February 10, 2005


FEAR AND FAVOR: Why is everyone mad at the mainstream media? (NICHOLAS LEMANN, 2005-02-07, THE NEW YORKER

Just before last fall’s Presidential election, Bill Keller, the executive editor of the Times, and Philip Taubman, the paper’s Washington bureau chief, went on the road to inspect the candidates’ campaigns. In Florida, on October 22nd, they arranged to have drinks with Karl Rove, the White House’s chief political strategist, and Dan Bartlett, its head of communications. It was supposed to be a friendly get-together, and that’s how it went for the first few minutes, until Keller asked Rove what he thought of the Times’ coverage. It’s the sort of question that editors often ask important people, in the same spirit that a politician asks, “How’m I doing?,” usually hoping for an answer somewhere in the lower-middle range of politeness and candor. But Rove, Keller told me not long ago, “pounded on us for two cocktails’ worth of conversation.” Saying what? “It was three kinds of things,” Keller explained. “It was Bush accomplishments we had ignored, flaws in the Kerry record that we had put inside the paper, and a number of pieces we had done looking hard at the Bush record. In their view, that all amounted to arming the Kerry campaign.”

Keller and I were talking in his office in the Times newsroom at nine one morning, a moment when most newspaper offices are empty and expectantly quiet, like a theatre a couple of hours before the curtain. Keller took his time describing the conversation, to suggest that he wasn’t dismissing the criticisms out of hand. “Your initial reaction, especially in someone as ferocious as Rove, is to drop into a defensive crouch,” he said. “But I try not to do that. I listened, with a fair measure of skepticism, because a lot of it is calculated. But there was some genuineness to it. He went through a long litany of complaints. I do think he was channelling a feeling about the New York Times that’s out there in the land, that we should be concerned about, or at least aware of.”

One item that particularly drew Rove’s ire was a Times front-page story, by Ford Fessenden, which appeared on September 26th, under the headline “a big increase of new voters in swing states.” As Keller remembered it later, in an e-mail message to me, Rove “fired off complaints like a Gatling gun, some specific, some generic, some about specific writers, some about specific elements of specific stories.” When I spoke to Rove about his conversation with Keller, it was obvious that, to his mind, the September 26th story was No. 1 among the Times’ journalistic misdeeds during the campaign. The story left the impression that the Democrats’ organization was vastly superior to the Republicans’, especially in Florida and Ohio. Getting out the G.O.P. vote in those two states had for several years been one of Rove’s main projects, and he spoke about the article in roughly the same tone as a writer discussing a bad review of his magnum opus. He gave me a highly detailed, twelve-point critique, and then, in the interest of conciseness, he boiled down the twelve points to two or three.

According to Rove, the Republicans, in their organizing, had probably far surpassed the Democrats in all of the swing states except Pennsylvania and maybe New Mexico. They had certainly done so in Florida, and arguably in Ohio. The Times story had generally relied on Democrats and groups affiliated with the Democratic Party for its information, and had got only pro-forma responses from Republicans. Fessenden had gauged new-voter registration by comparing figures for the first seven months of 2000 and the same period in 2004; framing the data that way favored the Democrats, because their organizing effort hadn’t begun seriously until 2004. The Republicans, Rove said, had been organizing since 2001, but a comparison of only the year 2000 with the year 2004 omitted the progress that the Party had made during 2002 and 2003.

Another technique the Times had used was surveying new registrants in the most heavily Democratic and Republican Zip Codes in Florida and Ohio. But this, Rove said, was unnecessary in Florida, where voters register by party, and misleading in Ohio, where the Republicans were finding most of their new voters in precincts (not Zip Codes, which aren’t political boundaries) that had not voted heavily Republican in the past. Rove felt that the Times had allowed itself to be fed by the Democratic organizations. Why did it seem as if so many sloppy errors in the Times’political coverage favored the Democrats? (Fessenden, when I told him of Rove’s complaints, insisted that, rather than accepting the Democrats’ version, he had been trying to capture the statistical reality, which was that the biggest increases in registration, in both states, were in urban areas that traditionally voted Democratic regardless of party registration.)

The Times, like most of the mainstream media, was given very little access to President Bush during the campaign. (Vice-President Cheney’s staff found that it had no room for the Times reporter even to travel in the press section of its plane.) It would be facile to say that the Administration had simply written off the Times—Rove’s level of passion demonstrates that. As Keller wrote to me, “During the campaign, and particularly when things looked close, political strategists for the Republican Party and all of the various allied constituencies did not bypass the ‘establishment’ press. They sought us out to defend their own causes and often to attempt to plant dirt on the opposition.” Still, the Times’ relations with the Kerry organization were much freer and easier. Keller was among editors and reporters from the Times who interviewed the candidate on the road. “The first event I went to was a stem-cell event in New Hampshire,” Keller said. “I thought back on Bush’s agonizing over that issue—soliciting the advice of clergy—but at this Kerry event the words ‘faith,’‘morality,’‘God’ never came up. There was not even the implicit suggestion that it was a moral dilemma for many Americans. So I was focussed on this issue of why Kerry didn’t talk more about faith. The second stop was a meeting in Philadelphia with black ministers, mostly from Pennsylvania and Ohio, about turnout. He left them cold. He didn’t even try to connect, or to suggest that they had some kind of bond based on faith.” (Rove had complained to Keller and Taubman that the Times didn’t understand the American who regularly attended church.)

“So, when we finally got some time with Kerry, I wanted to ask him about religion,” Keller went on. “Hell, I’m the executive editor, I get to decide on at least the first couple of questions. He was a little nonplussed. He was pretty elusive. A little defensive. He ended up saying, ‘I really do believe. I need to talk more about that.’” (After the interview, the Times ran a story, with Keller’s as the second byline, about Kerry’s “visible discomfort in discussing religion.”) Kerry did not complain about the Times’ coverage, and complaints from the Kerry campaign “were smaller-bore” than Rove’s, Keller said. He went on, “Where we really got a Rovean level of hostility was from the Howard Dean campaign. They had the true-believer fervor you got from the Bush people. The Kerry people felt more of an affinity—there was a greater level of comfort with them.”

Since the election, the mainstream media—tagged as the M.S.M. by bloggers—have conceded a couple of points to Rove: that they failed to appreciate fully the dimensions of the Republican organizing effort; and that they misunderstood the way that the Republican Party’s religious base lives and thinks. But the idea that the M.S.M. made these mistakes intentionally, because they had taken sides in the election, makes mainstream-media organizations indignant, and worries them—at a time when there is much else to feel indignant, and worried, about.

What a strange argument, that the MSM isn't intentionally biased it's just so far in the Democrat camp that it doesn't understand what's going on in mainstream America. (Note that John Kerry didn't even get how much his irreligiosity was hurting him?)

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 10, 2005 10:42 AM

Kerry didn't get how much his irreligiosity was hurting him because inside his party, it helped him. The problem was his inability to see outside his party, a flaw common in legislators.

Posted by: Arnold Williams at February 10, 2005 10:54 AM

Note also that while each of the MSM's errors about process having made the Democrats look in better shape than they really were is presented as "helping" them, but in fact it hurt them by making them complacent and the Republicans angry.

"Errors" in substantive reporting are another matter, however.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 10, 2005 11:22 AM

I think the argument hints at a class divide. The Kerry campaign and the NY Times come from the same social class - secular (or mainline Protestant), wealthy, East Coast. The prism through which they view the world is the same. And it filters out a lot of people.

Posted by: Brandon at February 10, 2005 11:23 AM

I think Brandon is right about the class divide. These folks only talk to each other and there appears to be a corporate culture in the MSM of don't rock the boat and just publish stories that confirm what your editors have made clear they believe is the truth. This has been a loser in the Big Three Automakers and in the CIA and of course State, why should it be anything but a loser when the MSM does it.

Treat the newspapers like they do in France. If you read Figaro, they'll accuse Mitterand of eating babies but so what. Liberation says the same thing about Chirac. French MSM is all biased and they make no pretense to being 'fair and balanced.' They, unlike the American MSM, have too much respect for their readership to do that.

Posted by: Bart at February 10, 2005 11:55 AM

One danger of sophistry is that you have to contort so much you eventually snap your neck. On the bright side, it is amusing to watch. Encore, Nick!

Posted by: Luciferous at February 10, 2005 12:18 PM

I'm with David. This is merely bad press regarding puffing up the prospects of Democrats.

Yes, I understand that sometimes the public will vote for the one they think will be the winner (well at least that argument is sometimes made), but I love sneaking up behind the Democrats and MSM and giving them a swift kick where the sun don't shine. That tends to intimidate those Democrats remaining in office.

As to the merits of Democratic organization and getting the vote out. It's the Union members more than the money that will make the difference for them. And the members are not really that interested in the modern Democratic Party like they used to be.

Posted by: h-man at February 10, 2005 2:24 PM

The article was so clueless that it was absolutely pathetic. You need to read the whole thing. Here is the conclusion:

. . . but there is another possibility, which is much more worrisome, at least to journalists who work in the mainstream media. It is that during the years of heavy shellingthrough impeachment and the Florida recount and then the rough 2004 campaignwhat they consider their compact with the public has been seriously damaged. Journalism that is inquisitive and intellectually honest, that surprises and unsettles, didnt always exist. There is no law saying that it must exist forever, and there are political and business interests that would be better off if it didnt exist and that have worked hard to undermine it. This is what journalists in the mainstream media are starting to worry about: what if people dont believe in us, dont want us, anymore?

Ask yourself. Is that a threat or a promise?

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at February 10, 2005 2:37 PM

I skimmed through this article last night, and I kept thinking that Mr. Lemann is so naive he thinks the MSM can be 90% Democrat and yet not biased in any way whatsoever.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at February 10, 2005 3:01 PM

Check their Rolodexes -- chances are outside of the top Republicans, whom they have to have contacts with, most of the people the Times reporters and others at the big media outlets go to when they're trying to develop one of these "trend" stories are from the Democratic side of the aisle, and as a result, the reporters get their story pointed in that direction from the outset (it also helps that they're not that unhappy about going in that direction to begin with).

To actually go out and cultivate sources and deal with people you're probably at odds with politically requires a lot more work, and you're going to hear things you may not agree with. But as the Ohio and Florida vote results show, sometimes those contrary viewpoints are the correct ones, and if the Times wants to stop looking about as accurate as Jimmy the Greek before Super Bowl III, they've got to suck it up and start giving equal weight to both sides of the political aisle.

Posted by: John at February 10, 2005 4:05 PM

h: Ironically, what has made Democratic gotv so efficient is racial profiling. So long as grabbing people with dusky skin off the street and trucking them to the voting booth pays off with 90% or 75% or whathaveyou of their votes, your gotv is going to be easy. Where the Republicans have to data mine to pick out nuances (church attendence, good income but not too good, etc.), the Democrats can id their voters with a glance. Just another reason that even a relatively small increase in the GOP's minority vote is the gift that keeps on giving.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 10, 2005 4:29 PM

Mr. Schwartz;

The phrase "journalism that is ... intellectualy honest" is the essence of that quote. It doesn't have to exist and it was killed by Old Media. Now they're surprised that the public no longer respects them?

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at February 10, 2005 5:06 PM

Quoting Robert Schwartz:
"The article was so clueless that it was absolutely pathetic. You need to read the whole thing. Here is the conclusion:
. . . but there is another possibility, which is much more worrisome, at least to journalists who work in the mainstream media. It is that during the years of heavy shellingthrough impeachment and the Florida recount and then the rough 2004 campaignwhat they consider their compact with the public has been seriously damaged."

I had to double-check the article to confirm that Nicholas LeMann actually used the word "shelling." I think that is a typo, and he actually meant "shilling."

Posted by: J Baustian at February 13, 2005 1:25 PM