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A matter of stenography at The New York Times

COMMENTARY | August 01, 2004

Here's a New York Times election story that lets the candidates duke it out but does about no independent reporting. That's not good enough.

In recent weeks the New York Times has made several apologies for its news coverage during the period leading up to the Iraq war. It's good they got that off their chest. Now it's time to look a little closer at the reporting and editing of The Times's election campaign stories because there are problems there, too.  Following are excerpts from an article by two respected Times reporters, with running commentary by Barry Sussman, the editor of NiemanWatchdog.org.

The words or phrases underlined were in the original article; the comments are in bold. The obvious question: Is this what we should expect from The Times? If so, it'll be a long election campaign. 

 — Barry Sussman, editor of the Nieman Watchdog Project

July 31, 2004 (New York Times)
Citing His Success in Policy, Bush Re-enters Fray
NiemanWatchdog comment: This is the headline on the article, so the first question is, was it written by a mole from the Bush campaign? "'Citing' his success"?! It's not the headline writer's job to say that Bush has had successful policies, as this headline does. We're in trouble right off the bat.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich., July 30 - President Bush opened a new campaign offensive on Friday by saying that he had delivered results in education, health care, the economy and national security, and by attacking Senator John Kerry for what he characterized as a 19-year Senate record lacking significant accomplishment.

After largely ceding the spotlight to Democrats for the week of their convention, Mr. Bush stumped through Missouri, Michigan and Ohio with a retooled speech emphasizing that his policies had helped the nation through a time of trial and that staying the course was the best way to assure continued improvement. Sorry, but the Times isn't allowed to make such journalism 101 errors. "Emphasizing" as used here means stressing something that exists. It's the same problem as the one in the headline: The phrasing tells us that Bush's policies have helped the nation. That's a partisan assertion and shouldn't be treated as a fact. Appropriate words in place of "emphasizing" might be "asserting" or "claiming," or "saying."

For their part, Mr. Kerry and his running mate, Senator John Edwards, rode what Democrats said was the success of their convention and swept out of Boston to campaign in Pennsylvania, where they emphasized themes of hope and unity and promises to strengthen the United States and restore the world's respect. "Emphasized" works here, because it refers to themes.

Mr. Bush ticked off one area after another in which he said he had helped the United States move forward, including overhauling Medicare, making schools more accountable, ending a drought in job creation and ridding the world of the threat that Iraq might provide terrorists with chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. On each issue, he said, "we are turning the corner, and we're not turning back." What are the facts here: Has Medicare overhaul helped move the U.S. forward? Not if retirees are losing their employers' prescription drug benefits, as some are. Are schools more accountable? Some educators, including ones in Texas, say "Leave no child behind" is an under-funded failure. As for the statement that Iraq might have provided terrorists with chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, it isn't helpful to readers at this late stage to let this assertion go without comment.

...Responding to Mr. Bush's criticism, Mr. Kerry's campaign said Friday that the White House was trying to distract attention from Mr. Bush's record, including a net loss of jobs during his presidency. Aides to Mr. Kerry on Friday both cited a new report that the economy had slowed in the second quarter from the first three months of the year and a revised White House projection that the budget deficit this year would be lower than previously forecast - but still a record. It is proper to have the Kerry camp's response to charges by Bush. But the two camps will always attack each other and try to put themselves in the best light. So what is needed is not just partisan rebuttal but an attempt to report the facts independently.

...As Mr. Bush began setting out some specific ideas he would support if re-elected, including legislation encouraging employers to give their workers more flexible schedules and plans to improve high school education, he continued to draw sharp contrasts between himself and Mr. Kerry, whom he referred to throughout the day only as "my opponent." "Ideas he would support?" No. This is just an assertion. We don't know what ideas Bush would support if re-elected, and the reporters shouldn't act as though they did. Acceptable would have been: "ideas he pledged to support" or "said he would support."

"My opponent has good intentions, but intentions do not always translate to results," Mr. Bush said. "After 19 years in the United States Senate, my opponent has had thousands of votes, but very few signature achievements. During eight years on the Senate Intelligence Committee, he voted to cut the intelligence budget. And he had no record of reforming America's intelligence-gathering capability. He had no significant record for reforming education and health care." Kerry's response to some of this is given below. But again, it doesn't help readers' understanding to have nothing more than an assertion by one camp and a denial or attempt at refutation by the other. It may be even-handed, but it's even-handed stenography, not reporting. The question here and throughout: Should the news media simply report the partisan arguments and call it a night? Or should they try, as best they can, to get at the facts when important assertions are made?

Mr. Bush suggested that Mr. Kerry would raise taxes to pay for his domestic programs and had so equivocated on the war in Iraq that Americans could not count on his mettle as commander in chief. This needs examination. Kerry said he would roll back tax cuts for people with incomes of more than $200,000. Admittedly, tax policy is an entire story by itself. But that doesn't make it acceptable in this story to report only Bush's assertion.

...Brushing off Mr. Kerry's assertion in his address to the Democratic convention on Thursday night that he should not be criticized for seeing complexities in the world, Mr. Bush again mocked Mr. Kerry's statement that he had voted for an $87 billion supplemental spending bill to pay for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan before he voted against it. We have heard this every day and will continue to. How about a simple, factual explanation of this vote? And how about running it whenever the assertion itself is run?

...Parrying Mr. Kerry's vow to rebuild foreign alliances and make the United States respected in the world as it battles terrorists, Mr. Bush said the war in Iraq had been waged with the backing of a broad international coalition. A broad coalition? Get serious. Two requests here: List the countries that are taking part and what their contribution is; then compare that with the 1991 coalition formed by Bush's father in the first Gulf War. Of course, that's too much to be included in this story. It should be a separate story and it should be written soon — and not only by the Times. In today's story, however, it wouldn't take much space to say that the U.S. has provided xx percent of the troops (90 percent, is it?) and an equal or higher percent of the funding, if that's correct.

..."I'll continue to build alliances and work with our friends for the cause of security and peace," he said here. "But I will never turn America's national security decisions over to leaders of other nations." This of course implies that Bush has been building alliances, and that Kerry would turn national security over to other nations. What is the basis for these assertions?

Mr. Kerry, who has made the White House's handling of intelligence an issue following the release of the Sept. 11 commission's report, has disputed Mr. Bush's statement that he supported cutting the intelligence budget. Mr. Kerry's campaign said he had backed a 50 percent increase in spending for intelligence since 1996. Here again, independent reporting is needed, and not ''one said/the other said." The Times, and the rest of the news media, should look at the run-up to the election as an opportunity to do a better job than they did in the run-up to the war.

Whether putting their best foot forward or attacking their opponents, many of the points made by Bush, Kerry, Cheney and Edwards look as though they come directly out of focus groups and poll findings: Just the right message in just the right tone, over and over again, and on issues the two camps believe are vital. There's not much difference between what the candidates say on the stump and in their TV ads. Changes will occur only when tests show particular messages aren't working.

So what's the role for the news media here — The New York Times and everyone else? Is it to let the candidates say whatever they choose, and let the other side try to rebut it however they choose? Or is it to do independent, original reporting on these issues, and to examine candidates'  assertions, not just echo them? The question of course answers itself.


"Hurricane Al Qaeda: How Press Coverage of the War at Home Aids Re-election of Bush"
Posted by William Jackson - Columnist for Editor&Publisher
08/24/2004, 10:28 AM

"Hurricane Al Qaeda"
by William E. Jackson, Jr.

”Whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship, all you have to do is tell them they are being attacked. It works the same in any country."--Sen. Robert Byrd quoting Hermann Goering's advice to rulers who would enhance their power.

The other day I asked a reporter for a national newspaper: "Do you
fellows sometimes feel like you are on a runaway horse, and cannot get off?" My point was that--starting with the morning headlines of August 2 and continuing almost constantly for the next three weeks--the country's national newspapers have been preoccupied with, and whipsawed by, government-inspired stories based on anonymous sources from Washington to London to Pakistan, all talking about a "treasure trove" of recently-discovered old documents, just-captured agents of al Qaeda, and separate new "streams of intelligence."

The Tom Ridge press conference of August 1 started the snowball rolling, and it hasn't stopped since. The headlines recording unfolding events—based on doled-out information—added up to a steadily evolving image of America at war at home.

Monday, August 2, the morning after Ridge’s original press conference:

Every national newspaper led with the raising of the national color-coded alert to ORANGE and warnings by the chief of Homeland Security of al Qaeda plans to attack major financial institutions. The warnings were based on what all the papers called “new” intelligence based on recently discovered documents, chilling in their specificity, containing the terrorist group's plans to use truck-and car-bombs to blow up the IMF and World Bank buildings in Washington, the New York Stock Exchange, and the Prudential Financial building in Newark.

The alarm was sounded from the Washington Post ("Washington and N.Y. Put on Alert: Al Qaeda Plotting Attacks on Financial Sectors, Officials Say" and "Pakistani-U.S. Raid Uncovered Terrorist Cell's Surveillance Data") to the New York Times ("U.S. Warns of High Risk of Qaeda Attack" and "Captured Qaeda Figure Led Way To Information Behind Warning" and "Al Qaeda Seeks to Disrupt U. S. Economy") to USAToday ("Financial Districts in NYC, N.J. and D.C. on High Terror Alert").

Tuesday, August 3:
But hold it. Had the press been sucked in by an "inert alert" in the midst of both a presidential campaign and an ongoing debate over reforms in the intelligence community? For, by the 3rd, The Times cautioned: "Reports That Led to Terror Alert Were Years Old, Officials Say" but "On Whether to Warn, What Choice Is There?" And The Post paused for a day: "Pre-9/11 Acts Led To Alerts: Officials Not Sure Al Qaeda Continued To Spy on Buildings." The Wall Street Journal hit the nail on the head: "Security Becomes Top Campaign Issue."

Wednesday, August 4:
The Administration counter-attacked in the NYT: "New Qaeda Activity Is Said to Be Major Factor in Alert" and "Signs of a Threat Are 'Probably as Rich as It's Ever Going to Get';" and in the WashPost: "Seriousness of Threat Defended Despite Dated Intelligence." The Los Angeles Times lead was more succinct: "Ridge Points to Al Qaeda File Use." And USAT was more detached: "Officials Don't See Attack as Imminent" and "Ridge on Defensive After Terror Alert."

No official, other than Ridge, went on the record when talking about the additional information that prompted the alert. The Times led with unnamed White House and intelligence officials saying that fresh intelligence, distinct from the years-old surveillance reports, had contributed to the raising of the threat alert level. "Al-Qaeda is moving toward the execution stage of attacks here in the homeland," one official was quoted as saying. "We have streams of intelligence information that indicate that this [surveillance of buildings] information has been accessed and used recently," one anonymous intelligence official told the paper. By contrast, USAToday cited "two federal law enforcement officials with knowledge of the investigation" who said they had not seen evidence of an impending attack.

Thursday, August 5: And the beat goes on…

NYT: "U.S. Opens Effort to Disrupt Plots by Terror Group."
WashPost: "British Raids Net a Leader of Al Qaeda: Official Connects Suspect to Terror Alert Data."

Friday, August 6:

NYT: "Terror Detainee Is Seen as Leader in Plot by Al Qaeda" and "2
Mosque Leaders (in Albany) Are Arrested in Plot to Import Missile and Kill Diplomat."
WashPost: "Pakistan Pressures Al Qaeda: Military Operation Results In Terror Alert and Arrests."
LAT: "Al Qaeda Suspect May Have Created Surveillance Files."
Wall Street Journal: "Al Qaeda Arm in Pakistan Is Tied To 12 Years of Plots and Attacks."

How did all these revelations, arrests, and initiatives occur so quickly in a short time frame? Did the national newspaper editors ask themselves this question?

Saturday, August 7:
NYT: "Bin Laden Sent Suspect to U.S., Officials Say."
LAT: "U.S. Accuses British Man of Terrorist Conspiracy."
WashPost: "Terrorism Suspect Had U.S. Ship Data: British Subject Accused of Trying To Aid Taliban."

Sunday, August 8:
NYT: "U.S. Says Man Had Ties to Plot to Disrupt Vote."
WashPost: "The Truck Bomb Threat: Impervious Shield Elusive Against Drive-By Terrorists."

By Monday, August 9, the immediacy of the danger from domestic terrorists was cranked up a notch:
NYT: "Tourist Copters in New York City a Terror Target."
LAT: "Capitol Still Al Qaeda Target, Official Says."
Ah, but: USAT: "Bush Adviser: U.S. Has Set Back Al-Qaeda Plans."

Tuesday, August 10:
The news came down from federal authorities that a Pakistani national had been arrested earlier for possessing videotapes of the Bank of America building in Charlotte, N.C., and public and private institutions throughout the South. The result across the land was sensational headlines above stories that have yet to contain any real evidence of terrorist plans or intentions in this case.

Then Friday, the 13th of August:
Play It Again, Karl…Remarkably similar stories ran in the country's two leading newspapers.

The Washington Post reported in "White House Warns of Terror Strike": "The Bush administration believes more strongly than ever that al Qaeda terrorists plan to try to influence the presidential race with a massive pre-election attack, a strike that is more likely to come in August or
September than in October, a White House official said yesterday," thereby ratcheting up Administration warnings of an election-related attack on the same day President Bush and Vice President Cheney were on the campaign trail contending that Sen. John Kerry would be a weak commander-in-chief. The story continued: "Some Democrats accuse the White House of issuing repeated terrorism warnings to inspire fear so voters will hesitate to change leaders with the nation under threat." The White House official, insisting on anonymity, said "the government had not gleaned any new information about political motives for an attack since the spring, when administration officials began saying they were concerned about an attack in conjunction with the Nov. 2 election. Nothing to date indicates 'an imminent operation,' the official said. *** Nevertheless, the official referred to 'the pre-election plot' and said the government has intelligence in which suspected terrorists 'were talking about the election'. "

The New York Times reported in "Seized Records Indicate Surveillance of Buildings Was Updated This Spring": "Al Qaeda operatives updated surveillance conducted at five financial institutions in New York, New Jersey and Washington as recently as this spring, according to a senior White House official who said on Thursday that the authorities still had no direct evidence of an active terror plot." Until Thursday, "officials had said that the surveillance, which was carried out primarily in 2000 and 2001, had been updated no later than January. But additional analysis of computer records seized in Pakistan showed that they were updated in the spring" the White House official said.
Sources and Methods

Aside from Secretary Ridge and White House homeland security adviser Frances Townsend, almost every single one of the NYT stories out of Washington and London originated with, or relied upon, information from unnamed sources. They were variously described as "domestic security officials," "homeland security official," "federal law enforcement official," "FBI official," "counterterrorism officials," "terrorism experts," "senior European counterterrorism official," "senior intelligence official," "security advisers to President Bush," "White House officials," "senior Administration official," "senior American officials," "six different senior government officials," and "authorities" and "officials" and "experts." And so on. The sourcing in the other papers was comparable in dearth of names.
Flooding the Zone

An observer from Mars might have concluded that national security reporters had been infiltrated by contortionists capable of twisting themselves into knots and reversing positions daily. But a more sobering conclusion is inescapable from the recent press coverage of the steady streams of threat information and analysis emanating from Washington and London and Pakistan. National newspapers, however unwittingly, have been drawn into "flooding the zone" with stories that move to the forefront of public consciousness the issue that the White House would have at the top of the agenda in this election season: domestic security and threats to the homeland.

On any given day, it is clear that presidential staff, the head of Homeland Security, or an anonymous intelligence official, can again crank up the cycle by feeding the frenzy.

When faced with such an unrelenting assault of alarums, however, what is the press supposed to do? Not reporting them is not an option. But what is possible is for reporters to acknowledge in context the possibility that they, and their readers, are being spun. Note Mike Allen’s (August 13, WashPost) flagging of Democrats’suspicions that the White House is issuing repeated terrorism warnings to inspire fear so voters will hesitate to change leaders when the nation is under threat.

This game of roulette will play out in the press over and over again, whenever the executive branch wants to inform us, and to scare us, with the White House in the croupier's seat. It is so obvious that it is subtle.

William E. Jackson, Jr.

[Thinktank appointments: Senior Fellow of Fulbright Institute of International Relations, and Guest Scholar at the Brookings Institution. Government Positions: Chief Legislative Assistant to Senate Democratic Whip; Executive Director of President Carter's General
Advisory Committee on Arms Control. Academic Posts: Davidson College, and UNC-Charlotte.]

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