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Joining me each week to sift through the news are Tom Schwallie and Jeff Smith of GRIID.
(Linda) – And now a look at this week’s headlines. Linda - The Friday Oct 8. Grand Rapids Press ran a story entitled “Cheney once tried to lift sanctions on Iran”. Tom Schwallie, from your research at GRIID, can you tell us what is the validity of this claim and what does it tell us about election coverage?
Tom - This particular story is not new, Cheney made these remarks years ago as chairman of Halliburton and they have been part of the public record. His apparent contradiction on this issue of sanctions was first pointed out in various independent news sources several years ago but it has never merited mention in the mainstream press. For example, in 2001 the magazine Multinational Monitor ran an article about Cheney as president of Halliburton criticizing government sanctions against not just Iran, but also Nigeria, Indonesia, Azerbaijan, Libya, and even Iraq. So really this recent GR Press/AP is recycled news, being four year old information, as well as incomplete, as it only focuses on Iran.
Linda - So why is this article being run now and why does it only focus on Cheney and Iran?
Tom - Well I think it illustrates something that we have seen repeatedly in our research, which is that the mainstream press is unwilling to address an issue until it has been brought forward by an “official” voice. In this instance, the “official” was John Edwards, who, during the Vice Presidential debate, mentioned Cheney’s previous statements on Iran sanctions. And this is a trend we have seen continuously in election coverage, that the only issues the press is willing to report on are the ones that the candidates themselves set as the boundaries of debate. This is because the press, rather than rigorously challenging the candidates by bringing up tough questions on a variety of issues, operate more like “stenographers.”
Linda – Jeff Smith, this reference to journalists operating like Stenogaphers, what does he mean?
Jeff – Essentially what reporters are doing is just recording what the candidates say. This would be fine, if it was then followed by some analysis or verification, but our research has shown that is rarely the case. For instance, if a candidate claims a certain position on say Health Care, a good journalist will not only provide an analysis of that candidate’s platform, but will look at how the candidates have voted in the past on this issue. This serves voters better than just repeating what candidates say, because it provides a context for candidate claims.
Linda – What else have you noticed about election coverage in your research that might be important for the public to think about?
Jeff – Well, we have been tracking the Presidential election coverage for local news since March. Most of the coverage has tended to be Horse Race coverage?
Linda – Explain that term “Horse Race coverage” for us.
Jeff – Horse race coverage is reporting where candidates are and where they are going, but providing little substance on platform or voting records. At times they even report the type of clothes they wear and in a recent channel 13 story, John Kerry’s tan. This type of coverage has dominated the Presidential race so far. Another point worth mentioning is how reporters frame election stories. For example, in coverage of the Vice Presidential Debate the channel 8 reporter say at the beginning “we saw a debate where the gloves were off and Edwards and Cheney punched and counter-punched.” Framing the debate in terms of a boxing match gives the appearance that the candidates are diametrically opposed to each other, but they rarely provide evidence to support the perception that the 2 major parties are in fact different. One thing we have been doing to counter-act this is to provide regular analysis of local election coverage. We transcribe stories and then provide an analysis with hyper-links to provide details on candidate positions, voting records and campaign financing, as well as independent, non-partisan sources. All of which can be found on the Election watch 2004 section of the GRIID site.
Linda – Tom, you have been doing the GR Press analysis for the Election watch web page. What’s different -- or the same -- when you compare to the Print Media to the local television coverage?
Tom - The big difference between the two mediums is that the newspaper can convey much more information than the TV news. Unfortunately this ability to convey more information doesn’t translate into better quality coverage, it just means we get more detailed horse-race style reporting. So what we end up seeing is really detailed analysis of totally trivial aspects of the election by the print media. For example, on our election watch page is a GR Press article entitled “Kerry learning to wield quips on campaign trail.” This 400-word article is about how John Kerry has started incorporating phrases such as “Heavens to Betsy” and “Blah blah blah” into his stump speeches in an effort to sound more “folksy”. The article includes no substantive information about voting records, campaign promises, political platforms or funding sources. Stories like this one basically reduce the election to a personality contest, in which voters make decisions based on public persona rather than issues and platforms.
Linda – Last week it was reported that another study has concluded that Iraq possessed no WMD before the US invasion of March 2003. Despite that, a Pew Research study found that at least 40% of Americans still think that Iraq had WMDs. How has the media contributed to this distorted public perception?
Jeff – There are 2 main factors to the public’s belief that Iraq had WMDs. First, the news media tends to rely on “official sources”, both government & military in the reporting of this particular issue. In our research, we found that over 90% of the people interviewed on this topic in the first months of the war and then again in mid January through mid March of this year, were US government or military sources.
Now, even though the media did report last Spring that weapons inspector David Kay said there were no weapons of mass destruction, that perspective tends to get drowned out by a constant & repeated government position. The other factor in news media’s failure to challenge the WMD story is that many reporters engaged in self-censorship, either because they know that editors won’t run critical perspectives, but also because they don’t want to risk job security. Several years ago the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press conducted a study of 300 journalists on the issue of self-censorship and found that 50% of the journalists survey said they censor themselves for reasons of job security.
Linda – So that’s self-censorship. Does outright censorship play into this issue, Tom?
Tom - Yes it can. There is an interesting example of this recently concerning the Wall Street Journal's Middle East correspondent, Farnaz Fassihi. She had sent a private email to friends with an unusually candid description of the deteriorating U.S. control over Iraq and the dangers of doing her job there. Somebody, without her permission, started circulating the e-mail publicly on the Internet. The Wall Street Journal editors, who have been generally supportive of the Iraq war, responded by forbidding Fassihi to write about Iraq for the paper until after the election, presumably because unauthorized publication of her private correspondence somehow called into question the fairness of her journalism.