Why NASA’s Muslim Mission Was Newsworthy to Washington Examiner, But Not Houston Chronicle

August 18, 2010
Category: Uncategorized

The Washington Examiner was among the first news organizations to jump on a story that’s spurred widespread outrage among some: a controversial statement from NASA Administrator Charles Boldenthat defined part of the space agency’s mission as reaching out to Muslim nations.

The Examiner — a conservative tabloid — has provided saturation coverage of the story,featuring it five times this month. But in addition to chastising Bolden and the Obama administration for the policy initiative, Examiner chief political correspondent Byron York also directed his ire at the rest of the media for ignoring the story.

In a July 7 blog post, York noted that the story had received no mention at that point in The New York Times, The Washington Post, or broadcast networks’ evening newscasts. “If you were to receive your news from any one of these outlets, or even all of them together, and you heard about some sort of controversy involving the Obama administration redefining the space agency’s mission to feature outreach to Muslim countries, your response would be, ‘Huh?’,” York wrote.

(For anybody asking “Huh?” right now, Bolden’s statement came in a June interview with the Arabic television network Al Jazeera. Bolden said President Obama had charged him with several goals for the agency, including one which Bolden identified as “perhaps foremost” — engaging with Muslim nations “to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science, math, and engineering.”)

The Al Jazeera interview wasn’t the first time Bolden had mentioned NASA’s Muslim outreach, but as video of the interview hit the Web late last month, the story spread quickly in conservative blogs andcolumns and on Fox News. Like many writers, York characterized the initiative as misguided. 

He lamented that “under President Obama, (NASA’s) mission is changing — and space isn’t part of the story.” He dismissed the idea as an exercise in “promoting self-esteem” and interviewed a former NASA administrator who lambasted the idea. And York noted what he called the “(non) feeding frenzy” in the mainstream media.

“I thought it was an important news story because of what Charles Bolden said,” York told me in a phone interview. “And just as an extra added bonus for the TV networks, he said it on camera.” York stopped short of speculating about why the story hasn’t received greater play, though other conservative bloggers were quick to allege that mainstream reporters were trying to protect the Obama administration.

That kind of frustration with the fourth estate isn’t unusual in the blogosphere, where writers often pivot from the role of reporters writing a story to the role of journalism critics assessing the coverage the story received elsewhere. Partisans seem to have a near-obsession with calling out the rest of the press corps for neglecting stories they have deemed important, and allegations of mainstream media negligence are a mainstay of the liberal and conservative blogosphere.

“The New York Times, Washington Post, and the three broadcast networks are shrinking but still important parts of the media world,” York said. “Whether they report a story or not is still important.”

Still, by publicly critiquing how other media handled the NASA controversy, the Washington Examiner demonstrated a distinction between traditional journalistic practice and what York calls “opinion-based reporting,” the brand of advocacy often practiced online. 

While writers of all stripes tend to revel in breaking big stories (or advancing stories that originated elsewhere), mainstream journalistic organizations are less likely to weigh in publicly on how the rest of the media is dealing with the same story. Though traditional journalists might derive satisfaction from seeing their reporting replicated elsewhere, they likely would be considered unprofessional or egotistical if they scolded other reporters for ignoring it.

“Why on Earth would I complain about somebody not picking it up if I had broken a story?,” asksRebecca Tallent, a former newspaper reporter who teaches journalism at the University of Idaho. Tallent, who’s written and consulted extensively on media ethics, expresses a traditional journalists’ distaste for reporters critiquing the news judgment of their competitors.

“Other people will pick up a story if it has merit, if it has news value, if it is true, if it has impact,” Tallent said in a phone interview. “If you’re somebody out there trying to tell a story and tell the truth, then you’re a journalist, and you’re not shouting ‘Hey, look at me.’ “

There’s little evidence that the pressure from conservatives influenced the way mainstream reporters approached the NASA story. In the weeks since York and other writers called out the rest of the media, the story has remained all but invisible in the nation’s newspapers. 

A handful have printed opinion pieces that reference the controversy, and several ran stories when White House spokesman Robert Gibbs tried to walk back Bolden’s comments July 12. (“That’s not his task, and that’s not the task of NASA,” Gibbs said of the Muslim outreach initiative.) But a LexisNexis search reveals no comprehensive coverage of the controversy, and some journalists who cover NASA downplayed Bolden’s remarks.

“Quite clearly, he was not setting a course for NASA,” said Eric Berger of the Houston Chronicle, one of NASA’s hometown papers. “He was just saying the President wanted him to explore that, and he was trying to relate it to an Arab network.”

Berger, who blogged about the uproar, notes that coalition-building has traditionally been a part of NASA’s charge, dating back to the Cold War when the agency collaborated with the Soviet Union on the first international space flight. Berger says Bolden — a former astronaut and veteran of four shuttle flights — has talked about international outreach in the context of space exploration, not as a substitute for NASA’s traditional mission.

Berger says he’ll mention the controversy in an upcoming newspaper analysis he’s writing about Bolden’s first 16 months on the job. Berger says he hasn’t yet addressed the issue in print, partly because he was on vacation when the tempest erupted, and partly because the paper’s staff has been busy covering higher priority stories, such as Hurricane Alex and Congressional deliberations on NASA’s budget.

“I received several e-mails from people critical of the Chronicle of not covering it, and that’s why I eventually addressed it on my blog,” Berger said. “But was it because we have some kind of partisan agenda to protect Bolden and attack Republicans? That’s certainly not how I see it.”