The Sliding Scale of Truthfulness

January 11, 2005
Category: Uncategorized

Hi Margo,

The week began on a low note for journalists everywhere when CBS News offered a mea culpa over its now-discredited story on the President’s military record. Exactly why reporters should feel so bad is open to interpretation: Is it because CBS staffers failed to demonstrate due diligence, or because the kamikaze bloggers and the right wing are demanding the impossible — perfection — from mainstream news gathering operations, especially those suspected of liberal sympathies? 

It’s a downer, either way. And I’m not comforted by the number of authors/talking heads who have carved out profitable niches by exploiting the public’s concern about the power of the media. I’m talking about people such as disaffected CBS correspondent Bernie Goldberg (“Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distorts the News,” “Arrogance: Rescuing America From the Media Elite”), who has made hay out of the notion that liberals are running amuck in the press and slanting the news to fit their own political agendas. 

It’s not that Goldberg is entirely wrong. But he’s not entirely right, either, and what seems remarkable is this: While such critics attack the media for supplying bad facts or faulty analysis, they often seem guilty of equal or greater lapses of judgment.   

It takes some nerve for these free-wheeling gadflys to go after the Fourth Estate when they are capitalizing nicely on the public’s susceptibility for gossip, inflammatory claims, and the tendency to believe anything bad about once-hallowed institutions. But these self-appointed watchdogs don’t work alone; they join a whole host of writers who wear journalistic hats but don’t seem to share journalistic values.

Here’s a juxtaposition for you, Margo: Kitty Kelley’s book, “The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty,” came out in September, only three days after the CBS News report that cost five staffers their jobs with “60 Minutes Wednesday.” Kelley is an often disdained but hardly ineffective writer who described aptly as the “colonoscopist to the stars” (could this be a reference to former President Nixon’s remark that he didn’t mind being examined with a microscope, but a proctoscope was too much?). True or false, the book sold like hotcakes: After a first printing of over 700,000, it lingered on bestseller lists through the fall.

If it lacked respectability among “legit” journalists, readers didn’t care. This month, Kelley heads to Lexington, Ky., because “The Family” is the book club choice for the Lexington Herald-Leader. And yet, Kelley’s book goes much further than Dan Rather ever did in savaging the President’s years in the Texas Air National Guard. In her version, preferential treatment is the least of it. My favorite sweeping statement from the section of the book dealing with this phase of George Bush’s life, and an indication of the extent of her allegations: “By then the psychedelic sixties had spun into the seventies, affecting even the military. Few families, including the Bushes … went untouched by the influence of drugs, whether marijuana, amphetamines, or cocaine.”

The mainstream press seems to be getting more timid while the best-selling authors who take aim at it — Kelley, Ann Coulter, Michael Moore, etc., etc. — are getting bolder. What do you think of this?

Hey Ellen,

The reaction to Kitty Kelley’s book is summed up best by your sentence: “If it lacked respectability among ‘legit’ journalist, the readers didn’t care.” Journalists — both print and electronic — hammered Kelley’s book, but it flew off the shelves anyway. Why? Because a lot of people these days are not so much interested in being informed as being entertained — and having their ideas reinforced.

Is this good journalism? Of course not. But as Seth Mnookin points out in “Hard News: The Scandals at The New York Times and Their Meaning for American Media,” the very way information is conceived has dramatically changed these days.

(FULL DISCLOSURE: You and I are cited by Mnookin in a passing reference to our now infamous interview with Bill Keller about the changes in The New York Times Book Review, which — as Mnookin notes — forced the Times executive editor “to publicly clarify his comments a few days later.”)

Mnookin is writing about the struggles at The New York Times — “with the electronic age, with race, with the increasingly porous wall between editorial and business operations.” But those struggles are faced by all institutions dealing with information, he says. “The story of the Times is also the story of how media institutions have had to adapt to the public’s tastes as they also shape them,” he writes. “It is no longer enough to serve as ‘the paper of record’; today, consumers want ‘value added,’ just as with any product. They want analysis and attitude and star power. Media companies need to maximize profits, and the Times may be one of the few institutions that believes that high-quality journalism and the impressive margins that come with more popular fare can be had simultaneously.”

The battle between quality and profits, of course, is an old one. And it does seem like the latter lately has been winning, as Dick Cheney might say, big time. And, yes, in some cases there are media institutions, authors, and journalists whose lies — and sloppy half-truths — have gotten them attention (and money). But I think that simply is the price this country is paying for its general devaluation of information. Where else would a White House senior advisor, in speaking to journalist Ron Suskind (as reported in his New York Times Magazine piece) dismiss the “reality-based community” (defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality”) as passe?


So, to sum up what you’re saying, we’ve gone from Sesame Street to Bill O’Reilly in one (relatively) quick move, and hardly anyone is the wiser! We’re being entertained, but not informed. And as veteran journalist Philip Seib points out in his new book, “Beyond the Front Lines: How the News Media Cover a World Shaped by War,” the situation gets even more complicated when American troops are in harm’s way, because patriotism and national security concerns muddy the waters.

According to Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, coverage of the CBS News debacle missed the main point. The press got so wrapped up in the story of how the mighty have fallen that it forgot about the heart of the matter, which is how much the public really knows about George W. Bush and his military service. After all the dust settles, did he or did he not fulfill his obligation, if not why not, and did he get a pass because of his connections?
I called Glynn Wilson, the journalist who runs the website Southerner Daily News and, more to the point, is suing Kitty Kelley for plagiarism, claiming she lifted material from his site about the President’s tenure in the National Guard and put it in her book with no attribution. Whether Wilson wins his case or not, the lawsuit speaks to another aspect of this yin and yang I’m talking about — how hardworking journalists do so much foot work for so little compensation while name authors make use of secondary material, sometimes with attribution and sometimes not.

I wanted to know what Wilson concluded after covering this story and observing it up close and personal. Wilson told me that CBS was wrong in method but not about the facts of how the President was treated as the son of a wealthy and powerful man, and here’s what he said: “I don’t think the basic conclusions are wrong,” Wilson says. “All George Bush had to do was say, ‘I was a rich kid. I got preferential treatment.'” But he didn’t, and so CBS went after the story. When it was handled poorly, the critics decided to kill the messenger.