The Payroll, Part 2: Works of Fiction
CNSNews.com downplayed George Allen's "macaca" slur, but it flooded the zone on Jim Webb's fiction excerpts. Did it work with Allen's campaign in doing so?
By Terry Krepel
ConWebWatch has previously detailed how members of the ConWeb are so completely in the tank for certain Republican candidates that they may as well be on the payroll of their campaigns. Which raises the next logical question? Are they also working with these campaigns to get out their messages -- and, perhaps more importantly, attacks on their opponents?
In the case of CNSNews.com, we have to wonder if that is, in fact, the case. It appeared unusually eager to report on an report by Republican Virginia Sen. George Allen's campaign detailing passages in the fiction works of Allen's Democratic opponent, James Webb.
That article, by Monisha Bansal, claimed that Webb's fiction showed "a pattern of discriminatory and offensive characterization of women and racial minorities." Bansal's story suggests the possibility of coordination. Bansal notes that she talked to one person for her story on "Wednesday" (Oct. 25) and that "Webb's campaign office has not returned multiple calls since Wednesday, seeking comment for this article. But she also notes that Allen's campaign "released a statement late Thursday [Oct. 26] listing excerpts from the books, charging that they 'disturbingly and consistently -- indeed, almost uniformly -- portray women as servile, subordinate, inept, incompetent, promiscuous, perverted, or some combination of these.' "
Interesting bit of timing there, isn't it? Bansal's article came out just in time to support and promote Allen's press release, and the two accompanying flood-the-zone articles further promote it. You'd almost think that CNS was sitting on the story until Allen could make it an issue.
Bansal's article also featured the criticism of -- of all people -- Mychal Massie of the black conservative group Project 21, who brings no particular expertise to the issue beyond being a black conservative.
Bansal quotes Massie as saying, "Speaking as a writer, a person tends to write what they believe in. Even in presenting a fictional writing the author writes from a core philosophy -- an intrinsic philosophy." That seems to show that Massie believes in hypocrisy; ConWebWatch caught him denouncing a Democrat for comparing President Bush to notorious segregationist Bull Connor despite his own history of comparing Democrats to both Connor and fellow segregationist Orval Faubus.
Bansal wrote another Oct. 27 article on Webb, featuring more conservative criticism of the excerpted passages. Nathan Burchfiel wrote the other two Oct. 27 articles -- one that featured Webb saying that the excerpts were "inappropriate" to be read on radio as a radio host tried to do so, and the only one of the bunch that's not framed to attack Webb, pointing out Republican Sen. John McCain's promotional blurb endorsing the book and noting and noting that Lynne Cheney, wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, "featured a lesbian love affair, brothels and attempted rapes."
An Oct. 30 CNS article by Burchfiel claimed that a new Webb-Allen poll conducted by Rasmussen Reports showed that Allen "suffered little as a result of criticism of Webb's sexually explicit fiction writing" -- even though Allen went from a two-point lead to a five-point deficit in a week. Burchfiel again summarized the fiction controversy, then quoted pollster Scott Rasmussen claiming that Allen's slide was due to "a nationwide trend that's been tough for the GOP this year" and that attributing it to the decision to release the book excerpts "might be overstating it a bit." But Real Clear Politics pointed out that "[t]he only big news event in this race" between the conducting of those two polls "was the Allen campaign's dump of sexually provocative passages from Jim Webb's many novels."
(Another Burchfiel article on Oct. 30 didn't mention Webb's fiction, but it repeated a report claiming that Allen is "running the worst campaign in the country.")
Nowhere in these articles does CNS offer any clues as to the overall plots of Webb's books from which these excerpts are taken. That's ironic, because the Parents Television Council -- until recently headed by Brent Bozell, who also head CNS' parent, the Media Research Center -- has previously taken the context of a program into consideration: the unedited prime-time network airing of the movie "Saving Private Ryan," which, according to the Washington Post, features "extreme violence and intense adult language":
"Context is everything," Bozell says in the statement. "We agreed with the FCC on its ruling that the airing of 'Schindler's List' on television was not indecent and we feel that 'Saving Private Ryan' is in the same category. In both films, the content is not meant to shock, nor is it gratuitous.["]
So, are the Webb fiction excerpts shocking or gratuitous in the context of the stories in which they appear? CNS doesn't tell us.
This cluster of articles would not be unusual if CNS had been covering the Webb-Allen race on a regular basis. But it hasn't -- CNS has published more articles on the fiction controversy than it has on the entire race prior to them.
Prior to the fiction controversy, CNS had devoted only three news articles exclusively to the race. A June 6 article by Randy Hall summarized the primary races for Allen's seat. The other two were centered on the controversy caused when Allen called a Webb staffer videotaping Allen's public appearances a "macaca," an incident of which CNS clearly had no desire to flood the zone with coverage.
An Aug. 15 article by Susan Jones framed the controversy as indicated by its headline: "Videotaping the Opponent Pays Off for Democrat." An Aug. 23 article by Jones seemed eager to bury it; the opening paragraph read:
Sometimes controversy has a short shelf-life, and that appears to be the case with Sen. George Allen, the Virginia Republican who's running for re-election.
Jones added that "some Allen supporters" (one must assume that CNS is among them) consider the "macaca" incident "a manufactured controversy." Imagine Bansal or Burchfiel reporting that about Webb's fiction.
But the most interesting evidence suggesting that CNS was doing the Allen campaign's bidding comes from a most unlikely source: WorldNetDaily.
In an Oct. 28 column defending WND's decision not to devote original coverage to the fiction story, Joseph Farah wrote:
When Matt Drudge published the press release from Virginia Sen. George Allen's campaign about lurid and sexually explicit excerpts from Jim Webb's novels, some WND readers asked why we didn't jump all over the story.
So, the Allen campaign has been shopping the Webb fiction story for weeks, and CNS just happens to go all-out on covering it at the same time the campaign sends its press release on it to Drudge. How convenient.
And interesting, too, that CNS served up no original coverage of the next major event of the Webb-Allen campaign -- three Allen supporters caught on video roughing up a law student who asked a provocative question of Allen on Oct. 30. Unlike its blanket coverage of the fiction fracas, CNS offered no mention of the incident on Oct. 31.
If CNS is working in concert with the Allen campaign -- as its behavior strongly suggests -- it should do the ethical thing and disclose this to its readers. That would truly live up to CNS' declared mission to "fairly present all legitimate sides of a story." After all, its functioning as PR agents, paid or otherwise, for a political campaign is a side of this story readers legitimately need to know.