News media games of Gotcha! turned nasty on both sides of the Atlantic. If embarrassing the other guy were only adults behaving badly, the affairs would be entertaining. It’s that and more...
Here, serial exaggerations or lies by Brian Williams, Bill O’Reilly and others erodes confidence in what we report about politics, politicians and public policy.
In London, accusations of news columns being corrupted to placate advertisers can’t help the reputations of dailies on which American news media often rely. All of this as each country heads into a general election; ours in 2016, Britain’s later this year.
Williams fell from grace at NBC because print reporters caught him exaggerating risks he faced during the 2003 Iraq war. O’Reilly never bothered to conceal his delight. He sits atop Fox News’ dung heap where cable commentators promote the GOP and denigrate broadcast networks as liberal propaganda machines. Now, it’s O’Reilly’s turn and it’s print reporters wielding the axe.
The liberal Mother Jones magazine says O’Reilly invented dangers during the Falklands War when he was a young TV reporter in Argentina. It won’t end there. It’s too much fun catching other stars’ fibs, so I’m engaging in a pre-emptive strike. Before some vengeful, masochistic slug probes everything I’ve written since 1959, here are my admissions:
I was in Moscow but I didn’t really try to negotiate Gary Powers’ release after he parachuted from his rocket-damaged U2 spy plane.
I lived and worked in Rome but Elizabeth Taylor really never met me despite rumors to an affair during her filming of Cleopatra.
I drank with white mercenaries but I really didn’t lead their charge into Stanleyville to free missionaries from murderous Conglolese rebels.
I didn’t really save a blizzard-isolated Minnesota farm family; they saved me.
And I didn’t really subdue violent feral youths after Taste of Cincinnati with my licensed conceal-carry pistol.
Meanwhile, road apples fly on both sides of the Atlantic. NBC’s Williams apologized and is doing penance on an unpaid six-month furlough. Williams’ fall began when the military’s Stars & Stripes debunked his false claim that his helicopter was hit by a missile in Iraq. The irony, it appears, is that Williams’ initial reports in 2003 were true; he saw another helicopter downed by a rocket. In our 24/7 media world, Williams is road kill.
O’Reilly is today’s red meat. As Mother Jones put it, “O’Reilly has recounted dramatic stories about his own war reporting that don't withstand scrutiny — even claiming he acted heroically in a war zone that he apparently never set foot in.
“He repeatedly told audiences that he was a war correspondent during the  Falklands War and... he has often invoked this experience to emphasize that he understands war as only someone who has witnessed it could. As he once put it, ‘I've been there. That's really what separates me from most of these other bloviators. I bloviate, but I bloviate about stuff I've seen. They bloviate about stuff that they haven’t.'"
Rightly confident of unstinting support at Fox News, O’Reilly responded with characteristic vigor and vitriol. For instance, he told Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple that Mother Jones writer David Corn is “a guttersnipe liar...For years he’s been trying to get Fox News...He’s a disgusting piece of garbage.”
Invective aside, O’Reilly said Mother Jones’ Corn and colleague Daniel Schulman lied or knowingly misconstrued what he wrote and said. That’s O’Reilly’s story and he’s sticking to it.
Meanwhile, some former O’Reilly colleagues have added evidence of fabrications. If the mud sticks, Fox-haters will exult and Fox viewers will be confirmed that liberals are out to get them. That’s this side of the Atlantic.
On the other side, a London pissing match among national dailies also affects us; together, they do the kind of high-quality journalism that American news media pick up. Three are left of center - the Independent, the Pulitzer-winning Guardian and its sister Sunday Observer. The Telegraph is proudly conservative. I read them all online and I’m not sure their politics matter as much as the fiercely competitive world culture in which they battle for circulation and advertisers. There, Gotcha! is a blood sport.
As far as I can tell, the current brouhaha began when Peter Osborne, the Telegraph’s politics columnist, quit and accused the Telegraph of ignoring or downplaying stories about a major advertiser, the troubled multinational HSBC Bank. The Independent gleefully reported Osborne’s resignation and allegations of corrupted news judgment. Then the online journal, “Our Kingdom,” carried Osborne’s lengthy first-person indictment of the Telegraph. In it, Osborne quoted what he said was a conversation with Murdoch MacLennan, chief executive of Telegraph Media Group, in which MacLennan freely admitted that advertising was allowed to affect editorial (news columns) at the paper.
“From the start of 2013 onwards stories critical of HSBC were discouraged,” Osborne said. “HSBC suspended its advertising with the Telegraph. Its account, I have been told by an extremely well informed insider, was extremely valuable. HSBC, as one former Telegraph executive told me, is ‘the advertiser you literally cannot afford to offend.'”
HSBC renewed its ads when it was obvious that coverage would be cursory, Osborne said. British coverage of HSBC matters to Americans because our Justice Department is investigating how the British bank aided tax evasion by wealthy Americans.
Not content to let others run with the story, the Guardian took its shot at HSBC. It said pressure mounted “when prosecutors in Switzerland announced a money-laundering investigation into its Geneva-based private banking subsidiary and raided its offices in the city.”
The Guardian continued, saying “Prosecutors said the investigation into ‘suspected aggravated money laundering’ was prompted by ‘the recent published revelations’ about the private bank. The revelations, by the Guardian, the BBC, Le Monde and other media outlets, showed that HSBC’s Swiss banking arm turned a blind eye to illegal activities of arms dealers and helped wealthy people evade taxes.” That was the story Osborne said the Telegraph ignored or downplayed.
Last week, the Guardian raised new questions of conflict of interest at the Telegraph. The Guardian said the Telegraph’s owners borrowed almost $400 million from HSBC shortly before Telegraph reporters “were allegedly discouraged from running articles critical of HSBC.”
The Telegraph responded in part with an editorial, saying, “We are proud to combine journalistic excellence with commercial success and we will continue to do so. This newspaper makes no apology for the way in which it has covered the HSBC group and the allegations of wrongdoing by its Swiss subsidiary, allegations that have been so enthusiastically promoted by the BBC, the Guardian and their ideological soulmates in the Labour Party.
“We have covered this matter as we do all others, according to our editorial judgment and informed by our values. Foremost among those values is a belief in free enterprise and free markets,” the Telegraph continued.
“We are proud to be the champion of British business and enterprise. In an age of cheap populism and corrosive cynicism about wealth-creating businesses...We will take no lectures about journalism from the likes of the BBC, the Guardian or the Times.”
Then the Telegraph accused the Guardian of ethical lapses. It said the Guardian changed a headline and then removed an article about Iraq from its website rather than offend a major advertiser, Apple.
“In July last year Apple bought wraparound advertising on the Guardian's website and stipulated that the advertising should not be placed next to negative news,” the Telegraph said.
The Guardian’s response echoed the Telegraph’s defense: "It is never the case that editorial [news column] content is changed to meet stipulations made by an advertiser. Apple, in common with other advertisers, sometimes choose to make stipulations about the type of content their ads appear around. If the content on the home page does not meet stipulations, the ad would be removed."
The Telegraph also caught the Guardian promoting low-emission vehicles without telling readers the so-called news was paid for by vehicle manufacturers. The Guardian replied, saying the sponsor label was “removed in error” when its website was updated and promised to remove the sponsored content.
Then the Guardian reported that HSBC’s chief executive hid some of his wealth in a Swiss bank account. It released the story the night before the exec, Stuart Gulliver, was to present HSBC’s annual report.
Finally, at least for the moment, the Guardian Group’s Sunday Observer joined the battle with an editorial that began “Fleet Street [traditional name for London papers] dogs are used to snapping at one another in the throes of news competition.
“But last week’s miserable business of the Daily Telegraph, HSBC’s tax-fixing Swiss division and a chief political columnist who couldn’t put up with a shrinking 'fraud' of coverage goes far beyond antics as usual.
“That all stopped, with a howl of outrage, when an anonymised Telegraph reporter was allowed to take front page space to 'reveal' that two separate managers under pressure at 'a rival newspaper' had taken their own lives. Pat message: at the Telegraph we move the news around to keep advertisers happy; others drive them over the edge of destruction. See how blameless we are?
“It is a message so crude, so utterly lacking in compassion or common sense, that any fellow feeling for the Telegraph in its hour of distress and opprobrium falls away.”
As Yogi Berra reportedly said, "It ain't over 'til it's over.”
• Older men dying of heart attacks while shoveling snow were part of growing up in Minnesota. Later, I wrote shovelers’ obits at the Minneapolis Star. Now, when I pick up a snow shovel, I say to myself and anyone who can hear me, “I don’t want to die this way.”
I shovel slowly and never with a full shovel as I push or toss snow from walks, stairs and 100-foot drive. The Cincinnati Enquirer’s Scott Wartman reminded me that Tristate residents aren’t immune with a story during a recent snowfall.
“Jack Fischer, longtime city attorney for the City of Dayton, and R.G. Bidwell, retired assistant fire chief for the City of Florence, both died Monday clearing snow. Fischer died while shoveling snow Monday afternoon at his home in Dayton, according to multiple city officials. He was in his early 60s and had been the city attorney in Dayton since the 1980s...Bidwell, 72, collapsed while clearing snow in his driveway.”
• Matt Peiken left WCPO.com as popular arts reporter and is creating an online music feature service for newspaper arts and entertainment editors “strapped for staff and budget.”
Peiken and I met through dog walks in Clifton. Since then, we've shared drinks, swapped stories about working and shoveling snow in the Twin Cities and he told me about his new venture aimed at Millennials. I was intrigued by his description of how the Internet makes such projects feasible. He left me thinking that now we can bury the aphorism, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”
Peiken recently began his national promotion on jimromenesko.com, the journalism site that provides many of my Curmudgeon Notes. (I hadn’t known that he and Romenesko were colleagues at the St. Paul Pioneer Press before each left for the online world.)
Here’s part of his online pitch: “Attract Millennials with the only syndicated feature delivering locally relevant content. It’s called RökOnTor (Rock On Tour). Every week, longtime arts journalist Matt Peiken creates and aggregates multimedia content packages about emerging artists touring the country. Every package includes a feature article, hires photos, social links and music players to embed into your own website...“
• Enquirer editors don’t know a tow from a barge on the Ohio River. That’s ironic, given their devotion to stories boosting Cincinnati’s waterborne commerce and aerial view of river traffic from 312 Elm St.
Recent Enquirer photos showed a tow — barges pushed by a powerful tow boat — headed upstream. However, editors called the whole affair a “barge.” That error is inexplicable unless Gannett outsourcing meant the text under the photo was written in, say, Palm Springs?
A “tow” involves “barges” and a “tow boat” pushing them upstream. That’s what the photo showed. Barges require a tow boat to push them up and down stream. A barge has no motor and moves downstream independently only when it breaks loose. A barge cannot go upstream unaided. The tow boat always is at the back/stern of the barges. It is not a tug boat. The largest tow on the Ohio River is 15 linked barges - five barges long and three across - pushed by one tow boat.
• What is it in the water at Fox News? Last Monday, Kristi Capel, a Fox 8 anchor in Cleveland, said “all the jigaboo music” made it hard to hear Lady Gaga’s Sound of Music medley on the Oscar telecast. Then she repeated “jigaboo” and giggled. Her African-American morning cohost was apparently stunned into silence by her jaw-dropping racist epithet.
The next day, Tuesday, Capel tweeted, “I deeply regret my insensitive comment. I didn’t know the meaning and would never intentionally use hurtful language. I sincerely apologize.” Great. The former Miss Missouri USA uses words she doesn’t understand. Does Fox really replace the brains of beauty queens it hires as news anchors with Kleenex? I wonder in what context she knew “jigaboo,” a century-old contemptuous white term for an African-Americans.
Wednesday, the station suspended her for the rest of the week and said she’d met with “pastors...to begin the process of forgiveness and healing.”
The smartest comment I’ve seen was on the NBCBLK blog. It came from Jason Johnson, a politics and culture analyst and political science prof at Hiram College in Fox 8’s viewing area. “(T)he idea that Kristi Chapel had no idea that ‘jigaboo’ was a negative reference to black people is a total stretch. She didn't make an ‘insensitive’ statement, she made a racist statement and to believe her story you'd have to believe that a woman with a degree in journalism uses words on television that she doesn't know the definition of.
“The jig is up Kristi, you aren't fooling anyone....Own it, say you're sorry and don't do it again. Don't spin some crazy justification to avoid responsibility.”
• Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker told the Washington Post that he did not know if President Obama is a “Christian.” Walker was lucky the reporter didn’t ask if he thought Obama is a Muslim. Sensing trouble, his spokeswoman called the Post and said, “Of course the governor thinks the president is a Christian.”
Maybe the Republican presidential aspirant doesn’t think Obama loves his country. We can’t tell. After hearing former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani doubt whether Obama loves America, the Wisconsin governor said, “I don’t know, I honestly don’t know, one way or the other.”
Walker was on firmer ground when he told the Post reporter that such questions reflect a broader problem in the nation’s political-media culture, which Walker described as fixated on issues that are not relevant to most Americans.
“To me, this is a classic example of why people hate Washington and, increasingly, they dislike the press,” Walker said. “The things they care about don’t even remotely come close to what you’re asking about.”
Playing to the GOP base that could nominate him as their party’s presidential candidate is one thing, pandering to conservative conspiracies and loathing of the news media is something else.
• Diane Rehm treads a narrow line between using her public radio Diane Rehm Show to explore right-to-die and campaigning for right-to-die. Her husband John chose to starve to death last year because they lived in a state — Maryland — where he could not get a physician to assist his suicide. Parkinson’s had left him otherwise helpless and he did not want to live.
As the Washington Post said in a recent profile, “Rehm is becoming one of the country’s most prominent figures in the right-to-die debate. And she’s doing so just as proponents are trying to position the issue as the country’s next big social fight, comparing it to abortion and gay marriage.
“The move puts Rehm in an ethically tricky but influential spot with her 2.6 million devoted and politically active listeners.
Now 78 and pondering how to manage her own death, Rehm is working with Compassion & Choices, an end-of-life organization run by Barbara Coombs Lee, a key figure in Oregon’s passage of an assisted-suicide law and a previous guest on the show.”
The Post profile continued, “Rehm will appear on the cover of the group’s magazine this month, and she is telling John’s story at a series of small fundraising dinners with wealthy donors financing the right-to-die campaign.”
That set off alarms at NPR and ombuds Elizabeth Jensen said Rehm had crossed the line. “NPR's ethics handbook clearly precludes its journalists from speaking at fundraisers, among other activities.”
Whether Rehm’s is bound by NPR’s ethics code is not clear, Jensen said, because Rehm is employed by WAMU, not NPR. “The Code does not currently make any provisions for those who work at NPR’s ‘acquired programs,’ such as Rehm’s show,” Jensen continued.
Further complicating the matter are NPR's contracts for the Diane Rehm Show and other acquired programs. Eric Nuzum, NPR's vice president for programming, said the contracts make clear the shows are accountable to NPR ethics guidelines but it's not clear whether all hosts see the contracts.
Back to the fundraising dinners. Rehm told NPR’s Jensen that “I am walking a very careful line. I am there to tell my own story, to tell John's story, and to hopefully help to facilitate discussion among the attendees. I am not being paid a dime for doing any of this. I am doing it because it's what I believe I want for myself and I believe that talking about it is something that is crucial within our entire society, no matter what side you come out on."
Rehm stold Jensen that “the line she will not cross is ‘to ask people to do or give anything’ and no solicitation of funds took place in her presence.”
• Blame bias for a feminist/liberal news media screwup on campus rape last week. Thedailybeast.com reported that presidential aspirant and Wisconsin governor Scott Walker proposed an end to state university rape reporting. This how Daily Beast reported it:
“Buried within Gov. Scott Walker’s $68 billion budget proposal for Wisconsin is a gutpunch for advocates for assault victims: provisions to end requirements for colleges and universities to report sexual assaults on campus to state law enforcement. The shocking language was first discovered by Jezebel on Friday..."
It appears that jezebel.com’s worldview inclined it to misread the budget document and sympathetic Daily Beast didn’t check it out. That is a text-book example of bias at play. The error became clear the next day when the AP accurately reported this:
“The University of Wisconsin requested that Gov. Scott Walker remove a requirement that all 26 campuses report allegations of sexual assaults to the state every year because it already submits similar information to the federal government...“
Jezebel backtracked and Daily Beast posted this correction: “A Daily Beast college columnist at the university based an article off Jezebel's post. On Saturday, Jezebel updated their post with the following after USA Today published a story debunking the feminist website's account....“
That was the AP story. The original Daily Beast story also said Republican Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel expressed “reservations about Walker’s proposal.”
Wrong again. Daily Beast’s correction said “It is unclear if Schimel’s office was aware of the stated purpose of the provision in question.”
The Daily Beast closed its correction, saying, “we should have checked this story more thoroughly. We deeply regret the error and apologize to Gov. Walker and our readers. Our original story should be considered retracted.”