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26 July 2001

Our current howler (part III): Dead man talking

Synopsis: Jim Lehrer is also a missing person. Therein lies this story’s key tale.

Commentary by Carl Gottlieb
The NewsHour, PBS, 7/11/01

Away From the Pack
Alex S. Jones, The New York Times, 7/25/01

Why Dan Rather and CBS Limited Coverage of Levy Case
Jim Rutenberg, The New York Times, 7/23/01

Rather Restrained
Editorial, The Christian Science Monitor, 7/26/01

Against Chandra-Vision; Was it so wrong to declare one Condit-free zone?
James Poniewozik, Time, 7/30/01

Pornography Parading as News
Richard Cohen, The Washington Times, 7/26/01

At THE HOWLER, we see dead people. Each night, for example, we see "Jim Lehrer," seeming to conduct a TV news show. The program is an hour in length, with only a handful of commercial breaks. This program has a name–the NewsHour–and appears at the same time each night.

On our TV, "Jim Lehrer" seems to be a major figure–and he hasn’t covered the exciting story concerning Chandra Levy and Gary Condit. Check the transcript of last Friday’s program, for example (transcripts of Lehrer’s non-existent show are provided by Lexis-Nexis). The Condit matter wasn’t mentioned in the opening "News summary" segment. Lehrer never mentioned the matter in his weekly "Political wrap." And there was nothing new about that; again according to Lexis-Nexis, Lehrer has never mentioned the Condit story in his Friday "wrap" with Shields and Gigot. In fact, the Condit story has been mentioned just once on the NewsHour–on the July 11 show, when the program did a segment called "What’s news?" trying to evaluate the coverage of this story. That segment ended with this appraisal by Carl Gottlieb, of the Project for Excellence in Journalism:

GOTTLIEB: My biggest complaint about this is the saturation coverage, the coverage we see on TV where we’re actually watching the process. And sometimes the process doesn’t produce any more news than one person shouting at another. Again, I have to say, and I spent most of my life looking at ratings in television newsrooms, that viewer erosion, because of mistrust, doesn’t happen overnight, it happens over time. And if you look at the household using television for news, over the years, they’ve come down dramatically. And every time we have one of these stories that we drag on forever, present something as news that isn’t really news, that really turns out to be a better yarn than it is informative, I think we alienate our viewers a little more.

Clearly, Gottlieb was unimpressed with the way this story has been covered. The NewsHour’s panel included three working journalists who didn’t share Gottlieb’s view. But July 11 was the only time the Condit story has even been mentioned on the NewsHour. To all appearances, this fellow, "Jim Lehrer," does not think this story is news.

And that’s how we know we see dead people. Clearly, this fellow "Jim Lehrer" can be seen by no one on but us (and by Lexis-Nexis). All through the media, journalists keep saying that only Dan Rather has ignored this thrilling tale. They see Rather quite clearly; but they can’t see Jim Lehrer. And their complete inability to observe Lehrer’s conduct may be the biggest news in this whole sorry mess.

Who are they?

For the record, who are these scribes? The most recent offender, Alex S. Jones, wrote an op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times:

JONES: For 11 weeks television news, including "The Early Show" on CBS, has followed [Condit-Chandra] events obsessively, and the cable talk shows are feasting on thinly veiled speculation. Only Dan Rather, the anchor of "The CBS Evening News," has all but ignored the story, contending that the coverage by others has been excessive and unfair. Regardless of whether you agree with Mr. Rather, such independence should be applauded. At the very least, his program is taking the risk of standing alone.

If Jim Lehrer really exists, and if he really does "television news," the highlighted statements are baldly inaccurate. But why should Jones get the story right? On Monday, Jim Rutenberg wrote a 1300-word news report for the Times, and he didn’t mention Lehrer either:

RUTENBERG (pgh 3): For 11 weeks, in a rare if not unique case of a news program marching to the beat of its own drummer on a rolling, long-running case, "The Evening News" had steadfastly refused to report the Levy case. Mr. Rather’s decision provided an intriguing subplot. It also isolated his program from the rest of his news division, frustrated some CBS producers and, by week’s end, left nerves frayed at Black Rock, CBS’s headquarters.

Rutenberg makes no statements that are flat-out wrong. But you’d never know from reading his piece that another major news program was "marching to the beat of its own drummer" on this story. Indeed, Rutenberg seems to go out of his way to avoid even mentioning Lehrer. In these passage, for example, he discusses what the other commercial networks have done, and he describes what the cable nets have been doing. But to all appearances, Rutenberg doesn’t know that a guy named "Jim Lehrer" exists:

RUTENBERG (16): The case became fodder for the 24-hour news channels–Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC–always searching for news that also provides material for their talk shows.

(17) "For us, it’s a good story," said Bill Shine, executive producer of the Fox News Channel. "You have interesting elements: you have a missing person, you have a congressman, you have politics, you have sex."

(18) Cable news was not alone in covering the case. As details continued to emerge, ABC’s "World News Tonight" and NBC’s "Nightly News With Tom Brokaw" also covered them.

Lehrer’s NewsHour, of course, did not. But you’d never know it from reading this piece. Indeed, Rutenberg spent two more paragraphs describing how ABC and NBC have covered the story. There wasn’t a word about "Lehrer."

But then, almost no one has mentioned Lehrer in comments about Crazy Rather. On Fox, Bill O’Reilly has helped drive this story; last Friday night, he was still saying that, while he didn’t agree with Rather’s judgment, "the thing I admire about Rather is that he knows that he’s out there alone." Plainly, that statement of fact is just false. But earlier that day, Howie Carr said the same thing; in the Boston Herald, Carr referred to Condit "in his moment of need, with only Dan Rather still on his side." But why expect Carr to have a clue, when a mainstreamer like the Washington Post’s Lisa de Moraes doesn’t? Just yesterday, de Moraes said that the Condit story "seems to have gripped everyone in the nation except Dan Rather." On July 17, papermate Howard Kurtz topped that comment; appearing on Imus, Kurtz asked "when [Rather] plans to get in touch with the rest of the world." Rather’s avoidance of this story has been widely bruited; Lehrer’s avoidance goes completely unmentioned. We hate to be the ones to tell him, but Jim Lehrer, plainly, is not of this world. He’s seen by us and by Lexis-Nexis, and is unknown to everyone else.

Why is that? And why does it matter?

Jim Lehrer’s avoidance of this story has gone completely unmentioned. On the one hand, this is simply the latest example of a long-observed trend–our press corps’ ability to bungle any story, no matter how simple its facts. Imagine! Jones, the New York Times informs us, "is "director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government." In short, he’s The Best and the Brightest. But his column in the Wednesday Times is completely wrong on this story’s simple facts. There are four over-the-airwaves nightly news shows; two of the four have avoided this story. But Jones, confounded by these facts, completely misreports this story. As we’ve told you so often before, there is simply no story whose facts are so simple that our press corps can’t bollix them up.

But Jones’ error shows the larger story at work in the Condit coverage. It shows the way that the values and outlook of Fox News Channel now drive our cable news biz and even the wider coverage. Crazy Rather is a conservative icon, used to further a treasured bit of spin. The fact that Rutenberg and Jones are peddling this tale shows the increasing power of conservatives–and news directors at Fox–to determine the national press agenda.

Clearly, Fox took the lead on this story from the outset. Paula Zahn’s The Edge was the first cable show to feature the tale; early on, she mixed leering interviews with the Levys with crackpot segments with assorted psychics, who pictured Chandra dead in the dump. And routinely, major news breaks have come through Fox; stewardess Anne Marie Smith did her interviews there, for example, and so did the Virginia man who says he saw Condit throw away that watch box. However you want to judge this story, Fox has clearly driven the coverage. And the network’s tabloid tastes are being mimicked by the other cable nets; plainly, Larry King is now chasing Fox in the effort to goose up the story.

That’s where Rather comes in. The familiar spin on Crazy Rather is an old conservative chestnut. For conservatives, Rather has long been the iconic image of the media’s "liberal bias," and the effort to push his latest transgression is part of the continuing effort to drive that treasured story. Conservatives are slamming Rather’s coverage because it furthers an iconic bit of spin. And why don’t they mention Lehrer’s non-coverage? Because Lehrer is a widely respected figure; if his news judgment coincides with Rather’s, that makes "Crazy Rather" a tough spin to sell. So conservative spinners leave Lehrer out–and Alex S. Jones runs to type up their story! (So does Jim Rutenberg, and so does Howard Kurtz.) The repeated presentation of the Rather story is the latest triumph of conservative power, in which a lazy, inept mainstream press corps does the bidding of conservative spinners.

Our mainstream press is uncaring and lazy. Our conservative press is full of life. Idle, inept, and totally timorous, our mainstream writers are easy marks. Due to their languor, they can’t see "Jim Lehrer." "Jim Lehrer" lives on Lexis, nowhere else.

Here at THE HOWLER, we see dead people. But readers of the New York Times? They see stories recycled from Fox.

Next: Kaus defiles!

Fox’s useful typists: Even when the press corps agrees with Rather, they fail to mention Lehrer. An editorial in today’s Christian Science Monitor praises Rather’s treatment of this story. "Although Rather’s judgment has been, and probably will continue to be, questioned," the paper writes, "there’s no doubt that he, in his delay in reporting the story, did the right thing." But even in defending Rather, the Monitor fails to note Lehrer’s parallel judgment. Like others, they imply that only Rather took this stand. "Rather’s move took journalistic courage," they write, "the ‘out there all alone’ kind of courage reminiscent of Katharine Graham." Doh!

You can get misled the very same way in the current Time. James Poniewozik generally defends Rather’s judgment. But his opinion piece fails to mention Lehrer, and clearly implies that Rather alone decided to downplay Condit. Headline: "Was it so wrong to declare one Condit-free zone?" Here’s part of his essay:

PONIEWOZIK: Perhaps the most telling lesson about today’s media in Rather’s high-profile dissent is that this sort of thing is so rare. More typically, outlets decide a story is news because everyone else is doing it, a gentleman’s agreement that absolves any individual of blame. Perhaps that’s why the resentment of CBS was so vehement. Critics questioned Rather’s news sense and argued that the CBS Evening News was taking the high road as a marketing gimmick.

Poniewozik is polite on all scores. It doesn’t cross his mind that Rather is being criticized as part of long-standing conservative propaganda, and he never mentions that Lehrer also offered this "rare" "high-profile dissent."

Then there’s Richard Cohen. In today’s Post, Cohen says that the Condit coverage is just a cheap excuse to talk sex. And who does he blame for the coverage? Listen as the knock-kneed pundit scans the cable dial:

COHEN: What nonsense! The story is being pursued because it is about sex…And so these outlets– particularly the once-dignified CNN and the increasingly tawdry MSNBC–have gone all Condit, all the time, even when, strictly speaking, they have nothing new to report. It doesn’t matter. What matters only is the subtext of the story: sex. The story is about that and only secondarily about a missing woman.

Amazing, isn’t it? CNN and MS deserve this critique. But no one has gone more "all-Condit" than Fox, and the timorous Cohen fails to mention them! It isn’t just Lehrer whom Cohen can’t see. He’s so scared of conservative power he can’t even see folks at Fox.

Smile-a-while (7/26/01)

Don’t ask, don’t tell: Isn’t it time that Tim Russert stopped asking William Safire to comment on Condit? Interviewing Safire on Sunday’s Meet the Press, Russert set out with high hopes:

RUSSERT: You write a column in such a wonderful way, and you often give advice to people, or you try to get inside people’s heads. What would you say to Gary Condit this morning?

Alas! Safire’s message to Condit had its flaws:

SAFIRE (7/22/01): …I think now that if I were Gary Condit, I would suggest to others, why doesn’t somebody come up with a reward for information leading to the conviction of anybody who had anything to do with foul play concerning her? Maybe it would be checkbook journalism. But there is no reward, and perhaps if there were–

Doh! Russert interrupted. The reward has now reached $400,000, and Condit contributed to it long, long ago.

The last time, Tim let it go. Safire appeared on June 24. Here was the pundit’s "take" then:

SAFIRE (6/24/01): One of the basic problems with this story is the police work. I think it’s weak and overly deferential to the congressman. I would think the first thing they’d want to do–if I were a cop or a detective, I’d call him in or I’d visit him in his office and ask him some basic questions, which they haven’t done. He keeps saying, "I’ll meet with them next week." And I think now some aggressive police work is called for. He hasn’t been charged with any wrongdoing. He may not have done anything wrong. But when the white light of publicity shines suddenly on a situation, it’s a fascinating thing.

Doh! As we’ve mentioned, Tim let it go. But for the record, here was the opening of a Washington Post story appearing that very same day:

LENGEL AND DVORAK (pgh 1): D.C. police met with Rep. Gary A. Condit (D-Calif.) for a second time yesterday at an undisclosed location and interviewed him for about an hour, police said.

(2) The 3 p.m. meeting was said to be productive, but Executive Assistant Chief Terrance W. Gainer declined to disclose other details.

Headline: "Police Meet With Condit for Second Time." Seventeen days earlier, the Post had reported that Condit told police, in his first interview, that Chandra Levy had spent the night at his apartment. The news had created a pundit sensation, but it hadn’t yet reached those parts of New York where pundits get inside people’s heads and often give advice to people.

Commentary by Tim Russert, William Safire
Meet the Press, NBC, 7/22/01

Commentary by William Safire
Meet the Press, NBC, 6/24/01

Police Meet With Condit for Second Time
Allan Lengel and Petula Dvorak, The Washington Post, 6/24/01