How Power Shapes the News
by Janine Jackson, Peter
Hart, and Rachel Coen
It would be hard to overstate the impact
of news media in shaping public opinion, on issues ranging from
health care to plans for war. With media as such an influence
on us, it's crucial that we understand who's influencing media.
The annual Fear & Favor report by
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) is an attempt to chart
some of the pressures that push and pull mainstream journalists
away from their fundamental work of telling the truth and letting
the chips fall where they may. These include pressures from advertisers,
well aware of their key role in fueling the media business; from
media owners, who frequently use their journalistic outlets to
draw attention to, or away from, their other corporate interests;
and from the state, as the last year has made especially clear,
with the Bush Administration doing its best to promote its own
spin on events and to tamp down dissent.
While by no means exhaustive, Fear &
Favor offers specific illustrations of these broad phenomena,
in the belief that an understanding of the forces at work and
their concrete, day-to-day impact will help media consumers decode
the news they get and recognize what news they do not get from
the corporate press.
As always, this report is dedicated to
journalists who continue to stand up for independent reporting-like
Kathy Finn, former editor of New Orleans' City Business, who was
fired in 2002 after objecting to a series of commercial encroachments
including the introduction of "advertiser-sponsored news
pages" (Columbia Journalism Review, September/October, 2002).
One wonders: What are the odds the paper would hire someone who
shared Finn's ideas to replace her? And how many outlets are left
where she, and journalists like her, can work without such constraints?
These questions should concern not just reporters who want to
work without fear or favor, but the public that relies on that
IN ADVERTISERS WE TRUST
In a commercial media system, the advertiser
is king. It's even better to be king during a recession, when
the sponsors whose dollars media rely on are able to push for
better deals: product placement, extensive promotional packages,
etc. Outlets looking for corporate support come up with plans
of their own that may be lucrative but hardly seem journalistic.
For example, Seattle TV station KIRO has a Web site that includes
a section called "kirotv.com Experts"; you wouldn't
know by looking that the main qualification for being an "expert"
is being able to pay the station as much as $1,000 a month (Seattle
Times, June 7, 2002).
Media outlets routinely claim that such
deals do not influence the content of their coverage, but they
haven't shown themselves eager to spell out such relationships
to an already skeptical audience.
The New York Times has a special fondness
for Starbucks. The front page of its April 29 Metro section devoted
over 1,300 words, with two big photographs, to chronicling the
coffee chain's rapid growth in Manhattan, along with anecdotes
about how New Yorkers "love to complain about Starbucks...
yet they drink Starbucks coffee by the gallon." Part business
story, part lifestyle piece, the article presented Starbucks as
part of the New York way of life, explaining that "the coffee
shops provide an environment for doing homework, writing screenplays,
holding business meetings, socializing after work, or reading
But not just any newspaper. As the story
eventually discloses, the Times happens to have a promotional
agreement with Starbucks, requiring the chain to sell only the
Times in its stores, excluding all other national newspapers.
In return, the paper promotes Starbucks in national ad campaigns.
The agreement calls for ads, not favorable
news stories, but readers may be forgiven a little confusion especially
since, just a few weeks later (June 1, 2002), the Times' main
front page featured another Starbucks celebration. This time it
was the company's European rise that was tracked admiringly; though
many "sniff that their culture has been infected," the
Viennese have nevertheless made Starbucks a "resounding success."
One other difference: This time the paper didn't bother disclosing
that they have a promotional deal with the company.
Nor was the deal disclosed in the paper's
July 9 installment, "In Japan, Make that Starbucks to Go,"
though readers did learn that "with a strong brand name in
Japan, Starbucks now feels it can meet the competition by going
into the stand-up fast-food business-and do so without cheapening
its image." Had the deal been disclosed, readers still might
not have seen a smoking gun in The New York Times' zealous coverage
of their promotional partner-but it might have helped to explain
the bad smell.
Charlie Rose is a correspondent for CBS's
60 Minutes 11 and also hosts his own talk show on PBS. He also
had another job last year: emceeing the Coca-Cola shareholders'
meeting at Madison Square Garden in New York, where he gushed
about the privilege of being associated with "the Coca-Cola
family" (KCRW, Le Show, April 21, 2002).
CBS policy is that news correspondents
may not do commercials or product endorsements, but a network
official told the Washington Post (April 23, 2002) that the company
was "comfortable" with Rose's role at the Coke meeting.
For his part, Rose told the Post that he saw no ethics problem
because, among other things, he was only paid a "minimal"
sum for his appearance (as if conflicts of interest only kick
in over a certain dollar amount).
In any case, Coca-Cola's agreement to
become a leading underwriter of the Charlie Rose show is not minimal;
the Post reported Coke will be funding the show "to the tune
of six or possibly seven figures." This is also no problem,
according to Rose, who told the Post that he "would never
do a story on 60 Minutes 11 about anybody who underwrites my PBS
show." (A promise to avoid covering a sponsor, of course,
is no less a conflict than a promise of favorable coverage.)
Attentive viewers may have noticed a mug
at Rose's elbow sporting what appears to be the distinctive red-and-white
Coke logo on one side, and the Charlie Rose show logo on the other.
The Orange County Weekly (January 24, 2003) reported that "the
mystery" of the mug was solved when guest Robin Williams
"picked up the cup with the Rose logo facing viewers, then
turned it around to expose the Coca-Cola logo." According
to the Weekly, Rose responded to Williams' maneuver with "nervous
Sometimes media favor their advertisers
not with a story's content but with its placement. The Wall Street
Journal's October 3 edition carried an ad on page C3 for the Wall
Street firm Bear Stearns. On the same page, readers learned from
a news report that Bear Stearns had just made a tremendous error-accidentally
ordering a sale of $4 billion worth of stock, instead of $4 million.
The juxtaposition of that news with an ad hawking the company's
ability to "execute complex transactions-flawlessly"
was striking, to say the least; such coincidences are not unprecedented,
however, and a usual reaction would be for the paper to move the
ad to mitigate the problem. But this time, according to a report
from <thestreet. com> (October 11, 2002), the Journal chose
to sacrifice the news instead: Later editions of the paper carried
the ad in its original place, while the bad news about Bear Stearns
had been reduced to a subsection of another story on a different
The Chicago Sun-Times wanted to improve
its coverage of the city's theater scene. But according to an
account in The New York Times (June 3,2002), "in meetings
with theater owners to find a solution to their problem, the executives
may have sent an unintended message: that if the theaters wanted
more coverage, they should take out more ads." Marj Halperin,
executive director of The League of Chicago Theatres, told The
New York Times that Sun-Times executives suggested to her that
theaters advertising in the paper might get preferential treatment
on the news pages. The Sun-Times denied that such a link exists,
though the paper has a history of tying coverage to advertising
(Chicago Reader, January 17, 1997).
It's hard to deny the link between ads
and news at the Washington Times, where an ad salesperson actually
called a group that had been criticized in the paper to suggest
that it buy an ad to air its side of the story. The Unification
Church-backed paper had been attacking the advocacy group Forest
Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, publishing more than
a dozen stories and editorials in a year suggesting that forest
service employees planted false evidence of a rare Canadian lynx
in forests in Washington. Subsequent investigations showed that
the Times' reports were erroneous (Extra!, May/June 2002).
Perhaps the Times ad rep thought he'd
have an easy sell, therefore, when he suggested to the group that
they consider buying a $9,450 ad to counter the negative coverage.
The group, however, was simply appalled. And when the story got
out (Washington Post, February 4, 2002), Times general manager
Richard Amberg said the whole thing was "just a mistake that
shouldn't have happened." Indeed.
THE BOSS'S BUSINESS
Media owners, whether powerful families,
individuals or corporations, seek to influence news content in
many ways. Some seem almost quaintly overt, as when San Francisco
Examiner publisher James Fang reportedly told then-editor David
Burgin (Washington Post, March 18, 2002): "We bought the
paper for two reasons, business and politics. I see 5 percent
of the stories having to do with what the Fangs need, promoting
the Fangs and our interests." (Days after Burgin made clear
he defined the editor's role rather differently, he was fired.)
Corporate boasts of "synergy"
are less direct but amount to the same thing: owners using media
they control to promote their "interests," as when AOL
Time Warner's Time magazine declared AOL Time Warner's movie The
Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers a resounding hit before it was
released, with the cover line, "Good Lord! The Two Towers
is Even Better Than the First Movie" (December 2, 2002).
Such cross-promotion is ubiquitous, but
no less unethical than a small-town newspaper owner who uses the
outlet to promote the used-car business he runs on the side.
And journalists who resist pressure from
upstairs-whether that means a pushy publisher's office or a megacorporate
headquarters-face consequences up to and including the loss of
their jobs. Readers and viewers may never learn that a reporter
was fired or demoted or moved off the beat, nor will they be aware
of the stories that go untold as a result.
"I love Push, Nevada!" exclaimed
Good Morning America weather reporter Tony Perkins (September
4, 2002), surrounded by what appeared to be teenage athletes.
"Because the guys from the Push, Nevada, high school hockey
team have given me this jersey!" Perkins gave details about
the team's record and their chances for the season before going
back to the weather.
Good Morning America claimed they had
no idea that "Push, Nevada" was not a real town, but
the name of a new prime-time drama airing, like Good Morning America,
on ABC. The drama program's producers did acknowledge that they'd
hired actors to pose as real people on a news show, but instead
of calling it a misleading hoax or a journalistic transgression,
they called it an edgy promotional technique suggested by their
If the network is to be believed, the
Push, Nevada stunt was so "under the radar" that no
one at ABC's news or entertainment divisions knew about it. They
don't appear to have been too upset, though: As Lisa de Moraes
pointed out in the September 6, 2002, Washington Post, the network
hadn't edited out what turned out to be a lengthy plug for the
series by the time Good Morning America aired on the West Coast.
In the novel Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya
Sisterhood, the main character, New York playwright Siddalee Walker,
is interviewed by The New York Times. But in the movie, Siddalee,
played by Sandra Bullock, sits down with a reporter from Time
magazine instead. As the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz noted
(June 17, 2002), "The Time interview is mentioned repeatedly
in the film, and toward the end Bullock is inducted into the sisterhood
and presented with a hat bearing a big fat Time logo."
Accounting for the change is not only
the fact that the movie was from Warner Brothers, another AOL
Time Warner unit, but that The New York Times would not allow
the depiction in the film of events that never took place. Time,
on the other hand, was happy to cooperate. "Product placement
is a good thing," Time spokesperson Diana Pearson told the
Coverage of the Olympics is a perennial
case of corporate self-promotion overtaking news judgment. The
2002 Winter Olympics were broadcast on NBC and its affiliated
cable channels, and as previous experience would have predicted,
NBC Nightly News found the event far more newsworthy than other
networks (69 minutes of coverage, compared with 30 minutes at
ABC and 10 at CBS). According to ADT Research, publisher of the
Tyndall Report, NBC's Today show devoted 544 minutes to the Olympics-more
than any other news story for the entire year.
The use of morning news shows, in particular
as promotional vehicles for network fare is not restricted to
NBC, of course. As J. Max Robins noted in TV Guide, (January 18,
2003), "CBS's Early Show provided slavish coverage of Survivor
(432 minutes) and the low-rated Amazing Race (129 minutes)."
The following data gives some indication of what all that "synergistic"
coverage was replacing: The 79 minutes Good Morning America devoted
to The Bachelor was "more time than was spent on the midterm
Media bosses' business interests extend
beyond their own corporate parents, of course. In July, the Washington
Post gave extensive attention to the Cadillac Grand Prix, a Washington,
DC, road race. But it wasn't until days into their coverage that
the paper acknowledged that they had a business relationship with
the event. The Post signed on as an "exclusive print and
online advertiser," DC's City Paper revealed (July 18, 2002),
which meant that the paper got ad dollars from the grand prix,
along with other "considerations," like signs at the
The Posts reporting wasn't uncritical.
For example, some coverage detailed stonewalling by the Sports
Commission on event financing. But the paper's failure to disclose
its interests without prodding raised eyebrows even within its
own ranks. In his July 28 ombudsman report, the Post's Michael
Getler reminded editors that no matter how plausible their claims
of editorial independence, "this is a tricky business in
which credibility, which can't be bought, can be squandered."
Some outlets seem to think disclosing
a conflict of interest is the same thing as avoiding it. According
to Columbia Journalism Review (March/April 2002), the Las Vegas
Sun didn't attempt to hide that its sole owner, the Greenspun
family, also owned half of the newly opened Green Valley Ranch
Station Casino. But neither did it explain whether that economic
link had anything to do with the 400 column inches it devoted
over two days to the casino's opening, with 13 photos and three
Roy Brown, CEO of the Brown Publishing
Company chain of Ohio newspapers, apparently suffers from a similar
lack of embarrassment. Brown, who was running for Congress, sent
editors at some of those papers a series of "must-run"
press releases from the campaign, followed by "stacks of
Brown-for-Congress flyers" (Columbia Journalism Review, March/April
2002). One of the editors, Kevin O'Boyle of the Vandalia Drummer
News, complained, telling the Dayton Daily News (April 6, 2002)
that the company's actions broke every rule in the book. O'Boyle
was fired two months later.
Among the most high-profile tales of an
owner's heavy hand is that of former New York Post entertainment
reporter Nikki Finke. Finke was fired after writing critically
about the Walt Disney Company and their legal wrangling over the
licensing rights to Winnie-the-Pooh. It seems that Post parent
news corporation and Disney had an online business deal in the
works, and after Disney complained to its new partner about Finke's
reporting, threatening to pull its advertising as a consequence,
she was history. Post editor Col Allan claimed the firing was
due to "inaccuracies" in her work, yet the paper never
ran any corrections (Village Voice, April 30, 2002). Finke, now
a columnist at LA. Weekly, filed a $10 million suit against the
Post and Disney. As Extra! went to press, her case remained unsettled.
POWERFUL PLAYERS AND PR
A powerful individual, lobby or institution
need not own a media outlet outright or fuel it with ad dollars
in order to exercise influence. Sometimes the pressure comes from
a store that sells the medium in question, whose disapproval might
affect distribution. Or a powerful corporation makes it known
that its displeasure with local media might cost a town jobs and
And some influence, like that of Wall
Street, appears to be so widespread and so internalized by media
decision-makers that no overt exertion of power is necessary.
Such influence can be harder to pin down, but its effects are
nonetheless palpable. Finally, some journalists are themselves
walking, talking conflicts of interest. Nancy Snyderman was one
of those: The ABC News medical correspondent was suspended without
pay for a week by the network last year after she appeared in
a radio commercial for Tylenol (New York Daily News, April 30,
2002). Snyderman found a way out of her journalistic conflict,
though; she left ABC in December to become vice president of medical
affairs at Johnson & Johnson-the company that makes Tylenol.
CNBC, the financial news cable channel
owned by General Electric, had a novel response to the business
troubles of 2002: As reported in a Dow Jones Newswire column by
Brian Steinberg (January 26, 2002), CNBC began airing a series
of promotional spots that featured network reporters and anchors
making can-do declarations about the economy.
"People are battling back.... Business
is coming back, slowly but surely," declared Maria Bartiromo
in one spot. In another, Ron Insana assured viewers that "most
people don't realize that by the time you figure out you're in
a recession, it's almost over." Reporter David Faber went
even further, saying, "We know who our enemies are. We've
identified them, and we're going after them." According to
Dow Jones, Faber went on to suggest that as a result of this new
resolve, the post-September 11 world is "less risky."
Setting aside the unsettling image of
CNBC staffers "going after" the nation's "enemies,"
it's ethically suspect to place journalists whose job is reporting
economic developments in the role of predicting them. And, as
Steinberg suggests, the network may be motivated by something
other than faith in the U.S. economy: CNBC's ratings tend to rise-and
fall-with the market.
Lou Dobbs, anchor of CNN's Moneyline,
stayed cheerful in the face of a year of conflicts of interest.
According to <MSNBC.com> (April 4, 2002), Dobbs has been
doing radio ads for financial services companies-an industry he
covers on CNN. Though Dobbs isn't identified by name in the voiceovers,
they air after the financial news spots he does on United Radio
Networks and NBC. When asked if he might be compromising his integrity,
Dobbs told <MSNBC.com>, "That is a silly, silly question.
Would I do it if I thought I were compromising anything? I've
got to run now."
CNN couldn't see the problem either, telling
<MSNBC.com> that it was "standard practice" for
radio journalists to read ad copy, adding, "Howard Stern
does it." The network also stood by its man when critics
questioned Dobbs'vigorous defense of the accounting firm Arthur
Andersen in the face of federal prosecution over its role in the
Enron scandal. As a scathing USA Today editorial (April 8, 2002)
explained it, Dobbs regularly featured "a one-sided array
of pro-Andersen guests" on Moneyline and behaved "fawningly"
during an interview with Andersen's CEO. The problem, said USA
Today, wasn't Dobbs' polemics, but his failure to disclose that
Andersen had for years paid him "substantial fees for speaking
engagements," sponsored an old CNN show of his, Business
Unusual, and served as the auditor for Space Holdings, the company
that runs Space.com Inc., "of which Dobbs is part owner and
After mainstream articles appeared suggesting
a conflict of interest, Dobbs disclosed his ties to Andersen on
Moneyline, but maintained that such disclosure was unnecessary
since "Space Holdings pays Andersen, not the other way around"
(The New York Times, April 4, 2002).
New York Post columnist Neal Travis (January
11, 2002) cited "widespread" rumors that Time magazine's
original choice for their 2001 personof-the-year cover was Osama
bin Laden-until Wal-Mart intervened. "I'm told by very reliable
sources," wrote Travis, that when Wal-Mart executives heard
of the bin Laden choice, they "decided to flex their red-white-and-blue
muscles" and "told Time honchos that if bin Laden was
on the cover in any kind of laudatory position, their stores would
refuse to stock that edition." (Time's person-of-the-year
pick is not necessarily "laudatory"; it's meant to highlight
the year's biggest newsmaker-as with Adolf Hitler in 1938.) In
the end, Time featured Rudy Giuliani. Travis noted that some Time
staffers suggested that "in the days before AOL and the days
before Warner, anyone trying such coercion on Time-Life would
have been tossed out the window."
Wal-Mart gave contradictory answers when
asked for comment; spokesperson Tom Williams told the Arkansas
Democrat-Gazette (January 17, 2002) that the rumors were untrue,
while spokesperson Jay Allen refused to confirm or deny them,
saying that "you could read that [silence] as you choose."
Allen did, however, acknowledge that "if Osama bin Laden
had been on the cover of that magazine, we would not have liked
it and would have evaluated how our customers feel before selling
The San Antonio Express-News reported
(May 10, 2002) that the nightly news on San Antonio TV station
KENS aired what was essentially an infomercial for a brand of
wrinkle cream sold locally by a KENS employee. The spot, which
was also re-aired during sweeps week as part of a "special"
on beauty, reportedly featured "a half-dozen or more funny,
likable women" gathered in a living room extolling the virtues
of the new cream and trying it out. The segment closed with KENS
anchorwoman Sarah Lucero assuring viewers of the product's safety
and giving the phone number for purchasing it.
All the information about the cream was
provided by Jennifer McCabe, the salesperson on the segment who
was identified only as a "distributor." As the Express-News
pointed out, however, McCabe is also a "producer/director
in commercial production" for KENS and the fiancee of KENS
news executive producer, Ian Monroe.
Remarkably, none of the KENS staffers
quoted by the Express-News exhibited discomfort with the arrangement.
The affianced executive producer, Monroe, said that he had recused
himself from the story, and the station's news director, Tom Doerr,
told the paper that he saw no ethical problem with using a news
segment to push a station employee's business, nor with the segment's
unabashed promotion of the cream. "It's just one of the gimmicky
things out there that appeal to the desire to look better,"
In perhaps the most depressing editorial
of the year, the Alabama Selma Times-Journal (March 7,2002) affirmed
that because "there is no greater goal for the management
of the Times-Journal than to see Selma and Dallas County succeed,"
the paper would not report details of a proposed Hyundai manufacturing
plant that might come to town. The plant could bring jobs, said
the paper, so stories about the venture should remain vague, lest
they frighten off the corporate benefactor.
"Big companies do not like pressure...
and they sure don't like ordinary citizens like us telling them
they better move to our community," wrote the Times-Journal.
"When media get involved, when members of the press ask questions
and get pushy about details, big companies get angry. They ask
media to leave them alone. They ask state officials to stay quiet.
And if state of ficials know what's best, they do stay quiet."
Arguing that an excess of press coverage had stopped Hyundai from
opening a plant in Mississippi, the paper concluded, "we
can't let that happen to us. So for now, we'll remain quiet on
Hyundai, just like every other media organization in Alabama should
GOVERNMENT AND OTHER "OFFICIAL"
Like any government rallying a country
for war, the Bush Administration is engaged in a massive propaganda
campaign. That the war is a vaguely defined, open-ended "War
on Terror" creates holes that images and "messages"
must fill. In such circumstances, the press corps have a special
duty to maintain independence, to question official pronouncements,
and to inform the public as thoroughly as possible about policies
being carried out in their name. With some notable exceptions,
U.S. corporate media have not taken up the charge, appearing to
see their role as supporting the government at the expense of
wide debate and fair treatment of dissent.
In January, a few months after the September
11 attacks, NBC's Tom Brokaw got special access to the White House
for a news special called "Inside the Real West Wing"
(which aired, neatly, just before NBC's fictional West Wing drama).
Although the presidential schedule was tailored for the taping
for maximum PR value, Brokaw insisted that the special was "not
an infomercial for the White House" (New York Times, January
23, 2002). Yet he told the Washington Post (January 21, 2002)
that part of the reason NBC got such extensive access was that
the administration was "concerned about the public drifting
away from the mission of the war," and "this was an
opportunity for them to kick-start it, to keep the country refocused."
Apparently, Bush agreed: The Post reported that at one point during
the day, the president remarked that "while he has to keep
the country's attention on the war against terrorism, it's also
'part of Mr. Brokaw's job."'
The Voice of America (VOA) is a broadcasting
agency that, until a few years ago, was managed by the U.S. State
Department. Though the VOA is now overseen by a board of directors,
the government's control over the operation was made clear in
In September of 2001, VOA reporter Spozhmai
Maiwandi landed what many would consider a real scoop: an interview
with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. The interview was one
of the last conducted with Omar. Though his comments were included
in a report with an official from the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance
and an academic from Georgetown University, the report was "put
on hold amid criticism from State Department officials" (Chicago
Tribune, February 6, 2002).
The report eventually aired. Maiwandi,
meanwhile, was reassigned to what VOA's news director Andre de
Nesnera told the Tribune is a "useless job."
In his book Fallout, New York Daily News
reporter Juan Gonzalez recounts the difficulties he encountered
at the paper while investigating the environmental consequences
of the World Trade Center disaster. While most mainstream media
were uncritically repeating the assurances of officials, Gonzalez
was breaking stories about toxins in lower Manhattan that far
exceeded safety levels. The backlash was intense; complaints about
Gonzalez came rolling in from one of Rudolph Giuliani's deputy
mayors, the head of the New York City Partnership and Chamber
of Commerce, and EPA administrator Christine Whitman.
Subsequently, Daily News editors "showed
a marked reluctance" to pursue the story. "One courageous
editor at the News, however, refused to buckle under the pressure,"
writes Gonzalez. Metropolitan editor Richard T. Pienciak encouraged
his reporting and "assigned a special four-person team of
reporters to take a closer look" at the health impact in
lower Manhattan. But "within days of forming the team,"
Pienciak "was removed from his post without explanation"
and the new team was dissolved. Though Pienciak was not fired,
he was essentially demoted from editor to an enterprise reporter
for the paper's Sunday edition.
While we like to think of journalists
and media outlets as independent truthseekers, there are times
when specific information is withheld from the public because
of government pressure. Boston TV station WBZ-TV had been investigating
local software company Ptech, which is said to be financed by
a Saudi man who allegedly donated money to Al Qaeda.
Before federal authorities raided Ptech's
Quincy, Massachusetts, offices in early December, they requested
that journalists looking into the matter refrain from reporting
about the investigation until after they had conducted the raid.
WBZ complied with the request, along with eight other media outlets,
according to the Washington Post (December 7, 2002). WBZ news
director Peter Brown explained to the Boston Globe (December 7,
2002) that the station was happy to comply: "Frankly, there
wasn't a great deal of internal debate. I'm very conservative.
I believe we have a role to play as citizens."
WBZ appeared to think that it was getting
some kind of quid pro quo from the government by holding back
on the story. As station reporter Joe Bergantino told the Post,
"We were promised that because we agreed to hold off, we
would be told before the raid was held." He added: "In
the end that didn't happen. We certainly were disappointed. We
were lied to. It was an unsettling and disturbing development."
An article appearing in the November 10
Washington Post provided readers with a fleeting insight into
the real relations between the media and the military. Headlined
"War Plan For Iraq Is Ready, Say Officials; Quick Strikes,
Huge Force Envisioned by Pentagon," the Post report laid
out what some government officials considered a likely battle
plan for Iraq. The article relied almost exclusively on White
House spin, noting that "the emerging U.S. approach tries
to take into account regional sensitivities by attempting to inflict
the minimum amount of damage deemed necessary to achieve the U.S.
goals in a war."
While the Post's uncritical reliance on
the official line is troubling enough, the paper adds this disclaimer:
"This article was discussed extensively in recent days with
several senior civilian and military Defense Department officials.
At their request, several aspects of the plan are being withheld
from publication. Those aspects include the timing of certain
military actions, the trigger points for other moves, some of
the tactics being contemplated, and the units that would execute
some of the tactics."
The story is almost entirely based on
Pentagon officials, so it's hard to imagine their objections.
In fact, the propaganda value of the piece is not hidden: One
unnamed official comments, "Discussing [the plan's] broad
outline would help inform the Arab world that the United States
is making a determined effort to avoid attacking the Iraqi people."
The Post seemed content to provide that platform.
"Until last year," wrote Gwen
Shaffer (Columbia Journalism Review, November/December 2002),
"I would have insisted public radio stations were immune
from quid pro quos." Shaffer was disabused of this notion
by her experience as a reporter for Philadelphia public radio
station WHYY, which during her tenure entered into a "partnership"
with a non-profit media company called GreenWorks. GreenWorks,
as she eventually discovered, received money from ICF Consulting,
a PR firm working for Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental
Protection (DEP); the group in turn gave money to WHYY, to pay
the salaries of two reporters and a researcher who would work
on environmental stories. Though originally assured that all editorial
decisions would be made by the station, Shaffer soon learned otherwise,
as GreenWorks' executive producer took part in weekly story meetings.
The producer urged her and her colleague to "cover 'positive'
stories of dubious merit," she says, including reports on
specific DEP-funded projects, and chastised them for covering
controversial issues like oil drilling in the Allegheny National
Forest. Shaffer was fired after six months at the station.
WHYY news director Bill Fantini insisted
(Columbia Journalism Review, November/December 2002) that there
was a "firewall" between GreenWorks and the station,
but he nonetheless resigned after Shaffer's allegations came to
light, and WHYY ended its arrangement with the company.
In a troubling coda to the story, WHYY
aired a discussion on the problems of "grant-funded journalism"
on the show Radio Times on December 17, but it didn't discuss
the station's own controversy, and callers were not allowed to
bring it up (Philadelphia Inquirer, December 19, 2002). Explained
Radio Times host Marty Moss-Coane, "We decided the show we
would do would be slightly at arm's length." (FAIR was asked
to participate in the program, but was not contacted again after
a lengthy pre-interview.)
While voters benefit from substantive
questioning of those running for public office, the candidates
themselves aren't always so keen on it. Alaskan Republican state
senator David Donley apparently bridled at questions from Rhonda
McBride, moderator for a series of pre-election candidate debates
called "Running" on Alaska public TV station KAKM. In
a discussion of Donley's record on education, McBride referred
to concerns of inequity in the funding of Alaska's rural schools
(Columbia Journalism Review, November/December 2002). Donley complained
to the station's general manager and-perhaps because he is co-chair
of the finance committee that determines KAKM's funding-his complaints
were heard. McBride was told to "tone down her questions,"
and a few days later the station removed her as moderator, citing
disagreements "about the direction the program would take."
She subsequently resigned.
Officials' involvement in journalism is
a problem at all levels of government. In July, two of the three
full-time employees of the Northport (Alabama) Gazette resigned
in protest over the paper's hiring of a town councilmember to
cover town council meetings. According to the Tuscaloosa News
(July 5, 2002), the councilmember, David Allison, was hired to
write for both the Northport Gazette and its parent paper, the
West Alabama Gazette, by publisher Barbara Bobo, who is also mayor
of a local town, Millport. Bobo brushed away conflict-of-interest
concerns, asserting that overlap between newsmakers and news reporters
is a "fact of small-town life." She cited herself as
an example. Apparently, Bobo covers the town that she is mayor
of for the newspapers she publishes: "I write [Millport's]
news. I don't have a reporter there" (Tuscaloosa News, July
9, 2002). Not to worry-Mayor/Publisher Bobo told the Tuscaloosa
News that managing her various jobs isn't so tough because "it's
not like there's a whole lot going on."
Janine Jackson is FAIR's program director,
and Peter Hart is a FAIR media analyst; they co-host FAIR's radio
show, CounterSpin. Rachel Coen is a freelance writer and former
FAIR media analyst. This article originally appeared in the April
2003 issue of FAIR's magazine, Extra!.
Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)
is a national media watch group that offers well-documented criticism
of media bias and censorship. FAIR monitors mainstream news media-newspapers,
magazines, television, and radio-and exposes pro-establishment,
pro-corporate spin. Visit <www.fair.org> for more information.