"Dedicated to exposing the lies and impeachable offenses of George W. Bush"

News organizations devote little attention to NSA spying story
Media Matters
January 20, 2006

On January 22, the day after The Washington Post first broke the Lewinsky story, the paper ran the following stories:

  1. "FBI Taped Aide's Allegations; Seeking Cooperation, Bureau Confronted Ex-White House Intern," a 2,663-word front-page article by Peter Baker and Susan Schmidt
  2. "Clinton Scoop So Hot It Melted; Newsweek Editors Held Off On Scandal Story," a 1,098-word Howard Kurtz article about reporting of the matter, on the front page of the Style section
  3. "FBI Taped Aide's Allegations; Clinton Denies Affair, Says He 'Did Not Urge Anyone' to Lie," a 1,474-word front-page article by John Harris, with contributions by Terry Neal
  4. "Clinton Tie to Va. Woman Led to Probe's Latest Angle," a 605-word article about Kathleen Willey by R.H. Melton
  5. "Kindred Spirits' Pentagon Bond; White House Exiles Shared Lively Chat, Confidences," a 1,620-word front-page article by Dana Priest and Rene Sanchez with contributions by Ceci Connolly, Judith Havemann, Susan Glasser and David Segal
  6. "Jordan: Power Broker And 'FOB' Without Peer; Lawyer Is Now Key Figure in Starr Probe," a 782-word article by Thomas Edsall, with contributions by staff researcher Ben White
  7. "THE POLITICAL IMPLICATIONS; President Imperiled as Never Before," a 933-word article by Dan Balz, with contributions by Helen Dewar
  8. "Affairs of State," an 833-word column by Mary McGrory
  9. "THE LEGAL IMPLICATIONS; Allegations Against Clinton Could Lead to Impeachment, Prosecution," a 1,042-word article by Ruth Marcus
  10. "The Allegations," a 420-word editorial
  11. "The Reliable Source," a regular multipart feature of the Style section that dedicated 374 words to the Clinton investigation by Ann Gerhart and Annie Groer.

That's a total of 11 articles, written by or using contributions from at least 20 reporters, and comprising 11,844 words dedicated to allegations that the president lied about a consensual relationship.

The New York Times gave the story similar treatment:

  1. "THE PRESIDENT UNDER FIRE: THE WHITE HOUSE RESPONSE; In Interviews, President Denies Affair With Intern," a 1,067-word article by James Bennet
  2. "THE PRESIDENT UNDER FIRE: THE FRIENDS; Friendship of 2 Women Slowly Led to the Crisis," a 1,881-word front-page article by Jill Abramson and Don Van Natta
  4. "THE PRESIDENT UNDER FIRE; Independent Counsel Cites Deceit Pattern," a 419-word article by Sephen Labaton
  5. "THE PRESIDENT UNDER FIRE: THE CONFIDANT; In Fair Weather and Foul, a Friend to Clinton," a 563-word article by Richard Berke
  6. "THE PRESIDENT UNDER FIRE; Excerpts From Statements by White House and President on Accusations," a 1,465-word article
  7. "A Crisis From Petty Sources," a 755-word editorial
  8. "Essay; Presume Innocence," a 692-word column by William Safire

That's a total of eight articles, written by at least eight reporters, comprising 9,044 words.

Now, here's what the Post did on December 17 -- the day after the initial disclosure of the Bush administration's use of the National Security Agency (NSA) to conduct domestic surveillance that has been widely described as an illegal trampling of the Constitution:

  1. "On Hill, Anger and Calls for Hearings Greet News of Stateside Surveillance," a 1,372-word front-page article by Dan Eggen and Charles Lane, with contributions from Carol D. Leonnig, Barton Gellman, and R. Jeffrey Smith, and researcher Julie Tate
  2. "Renewal of Patriot Act Is Blocked in Senate," a 1,073-front-page article dealing tangentially with the NSA matter, by Charles Babington
  3. "At the Times, a Scoop Deferred," a 782-word article by Paul Farhi

That's all. Three articles, eight reporters, 3,227 words -- and that's generously including the USA Patriot Act article in the tally.

And from the Times, which had broken the NSA story the day before:

  1. "SENATORS THWART BUSH BID TO RENEW LAW ON TERRORISM," a 1,875-word front-page article by Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Eric Lichtblau, with contributions from James Risen
  2. "Behind Power, One Principle," a 1,201-word front-page article by Scott Shane

That's it for the Times: two articles, four reporters, 3,076 words.

All told, on January 22, 1998, the Times and the Post ran 19 articles (five on the front page) dealing with the Clinton investigation, totaling more than 20,000 words and reflecting the words of at least 28 reporters -- plus the editorial boards of both newspapers.

In contrast, on December 17, the Times and the Post combined to run five articles about the NSA spying operation, involving 12 reporters and consisting of 6,303 words.

On February 25, 1998, 35 days after the story first broke, the Post ran four articles and an editorial about the Clinton investigation, totaling 5,046 words, involving 11 reporters, and the paper's editorial board. The Times ran four articles, two opinion columns, and an editorial -- seven pieces in all, totaling 5,852 words and involving at least six reporters and columnists, in addition to its editorial board. The papers combined for 12 articles, columns, and editorials, involving 17 reporters and columnists, as well as both editorial boards.

On January 20, 35 days after the NSA story first broke, the Times ran one 1,324-word article about the NSA operation written by two reporters. The Post ran one 945-word article written by one reporter. Combined: two articles, three reporters, 2,269 words.

We could go on and on with comparisons like these, and bring in other news organizations, but it should be clear by now that the nation's leading news organizations haven't given the NSA spying story anywhere near the coverage they gave the Clinton-Lewinsky matter. And, based on available evidence, they haven't dedicated nearly the resources to pursuing the NSA story that they dedicated to the Lewinsky story.

So, some questions for the Times, and the Post, and ABC, and CBS, and NBC, and CNN, and Time, and Newsweek, and other leading news organizations:

1) How many reporters, editors, and researchers did you assign to the Lewinsky story when it broke? How many remained assigned to that story one month later?

2) How many reporters, editors, and researchers did you assign to the NSA story when it broke? How many remained assigned to that story one month later?

3) How do you explain the disparity?

We assume many news organizations would respond by saying that they aren't devoting as much attention to the NSA matter because it hasn't captured the nation's attention the way the Lewinsky investigation did.

But that's a canard; as we demonstrated above, the Times and the Post ran a combined 19 articles totaling more than 20,000 words just a day after the Lewinsky story first broke -- long before they could have known whether the public was interested. If the story captured the nation's attention, it's because the media forced it down our throats. And if Americans aren't captivated by the NSA matter, it may be because the media aren't hyping it nearly as much as it has much lesser stories.

The Post's Howard Kurtz effectively -- if unintentionally -- illustrated this bizarre tendency by news organizations to pretend that they merely reflect what people are talking about rather than shaping the national conversation. In his January 18 online column, Kurtz responded to criticism by Media Matters for America and others that he gave unwarranted attention to ages-old, baseless right-wing attacks on Rep. John P. Murtha (D-PA) by writing an article recounting the attacks for the January 14 edition of the Post. Kurtz noted that the attacks are, indeed, old, but added they are now "getting national play."

But the attacks aren't "getting" national play -- Kurtz is giving them national play. Prior to his article, the only "play" the allegations were getting came in a hatchet job by the Brent Bozell-operated Cybercast News Service upon which Kurtz based his article.

NSA spying stories we'd like to see

What kinds of stories could we see if news organizations were to devote as much attention to the president's authorization of a domestic spying operation that many think is illegal and unconstitutional as they did to a presidential affair?

  • Profiles of the people involved: Such pieces were standard during the Lewinsky investigation, but are not nearly as common now. Who are the Justice Department and NSA officials responsible for crafting the spy plan? What are their backgrounds? Their expertise? What other controversial administration actions have they been involved in?
  • Serious and detailed examinations of the opinions of legal and constitutional experts. Conservative constitutional scholar Bruce Fein and American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Norman Ornstein have said that the president's authorization of the wiretapping scheme may constitute an impeachable offense -- but those comments haven't appeared in either the Times or the Post, or most other media outlets. What other experts have criticized -- or defended -- the program? Rather than simply reporting that the Bush administration says its actions are legal, and critics disagree, news organizations could -- and should -- offer a comprehensive picture of the opinions and analyses of relevant experts.
  • Assessments of the effects of the NSA program. The Bush administration claims the domestic spying operation has thwarted terrorist attacks. Is this true? Some of the success stories the administration and the media have recounted are dubious at best, such as the much-touted capture of Iyman Faris, who pleaded guilty to a harebrained plot to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge with a blowtorch -- and whose capture reportedly had little to do with the NSA program.
  • An exploration of the possibility that the NSA program may not only have been an illegal and unconstitutional trampling of the rights of countless Americans, but may actually have harmed national security. For example, evidence obtained through the program may turn out to have been illegally obtained -- and thus inadmissible in court, which may result in actual terrorists going free.
  • Given that at least nine Republican senators have expressed concern over the NSA program, an enterprising reporter might try to get comments from every member of Congress. Given calls for congressional investigations, including those made by at least six Republican senators, an examination of previous congressional investigations and oversight of the Bush administration would seem to be in order. Have previous comments by Republicans expressing concern with administration policies resulted in meaningful investigations? Or have they simply paid lip service to the idea of oversight without following through?
  • Polling. Given the media's obsession with horse-race commentary and public opinion polling, it's long past time for detailed polling based on accurate questions about the NSA domestic spying and other Bush administration scandals. Zogby International polls have found that most Americans think Congress should consider impeachment if Bush deliberately mislead the country into war or if he "wiretapped American citizens without the approval of a judge" -- and those polls have been ignored by the media. News organizations that in 1998 polled on whether people thought Clinton should be impeached if he had an affair now refuse to ask whether people think Bush should be impeached if he broke the law.
  • Aside from impeachment, and questions relating to NSA spying, we've long argued that polls that ask if Bush mislead the country about Iraq should ask some obvious follow-up questions. Like, "Do you think the president's statements about the need to go to war in Iraq will make people more or less likely to believe him if he again makes the case for war?" And "If you think people will be less likely to believe him next time, does that make America more or less safe"?

And that's just a starting point. This is a situation in which the president of the United States admits ordering a secret domestic spying operation that many in his own party find troubling and that even some of his fellow conservatives have described as impeachable. Surely, if news organizations were to devote half the attention to this matter that they devoted to the Lewinsky matter, there would literally be dozens of worthwhile, interesting, and important stories to tell.

Leading Republican strategist criticizes spying operation; media yawn

We've previously noted that news organizations tend to play up Democratic criticism of fellow Democrats while downplaying Republican criticism of fellow Republicans.

This week brings a stunning new example.

Grover Norquist is, by most accounts, one of the most prominent and influential Republicans in the country. The Post has described him as a close ally of President Bush; as "one of the intellectual architects of the [1994] Republican Revolution." You'd be hard-pressed to find a knowledgeable political or media observer who would disagree with the statement that Norquist is among the dozen conservatives most directly responsible for the success of the movement and of the Republican Party.

On Tuesday, January 17, a group called Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances issues a press release titled, "Leading Conservatives Call for Extensive Hearings on NSA Surveillance; Checks on Invasive Federal Powers Essential."

Norquist was among those "leading conservatives," along with former Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA); David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union; Paul Weyrich, chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation; and Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation. Norquist said in the release: "Public hearings on this issue are essential to addressing the serious concerns raised by alarming revelations of NSA electronic eavesdropping."

Almost without exception, the media have ignored Norquist's comments.

The following news organizations didn't even mention Norquist's call for an investigation into "alarming revelations of NSA electronic eavesdropping":

* The New York Times
* The Washington Post
* USA Today
* Chicago Tribune
* Los Angeles Times
* Fox News Channel
* Associated Press
* United Press International

And on, and on, and on.

In reporting bin Laden's latest threats, media forget CIA director's claim that he knows where bin Laden is

Osama bin Laden -- the terrorist mastermind behind the 9-11 attacks on America, and a man Bush vowed to capture "dead or alive" -- resurfaced this week to issue more threats against the United States. Oddly absent from media coverage of bin Laden's threats has been any mention of the fact that the Bush administration has said it knows where bin Laden is hiding -- but won't go get him out of respect for "fair play" and to avoid offending foreign governments.

Instead, the media portray bin Laden's reemergence as a political boon for Bush and the Republicans since it reminds people of terrorism -- rather than as a boon for Democrats since it reminds people that it's been more than four years since the attacks of September 11 and that the Bush administration still hasn't captured the person responsible.

Wash. Post ombudsman: "From now on, I don't reply"

Post ombudsman Deborah Howell has gotten off to a rocky start at her new job -- some of it due to her dealings with Media Matters. Some recent news reports have mischaracterized the nature of our interaction with her. For example, on his CBSNews.com blog Public Eye, Vaughn Ververs conflated controversy surrounding Howell's January 15 column with an exchange Howell had with Media Matters regarding a previous Post article. The following is an overview of the Howell controversy to date, with particular emphasis on Media Matters' involvement.

Howell first drew Media Matters' attention by casually dismissing reader emails asking the Post to "do a poll on whether President Bush should be impeached." As Media Matters noted, Howell's answer simply didn't make sense; she claimed that Post polling director Richard Morin told her that such a question would be "biased" -- but didn't explain how. Media Matters pointed out that, in fact, the Post had asked the same question about Bill Clinton in 1998, so the explanation that the Post considers such questions "biased" doesn't hold water.

(The Post's polling director later changed his story, though his new answer wasn't any better. The Post, meanwhile, continues to not only refuse to conduct its own polling about impeachment, but also refuses to even mention polling conducted by Zogby International that shows a majority of Americans think Congress should consider impeachment proceedings "[i]f President Bush wiretapped American citizens without the approval of a judge.")

A few weeks later, Media Matters urged Howell to abandon her tendency to dismiss complaints about the Post's reporting by asserting that, since "both sides" complain, the Post must be doing something right:

 In what other profession would it be considered a badge of honor for everyone to think your work is flawed? Shouldn't the goal be for nobody to think your work is flawed?

  If a newspaper article calls one candidate an alcoholic and her opponent a compulsive gambler, and both complain, can the reader conclude that the reporter must have done "something right"?

  Substantive criticism of news reports should not be dismissed simply because someone else has a different complaint. Howell's approach -- and that of too many journalists -- assumes that both complaints have equal merit, which is obviously not always true. And it assumes that if any article is unfair to Party A in one way and Party B in another way, they cancel each other out - essentially, that two wrongs make a right.

  In her second column as the Post's ombudsman, Howell offered readers "a couple of tips on how best to use your ombudsman." It's time to return the favor with a tip for Howell, and for other journalists: Complaints about news reports should be dealt with on their own merits, not by simply matching them up against opposing complaints and discounting them all. Criticism from Media Matters, for example, should not be ignored simply because the Media Research Center also criticizes you -- and vice versa. On this, if little else, we suspect Media Matters, FAIR, Media Research Center, Accuracy in Media, and everyone else who regularly critiques the media can agree.

Then things accelerated considerably.

On January 4, the Post published an article by reporter Dafna Linzer that included the following line:

The NSA program operated in secret until it was made public in news accounts last month. Since then, President Bush and his advisers have defended it as legal and necessary to protect the country against future attacks and have said Congress was repeatedly consulted.

Media Matters noted in an item that same day that, while Linzer did include an overview of criticism of the Bush program, she did not include any rebuttal to the grossly misleading administration claim that "Congress was repeatedly consulted."

Howell then mocked the Media Matters item in comments on her internal Post weblog, dismissing it as "weak" and asserting, "It was clear if you read the story that she was simply giving the administration's point of view as well as others." Media Matters followed up by noting once again that Linzer had not, in fact, given the point of view of others on the question of whether "Congress was repeatedly consulted" -- and that Howell's defense of the omission therefore constituted an endorsement of the practice of printing misleading administration claims without rebuttal.

Howell didn't much care for that, and dashed off an email (an email that, had Howell been the recipient rather than the target, she would no doubt describe as "angry") stating, "I did not say that I endorsed printing misleading or false statements. I would never do that. I said that she was giving the administration's point of view. Either take that off your site or print my side of this."

So we posted that email, acceding to Howell's request that we "print my side of this." But her email contained a misleading statement -- in fact, Howell had not merely said in her post on the internal weblog that Linzer "was giving the administration's point of view." She had said that Linzer "was simply giving the administration's point of view as well as others." In fact, Linzer had not included the point of view of "others" -- and that is the entire basis for our initial item about Linzer's article, and the ensuing controversy.

Because we disagree with Howell's apparent position that readers' interests are served by publishing misleading information without rebuttal, we rebutted her email. Politely, we thought.

Howell, however, characterized that rebuttal as an "attack" in comments she made on the Post's internal message board -- and vowed to never again reply to criticism from Media Matters:

Omb Learns Lesson
Posted By: Deborah Howell
Date: 1/13/06 5:45:52 PM EDT

* The omb lesson is that I replied to mediamatters.org last week that I thought I had been misrepresented. That's just brought another attack. From now on, I don't reply.

Meanwhile, Howell was coming under criticism for her January 15 column, in which she wrote that lobbyist/felon Jack Abramoff "made substantial campaign contributions to both major parties" and that "a number of Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and Sen. Byron Dorgan (N.D.), have gotten Abramoff campaign money."

In fact, there is no indication that Abramoff has ever made any campaign contribution of any size to the Democratic Party, or to Reid, Dorgan, or any other Democrat. Media Matters and others pointed this out, noting that Abramoff's clients -- also known as his "victims" -- gave money to Democrats, but Abramoff, a longtime Republican insider, did not.

That's where things get interesting. The Post's public blog got flooded with comments pointing out Howell's error and asking for a correction. The Post then deleted some of those reader comments that it considered "personal attacks on Howell and others." Unfortunately, in the process, the Post also deleted (apparently accidentally) hundreds of comments that should not have been deleted. This, coupled with Howell's failure to address complaints about her false claim, led to even more comments, and to questions asked of Post reporters during online chats.

Post media reporter Howard Kurtz, for example, conceded that Howell's false Abramoff claims had been "inartfully worded" and could "have been more accurate." Howell herself finally commented in a January 19 post on the Post's public weblog, using much the same language:

I've heard from lots of angry readers about the remark in my column Sunday that lobbyist Jack Abramoff gave money to both parties. A better way to have said it would be that Abramoff "directed" contributions to both parties.

Howell's response fell short in at least two regards. First, she failed to acknowledge that claim that Abramoff "made substantial campaign contributions to both major parties" was not merely poorly worded, it was in fact wrong. Second, Howell went on to explain:

Lobbyists, seeking influence in Congress, often advise clients on campaign contributions. While Abramoff, a Republican, gave personal contributions only to Republicans, he directed his Indian tribal clients to make millions of dollars in campaign contributions to members of Congress from both parties.

Records from the Federal Elections Commission and the Center for Public Integrity show that Abramoff's Indian clients contributed between 1999 and 2004 to 195 Republicans and 88 Democrats. The Post has copies of lists sent to tribes by Abramoff with specific directions on what members of Congress were to receive specific amounts.

One of those lists can be viewed in this online graphic, while a graphical summary of giving by Abramoff, his tribal clients and associated lobbyists can be viewed here. The latest developments in the Abramoff investigation are available in this Special Report.

Howell's overview of campaign contributions connected to Abramoff suffers from the same flaws present in most media coverage of the topic. Among them is the implication that "Abramoff's Indian clients" contributed to Democrats because Abramoff told them to. In fact, Bloomberg has reported that Abramoff's clients gave a higher percentage of their contributions to Democrats before Abramoff began representing them:

Abramoff's tribal clients continued to give money to Democrats even after he began representing them, although in smaller percentages than in the past.

The Saginaw Chippewas gave $500,500 to Republicans between 2001 and 2004 and $277,210 to Democrats, according to a review of data compiled by Dwight L. Morris & Associates, a Bristow, Virginia-based company that tracks campaign-finance reports. Between 1997 and 2000, the tribe gave just $158,000 to Republicans and $279,000 to Democrats.

Further, tribes represented by Abramoff are unusual in steering the bulk of their contributions to Republicans: Indian tribes not represented by Abramoff tend to give more to Democrats, according to Bloomberg:

Between 2001 and 2004, Abramoff joined with his former partner, Michael Scanlon, and tribal clients to give money to a third of the members of Congress, including former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay [R-TX], according to records of the Federal Election Commission and Internal Revenue Service. At least 171 lawmakers got $1.4 million in campaign donations from the group. Republicans took in most of the money, with 110 lawmakers getting $942,275, or 66 percent of the total.

Of the top 10 political donors among Indian tribes in that period, three are former clients of Abramoff and Scanlon: the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe of Michigan, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, and the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians of California. All three gave most of their donations to Republicans -- by margins of 30 percentage points or more -- while the rest favored Democrats.

When Howell's post prompted another flood of comments, the Post responded by turning off the comments feature of its blog, explaining:

What we're not willing to do is allow the comments area to turn into a place where it's OK to unleash vicious, name-calling attacks on anyone, whether they are Post reporters, public figures or other commenters. And that's exactly what was happening. That leads into the second complaint. The reason that people were not routinely seeing the problematic posts I mentioned were that we were trying to remove them as fast as we could in order to preserve the reasoned arguments many others were making. We removed hundreds of these posts over the past few days, and it was becoming a significant burden on us to try and keep the comments area free of profanity and name-calling. So we eventually chose to turn off comments until we can come up with a better way to handle situations like this, where we have a significant amount of people who refuse to abide by the rules we set out.

Washingtonpost.com executive editor Jim Brady later said in an online chat that the Post would "go back through them [the comments] and restore the ones that did not violate our rules."

Now, for the media coverage of the Howell-readers spat.

The Times ran a January 20 article by Katharine Seelye that seems to conflate the controversy over Howell's Abramoff column with the Media Matters-Howell dispute over Linzer's NSA article. The Times reported:

She [Howell] wrote a column about Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist who pleaded guilty to conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion, and said that several Democrats "have gotten Abramoff campaign money," apparently intending to say that they received campaign money from Mr. Abramoff's clients.

Her column generated complaints, and after saying she thought her views were being misrepresented, she was attacked again, prompting her to say she would not post any more replies.

Seelye's reference to Howell "saying she thought her views were being misrepresented" and saying "she would not post any more replies" seems to refer to Howell's post on the Post's internal weblog in which she said she would not reply to Media Matters. This incident had nothing to do with her Abramoff column or with the Post's decision to turn off comments on its blog.

Seelye's article did not point out that Howell's Abramoff column was in error, or that she waited four days to respond to complaints. Seelye's article extensively quoted Post employees, but neither quoted nor paraphrased any critic of either Howell's reporting or of the Post's handling of the matter.

Likewise, the AP glossed over the Post's conduct, focusing instead on "nasty reader postings." Like the Times, the AP did not point out that, in fact, the readers were right and Howell was wrong. Also, like the Times, the AP failed to explore the possibility that Howell's delay in responding to complaints about her inaccurate reporting, the Post's wholesale deletion of comments, and other issues may have contributed to the reader anger. (Though, of course, that does not mean vulgar personal attacks were justified.)

Ververs joined Seelye in conflating the flap over Howell's Abramoff reporting with the dispute over Linzer's NSA article.

Ververs, however, made a far more troubling statement. In his post, Ververs seemed to endorse Howell's statement that Abramoff "directed his Indian tribal clients to make millions of dollars in campaign contributions to members of Congress from both parties." And in another post in the comments section, he seemed to stipulate that Abramoff "steered money" from his clients to Democrats.

But in another comment in reply to a reader, Ververs responded by saying:

You're right, nobody "knows" whether Abramoff "directed" any money towards Democrats. Nobody "knows" that he didn't, either. When many Democrats are among those rushing to return money they have gotten from these interests, it is at least as compelling as all the circumstantial evidence offered up by those who claim no Democrats are involved.

The most responsible approach, especially given all this fog, is to report what is known, not what is supposed. That's all I am saying. The chips will fall and we'll all know more as this goes forward.

Whether or not Abramoff, in fact, "directed" contributions to Democrats, it is troubling to see Ververs stipulate that he did, apparently because "nobody 'knows' that he didn't."