Media credibility threatened by political slant

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The Appeal last Tuesday published an opinion column titled "Reporters Face Ethical Dilemma," by North Lake Tahoe Bonanza Editor Kirk Caraway. In his column, Caraway criticized journalists for using anonymous sources to "out" the CIA agent wife of a retired American diplomat who is opposed to the Bush administration's Iraq policy.

Although I agree with some of what Caraway had to say about anonymous sources, I think today's journalists face a much larger ethical dilemma -- the increasing politicization of the news, which was on display for all to see during the runup to last Tuesday's California recall election. The last-minute smear campaign mounted by the Los Angeles Times and other liberal media against Republican Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger was a particularly egregious example of what I'm writing about.

Five days before the election, the L.A. Times cited mostly anonymous sources to accuse the actor-turned-politician of a pattern of sexual harassment over the past 20 or 30 years. The newspaper ran a front-page story every day in an obvious effort to defeat both the recall and Arnold. To the voters' credit, however, the smear campaign failed miserably as Schwarzenegger received nearly 50 percent of the total vote including more than 40 percent of the female vote. And to add insult to injury, more than 1,000 readers canceled their subscriptions to the Times. Good for them!

For the record, let's compare the way the L.A. Times handled the Schwarzenegger allegations with the way the influential daily dealt with a credible rape accusation against former President Bill Clinton a few years ago. The Clinton story ran once, on page A-19, without comment ... and then it disappeared. So much for "fair and balanced" news coverage.

As I predicted last Sunday, outgoing Democratic Gov. Gray Davis was recalled by a comfortable 55-45 percent margin and Arnold won handily over his closest challenger, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, outpolling the latter by 16 percentage points, 48-32. In fact, Schwarzenegger received more votes (3.6 million) than did the "No" question on the recall ballot (3.5 million) and the two Republicans -- Arnold and State Sen. Tom McClintock -- garnered more than 60 percent of the total vote, a bad omen for California Democrats going into next year's presidential election.

But let's get back to the ethical question for journalists. Although I share Caraway's concern about using anonymous sources to reveal the identities of covert CIA operatives, this issue cuts both ways. You can't condemn the Bush White House in the case of retired Amb. Joseph Wilson and his wife, Valerie Plame, without also condemning what the Democrats tried to do to Schwarzenegger in California. And besides, as Caraway well knows, anonymous sources are the mother's milk of daily journalism. Sometimes there's no other way to get the story.

Earlier this year I criticized the New York Times for politicizing the news by withholding two opinion columns that clashed with the paper's editorial policy in favor of admitting women to membership at the Augusta (Ga.) National Golf Club, site of the annual Masters Tournament. Although the Times published 37 stories and several editorials on that burning issue, it finally went away after a militant feminist protest fizzled. That public embarrassment, along with revelations that a young reporter -- hired in a misguided newsroom "diversity" campaign D had falsified nearly 40 stories, cost two top Times editors their jobs.

The N.Y. Times also politicized its California recall coverage by running a poorly sourced story about how the Austrian-born Schwarzenegger was an alleged admirer of Hitler.The truth is that Arnold has lambasted everything that Hitler stood for and has contributed generously to the Simon Weisenthal Center, which provides moral and financial support to Holocaust survivors. But, as we used to say (in jest, of course) in the Capitol Press Room, Don't let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Closer to home, the Reno Gazette-Journal politicized the news last month by publishing two consecutive editorial page columns promoting the so-called "Workers Freedom Ride" just before that rolling demonstration arrived in Reno. And upon its arrival, the RG-J devoted two front-page photos and a lengthy news story to an event that advocated the legalization of illegal immigrants, with very little attention to the views of those of us who think that's a bad idea.

And finally, let's not forget the broadcast media. While the right-wing Fox News Channel's "fair and balanced" slogan is a joke, the three traditional broadcast networks -- ABC, CBS and NBC -- lean just as far in the other direction, as do National Public Radio and public television. You can tell whether NBC's Katie Couric is interviewing a conservative Republican or a liberal Democrat just by watching her facial expressions and body language. When I went to journalism school, professors always stressed the absolute separation between news and opinion. Apparently, however, that's no longer the case, and our political process is poorer as a result. Now we have right-wing news and left-wing news, and that's a shame.

MIL GRACIAS (many thanks) to those of you who came to the Gold Hill Hotel last Tuesday for my talk on the 1963 Frank Sinatra gambling license revocation case. A good time was had by all.

Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.


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