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12/08/03


 

THE LIAR OF RECORD

By David Podvin

The most important site in journalism is the front page of The New York Times. More than any other print or electronic source, it is the place that sets the agenda for the reporting of each day’s events at America’s media outlets. As a result, The Times is renowned as “The Newspaper Of Record”, the most frequently referenced news organization in the world.

It is a status that is not currently based on journalistic excellence. Today, The New York Times is just another of the media courtesans that promotes the financial interests of its parent company by servicing the Republican Party.

While an endorsement from The Times editorial page is of little significance – even many local candidates endorsed by the paper lose badly – the implicit endorsement of the front page is priceless. In 2000, George W. Bush received that front page endorsement, and he would not be in the White House without it. The themes that had been chosen by Republican strategists – that Bush was “likeable” and Democratic nominee Al Gore was “dishonest” – regularly appeared camouflaged as news on the front page of The Times, and were therefore echoed by the rest of the media.

Bush earned this vital assistance at the start of the campaign when he became the only competitive candidate in either major party who pledged to completely deregulate the broadcasting industry. Such a change in government policy offered a financial bonanza to the media companies, because their profit margins would increase as mergers resulted in less competition. Gore had supported the partial deregulation of the telecommunications industry in 1996, but prior to the 2000 campaign announced that he opposed the changes advocated by the New York Times Company and the other major communications conglomerates. The vice president claimed that further consolidation of media ownership would deprive Americans of much-needed diversity in reporting.

Gore’s principled decision to oppose media deregulation was the most decisive factor in the presidential election. For most of his career, The New York Times had portrayed Gore as a “boy scout” - a man of “personal rectitude” - but those descriptions were nowhere to be found in 2000. The Times and the other news subsidiaries of America’s media businesses methodically applied a journalistic makeover to the vice president; by the time they were finished, Al Gore’s reputation had been stained with unsubstantiated allegations of duplicity. The Times aggressively promoted the Bush candidacy for the purpose of gaining the deregulation necessary to achieve corporate profit objectives. Without the distorted coverage that presented an honorable candidate as a liar and vice versa, the election would not have been close enough to steal.

Just months after Bush was installed in the Oval Office, the New York Times Company filed documents with the Federal Communications Commission urging the elimination of several long time regulations, including the one that prevented a corporation from owning a newspaper and a television station in the same community. The company owns nineteen newspapers, eight network-affiliated television stations, two New York City radio stations and more than forty websites. Print revenues have stagnated in recent years, so the company was determined to expand its holdings in the lucrative broadcasting industry. It was a goal that could be achieved only if the FCC agreed to alter its policies.

With the man Bush appointed as chairman casting the deciding vote, the FCC ultimately granted to the New York Times Company the changes it was seeking. This was the payoff for the paper’s pro-Bush coverage during the 2000 election and represented a huge long-term windfall. The company has invested $100 million in Discovery Communications, partnering with powerful cable TV interests Liberty Media, Cox, and Advance/Newhouse. It now intends to exploit the FCC rule changes to emerge as a broadcasting power, something that would not have occurred had Gore become president.

Investors have recognized the significance of the Bush administration for the media industry. Since the United States Supreme Court awarded the presidency to Bush, the average stock traded in America (as measured by the Wilshire 5000 Index) has fallen twenty percent. Meanwhile, even in the midst of a severe advertising recession, shares of the New York Times Company have risen thirteen percent. The stocks of the other “economically sensitive” media companies like the Washington Post Company, the Tribune Company, and News Corp have also gone up at the same time the market has tanked.

Ominously for the Democrats, the prospect of an FCC further dominated by Bush appointees who will give yet more power to the communications companies provides an even greater financial incentive for the media giants to support Bush than they had four years ago. The Times has continued to curry favor with the former Texas governor during the entire time he has occupied the Oval Office. The paper that spent years obsessing about the nonexistent Clinton Whitewater scandal has chosen not to investigate corruption involving Enron and Halliburton and the numerous other Bush corporate contributors collectively receiving hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer-funded kickbacks.

Greed is the reason that the American media is pro-Republican, although you would never know it by reading critiques from most liberal columnists and websites.  Peter Hart of Fairness And Accuracy In Reporting offered the following reason that reporters are so hostile to Democratic candidate Howard Dean: "He doesn't seem to like journalists, and the feeling is mutual. That leads the press to jump on unflattering stories, even if they're not quite accurate.”

Hart has given the standard progressive explanation of why mainstream journalists have savaged recent Democratic presidential contenders: reporters tend to be clique-ish sorority-like “Heathers” who are put off by the personalities of (all) liberal candidates. According to this theory, corporate reporters lied about Gore because he wasn’t nearly charming enough, and they lied about Clinton because he was just a little too charming. Dean is supposedly despised by the Fourth Estate because he is too “hot”, and John Kerry is equally despised because he is too “cold”.

In fact, the serial sliming of Democrats has absolutely nothing to do with Clinton or Gore or Dean or Kerry – it is all about the profit motive. The anti-Democratic bias in the media is directly proportional to the level of consolidation of the industry. While it is true that mainstream reporters are excruciatingly shallow, that is because journalists of substance who will not conform to the corporate agenda are unwelcome at the major media outlets.

What remains at America’s metropolitan newspapers and national broadcasting networks are the reporters who are willing to trade their integrity for high-paying jobs. In 2000, these mercenaries savaged the Democratic nominee because their employers viewed anything else as being unacceptable. In 2004, they will do exactly the same thing for exactly the same reason.

As America approaches another election, it would be wise for Democrats to review the deceitful performance of The New York Times during the 2000 presidential race, because the paper’s upcoming coverage of the Democratic nominee – regardless of who it is – will malign him beyond recognition.

Times political writer Katherine Seelye spent 1999 and 2000 campaigning for George W. Bush in the guise of an objective reporter. At the very start of the race, Seelye wrote that Gore was not up to the task: “For all his years of practice for the 2000 election, Mr. Gore seems oddly unprepared for it….” She proceeded to spend the campaign crafting pejorative stories that promoted the GOP smear of Gore.

Seelye constantly portrayed Gore as being dishonest. She went so far as to alter Gore quotes, changing his statement on Love Canal from "That was the one that started it all" into "I was the one that started it all.” She went even further and made things up, such as her infamously false assertion that Gore claimed to have invented the Internet.

When Gore was advised by a consultant to dress more casually, the Republicans instructed their operatives to mock the Democrat’s clothing as a symbol of his artificiality. Seelye was soon writing about the disturbingly incongruous nature of the vice president’s garb: “Even in his casual, earth-tone clothes, Al Gore seems pressed and starched.” For months, she continued to emphasize the importance of the vice president’s clothing as it related to his mental fitness to lead the nation. During the final week of the campaign, Seelye reported that Gore had behaved “frantically” in regard to his attire, transforming her own previously published slur into fact: “Mr. Gore had been faulted earlier in the campaign for frantically changing his wardrobe and dressing casually, in earth tones…”

During the Elian Gonzalez controversy, Seelye pushed the recurring theme that Gore was "seeming to contradict himself”, a condemnation that was not printed as opinion on the editorial page, but presented as fact on the front page. From a factual standpoint, Gore had not contradicted himself in any way – his stance on the Gonzalez matter was entirely consistent with his previously stated immigration policy. The truth about what Gore was doing, however, did not enhance the storyline that he was a liar, so Seelye instead reported on what Gore seemed to be doing. It is a conniving approach that gets a failing grade in high school journalism classes across America. At the holiest shrine in all of journalism, it got Page One.

The issue of fund raising was an area where Seelye proved herself to be a master of the unwritten word. She repeatedly questioned the vice president’s sincerity because “Gore has been trumpeting his ‘passion’ for overhauling the campaign finance system even while scooping up money…” Seelye characterized his fund raising activities as “zealous” and “prodigious”. She wrote that Bush considered Gore to be “an obstacle to (campaign finance) reform”. However, she chose not to write that the Republican was raising more than twice as much money as his Democratic opponent, and was doing so by openly promising contributors that federal policies would be changed to accommodate his donors.

Seelye consistently assumed the role of Bush’s protector. When Gore criticized the former Texas governor for inaccurately stating that Social Security is not a federal program, there was an indignant front page retort from the reporter who had spent the entire campaign putting the worst possible interpretation on everything Gore said: “The vice president never allowed that Mr. Bush's comment might have been a mistake or a poorly worded thought, instead milking the idea that it was just plain dumb…” Seelye’s rebuke parroted the statement released by the Republican National Committee that harshly condemned Gore for failing to give Bush every benefit of the doubt.

In the closing days of the race, America’s most respected newspaper featured this classic Seelye gem of objective professional reportage: “The vice president focused suddenly on one baby, bundled up in a pink snowsuit and held aloft by a man. ‘Hold your baby up one more time,’ Mr. Gore yelled out. ‘What is your baby's name?’  The answer drifted back across the crowd: ‘Christina’.  ‘Let me tell you,’ Mr. Gore shouted. ‘This entire election is about Christina's future. Will we have the best schools? Will she have opportunity in her life?’ Christina started to bawl…”

Seelye’s coverage of the Gore campaign was in the vanguard of what GOP Chairman Marc Racicot later called “our attempt to convince voters that something about Gore was repulsive, even if they couldn’t quite figure out what it was.” Republicans believed that their losses to Bill Clinton were based on personality, and they were determined to gain the advantage on the issue of which candidate was more likeable. The Times had once described Gore as “charming”, but in 2000 readers were inculcated with Seelye’s serial presentation of the vice president as a contemptible geek, a man so repugnant that he makes babies cry. The New York Times is read by every decision maker in corporate journalism, and its caustic caricature of Gore became common editorial wisdom.

Seelye has already made her presence felt during the current campaign with a critique of the Democratic frontrunner’s interview on Meet The Press: “Dr. Dean, a Democrat who prides himself on his straightforwardness, equivocated on several issues.” She proceeded to reinforce the perception that Dean is shifty: “He sidestepped answering whether he would support the prescription drug plan backed by the Bush administration and some Democrats.” Seelye also highlighted Dean’s appalling ignorance about military matters: “Under questioning, he said he did not know how many American military personnel were on active duty around the world, guessing there were one million to two million. According to the Pentagon's Web site, there were 1.4 million as of March. Dr. Dean estimated that there were 135,000 American troops in Iraq and said there should be more. The actual number is 146,000….”

The actual number fluctuates daily, because troops are constantly arriving in Iraq while others return home, and the numbers of arrivals and departures are not equal. However, the truth in no way enhances the storyline that Dean is dangerously obtuse on national security matters, so Seelye has once again improved upon the truth.

Katherine Seelye’s dishonest reporting has been condemned by numerous liberal columnists, but the criticism focuses on her personal lack of integrity. The larger issue is that The New York Times will not assign an honorable reporter to cover national politics. The problem is systemic – when it comes to covering presidential candidates, only the Katherine Seelyes of the world need apply, since being a partisan liar is a prerequisite for doing the job.

While Seelye was the writer designated by The Times to kneecap Gore, Frank Bruni was assigned to perform the reportorial equivalent of fellatio on George W. Bush. Bruni’s job was to convince the public that – appearances notwithstanding – everything that happened in 2000 reflected positively on Bush and negatively on Gore. This perversion of reality regularly sullied the front page of The Times, and was greatly appreciated by the Republican candidate, who identified Bruni as being his favorite reporter. Bruni’s brownnosing of Bush was so shameless that even the implacable Ann Coulter – who has advocated that terrorists bomb The Times as punishment for being insufficiently fascistic – endorsed his performance by saying, “Frank is the best reporter in America”.

Coulter admires Bruni for having coddled Bush while savaging Gore. The classic example of Bruni’s stance toward the vice president followed the initial nationally televised confrontation between the candidates. After the election, the reporter revealed his thoughts as he observed Gore throttling the clueless Bush: “I remember watching the first debate from one of the seats inside the auditorium and thinking that Bush was in the process of losing the presidency.” However, prior to the election, Bruni’s assignment was not to report what he had witnessed – he had been charged by his employers with the responsibility of helping Bush win. Desperate for an angle on the debate that his bosses would find acceptable, Bruni ridiculed the vice president for having mastered the subject matter:

“It was not enough for Vice President Al Gore to venture a crisp pronunciation of Milosevic, as in Slobodan, the Yugoslav president who refuses to be pried from power. Mr. Gore had to go a step further, volunteering the name of Mr. Milosevic’s challenger, Vojislav Kostunica. Then he had to go a step beyond that, noting that Serbia plus Montenegro equals Yugoslavia. And as Mr. Gore loped effortlessly through the Balkans, barely able to suppress his self-satisfied grin, it became ever clearer that the point of all the thickets of consonants and proper nouns was not a geopolitical lesson. It was more like oratorical intimidation, an unwavering effort to upstage and unnerve an opponent whose mind and mouth have never behaved in a similarly encyclopedic fashion.”

Absent from Bruni’s debate coverage was an examination of how Bush had demonstrably lied about his record as governor in Texas and had given transparently false statistics about his multi-trillion dollar tax cut proposal. True to form, the mainstream media followed The Times’ lead in condemning Gore’s excessive display of knowledge.

A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll taken immediately after the debate revealed 48 percent of registered voters thought Gore did the best job, compared to 41 percent for Bush. A few days later, after absorbing the post-debate analysis of Bruni and the rest of the pro-Bush corporate media, most registered voters surveyed said Bush had won.

During the closing days of the campaign – when the Democrat was gaining in the polls - Bush was confronted with a potentially devastating crisis: it was revealed in a Maine newspaper that he had been arrested for drunk driving and had lied about it. After the election, Bruni acknowledged, "The story that I ultimately wrote played all of this in a tempered way". In fact, his report had minimized the importance of Bush being caught in a lie, which meant the front page of The New York Times did not think it was a big deal, which meant the rest of the establishment media decided it must not be a big deal, which meant the story faded away.

The New York Times had saved the Bush candidacy, and after reading Bruni’s whitewash of the drunk driving incident, Bush told his favorite reporter, “You’re a good man.”

Salon’s Joan Walsh has marveled about how the Bush organization was so good that it totally captivated Bruni and turned him into the candidate’s “love puppet”. As in the case of Katherine Seelye, however, Bruni is actually the love puppet of the executives at The New York Times Company who sign employee paychecks.

Richard Berke was promoted from national political correspondent at The Times to Washington bureau chief as a reward for his work during the 2000 campaign. Among Berke’s contributions to journalism were falsely accusing Gore of lying after the vice president quipped about having been sung a union anthem as a lullaby when he was a baby. This deception was promoted on the front page of The Times despite the fact that Berke knew Gore’s babysitter was on record as saying the story was just a longstanding joke between the two of them. Berke also persisted in claiming that Gore lied about being the model for Oliver in “Love Story” after the author, Erich Segal, said Gore was telling the truth.

In his current position, Berke is the point man in The New York Times Company’s continued effort to ingratiate itself to Bush. He has written that the question of who actually won the 2000 presidential election  "now seems utterly irrelevant”. He has reported that unnamed Democratic officials were “privately expressing satisfaction” that the war against terrorism was being conducted by Bush rather than Gore. He has repeatedly stated in print and on television that Enron was a “bipartisan” scandal, knowing full well that ninety percent of the company’s contributions were given to Bush and the GOP.

Mr. Berke has begun focusing his crosshairs on potential rivals to Bush. Prior to Gore’s announcement that he would not run in 2004, Berke opined that the man who won the most votes in 2000 is “unable to connect with people”. The reporter has already condemned Howard Dean for being “belligerent” and “looking unrepentant” about the Confederate flag controversy. And Berke’s story on Senator John Edwards includes the phrase “After a career making millions seducing jurors as a personal injury lawyer…It is not yet clear whether Edwards brought this pseudo-journalistic golden shower on himself by being too hot or by being too cold.

Berke does not report objectively or practice ethical journalism. His employers at The Times are well aware of this, and they have responded by promoting him. Seelye and Bruni and Berke are blatant shills for the GOP because that is what they are paid to be.

If employees of a media corporation want to keep their jobs, telling the truth is not a viable option. Journalists have witnessed what happened to high profile reporters like Daniel Schorr and Arthur Kent and Ashleigh Banfield, who were candid about media bias and had their careers sabotaged as a result. The corporate news providers that had billions of dollars in future profits riding on the outcome of the 2000 campaign were not going to allow something as intangible as “principles of journalistic integrity” to prevent them from reaping the financial benefits of a Bush presidency.

It is easy to understand why most liberals are insistent that the issue of media bias is personal rather than institutional. If Katherine Seelye and Frank Bruni and Richard Berke are the problem, the solution is simple – Seelye and Bruni and Berke should be replaced by reporters who are honorable. However, if the problem is that all reporters who work for the mainstream media can keep their jobs only by lying, the task of changing things becomes overwhelming.

People don’t like to be overwhelmed, and that aversion produces improbable liberal explanations about how employees of huge multi-national communications conglomerates are allowed to slant the news just because their little journalistic clique doesn’t happen to like Al Gore or Howard Dean. Never mind the massive amounts of money that are at stake – according to virtually every liberal writer of note in America, the management of media companies apparently just meekly allow their workers to carry out personal vendettas regardless of the consequences to the corporate bottom line.

There is a more plausible explanation: just like workers everywhere, the employees at media companies are required to implement obediently the policies of their employers. A compelling mountain of evidence exists that, throughout the 2000 campaign, the policy of The New York Times and the rest of the mainstream media was to lie for financial gain. It is essential to deal with this daunting reality rather than fixating on the peons who carried out the agenda.

The Democratic Party is making a huge mistake by not publicizing what happened last time because it is about to happen again. The party’s nominee in 2004 would be greatly aided if he could respond to the next smear that appears in The Times by saying, “You’re lying just like you did in 2000,” and have the general public appreciate what he meant. George Soros could achieve his goal of removing Bush from the White House by funding an educational campaign that shows voters how they have been deceived by the people entrusted to inform them. Seelye and the legions of other offending reporters deserve be exposed and discredited, but the more important objective is to expose and discredit the media organizations for which they lie.

Songstress Jessica Simpson recently expressed amazement upon learning that Chicken Of The Sea does not contain chicken. Ms. Simpson - and countless other strangers to the obvious - would also doubtlessly be astounded to discover that “The Newspaper Of Record” does not contain news, and is instead nothing more than a cynical purveyor of self-serving propaganda. But that is exactly what The New York Times has become, and someone should let voters know about it soon. Otherwise, the next Democratic nominee is going to be trashed into oblivion by the functionaries of media companies that view journalism as a tool with which to subvert democracy in exchange for cold, hard cash.

More David Podvin

Podvin, the Series

 


Last changed: December 13, 2009