exaggerated his combat activities.

Two reporters for The New York Times documented ties between the Bush camp and the financial backers of television ads - given a limited run in a few key swing states - that gave additional life to the anti-Kerry claims. And one of Kerry's fellow Swift boat commanders who is an editor for the Chicago Tribune (a corporate sibling to The Sun) gave a first-hand account of the episode that led to Kerry's Silver Star. It was a spare, factual article, driven by the journalist's controlled anger at those who, he said, were seeking to discredit Kerry but who had also cast aspersions on other veterans who served there.

The allegations that Kerry should not be considered a war hero despite his decorations was kept alive over the summer by the alternative media, such as talk radio, conservative Web logs, Fox News (which has a foot in both the establishment and contrarian camps), and a best-selling book written by one of the lead Kerry antagonists.

For the moment, this story has consumed the news cycle, drowning out current issues such as the invasion and occupation of Iraq and the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the economy and the budget deficit. On these fronts, the two candidates have records and approaches that frequently diverge; there's fodder for plenty of coverage there.

Perhaps the most interesting discrepancy brought to light in all the Swift boat coverage has been Kerry's claim - "seared" on his memory, according to a Senate speech he delivered in 1986 - that he was sent on a secret mission to Cambodia during Christmas 1968 even as President Richard Nixon denied such incursions were occurring.

Nixon aside (he didn't take office until the next month), Kerry's journals reportedly show him to be elsewhere. Instapundit.com resurrected Kerry's words by reproducing a digital photograph of Kerry's remarks from the Congressional Record.

Still, that's pretty thin gruel to justify how much coverage this story is getting now - and how little scrutiny the charges received earlier.

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at david.folkenflik@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.

Copyright © 2004, The Baltimore Sun

Media awash in its own wave of Phelps hype

Media: David Folkenflik
 

August 19, 2004

Michael Phelps? Perhaps you haven't heard of him. That is, you might not have heard of the teenage swimming champ from Towson if you've been avoiding The Sun, The Washington Post, Time magazine, or USA Today, and also if you determinedly ignored NBC or any of its sister cable stations carrying the Athens Olympics. Phelps was challenging - almost dead-certain to break, really - Mark Spitz's record-setting total of seven gold medals from 1972, to listen to all the stories.

Except it didn't happen. And it became clear that it wouldn't happen in the Olympics' opening 48 hours last weekend, sending many of the 20,000 journalists in Athens to cover the games into rhetorical fits as Phelps' fortunes waxed and waned from meet to meet.

In the last few days, in fact, Phelps has been transformed from media darling to seeming failure to has-been to success story. He thinks he's exhausted? We're exhausted. Is he a hero or not? And, more to the point, why can't the media resist such simplistic story lines in the first place?

"It's this maddening concept," says Mark Schwarz, a veteran sports correspondent for ESPN, from his home in Howard County. "We can't allow this event to unfold in its natural course. Because of the monstrous demand for information and column inches, we jump really hard at the first sign of a result. And then, if it changes a lot, we find ourselves clawing to get to the other side."

About a year ago, Phelps broke a slew of world records during an international competition in Barcelona, Spain. His eyes got big at the chance to enter the realm of sports legends. And the eyes of his corporate sponsors got even bigger at the thought of the media blitz that would ensue. So he told reporters, sure, he'd like to shoot for Spitz's title. Speedo offered him $1 million if he tied or beat the record.

Phelps is a 19-year-old with a chance to win $1 million and the adoration of millions. That was his excuse for getting caught up in the hype. But what excuse do the rest of us have?

Before he had won a single Olympic gold medal, however, Phelps had already been built up into a sporting hero. He made the covers of Time, Sports Illustrated, the New York Times Magazine, and almost pushed Hollywood star Reese Witherspoon from the cover of Vanity Fair. (The New York Observer reported that her publicists intervened to prevent that calamity.) At a time of insecurity over war and terrorism, a hunger for heroes outside combat is understandable. But a little perspective might have been welcome.

On Sunday night, NBC's Pat O'Brien set the tone for the network's coverage. "Good evening from the center of the sporting universe," he said. "Tonight, we've got a full plate, including highlights from the Olympic aquatic center, where U.S. superstar Michael Phelps began his assault on swimming record books." Notice that Phelps wasn't even participating in a swim competition anymore. According to O'Brien, his focus was exclusively on sporting history. (NBC paid well over $700 million for the U.S. television rights to the Olympics - and its ratings tend to spike when U.S. athletes are in the hunt for gold medals.)

If Phelps truly launched an assault, it was pretty quickly repelled. He came in third in the 200-meter freestyle to the Netherlands' Pieter van den Hoogenband and Australia's Ian Thorpe, who is also something of a media sensation. Third means bronze - an actual medal. It's an impressive showing, particularly for an event that is not considered one of Phelps' strongest ones. But the media didn't think so.

On Tuesday, CBS' Hannah Storm pressed Phelps' mother and sister several times on whether his bronze medal - and the loss of Speedo's $1 million for now not being able to match Spitz's record - was a disappointment. (He'll still get a big payday from Speedo and other sponsors.) A columnist in The New York Sun deemed Phelps "a 19-year-old failure." A columnist for the New York Daily News wrote of the "sigh of disappointment" enveloping the men's swimming team. After a loss by the Americans in a 400-meter relay, a headline in the Los Angeles Times explained: "Bad Start Is Worst-Case Scenario for Swimmers."

But then Phelps started to creep back up in the media's esteem, as he won two gold medals Tuesday (one in the 800-meter men's relay, thanks to the fevered swimming of teammate Klete Keller, who held off Thorpe and the Australians).

Here's what The Sun published in a front-page story yesterday by Paul McMullen, a reporter who has been tracking the swimmer's progress for several years: "Phelps had returned to the top of the Summer Games 24 hours after being written off for failing to duplicate Mark Spitz's seven gold medals of 1972."

That's probably true. But it's pretty sad. Phelps had hardly been written off by his rivals. He hadn't been written off by his family. He seemed likely to continue racking up medals victories and to win a smaller, six-figure bonus from Speedo. And he may well hit his prime four years from now, during the 2008 Olympics, when he'll be just 23 years old. Who exactly had been writing off Phelps?

Oh, that's right. Much of the media.

And how come his failure to match Spitz was such a disappointment? Because the press set him up for it. "With a victory [in the 200-meter freestyle], he will rise closer to the stratosphere of U.S. sports stardom and begin to build a solid platform for his campaign to make swimming more popular in the USA," wrote USA Today's Vicki Michaelis earlier this week. "If the 19-year-old from suburban Baltimore doesn't win, he lets the air out of it all."

Really? Why is that?

As Michael Rosenberg of the Detroit Free Press, wrote, "The hype machine will judge this a failure. The hype machine has engine trouble." The bronze medal in the men's 200-meter freestyle was no failure, Rosenberg wrote. "We all wanted to believe so badly, we forgot to look at the facts. The truth is, had Phelps entered no other races, had there been no thoughts he would catch Spitz and no dream of the story that would be, nobody would have picked him as the favorite in this race."

Commentaries like that provided an excuse to tell readers that they should entertain the idea that Phelps has fallen terribly short - even if only to shoot down the idea.

Next thing you know, someone will be rehashing Phelps' fluctuating fortunes and adding to the reams of articles about the young athlete in an attempt to criticize how the media has handled his story.

Copyright © 2004, The Baltimore Sun

 

 

http://www.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/movies/bal-to.fox13jul13,1,3925588.story
'Outfoxed' filmmaker takes aim at Fox
NewsChannel is said to lean to the right
Media: David Folkenflik

Sun Staff
July 13, 2004


A new documentary, paid for by liberal advocacy groups, is stirring the media pot by contending that the Fox News Channel is not only conservative but explicitly slanted in favor of Republicans.

Called Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism, the film, which was unveiled yesterday at a New York news conference, is intended as a direct assault on the credibility of Fox News. The network has blended reporting and high-decibel political talk shows to become the nation's highest-rated cable news station.

"It's fine to have news organizations with points of views," says Robert Greenwald, the director and producer of Outfoxed. "Fox News sells this line that it's 'fair and balanced' and they're reporting news on all sides. That's not the case."

Executives at Fox News, created in 1996 as an antidote to what founding CEO and chairman Roger Ailes has characterized as the overwhelmingly liberal mainstream media, dismissed the criticism that their network is conservative. During primetime hours, an average of 1.4 million viewers watch the network.

"We've heard this before," said John Moody, Fox News' senior vice president for news. "We look to cover the two [presidential] candidates approximately the same amount of time over the course of the day. That's standard operating procedure for us."

Greenwald, a veteran producer of television movies, has also produced documentaries that sharply question the handling of the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election and the Bush administration's push to invade Iraq. In this latest project, he has embraced the filmmaker-as-activist stance of Fahrenheit 9/11 director Michael Moore to score points against his target - in this case, a news network rather than a president. "Fox is not a conservative channel - it's a Bush-Republican Party channel," Greenwald said in a telephone interview.

Outfoxed relies upon interviews with former Fox News employees and liberal press critics as well as footage taken from satellite feeds without the network's permission.

It is backed financially by the liberal MoveOn.org, a group that seeks to rally public sentiment against Bush and the invasion of Iraq, as well as the left-of-center Center for American Prog- ress, a think tank led by prominent Democrats. The film will be sold via the Internet, rather than distributed in theaters. On Sunday, MoveOn.org is also sponsoring screenings around the country.

Fox News executives, who were not asked to comment in the documentary itself, said Greenwald is distorting the nature of their internal editorial decisions. "If any news organizations decide to make this an anti-Fox News story, then all of their material becomes fodder immediately for possible out of context and biased documentaries," Fox News said in a statement released yesterday.

Fox News staffers attended yesterday's news conference where they distributed materials noting that two of the former employees who appeared in the documentary worked for WTTG, the Fox-owned Washington channel that is run separately from Fox News, not the network itself. A third former employee was characterized in the Fox leaflet as a "weak field correspondent."

In Outfoxed, Fox News political correspondent Carl Cameron is shown in 2000 footage that never aired chatting amiably with then-presidential candidate George W. Bush about his wife's work on behalf of the Republican's presidential bid. "She's a good soul. She's a really good soul," Bush says.

Anchors are shown on the air blistering leading Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. The film also discloses daily memos sent by Moody, called the "Editorial Note," in which he steers coverage away from criticism of President Bush or prevents coverage from dwelling on the costs of the war in Iraq. Such material demonstrates the clear bent of Fox News, several former staffers said during the documentary.

"You got marching orders, you got talking points, you got what the theme of the day was," said former Fox News commentator Larry Johnson, who had previously served as a CIA agent under President Ronald Reagan and as a State Department counter-terrorism official under President George H.W. Bush. "They would shape the news, and it was being one in a coordinated fashion with the [George W.] Bush administration."

Fox News executives have described the daily memos as an important part of making news judgments, setting the tone for a 24-hour-a-day cable news channel. Some excerpts of Moody's notes published yesterday on the Cablenewser.com did not reflect uniform bias against Democrats.

"We pay [journalists] to think for themselves, but there has to be a unifying theme to our coverage," Moody said. "A network has to look and sound approximately the same to viewers throughout the day."

Copyright © 2004, The Baltimore Sun


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Man with a mission takes on newspapers
Finding journalists' political donations

Media: David Folkenflik
July 21, 2004

Michael Petrelis has been angry at The New York Times for a long, long time. Since the 1980s, Petrelis, a Green Party volunteer and longtime AIDS activist now based in San Francisco, has felt that The Times is insufficiently attentive to what he believes are the government's shortcomings in fighting the disease. Since March, however, Petrelis has become an online gadfly, seeking to force The Times to reveal what he says are its political entanglements and sympathies toward the Democratic Party. And he is beginning to get noticed.

How did it start? Jay Blotcher, a friend of Petrelis' and former fellow activist with ACT-UP, a confrontational AIDS advocacy group, was fired in February as a free-lancer for the Times because his prior political life was seen by editors to have compromised him.

"They said he had a number of conflicts [of interest] that they said called his integrity into question," Petrelis said in a telephone interview. "To a large degree, in American journalism, we're basically told that journalists are impartial, above the political fray. If you go and look at the federal records, I'm not so sure that's the case."

Petrelis began by investigating Times medical correspondent Lawrence K. Altman, who has written extensively about AIDS, to see if he could find evidence of political activity. He couldn't. So he went online to read The Times' ethics guidelines, adopted in January 2003, and found this paragraph on page 19:

"Staff members may not themselves give money to, or raise money for, any political candidate or election cause. Given the ease of Internet access to public records of campaign contributors, any political giving by a Times staff member would carry a great risk of feeding a false impression that the paper is taking sides."

By his account, Petrelis was inspired. He expanded his Internet search of campaign contribution records, first to all employees of The Times, and then to 50 newspapers and news agencies. And he found a trove of contributions in recent years, including those from journalists and other employees at Time magazine, Newsweek, The Times, and two Sun journalists.

The gifts were largely, though not exclusively, to Democratic causes and candidates. His findings, are posted on his Web log: mpetrelis.blogspot.com.

Catherine Mathis, a spokeswoman for The Times, said in an e-mail interview that Petrelis' observations were welcome at the newspaper, and that he is not the only person to draw its attention to potential violations of ethics rules. And, she wrote, The Times newspaper itself occasionally trolls Web sites that track campaign contributions to see if employees' names surface. (Two such sites are www.tray .com and www.opensecrets.org.)

"Most of the Times people Mr. Petrelis found on such lists were not on the news staff and thus not bound by our rules," Mathis wrote. "The handful of journalists who turned up were unaware of the rule and highly contrite when it was pointed out to them."

But Petrelis is more persistent than most. "He's been a regular component in my life," said Daniel Okrent, the Times public editor who fields complaints from readers.

The 45-year-old Petrelis, who has AIDS, supports himself with Social Security disability payments. A supporter of Ralph Nader and the Green Party, Petrelis finds the U.S. media to be hypocritical. If reporters support Democrats and presidential candidate John Kerry, as his findings indicate, then they should do so openly, Petrelis argues.

Petrelis' survey is not comprehensive; it fails to examine television companies and misses some employees of newspapers and magazines. He does not distinguish between non-journalists who work for media companies, those who cover hard news, and those who write commentary. Nor does his Web-style reporting - capturing data and publishing it online without additional checks - match that of the conventional media.

The study found two donations to Kerry's campaign totaling $900 from Hendrick Hertzberg, of the New Yorker magazine. Hertzberg has written commentaries favorable toward Kerry and critical of President Bush. Hertzberg has also criticized Nader for drawing support away from Kerry.

In an interview, Hertzberg said he sees no conflict between his role as an opinion journalist and his contributions to Kerry. "I don't see it as a true ethical problem," Hertzberg said. "The idea that someone expressing an opinion about a political race is not biased, but giving a contribution is biased - I don't get it. I don't see how you're compromised." Hertzberg said he asked the magazine's top editor, David Remnick for permission before making his gift.

But that's too fine a distinction, some media experts said. "My belief is that while opinion writers should, in fact, bring their own opinion to what they represent, they should still be guided by journalistic independence as a principle," said Robert Steele, a senior ethics scholar at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in Florida. "They should be observers, not participants, in the political process."

Georgia Marudas, a deputy business editor at The Sun, was listed as having given $1,000 last year to the presidential campaign of Democrat Richard Gephardt. The contribution came from a checking account held jointly by Marudas and her husband. He made the gift without her knowledge, Marudas said yesterday. The check bears his signature. Editors accepted her explanation, and no action was taken.

John Scholz, a copy editor on the business desk, gave $250 this year to the Democratic National Committee, and, in an interview, acknowledged making such gifts in the past. "I was unaware of any policy" prohibiting such gifts on ethical grounds, Scholz said. Because he did not work for a political desk, he said, "it just seemed like I was almost dealing with the abstract." Scholz, who has been with The Sun since 1982, is retiring from the newspaper on Friday; until then, he has been assigned to stories that do not involve the presidential race or partisan politics in the business section, editors said.

The Sun does not have a formal ethics policy in place; a proposed policy is the subject of negotiations this summer between the paper and The Newspaper Guild, which represents several hundred Sun journalists. Petrelis' findings point out the need for explicit ethics policies, said Timothy A. Franklin, The Sun's editor and senior vice president. "Journalists should not be giving campaign contributions to political candidates or political causes because it creates the appearance of a conflict of interest," he said. "Right now, the issue of bias in the media is a bigger issue than I've ever seen it in the 22 years I've been in the business."

Petrelis has been angry at the media before. During the 1990s, he participated in a campaign of telephone calls to journalists at the San Francisco Chronicle whom he felt were covering AIDS unfairly. The Chronicle pressed harassment charges against him and he ultimately pleaded guilty to a series of lesser charges. The California newspaper still has a restraining order in place against him, he said.

This time around he's fighting for different coverage through blogging - an imperfect, evolving form of journalism that is nonetheless forcing the establishment to take notice.

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at david.folkenflik@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.

Copyright © 2004, The Baltimore Sun

 

Doubts bubbling to surface
Media: David Folkenflik
Reasons for war get more scrutiny

Originally published Jun 23, 2004

It took less than a day after the release of the staff report of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission for accusations to start flying between opposite sides of the aisle.

In this fracas, however, the adversaries weren't Republicans and Democrats - they were the Bush administration and the media.

Some of the press corps appear to have looked at the report and found utter repudiation of President Bush's assertions that there were meaningful ties before the September 2001 attacks between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein's regime - a reason given for invading Iraq last spring. And it seems to have uncorked long-simmering doubts within the media about the Bush administration.

Here's how John Roberts, CBS News' White House correspondent, started his report last Wednesday: "It is one of President Bush's last surviving justifications for war in Iraq, and today, it took a devastating hit when the 9/11 Commission declared there was no collaborative relationship between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden."

The next morning, the four-column headline atop The New York Times' front page was even more stark: "Panel Finds No Qaeda-Iraq Tie." Article after article hammered home the point that the administration's linkage of Hussein to active support of terrorism by al-Qaida could not be substantiated.

Bush rejected the coverage of the report, saying he had never explicitly blamed Iraq for the terror attacks in the United States. On Sunday, The Times published a series of quotations from Bush administration officials that crept close to making just such claims. As former Times political reporter Adam Clymer said dryly in an interview, The Times made "the conscious decision to confront [the White House] with what Churchill called 'terminological inexactitude.'" Normal people, he added, might call them lies.

That acerbic assessment by Clymer may be at the heart of the severe nature of the latest coverage, which calls into question the Bush administration's credibility on issues involving Iraq. Months ago, Bush's own choice as chief weapons inspector concluded that there were no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that could have threatened the United States - which had been a key element for the invasion. Now, there seems to be a bipartisan report declaring there was no consequential relationship between Iraq and al-Qaida. (Roberts and other journalists appear to have overlooked another reason for the invasion invoked by Bush - to uproot Hussein's brutal and dictatorial regime.)

David Gergen, a former aide to presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, sounds a note of caution. "The report is written so carefully that it lends itself to more than one interpretation," Gergen said in an interview. But he said the media are running out of patience with the Bush administration's shifting justifications for war. "The press has moved from a position of almost cheerleading," Gergen said. "The pendulum's swung the other way."

But Bush administration officials say last week's report merely acknowledged that the commission had not found evidence of strong links, while noting many intersections between Iraqis and al-Qaida figures. On Sunday, Vice President Dick Cheney called the Times headlines "outrageous," saying the newspaper was wildly overstating the commission's findings.

"What they've done is, I think, distorted what the commission actually reported," Cheney said on Sunday on CNBC in an hourlong interview with Gloria Borger.

Take the question of Mohammed Atta, the ringleader of the 9/11 hijacking plot who was said by the administration to have met a key Iraqi operative in the Czech Republic in April 2001. The commission's staff report stated that it did not believe that any such meeting had occurred, as the media reported. Cheney said it simply could not tell. "We have never been able to confirm that nor have we been able to knock it down," he said. "We just don't know."

Borger attempted to challenge Cheney on what she remembered as his earlier use of the supposed Atta meeting in Prague to demonstrate close ties between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida. But Cheney appeared to set her straight.

Borger: You have said in the past that it was, quote, "pretty well confirmed."

Cheney: No, I never said that.

Borger: OK.

Cheney: I never said that.

Borger: I think that is ...

Cheney: Absolutely not.

So that seems to clear that up.

Until you read the transcript of the Dec. 9, 2001, edition of Meet the Press, that is. In the interview with NBC News' Tim Russert, Cheney is describing Atta's activities:

Cheney: It's been pretty well confirmed that he did go to Prague and he did meet with a senior official of the Iraqi intelligence service in Czechoslovakia last April, several months before the attack.

So, perhaps not so definite.

On The Daily Show, satirist Jon Stewart placed Cheney squarely in the "pants on fire" camp. But The Times editorial board wrote that Bush owes an apology to the nation for "inexcusably, selling the false Iraq-Qaeda claim to Americans." The editorial continued: "There are two unpleasant alternatives: either Mr. Bush knew he was not telling the truth, or he has a capacity for politically motivated self-deception that is terrifying in the post-9-11 world."

Much of the mainstream media has undergone a period of introspection about its coverage of key issues leading up to the war in Iraq - particularly repeated and heated reports about the existence of weapons of mass destruction. CBS News' Leslie Stahl apologized to viewers, saying she had been misled by her sources. The New York Times expressed misgivings to readers, saying it had not been scrupulous enough in verifying its reports and adequately airing the views of skeptics of the Bush White House's statements.

Now, the media appear to be taking the opposite tack - much to the chagrin of the administration.

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at david.folkenflik@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.
Copyright © 2004, The Baltimore Sun

 

David Folkenflik, NPR Biography

Correspondent, Media, Arts Information Unit

David Folkenflik covers the world of media, particularly the news media, for NPR’s newsmagazines, including Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Day to Day. He also has a frequent feature on Sunday Weekend Edition, "The News Tip," and writes the Media Circus column for npr.org.

Before coming to NPR in November 2004, Folkenflik was a reporter for the Durham (N.C.) Herald-Sun and the Baltimore Sun, where he spent more than a decade. In 1991, Folkenflik received a bachelor’s degree in history from Cornell University. He had also served as editor-in-chief of Cornell Daily Sun.

Folkenflik won the inaugural Mongerson Award for Investigative Reporting on the News in 2002 and his work has received top honors from the National Headliners Awards, the Society of Professional Journalists and the James K. Batten Award for Civic Journalism.

He grew up in Laguna Beach, Calif., and his parents are on the faculty of the University of California, Irvine. Folkenflik lives in New York City, with his wife, the journalist Jesse Baker, and their border collie, Oscar. He claims he was the second choice of producers to play an obsessive-compulsive sleuth on the cable television series Monk. This last assertion cannot be verified.

 

  1. NPR People

    David Folkenflik : NPR Biography

    ... David Folkenflik. Correspondent, Media, Arts Desk. ... More From David Folkenflik. Podcast + RSS Feeds. Podcast RSS. David Folkenflik ... http://www.npr.org/people/4459112/david-folkenflik
  2. Weekend Edition Sunday

    The News Tip: The 2012 Race Is On!

    September 04, 2011 ... the media circus around it. NPR's David Folkenflik tells us how to get a handle on the way the media world is changing. ... http://www.npr.org/2011/09/04/140178666/news-tips
  3. Weekend Edition Sunday

    The News Tip: Don't Get Distracted In Debates

    September 18, 2011 ... debate moderators. NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik has this tip for the moderators: Don't get distracted. He ... http://www.npr.org/2011/09/18/140569756/the-news-tip-dont-get-distracted-in-debates

 

 

Jesse Baker and David Folkenflik - May 1, 2010

 

How Can We Trust the News?

UC Irvine, August 23, 2011

http://www.lib.uci.edu/features/news/folkenflik.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Media Circus

Media Circus is an occasional column by David Folkenflik, who covers media issues for National Public Radio.

 

NPR People

 

'L.A. Times' Invites 'Whacking' by Critics

 
NPR.org, February 13, 2005 ·

Do you like the Whack-a-Mole game from the old arcades? Would you really want to be the Mole?

Michael Kinsley apparently would. He's the relatively new editorial and opinion page editor for the Los Angeles Times. And over the past several Sundays he's invited a series of critics of the Times to beat the paper up -- in the paper's own editorial pages.

The first guest Kinsley landed for the guest column? Blogger Mickey Kaus, who writes a feature called "Kausfiles" for the online magazine Slate -- a skeptic so severely disposed against the L.A. Times that he's repeatedly called for the newspaper to cease publishing.

(Anyone hyperventilating over the NPR-Slate partnership can find a mess of disclosures listed at the end of this column.)

Kaus wrote that most Angelenos didn't know that L.A. Mayor James Hahn's marriage had collapsed, or how his child-care issues had distracted him from his job. And that was a problem, Kaus wrote on Jan. 16:

"Some blame the sunny climate for our apathetic political structure. Some blame the distraction of the colorful entertainment industry. I blame the stuffy aversion to gossip of the region's dominant newspaper."

The insult seemed to inspire as much as sting: The Times' top editor, John S. Carroll, sent out a memo soon after Kaus' column appeared, encouraging the staff to weigh his concerns seriously.

The next week brought conservative radio talk show host and blogger Hugh Hewitt's denunciation of what he says is the Times' failure to cover the war on terror. After him came left-of-center journalist Marc Cooper's plea for more interpretive reporting, and less of what he suggested was mere stenography.

Kinsley writes in an e-mail that the goal is to "open the paper to constructive criticism, to try to develop some media self-criticism that isn't as pompous as the usual 'ombudsman' column, and of course to produce a feature that people will read. You never know what people will be interested in, but it's a pretty good bet that if they're reading the L.A. Times, they are interested in the L.A. Times."

Initially, all Kinsley wanted to do was hire Kaus outright; they had worked together at Slate. (Kaus has gained some fame in political circles as the Democratic pundit most likely to tear apart other Democrats and liberals for being too liberal.) When Kaus turned him down, Kinsley invented this forum, which he called "Outside the Tent." It's an experiment inspired by the spirit of the Web world, which tends to invite critics as part of a continuing dialogue.

Hewitt thinks it's healthy -– but says there's an imbalance so far. He says by e-mail he's been the only one right of center, as he counts Kaus as center-left, and Cooper as a pure leftist.

Kinsley says he hopes to build "a small group of rotating writers (f)rom a variety of ideological backgrounds, but I hope all with a sense of humor. We want this not to descend into a longer letter to the editor."

Hewitt can take heart. Patrick Frey, a self-described conservative/libertarian prosecutor who runs a blog called Patterico's Pontifications, is the latest addition to the invitation-only mole-whackers. He routinely refers to the Times on his site as the Los Angeles Dog Trainer.

BONUS FULL-DISCLOSURE: Michael Kinsley was formerly editor of Slate, the online magazine that has a partnership with NPR to produce the show Day to Day; Mickey Kaus' blog, Kausfiles, is part of Slate. Kinsley was hired at the Los Angeles Times by Editor John S. Carroll, who was this reporter's boss for nearly six years at the Baltimore Sun. The Sun and the L. A. Times are corporate siblings. Marc Cooper's radio shows are distributed on some public radio stations -– though not by NPR.


 

Mongerson Award for Investigative Reporting (2001).
Medill School of Journalism | The Mongerson Prize



FROM THE ARCHIVE
The Baltimore Sun
www.baltimoresun.com
Media: David Folkenflik
Archive of columns

GOP convention viewers tuned in to Fox News
September 8, 2004
David Folkenflik / Sun Staff
NEW YORK -- The signs literally seemed to foreshadow Fox News Channel's ratings success at the Republican National Convention last week. One of them, a 30-foot-high banner across from Madison Square Garden, boasted that the top-rated cable news station...

NYC sees to it that journalists have good time
September 5, 2004
By David Folkenflik / Sun Staff
NEW YORK - Quaff free beer. Play pool. Stretch out for a complimentary massage. Though political conventions may conjure up images of delegates being wined and dined by lobbyists or attending wild parties thrown by special interest groups, there were...

 

Excerpts of radio interview with David Folkenflik
August 20, 2004
WYPR FM's interview with Sun media critic David Folkenflik. Originally aired August 20, 2004. Aaron Henkin, WYPR: Sun media critic David Folkenflik has been following the Athens Olympics in much the same way as the rest of the country - in the newspapers...

Media awash in its own wave of Phelps hype
August 19, 2004
David Folkenflik
Michael Phelps? Perhaps you haven't heard of him. That is, you might not have heard of the teenage swimming champ from Towson if you've been avoiding The Sun, The Washington Post, Time magazine, or USA Today, and also if you determinedly ignored NBC or...

Some see press perks; others see necessity
August 4, 2004
David Folkenflik / Sun Staff
In Albany, N.Y., a row of offices located in the center of the State Capitol building is reserved- free of charge - for the media, including The New York Times, the Associated Press and Newsday. But in Tallahassee, Fla., the press building stands two...

Web loggers get their credentials
July 28, 2004
David Folkenflik / Sun Staff
It was Monday, the opening night of the Democratic Convention, past 10 p.m. Over on ABC, anchor Peter Jennings was expounding on the latest horse-race poll pitting Democrat John Kerry against President Bush. On Fox News Channel, Alan Colmes was wanly...

Man with a mission takes on newspapers
July 21, 2004
David Folkenflik / Sun Staff
Michael Petrelis has been angry at The New York Times for a long, long time. Since the 1980s, Petrelis, a Green Party volunteer and longtime AIDS activist now based in San Francisco, has felt that The Times is insufficiently attentive to what he believes..

Dodging using words like 'torture'
May 26, 2004
David Folkenflik / Sun Staff
Word games, a favorite pastime in Washington, don't seem so playful during times of war. Recent statements from the Pentagon seemed to echo denials from an earlier era -- Watergate. They began when Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker reported that Defense...

Anchorman: Local news wasn't quite like this
July 9, 2004
By David Folkenflik / Sun Staff
Outside a mega-movie theater at the White Marsh Mall , people are whispering and staring at the man with white frizzy hair. "You on Channel 13?" a young man asks as he takes a break from sweeping up litter. "What's your name?" It's Richard Sher, former...

Franklin's jabs at the mayor stray from truth
July 7, 2004
David Folkenflik / Sun Staff
Chip Franklin appeared on Fox News Channel to play the role of Mayor Martin O'Malley's goader-in-chief. In the words of Fox News' Bill O'Reilly: "Is this guy just insane or what?" Franklin's helpful reply: "He's a bit nutty."

Legislators fault plans for eviction
July 3, 2004
By David Folkenflik / Sun Staff
As aides to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. struck a more conciliatory tone toward the media, Maryland's two most powerful legislative leaders signaled yesterday that they intend to block plans to remove the press from offices in the State House basement...

Journalists try to keep it clean, on air
June 30, 2004
David Folkenflik / Sun Staff
Let the reader beware: This column intends to wallow in the salacious and the profane. But not terribly explicitly. As far as media-watchers were concerned, the tone for the year was set months ago by the reaction to Janet Jackson's breast-baring...

News folks scramble to cover Iraq turnover
June 29, 2004
David Folkenflik / Sun Staff
With the approach of June 30, the "official" day upon which power was to be handed over by the United States to the Iraqis, American television networks sent big-name journalists to Baghdad and planned elaborate coverage of the event. So yesterday when a...

Press to be evicted from State House
June 29, 2004
By David Folkenflik / Sun Staff
The Ehrlich administration announced yesterday it will evict the Maryland press corps from its long-held offices in the basement of the State House by the middle of next month, saying that the space is needed by gubernatorial staff members during...

Scandal coverage ends run for Senate
June 26, 2004
David Folkenflik / Sun Staff
Jack Ryan, a promising politician in Illinois, had his career cut short yesterday by a media scandal which revealed that he did not have sex with a woman who was his wife at the time. Ryan, the Republican nominee for an open U.S. Senate seat, found...

MPT poll will illuminate financial issues
June 24, 2004
By David Folkenflik / Sun Staff
Maryland Public Television has commissioned a wide-ranging poll on Americans' attitudes toward financial issues ahead of the November presidential elections that will be featured on the broadcaster's flagship program, Wall Street Week with Fortune....

Doubts bubbling to surface
June 23, 2004
David Folkenflik / Sun Staff
It took less than a day after the release of the staff report of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission for accusations to start flying between opposite sides of the aisle. In this fracas, however, the adversaries weren't Republicans and Democrats - they were...

Al-Jazeera is focus of new film
June 16, 2004
David Folkenflik / Sun Staff
In the world of media, there is little that angers the Bush administration more than the influence of Al-Jazeera - the Qatar-based satellite television channel that features news reports drawing a broad Arab audience, often depicting Americans as the...

Writing beyond his years
June 2, 2004
David Folkenflik / Sun Staff
Over its first five months, a new Web site based in Maryland has won attention and kudos within the cable news world by tracking the industry's bombshells and minutiae. Hirings, firings, insights from news executives, differences in coverage - little...

Dodging using words like 'torture'
May 26, 2004
David Folkenflik / Sun Staff
Word games, a favorite pastime in Washington, don't seem so playful during times of war. Recent statements from the Pentagon seemed to echo denials from an earlier era -- Watergate. They began when Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker reported that Defense...

Tim Russert: leader of the D.C. pack
May 19, 2004
David Folkenflik / Sun Staff
Leave aside the fact that U.S. troops in Iraq have not yet found the expected caches of weapons of mass destruction, the existence of which the American media largely failed to question adequately before last spring's invasion. Forget, too, the press'...

Iraq prison story tough to hold off on, CBS says
May 5, 2004
David Folkenflik / Sun Staff
Last Wednesday's broadcast of 60 Minutes II on CBS included photographs of grinning Army Reserve troops from a Maryland-based unit giving "thumbs up" signs next to captive Iraqi men forced into humiliating sexual poses. Another picture displayed a hooded...

David Folkenflik on USA Today debacle
May 3, 2004
Catherine, Elkridge: If reporters who have reached positions at very large papers are basically liars, why should the public have any faith that reporters at smaller papers are reporting the facts? Folkenflik: Editors at small-town newspapers say they...

Analysis: Media blemishes may lead to reform
March 20, 2004
By David Folkenflik / Sun Staff
News executives at once applauded and winced yesterday after seeing USA Today's detailed account of the dishonest reporting - including repeated instances of plagiarism and fabrication - by former foreign correspondent Jack Kelley. They applauded, they...

The making of Jayson Blair
February 29, 2004
By David Folkenflik / Sun Staff
When the cab hurtling through midtown Manhattan stops, a young man in a gray suit unfolds himself and steps to the curb. The camera pulls back to reveal a gleaming legend above an entrance: The New York Times . The front page of The Times' Metropolitan...

Fame, crime beget news
November 20, 2003
By David Folkenflik / Sun Staff
The slumbering media-celebrity-industrial complex awoke with a vengeance yesterday, as cable news coverage was dominated by the issuance of arrest warrants against music superstar Michael Jackson for multiple counts of child molestation. It was O.J....

News media go Hollywood over Calif. ballot
October 8, 2003
By David Folkenflik / Sun Staff
Television turned yesterday's election in California into a mixture of civics lesson and all-out celebrity gawk yesterday, as the networks and news channels attempted to figure out what the recall election really meant. Based on exit polls, the answer...

CNN taking heat for withholding news on Iraqi brutality
April 16, 2003
David Folkenflik / Sun Television Writer
In 1959, A.M. Rosenthal of The New York Times was expelled from Poland for writing a series of stories that angered Wladyslaw Gomulka, then the country's Communist leader. But the risks were far greater for those on whom he relied for aid and tips....

 

David Folkenflik on USA Today debacle
Media critic answers readers' questions about Jack Kelley and reporting scandals at other newspapers
May 3, 2004

Chat wrap: David Folkenflik
Read the transcript of our chat with The Sun's TV/radio reporter.
Jan 16, 2002

Reports of war draw fire to Fox
TV: Industry critics say network needs to clear the air over Geraldo Rivera's 'friendly fire' reports from the front.
Dec 15, 2001



 


Al-Jazeera is focus of new film
Media: David Folkenflik
'Control Room' goes behind the scenes

Originally published Jun 16, 2004

In the world of media, there is little that angers the Bush administration more than the influence of Al-Jazeera - the Qatar-based satellite television channel that features news reports drawing a broad Arab audience, often depicting Americans as the heavy. Just last week, the United States did not invite the Emir of Qatar to Georgia for a summit of major world leaders as a way of signaling displeasure with Al-Jazeera's coverage.

"People have suggested that it would be a good thing if the reporting were accurate on Al-Jazeera, and if it were not slanted in ways that appears to be, at times, just purely inaccurate," National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice explained to reporters. "And so that's been the issue with Al-Jazeera."

A newly released documentary, Control Room, follows journalists for Al-Jazeera as they covered the outbreak of war in Iraq for six weeks last spring. They are a constant thorn in the side of the U.S. military, reflecting (and sharing) deep Arab anger and distrust toward Americans. And yet they are functioning as journalists, attempting to cover incidents as they occur - and not, as far as one can tell from director Jehane Noujaim's new film, intentionally finding ways to make the Americans look bad.

"Can their news be tainted by their emotionalism? They definitely have a point of view," Noujaim said during a telephone interview. "But I was around New York during Sept. 11. I was very affected by it. New York reporters were talking about what was happening with emotion. And no one would have dared to criticize them for it."

Noujaim, who has dual Egyptian and U.S. citizenship, spent six weeks tracking Al-Jazeera's efforts from Doha, Qatar, where the United States set up CentCom - Central Command. That's where reporters who were not "embedded" with military units or staying in Baghdad as "unilaterals" were stationed to report on the progress of the war. The military briefers often proved stingy in the information they released.

The Qatari emir's money was used to establish the satellite channel back in 1996. After the September 2001 terror strikes, U.S. officials denigrated Al-Jazeera as a mouthpiece for Osama bin Laden for broadcasting videotaped pronouncements by the al-Qaida leader calling for renewed attacks on the United States and the West. The broadcast of footage of scared U.S prisoners of war drew angry denunciations from Washington. More recently, Al-Jazeera gave serious coverage to bloggers' conspiracy theories that Nicholas Berg, the U.S. contractor who was beheaded this spring, was not killed in the way shown on videotape at the hands of his Iraqi captors.

But Al-Jazeera is unlike much media in the Arab world in that it is not controlled by any government. Its mandate is to be an independent voice, and many of its staffers worked previously at the British Broadcasting Corp. U.S. television outlets often take newsworthy video from Al-Jazeera when they cannot get it themselves. So the question arises: What if a free press flourishes throughout the Middle East, as one of the many democratic institutions the Bush administration says it is seeking to promote there, and yet it yields coverage that is hostile to the United States?

During the documentary, Hassan Ibrahim, a BBC-trained journalist, proved deeply skeptical of the United States and brushed off objections to showing footage of slain civilians. "Of course we will get grief from the Americans for showing these pictures because we will be inciting rebellion and we will be basically instigating anti-American sentiment," Ibrahim said. "I am sorry, they can't have their cake and eat it. I mean, yeah, OK, you are the most powerful nation on Earth, I agree. You can defeat everyone, I agree. You can crush everyone, I agree. But don't ask us to love it as well."

The bloody footage became part of the routine fade-out for some programs. It is consistent with the more gruesome pictures shown in the foreign press but also unquestionably served to rouse already inflamed Arab passions against the U.S.

And yet at roughly the same time, Fox News Channel set images of bombs exploding in and around Baghdad to stirring classical music for a montage reverently recording the efforts of the U.S.-led forces. And American media outlets have spent far less time on the injuries and deaths caused to civilians by the U.S.-led coalition during the invasion and occupation.

The mirror image did not escape notice in Doha.

"When I watch Al-Jazeera, I can tell what they are showing and then I can tell what they are not showing - by choice. Same thing when I watch Fox on the other end of the spectrum," Marine Lt. Josh Rushing, a military spokesman then based at CentCom, said during the documentary. "It benefits Al-Jazeera to play to Arab nationalism because that's their audience, just like Fox plays to American patriotism, for the exact same reason - American nationalism - because that's their demographic audience and that's what they want to see."

He added: "The part that disappoints me is that Arab nationalism has to include anti-Americanism." Rushing and Ibrahim are shown in repeated debates, vigorous and respectful - one of the few signs of hope in the relationship between the Arab press and the U.S. military. (Though the Pentagon does not seem as enamored: Rushing has been blocked from commenting on the movie, according to Noujaim and the movie's publicists.)

And U.S. officials, despite their formal displeasure, have repeatedly done business with Al-Jazeera. "Al-Jazeera has been critical, but at the same time they've been quite open to us," Nabeel Khoury, a U.S. diplomat, said in the film. "While we may disagree with certain editorial policies that they follow, we do have respect for them as an institution that has a wide reach in the Arab world. And as such, we feel the need to have their points of view, and the points of view of some of their guests, balanced by our own points of view."

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at david.folkenflik@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.
Copyright © 2004, The Baltimore Sun |

Dodging using words like 'torture'

Media: David Folkenflik

Originally published May 26, 2004

Word games, a favorite pastime in Washington, don't seem so playful during times of war.

Recent statements from the Pentagon seemed to echo denials from an earlier era -- Watergate. They began when Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker reported that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had personally approved a secret program for interrogating detainees that festered into the prison abuse scandal in Iraq.

Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita responded by calling Hersh's article "outlandish, conspiratorial, and filled with error and anonymous conjecture."

"This story seems to reflect the fevered insights of those with little, if any connection to the activities in the Department of Defense," he wrote.

In translation, he's saying: "Hey, that Hersh is nuts!" Except for one seemingly small instance, however, Di Rita did not directly rebut Hersh's report -- though it makes the case that Rumsfeld is culpable for the physical and emotional abuse endured by Iraqi prisoners at the hands of U.S. troops. Newsweek has since published similar findings, though its tone was more restrained.

Similar rhetorical tactics have influenced how the press chose to cover troubling news in the past. When men paid by President Nixon's campaign were caught breaking into Democratic Party headquarters in 1972, Nixon's press secretary, Ron Ziegler, called the episode "a third-rate burglary attempt." Later he denounced the Washington Post's Watergate coverage as being "based on hearsay, innuendo, guilt by association."

The "that's nuts" approach worked -- at least for awhile. Much of the rest of the media initially took its cues from Ziegler's dismissiveness. Many newspapers referred to the Watergate break-in as a "caper," as though it were a college prank.

A similar approach

Rumsfeld also used misdirection -- a "look at this hand, not that hand" approach -- to brush off questions about whether U.S. troops had tortured prisoners in Iraq. Rumsfeld told reporters: "My impression is that what has been charged thus far is abuse, which I believe technically is different from torture ... I don't know if ... it is correct to say what you just said, that torture has taken place, or that there's been a conviction for torture. And therefore I'm not going to address the torture word."

Yet it's not hard to see torture in some of the pictures obtained and published so far by the media of abuses at Abu Ghraib. And the Geneva Conventions of 1949, and a subsequent international protocol of 1984, both of which have been signed and ratified by the U.S. government as law, do address the torture word. The 1984 document states:

"The term 'torture' means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him ... or intimidating or coercing him."

The U.S. War Crimes Act of 1996 makes such conduct by a member of the U.S. armed forces a "war crime" punishable by fine, imprisonment or, in cases resulting in death to the victim, the death penalty.

By definition then, it doesn't matter whether the prisoners were innocent or had taken up arms against the coalition forces, or whether the inmate photographed wearing a hood and attached to electrical wires was actually in danger of being electrocuted. Detailed allegations of sodomy, assault and unjustified homicide, if proven accurate, seem even more clear-cut. All these actions appear to fit the definition of torture.

The intense media attention on the Abu Ghraib pictures -- while critical -- also means that additional credible accusations of other instances of abuse by American troops may be receiving less scrutiny than they deserve. Gathered by reporters and human rights workers who interviewed detainees, these reports include allegations of abuse in prisons in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some hesitancy

So far, the press has been reluctant to attach the word "torture" to the alleged treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and other U.S.-run detention centers. The hesitance is understandable, and viewed from at least one vantage point, admirable: American troops are facing courts martial, and the U.S. legal system -- even under the military -- presumes innocence until a guilty verdict is rendered.

None of this necessarily says that the U.S. troops under investigation acted with approval or knowledge of senior officials, or that the deaths of captives will prove to be criminal, or that the abuses even remotely approached those under Saddam Hussein's regime. But Rumsfeld has, at least for domestic consumption, warded off a term that carries oppressive weight.

The defense secretary is a veteran of the Washington game who knows how to use language carefully. More than two years ago, he declared that prisoners held in Afghanistan were not entitled to the safeguards of the Geneva Conventions, but that troops would observe "the spirit" of the conventions. By describing the prisoners this way, he explicitly placed them outside international protections -- while seeming to champion human rights. The mainstream media -- especially television -- gave the issue slight coverage.

Only after CBS' 60 Minutes II broadcast the images from Abu Ghraib, and Hersh obtained an internal Pentagon memo documenting the abuses at the prison, did the condition of prisoners receive wide public scrutiny. On NBC's Today Show, Rumsfeld said that the military had been open about the investigation: "There was no secret about it. They went right before the world in Iraq and told the Iraqi people, the American people, everyone, 'Be on notice. There have been these charges made.'"

But the public statement released in mid-January simply said that Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez had ordered an investigation "into reported incidents of detainee abuse at a coalition forces detention facility." The media were kept in the dark about details of the allegations for several months, as were leading members of Congress.

Demand more

Reporters and editors need to demand a higher standard of transparency than that shown by the Defense Department. Hersh's charges warrant a more complete rebuttal or, failing that, a thorough response. Rumsfeld should be pressed on why the conduct of U.S. troops do not constitute torture.

And, despite their role in later bringing the story to light, the media should not have simply shunted bland announcements about topics as important as prisoner abuse to the back pages of newspapers and brief mentions in television news roundups without pushing for more information with a lot more persistence.

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at david.folkenflik@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.
Copyright © 2004, The Baltimore Sun |

Editors missed danger signals

At USA Today, signs pointed to problems

By David Folkenflik

Sun Staff

Originally published March 24, 2004

When USA Today editors began last year to investigate an anonymous complaint about an article written by the paper's star foreign correspondent Jack Kelley, they did not expect any problems of substance to surface.

Since Kelley's forced resignation in January, however, it has become clear that during the last 12 years, a number of questions were raised about his professionalism that could have triggered their concern.

An in-depth inquiry commissioned by USA Today Publisher Craig Moon concluded last week that Kelley fabricated numerous articles, plagiarized dozens of others and developed elaborate schemes to cover his tracks when confronted last fall. Kelley, who has denied either plagiarizing or fabricating parts of stories, was forced out when editors realized that he had deceived them while attempting to defend his work.

Kelley's articles from 1993 through 2003 were reviewed by a panel of distinguished journalists led by USA Today founding editorial director John Seigenthaler and aided by a team of reporters. The period overlaps the terms of three top USA Today editors: Peter S. Prichard, Dave Mazzarella and current editor Karen Jurgensen.

But a string of troubling incidents could have set off alarms well before last spring's complaint:

· In 1992, The Washington Post protested that sections of an article by reporter Marc Fisher about refugees in Germany had been lifted by Kelley without attribution. Although dismissive at the time, USA Today recently has acknowledged concerns about the unattributed passages.

· In 1997, as The Sun previously reported, Kelley misrepresented remarks made informally by a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross by attributing them to the organization's president. In the article about the Red Cross' record during the Holocaust, the comments were described as having been made during a heated exchange between the group's president and Kelley.

Though he defended his account at the time as accurate, Kelley acknowledged in January making what he termed a "minor mistake."

· In February 2002, a fellow reporter and an editor removed quotations from an article about U.S.-led efforts to capture Osama bin Laden because they could not verify the existence of all of Kelley's sources.

A fourth incident, in particular, also could have served as warning sign.

On Aug. 26, 1999, Kelley wrote a front-page article on Russian money-laundering that appeared to be a scoop for the newspaper. It stated that unnamed U.S., British and Russian law enforcement officials said, "Russian organized crime figures laundered at least $15 billion through two New York banks at the direction of President Boris Yeltsin's government." The article continued: "The officials said in interviews that the money includes at least $10 billion in International Monetary Fund loans."

The latter amount represented more than half the approximately $17.5 billion loaned to Russia by the IMF from 1995 through 1999, according to IMF records that are available on its Web site.

But no other media outlet could confirm those figures, and U.S. government officials told other Washington-based USA Today reporters that the story seriously inflated the scope of the operation. Guilty pleas won later by federal prosecutors involved far smaller amounts of money. To this day, the IMF maintains that there is no evidence that any loans were wrongly diverted. Though the paper didn't print a correction of the story, its future articles largely retreated from the claims of Kelley's initial reporting.

In addition, days after the article ran, USA Today dispatched then-foreign editor Douglas Stanglin to London and Justice Department reporter Kevin Johnson to Germany to conduct additional reporting. A senior investigative reporter, Ed Pound, also was assigned to oversee subsequent articles on the topic.

It was an unusually intense effort to ensure a story's accuracy. Stanglin shared credit for an article from London with Kelley - the editor's only byline from abroad for the newspaper, according to a database search. In an e-mailed interview, Stanglin, a former Moscow correspondent, said, "Does it really make any sense that we would have sent [Kelley] in the first place if we didn't trust his work?"

Members of the investigating committee were told by Kelley and Stanglin that Kelley had requested help reporting on such a complex topic, Seigenthaler said. But Seigenthaler said Stanglin was also in London with Kelley to conduct an informal "inquiry."

"There is no doubt, in my mind," Seigenthaler said yesterday in a telephone interview, that Stanglin went to London "either to confirm the accuracy of what [Kelley] had, or to check on the validity of what he had heard." Once there, Stanglin spoke by telephone, in Russian, to a person presented to him as one of Kelley's Russian sources, Seigenthaler said. Stanglin told the committee that he was convinced Kelley's reporting held up, Seigenthaler said.

That explanation creates its own problems. Kelley was forced to resign in January by USA Today because he had presented a woman as a Serbian translator who could vouch for his account of a contested 1999 interview about war crimes in the Balkans. A private investigator's analysis of the woman's voice during a telephone interview and a subsequent confrontation proved she was Russian, and not the Serbian translator as Kelley had described her.

"In hindsight, it raises concerns," Seigenthaler said of the 1999 telephone conversation that was arranged in London by Kelley for Stanglin. Reporters reviewing Kelley's work are still investigating details of Stanglin's interaction with a second source for the Russian money-laundering story, Seigenthaler said.

The committee also discovered other flaws in the 1999 article. Although information in it was attributed to law enforcement officials in the three countries, Kelley told the Seigenthaler panel his chief source was a Harvard University scholar. The newspaper reported last Friday that the scholar disavowed knowing anything about the money laundering.

Editors told the Seigenthaler panel they had worried Kelley "was too naive at times and too trusting" of his sources on the Russia story, said William Hilliard, former editor of the Portland Oregonian and a member of Seigenthaler's committee.

By August 1999, Kelley was 38 years old and held a position as the newspaper's chief foreign correspondent. He had been reporting about extremely complicated topics for more than a decade from hot spots in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, often relying heavily on unnamed sources in his reportage.

The committee is still conducting its investigation. It has yet to describe how a major newspaper - in this case, the nation's largest circulation daily - could put such trust in a person who appears to have repeatedly proved so unworthy of it.

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at david.folkenflik@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.


Copyright © 2004, The Baltimore Sun