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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The media has an obligation to America and the American people in covering the Blagojevich affair

Media Matters’ Jamison Foser’s has a extremely important piece on the outrageous way in which the media commentary and coverage of the Blagojevich scandal tends to imply – without any evidence – that Barack Obama may have done something wrong. As he says:

“Most telling is the tendency of many journalists to speculate that the Blagojevich scandal may ensnare Obama without acknowledging that the complaint against Blagojevich contained absolutely no evidence of wrongdoing by Obama, or that U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald has said, “I should make clear, the complaint makes no allegations about the president-elect whatsoever, his conduct.”
…Even worse than ignoring Fitzgerald’s exculpatory comments, Time actually suggested they are bad news for Obama:
“On more than one occasion during his stunning press conference on Tuesday, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald bluntly said he has found no evidence of wrongdoing by President-elect Barack Obama in the tangled, tawdry scheme that Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich allegedly cooked up to sell Obama’s now vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder. But for politicians, it’s never good news when a top-notch prosecutor has to go out of his way to distance them from a front-page scandal.”
“Got that? Fitzgerald said there’s no evidence Obama did anything wrong. Bad news for Obama!

Foser then continues:

“…Perhaps the most striking aspect of the media’s attempts to link Obama to the Blagojevich scandal has been the volume of news reports that are purely speculative — and not only speculative, but vaguely speculative. That is, they don’t even consist of conjecture about specific potential wrong doing. They simply consist of completely baseless speculation that Obama might in some way become caught up in the investigation at some point in the future …“Associated Press reporter Liz Sidoti set the standard for pointlessly speculative news reports with an “analysis” piece declaring that “President-elect Barack Obama hasn’t even stepped into office and already a scandal is threatening to dog him.” In the very next sentence, Sidoti had to admit that “Obama isn’t accused of anything” — but that didn’t stop her from continuing to offer ominous warnings that Obama could be implicated in the scandal, interspersed with concessions that he, you know … isn’t.”

The major problem is not that the reporters are deliberately promoting Republican talking points. Rather it is that skilled (and, in fact, even utterly mediocre) PR operatives can almost effortlessly manipulate the coverage of a “scandal” by understanding the medias’ three-step process.

1. During the first 24-72 hours of a breaking story reporters and analysts are in a desperate life or death competition to inflate the importance of a “scandal” and make it as big as story as possible. (After all, nobody gets a Pulitzer or a raise for a story titled “XYZ scandal of limited importance”). Conversely, there is no penalty or downside cost to reporters and analysts for engaging in baseless speculation (In fact, if salaries were actually reduced based on the number of a reporter or analysts’ idle speculations that turned out to be groundless, the practice would quickly disappear).
2. Once the “story” is established as “news”, dramatic statements by leading Republicans or simply growing media or internet discussion of the “story” become themselves officially more “News” – justifying another set of headlines and TV teasers saying “back in a moment with new information on this breaking story.”
3. After the “big news” phase has passed, there is no tradition in American journalism or other effective pressure on journalists that will lead them to produce follow-up stories that correct the false impressions generated during the initial frenzy. Think about it. When was the last time you saw a follow-up news story – in the same front page position and the same headline size as the original stories that says, for example, “Obama emerges unscathed from Blagojevich affair – no evidence of personal involvement found”. The media simply do not consider themselves obligated or responsible for producing news stories like this in the aftermath of a media feeding frenzy. Correcting a false impression is not a “big news” story like the original misleading version.

The result of these three factors is a systematic, inherent bias that even the most clumsy partisan PR operatives can manipulate to their advantage.

Reporters are all well aware of this and many will privately admit the bias it introduces. They will also admit that Democrats suffer more than Republicans from this problem because they are less likely to counter-attack the media with accusations of ideological bias or to attack critical coverage as “unpatriotic” or “un-American”.
Is there anything Democrats can do about this problem – one that is sure to become steadily worse as time wears on?
There is one immediate step Dems at every level can take. It is simply to indicate to reporters, analysts and editors (though every channel from letters to the editor by ordinary citizens to personal conversations among leading Democrats and the reporters who cover them) that Democrats expect to see them issue clear statements – equal in prominence to the originals – correcting any misleading impressions that might have been caused by their reporting or commentary. This is not a matter of “ideological balance” – it is a return to traditional notions of journalistic ethics and professionalism.
In his Media Matters piece Foser notes that the media’s behavior around the so-called Whitewater scandal during the Clinton years was actually itself a scandal and remains an enduring stain on the profession. As he says:

As an endless series of investigations, costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars, revealed, the Clintons broke no law and violated no ethics regulations in connection with Whitewater. They lost money on a failed land deal in which their business partner cheated them. That’s all there was. Republicans Ken Starr, Robert Fiske, Robert Ray, Al D’Amato, and Jim Leach, among others, investigated the matter, and none of them found illegality. There was simply nothing there — except year after year of obsessive, and often dishonest, media coverage, fueled by conservatives who would stop at nothing to destroy the president….
If the news media regains a bit of the skepticism so many of them set aside for the past eight years, that would be an unequivocally good thing, and it should be applauded.
But this week brought signs that much of the media is set to resume the absurd and shameful behavior that defined the 1990s — guilt by association, circular analysis whereby they ask baseless questions about non-scandals, then claim they have to report on the “scandal” because the White House is “besieged by questions,” grotesque leaps of logic, downplaying exculpatory information, and too many other failings to list.
If that happens — if the media continue to behave as they did in covering Whitewater — they will damage the country. It’s really that simple.

Deep down, a great many journalists and commentators recognize that this is true and know that they have an obligation to behave better than they did in the Whitewater affair. The Democrats best strategy will be to appeal honestly and directly to their consciences and sense of shame.

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