More grist for those seeking `bias' in the news

Media

October 06, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Sharp questions of ideological bias in the media have been raised for more than three decades, but news organizations appear to be more vulnerable -- and sensitive -- than ever to the charges.

In separate incidents over the past week, three major news organizations -- Fox News Channel, MSNBC and The Wall Street Journal -- have come under public fire for the perceived slant of reporters or contributors.

The details provoking the three cases are starkly different. On the merits, readers and viewers may look askance at the behavior of any of the three media figures involved in the episodes. But the media in general is chafing as it finds itself under assault by groups with strong ideological stances who expect to find bias wherever they look.

A quick rundown on each incident:

On Friday, the day after the first presidential debate between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry, Fox News' Carl Cameron, the station's chief political correspondent, filed a script that was posted on the channel's Web site. It included a series of phony quotations from Kerry. (A sample: " `Didn't my nails and cuticles look great? What a good debate!' Kerry said Friday.") Kerry made no such comments.

Cameron, who was shown in the liberal documentary Outfoxed talking with Bush in 2000 about Cameron's wife's work for the Texan's presidential campaign, did not return a call seeking comment. The script was not intended for publication, but Cameron has been rebuked, said Fox News spokesman Paul Schur, who called the act a "stupid mistake."

Fox News senior vice president John Moody issued a memo saying that no sarcastic, satiric or editorial notes are to be filed in the news channel's computer-based "script" system.

Last week, David Brock, the head of the liberal group Media Matters for America, called on MSNBC to dump Frank Luntz as an analyst or to identify him as a Republican.

Luntz was the consultant who worked with former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1994 to find rhetoric to isolate and demonize Democratic opponents, and he maintained a client list that included many Republicans until quite recently. But others hired by MSNBC have close and recent party affiliations, too, such as Joe Trippi, Howard Dean's former campaign manager, and Benjamin Ginsberg, the former general counsel of the Bush-Cheney campaign. The difference, according to Brock: At least the partisan affiliations of other analysts are disclosed to viewers.

Luntz had been preparing a focus group of ostensibly undecided voters to see which candidate performed better during the debate. But a day later after Brock's complaint, MSNBC announced he would not be taking part in the debate coverage, after all, because they didn't want to rely on focus groups.

NBC reporter Ron Allen did interview a group of undecided voters about the debate. MSNBC spokesman Jeremy Gaines said there was a difference: Allen was reporting the group's sentiments, not using those sentiments to predict how other voters would behave, as Luntz would have done.

The timing was coincidental, Gaines said. And Luntz will appear on the air again to aid MSNBC's presidential coverage of debates and other election-related events, Gaines said. "As far as I'm concerned, this is over," Luntz said yesterday.

Farnaz Fassihi, a Middle East correspondent for The Wall Street Journal covering the conflict in Iraq, sent an e-mail to a wide group of friends -- a common practice for reporters abroad for long periods. In her note, she wrote about what she saw as a deteriorating situation there: "One could argue that Iraq is already lost beyond salvation. For those of us on the ground it's hard to imagine what if any thing could salvage it from its violent downward spiral."

After the note appeared online last week, it drew attention from critics in the New York Post, among other places. Fassihi was traveling and did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment for this column. But she told Editor & Publisher that the vacation she is now on was long-planned and unrelated to the circulation of her opinions.

Paul Steiger, The Wall Street Journal"s managing editor, defended her in a statement: "Ms. Fassihi's private opinions have in no way distorted her coverage, which has been a model of intelligent and courageous reporting, and scrupulous accuracy and fairness." Yet the newspaper has not decided yet whether she will be allowed to cover Iraq when she returns, says spokesman Robert Christie.

All three episodes provided grist for partisan bloggers to weigh in on media bias -- some with more acuity than others. It appears that Joshua Micah Marshall, the writer behind the liberal Web site Talking Points Memo, drove Fox's acknowledgement that it had posted something fictitious on its Web site.

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